In early 1995, I received an email from a young Catholic law student at Regent University, founded by televangelist Pat Robertson in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “Greg,” I’ll call him, wrote to say that Surprised by Truth helped him fend off a blitzkrieg of challenges from his Evangelical Protestant classmates who, once they discovered he was Catholic, tried their best to convince him to leave the Catholic Church, “get saved,” and become a “Bible Christian.”
Surprised by Truth (the first of four volumes of my "Surprised By" series, the fourth being Surprised by Life) is a compendium of first-person conversion testimonies of former Calvinists, Lutherans, Baptists, and others who, as the title suggests, reveal the doctrinal struggles they experienced as they made their way—some dragged kicking and screaming by God’s irresistible grace—into the Catholic Church. Each story is heavy on apologetics, which is why it seems they’ve had such an impact on readers over the years.
I don’t know what it was about Greg’s email that struck a chord in me, but I wrote back asking if he’d do me a favor. “I’d be happy to send you a free case of those books,” I offered, “and I’ll even pay the shipping charges, if you would be willing simply to pass them out to your Evangelical classmates and professors, especially the ones who, you know, have been the most energetic in trying to get you to abandon the Catholic Church.”
“Deal,” Greg responded quickly.
He said he wasn’t sure what their reaction would be but, “hey, what the heck,” he added. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? You can’t win if you don’t play. And he promised to pass out every last copy of the book.
So, the next day, I shipped him a case of forty-four copies of Surprised by Truth, saying a little prayer that they’d do some good if placed in the right hands. I can’t recall now whether Greg ever wrote me back, but I never forgot his original note because it was a nice bit of encouragement, and I was happy to know that the book had been a help to him, even if it didn’t have the same effect on any of his fellow students. Leaving it in God’s hands, I just said a little prayer that the box of books I sent him would have a positive effect on those who received them. And then I pretty much forgot all about it.
Seventeen years went by.
I was signing books at a parish speaking engagement, and a smiling woman walked up to the book table and, pointing toward a stack of Surprised by Truth books, said, “That book converted me to the Catholic Church!”
“Really?” I replied. “I’m delighted to hear that. What happened?”
“Well,” she said, beaming, “back in the mid '90s, I was in law school at Regent University and one of my classmates, a Catholic, showed up one day with a box of these books. He gave everyone a copy. At first, I was taken aback by the very idea that Evangelical Protestants like I would ever convert to the Catholic Church, but eventually I read it and was powerfully affected by it!” Her story was akin to those of countless other people who’ve shared with me over the years about how powerful an impact personal testimonies of conversion can be. Which is why I never tire of hearing stories like hers.
I was especially struck by the fact that, like the sower of the seed Gospel parable, you really just never know what kind of soil the seed will fall upon—nor does God reveal that to us in the moment—and that the main thing is just to be as proactive as possible in scattering seeds of truth, wherever, whenever, and to whomever.
Well, as it turns out, there was more to that story than I realized. During a presentation a few summers later at Franciscan University of Steubenville’s annual “Defending the Faith” apologetics conference, I recounted this story to the audience, who were predictably delighted by this grace-filled turn of events. After my talk was finished, a man approached me with information that made my jaw drop.
“There’s actually much more to that story than you realize,” he smiled. “You see, I was in that class, too,” he told me. “As an Evangelical, I had never given the Catholic Church even a second thought . . . that is, not until that Catholic student showed up to class one day with a box of books. He gave the copies to everyone in the class—including the professor! I read it, and, well, that started the process of my conversion to Catholic Church not long afterward. Several other students also became Catholic.”
“What?!” I exclaimed. “I thought just the one woman had converted.”
“Oh no,” he said, eyes twinkling. “Besides her and myself, I know of at least two others from that class who became Catholic a result of reading that book.” I was astonished.
“Look back there,” he gestured toward the back of the huge conference room. “See that priest standing over there by the door?”
“Yes,” I said, mouth agape. “Don’t tell me. You mean he . . . ?”
“That’s right!” the man smiled gleefully. "That Catholic priest was in that class too, as a Protestant, studying to become a lawyer. God clearly had other plans for his life!”
I can only marvel at the mysterious power of God’s grace. All those years ago, when I impulsively decided to send out that case of free books, there was no way I could have possibly even guessed just how dramatically it would change the lives of people I had never met. It was as if I had put a message in a bottle and tossed it into the Pacific Ocean and then, decades later, found that same bottle washed up on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean.
Moral to this story? You never know how your random and (seemingly insignificant) acts of kindness and generosity can make a great, even eternal difference for others, when doing something as simple as handing someone a good book.
“Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another. As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace” (1 Pet. 4:9-10).