My Labyrinthine Quest for a Foundation on Which to Stand

May 1988By Dan O'Neill

Dan O’Neill is a cofounder and chairman of the board of Mercy Corps International, an ecumenical relief and devel­opment agency assisting the world’s poor. He is also the au­thor of numerous books, including Mother Angelica, Marry­ing for Life (with Raymond E. Vath, M.D.), and Trouba­dour for the Lord, the award-winning biography of John Michael Talbot. The above article is adapted from The New Catholics, edited by Dan O’Neill and published last fall by Crossroad.

Sunlight flooded my upper story brick apart­ment in the spring of 1972 as I sat at my drafting table staring at the travel documents before me: a passport, air tickets, and visas. What a precipitous turn of events indeed! A sixth-year student about to graduate from the University of Washington with a degree in visual communications, I had many promising leads in the advertising industry. Already a syndicated political cartoonist, I was moving deeper into photography and illustration, loving every minute of the challenging pace. Yet there I was, about to skip the country for two years — as a missionary! Obviously, I had experienced a change of heart.

As I considered the work I would soon be do­ing in Africa, I reflected on the path that had brought me to this point in time and to this inter­denominational, evangelical missions organization, Youth With A Mission. Born into an Assemblies of God family, I was “dedicated” as an infant in 1948 by the Rev. Ed Scratch, my great-uncle, a man of God who to this day is an inspiration to me and to many. Missionaries, preachers, and Bible professors filled my family tree. After moving to another town, our family attended a Conservative Baptist church where I “received Jesus into my heart” at seven and was baptized at 11. In high school I at­tended a nondenominational Bible church with my family and later went to a Free Methodist universi­ty. By 1967 I was attending St. Luke’s Episcopal Church near Seattle, the center of an explosion of charismatic renewal under the leadership of Fr. Dennis Bennett. The vibrant excitement of the baptism of the Holy Spirit filled me with zeal and wonderment — I had found what I thought was the end-all of Christian faith experiences. I was on “a high,” a spiritual mountaintop.

The only direction to go from there, of course, was down. The fall was long and hard.

I had no foundation on which to stand. When my emotional exhilaration inevitably cooled, there was no consistent, authentic church teaching to undergird my spiritual convictions and I became easy prey for well-informed critics. My 20-year smorgas­bord of denominational affiliations, which I had al­ways regarded as a rich blessing in plurality, became a millstone around my neck when it came to theo­logical consistency. Each denomination preached its own unique doctrines, many of which were dia­metrically opposed.

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