From Operation Rescue to Operation Convert

Randall Terry has become Catholic.

Between 1987 and 1994, Randall Terry led Operation Rescue, the country’s largest peaceful civil disobedience movement. He now serves as president of the Society for Truth and Justice, and is running for a Florida Senate seat. One of the leading evangelical pro-life leaders in the country, Terry quietly entered the Catholic Church on Holy Thursday with his wife Andrea and three sons. Register senior writer Tim Drake spoke with Terry about his conversion at his home in Florida.

Where are you from originally?

I grew up in upstate New York, in West Henrietta. We grew up in the country.

Tell me about your family.

I was conceived out of wedlock in 1958. Within three months my parents were married, and I was born six months later. I’ve always had an affinity with babies born out of wedlock who are in danger of perishing. Had Roe v. Wade been the law of the land in 1958, I might not have been here, although I’m certain that my mother would have chosen life.

I have one brother who is four years younger. My parents were both career school teachers.

What was your faith background?

I was baptized in the United Church of Christ in New York, but grew up in a nominal Christian home. We were barely Christmas and Easter Christians. From the time I was a little boy until I was 17, I was anything but devout. At times, I was a verifiable agnostic.

How did you come to know Christ?

As a teenager, I had lived a life immersed in the rock ’n’ roll culture, away from the paths of God, but I had a real yearning in my heart to know ultimate truth and ultimate reality. That set my heart seeking after God in prayer and reading Scriptures and talking to people who were devout in their faith. On Sept. 6, 1976, I made an evangelical commitment to Christ as a 17-year-old.

In conjunction with my teenage rebellion, I was seeking to know if God existed, if heaven and hell and demons and angels existed. My prayer, journey, discussions and reading brought me to the point where I asked Christ to come into my life and be my Lord and savior. That brought an immediate change in my lifestyle, my speech, my relationships and my church attendance. I went from rarely going to church to going three times a week. I began to evangelize all of my former rock ’n’ roll buddies, many of whom became devout Christians. Some of them went into ministry as missionaries and pastors. Once I was convinced that Jesus was the Son of God and that he suffered and died for us, I was thrilled with the Good News and wanted to tell everyone that I knew — family, friends and foes.

It defined my life from that moment on. Two years later I enrolled in a Bible College in New York.

How did you first get started in pro-life work?

While at a prayer meeting in the fall of 1983, a woman came into the meeting weeping. She said she had just seen a special on Christian television on abortion. She said, “We’ve got to pray that God ends this killing.”

Whenever I thought about abortion, I got a sick feeling in my stomach, yet my evangelical sociology did not allow me to be in the political and social battles of the day. I had very little historical and theological framework from which one could launch and sustain a socio-political movement.

I would think about abortion and pray, “Oh, God, please do something,” but wouldn’t know what to do.

Eventually, on May 1, 1984, I took a position in front of a Binghamton, N.Y., abortion business. I had no literature. I just stood there committed to talking to women who were entering, to beg for the life of their babies. From that grew Project Life — a crisis pregnancy center, and Operation Rescue.

What led to the founding of Operation Rescue?

I met John Ryan, who was doing sit-ins in St. Louis, and my heart was stirred to participate in direct action. While sitting in jail in 1986, I had another epiphany about how to recruit masses of people. We recruited tens of thousands of people. Between 1987 and 1994, 75,000 arrests were made. That is 10 times the size of the arrests made during the years of protest for civil rights.

How many times were you arrested?

More than 40 times, always for peaceful protest, like praying in front of an abortion business.

When did you first take an interest in the Catholic Church?

It was during my work in Operation Rescue that I first became interested in the Roman Catholic Church. My training and experience were in evangelical Christianity with an evangelical framework theologically, but the Roman Catholic communion had a much better sociology and better stability, coupled with a phenomenal theology of suffering.

I would look at my evangelical friends, who would come and go from the pro-life movement. They would proclaim undying devotion for pro-life activism and then later disappear. Then I would look at my Roman Catholic friends who would never swerve. That had a tremendous magnetism for me.

I also found myself defending Catholics against ignorance and bigotry, and defending evangelicals against ignorance and bigotry.

What took me so long was that I was a cultural Protestant, trained in Protestant theology. I had to look at the parts of my training that were inaccurate or deficient. For the past six years, I have been in the Charismatic Episcopal Church. My conversion began with my friendships with clergy in this Church. They told me that the farther you go in Reformation theology, the more you end up in Catholicism and liturgy.

Which theological hurdles were the most difficult for you to jump?

They boiled down to papal infallibility, Marian dogma, and purgatory. For years I have craved to be in the Catholic Church, but couldn’t figure a way to get around these hurdles. They became resolved this Lent.

On Ash Wednesday, I started a 40-day fast. I have been in conversation with a priest, Father John Mikalajunas, in Binghamton for over 20 years. To my amazement, during Lent, I sensed that it was the plan of the Holy Spirit to bring us into the Catholic Church. After some further conversations with Father Mikalajunas as well as with other evangelicals who had come into the Church, those theological issues evaporated. Once I realized the Truth, I had to go in. I couldn’t wait.

I understand that you are awaiting word on the annulment of your first marriage. Can you tell me why you chose to be received into the Church (without being able to receive the Eucharist), before the resolution of your annulment?

This has been a journey for 18 years. I knew when I came in that I would have to deal with my annulment. I couldn’t bear not being in Rome any longer. So, I decided I would rather come in and wait to receive the Eucharist, rather than not be in the Church. I felt that I needed to come in, and that it was something I needed to do during Lent. Thus far it has been wonderful — I’m glad I didn’t wait.

Tell me how your reception into the Church came about.

In my conversations with Father Mikalajunas, he would tell me that I belonged in Rome, and I would jokingly tell him that he would make a great Baptist preacher. I knew I was being pulled into Rome. At the beginning of Lent, he told me something that made a lightbulb go on. He said that he would receive me into the Church. He knew what I knew — he knew that I knew the dogmas of the Church.  He was offering to receive us in the event that I could say, “Yes, I believe.”

I thought, “Oh my goodness,” and felt like the Holy Spirit was showing us a plan for our lives. Father Mikalajunas concurred.

Over Holy Thursday we were received and confirmed at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Binghamton. Father Mikalajunas brought in two witnesses.

When I was confirmed, I had this overwhelming sense that I had just walked into a cathedral that was packed with people — namely, the heroes and martyrs and saints who had gone before us. I felt they were rejoicing and calling us on in our journey. I felt as if I was with these people.

There was a tremendous sense of joy realizing that it was the end of my ongoing struggles.

What was your greatest fear?

That I would wake up and say there was no change in me. That has not been the case. Being in the Church has brought a wonderful sense of belonging. I am part of 2,000 years of Christian history that is glorious, that has warts, and heroes and villains, but that is nonetheless the Church founded by Jesus upon Peter.

How do you expect your evangelical colleagues will react to news of your conversion?

My journey is so personal, and yet so public. An important part of my journey is that as a pro-life leader I have had the honor of leading tens of thousands of evangelicals and Catholics in pro-life activism. I pray that I am able to continue that leadership in both communities. We have a unity of purpose. We unite around the Apostles’ Creed and our common love of life and justice.

My mission as a man is to unite as many in the Christian community as possible to stand for the Christian ethic of life and justice as defined by our historical and common Christian faith.

Do you anticipate that your conversion could hurt you in your Senate race in a predominantly Protestant state?

I hope it won’t. I believe that the unity of purpose that has helped me as an evangelical to work with Catholics will help me as a Catholic to work with evangelicals. My wife says that I am bilingual — I can speak both languages. What I would bring to the table as a state senator is standing up for the underdog for justice and freedom. Whether you’re Baptist or Episcopalian or Catholic, you can appreciate that.

We see that kind of working together in the example of a Presbyterian president [Ronald Reagan] working with a Polish priest [Pope John Paul II] to free Poland from communism. I am convinced that the two can work together in our common missions. If we don’t work together, we cannot win.

Tim Drake writes from

St. Joseph, Minnesota.