By Janie Brown
Kneeling on the cold linoleum floor while listening to my grandmother chant out the rosary in Spanish is a memory that is ingrained in my mind. In her devotion and zeal, she gathered her grandchildren around her like a little flock of sheep and taught us the prayers on Sunday afternoons. She was a lifelong committed Roman Catholic, an immigrant from Mexico who instilled in her grandchildren a reverence for God. Growing up with such a devout abuelita, I dutifully did all that was expected of me: my first communion, after school catechism classes, confirmation, even parish high school youth group. As a teenager, I often went to mass by myself and found a sense of comfort in the liturgy and rituals. Yet, I knew I was not right with God. I knew that I was a sinner and could never do enough penance to get past purgatory. I felt very hopeless.
The year after I graduated from high school, I met my future husband Mike and his family. I remember thinking there was something different about these people. They weren’t a perfect family, but there was a love and genuineness in their relationships that I had never seen. In hindsight, I see that it was the light and love of Christ shining, something that was attractive to me. They invited me to church, which was a Calvary Chapel in Orange County, California.
Out of politeness and curiosity I accepted the offer and joined them. During the sermon, I heard the gospel in a very different way. It was the first time I had ever heard someone say that Christ had paid for my sins. He was the solution to my fallen condition. No amount of chanting the rosary, confessions, or good works could save me. It’s incredible that I grew up attending mass and never understood this basic fact. Yet, here I was, dumbfounded by the gospel. By the end of the service, I was shaken and convicted. As I left the church I was introduced to the pastor who had known my husband since he was a boy. He smiled at me and gently asked, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” I was caught off guard, confused and not exactly sure what he meant. I nervously muttered something incoherent and left. But I came back the next week, and every week afterwards. By God’s amazing grace, I came to true faith in Christ.
Fast forward six years: I’m married, we have twin girls, a little boy, and Mike is a youth pastor at a large Calvary Chapel in San Diego county. This megachurch had a private K-12 school on the campus and part of my husband’s responsibilities included teaching high school bible class. Having never attended seminary, he always felt underequipped. Unfortunately, many pastors within Calvary Chapel tended to mock seminary, or “cemetery” as they called it, and generally taught that formal theological training was unnecessary. Mike strove to be a faithful teacher to his students and looked for resources to help him. He searched for books in the church library to guide him. Little did he realize many of these books were Calvinistic and led him to the doctrines of grace. Around this time, he and I also started listening to a radio show called “The White Horse Inn,” which was broadcast on Sunday evenings. Little by little, he and I became convinced of Reformed theology and began to recognize the difference from much of what was taught at Calvary Chapel. Soon, the altar calls, “re-dedications”, emotional manipulation and man-centered worship became too much. Although our church believed the Bible and would preach the gospel for conversions, almost every sermon included a long list of to-dos. Was I “on fire” for the Lord? Did I need to be “baptized by the Holy Spirit” again? Did I need to come forward while the soft worship music played to “re-dedicate” my life to the Lord? There was no rest for the weary, no assurance of faith. Eventually, my husband sat in the senior pastor’s office and explained his Calvinistic convictions. It was clear we could not stay.
As difficult as it was to leave our church family, we knew it was for the best. The following Sunday we sat in the back pew of Escondido United Reformed Church. That first Sunday, we drank in the gospel preaching that consistently pointed us to Christ as our only hope. Instead of a list of to-dos, we heard that Christ had done it all. In place of uncertainty of our salvation, we learned how Christ had justified us and continues to sanctify us through our lives. In short, we learned how we were saved by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, and that as a result whatever we do in life we do for the glory of God alone.
Slowly we were learning to worship in a new way. We heard the reading of the law, confessed our sins, received the assurance of pardon, and sang psalms and hymns with reverence. We studied the Heidelberg Catechism and Canons of Dort. We sat in Sunday School listening to Dr. W. Robert Godfrey explain the Reformation, early church history, and so much more. We learned about the biblical model of church government as we studied the church order and discovered how the pastor is not the CEO but is held accountable by elders. For us, the Reformed way of living the Christian life was truly revolutionary.
During this transition, my husband continued to sense a call to the ministry and sought advice from our new elders. They encouraged him to pursue a Master of Divinity at Westminster Seminary California. And so we began a four-year journey that was both wonderful and difficult for us. Although it was challenging to make ends meet during those years, it was also a period of incredible spiritual growth for our family.
In his last year of seminary, Mike was asked to teach a Bible study in Santee, California, which was a forty-minute drive from our church in Escondido. By God’s grace, the Bible study grew exponentially and eventually turned into the core group for what would be Christ United Reformed Church. Mike graduated from WSC and was ordained in the United Reformed Churches of North America in 2004. He was called by Escondido URC to plant Christ URC in Santee.
One of the greatest privileges and joys I have had in my life was watching our church plant grow numerically and spiritually. Through the preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments, the Lord feeds, sustains, and builds his church. Like us, many who joined Christ URC came from churches that were broadly evangelical with Arminian theology. Like us, they often lacked assurance and were weary. Like us, they longed for preaching with more depth that focused on the finished work of Christ as our only hope in this life. Instead of sermons on how to have your best life now, we feasted together on the riches of God’s word, studied the historic Christian creeds and confessions, and lived life together, helping each other through the highs and lows of this pilgrim life.
Before we knew it, fifteen years passed by. Our children grew and the church went from a few families to a culturally diverse congregation of 250 souls. During that time, we had the opportunity to be involved with missions in Italy. You can read the details of how that unfolded in my previous post about how the Lord called us to leave Santee and move to Italy where Mike now serves as missionary pastor to Chiesa Riformata Filadelfia in Milan, an Italian speaking congregation. In the providence of God, we now live in a predominantly Roman Catholic country where the Lord has called Mike to shepherd a flock and plant churches.
As I hear the daily mass bells ringing, see churches on nearly every corner, and walk by countless shrines to Mary, I often think of my grandmother praying the rosary. My heart is heavy for the millions of people in Italy who desperately need to hear the gospel. The message of Christ is buried under a multitude of superstitions. Yet my heart is also filled with gratitude to God. I’m no longer kneeling on linoleum floors chanting prayers, but resting in Christ’s righteousness which has been imputed to me by grace alone. I’m eternally thankful for God’s loving hand in guiding me through my journey from Rome to Geneva.
Janie lives in Milan, Italy where she teaches English as a second language. She has a passion for the gospel, and the people, history, and culture of Italy. She and her husband, Rev. Michael G. Brown (Sacred Bond) have been married for more than thirty years and have four children.