He Was an Evangelical Christian Until He Read Aquinas

Rob Evans has taught millions of Christians that “Life without Jesus is like a doughnut: There’s a hole in the middle of your heart.”

Jesus filled the hole in Evans’ heart by bringing him to the Catholic Church.

Evans, 53, was hugely popular as an Evangelical Christian performer, selling more than 6 million CDs and DVDs, and appearing at more than 2,500 church concerts and conferences. His Donut Repair Club has been a mainstay of EWTN’s programming for the past 10 years.

Evans, his wife of 33 years, Shelley, and one of his children — daughter Tonya, 14 — were received into the Catholic Church this past Easter.

Evans spoke with Register correspondent Tom Wehner about what he called his “discovery” of the Catholic faith.

What was your upbringing like?

I grew up in the Presbyterian church. And when my parents divorced when I was 6, the church in Paoli (Pa.) told [my mother] that divorce might be the best thing for her in this situation because she found “true love” with another man and that she had her whole life ahead of her. The church did not fight for the unity of our family. … So we stopped going to church.

When I was at Rutgers, I read everything. I read Nietzsche, I read Sartre, Plato. … I was reading about Western civilization, but nobody was talking about Jesus. I saw an ad in The Daily Targum (campus newspaper) advertising a study on the philosophy of Christ one evening. And I went to a room that held a thousand people, and I was the only one there. … I was thirsting for something. I was considering Christ, but I wasn’t seeing him.

Tell me about your introduction to Christ.

When I was 19 and Shelley was 17, we were “born again” in a charismatic Pentecostal group. It made inroads into the local high school; that’s how Shelley came in. My mother was going through her third divorce, and a woman at the local swimming club, her best friend, told her all about Jesus; she was from Latvia, and she pronounced it “Cheesus.” My mom had hope in her heart that Jesus would heal her marriage. My mother visited her friend’s pastor — Dennis Corrigan, who was a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary.

I went to talk to Dennis … and he ended up leading me to Jesus Christ. I said to him, “Nietzsche, Sartre, Plato — what about all these philosophies?” He said, “They’re dead. Jesus Christ is alive.”

I said, “What about Adam and Eve? What about the Bible? Do you really believe these things?” Right in the middle of this conversation, his wife comes up with a plate of cookies and coffee and their two little preschoolers come up to get a big kiss goodnight, and there was joy and peace and order and beauty in that home. I wanted that. They brought Christ to me philosophically and biblically in their lives.

Dennis was the one who baptized me. Their next door neighbor was a teenage girl who brought her friend — whom I fell in love with — to church. It was love at first sight. So Shelley Tait came in, and we were engaged four months later and were married that very year.

I quit Rutgers University and went to work as a carpenter.

What happened to cause your church to splinter, and how did you maintain your faith throughout this ordeal?

The church split over discipleship. By this time, 1978, I had 12 men working for me; I had been married for five years. I had three kids and another one on the way. All of my friends, my whole company, moved to Florida from Philadelphia. My company was devastated.

After two more splits, we ended up being in a church of about five or 10 people, and it once had been thousands. What I thought was my forever family was gone, gone and gone again. We kept our focus on Jesus in heaven — the celestial church. Obviously, there was no earthly church that had any true unity.

Because Shelley and I are both children of divorce, when the church fell apart it brought terrific stress to our marriage. We know of a number of couples that then divorced after this meltdown.

During this period of time, we kept telling our children about Jesus and I kept singing them daddy’s songs. So the emotion, the joy and the assurance that the Holy Spirit gave us was what I sang about. God continued to hold us together and kept blessing us with children. We had five in seven years.

How did you become the Donut Man?

In the middle of that crucible, I maintained a habit of tucking the kids in every night with a Bible story and then I would go to my office and write a song.

So I wrote dozens and dozens and dozens of songs from tucking my kids in, and then my wife observed that my children were singing daddy’s songs, so she surprised me with $1,250 that she had saved for us to go on a second honeymoon.

She said, “I think you should make a recording with these songs so we can bless some other people.” So we prayed about it, and I did. And I went into my friend’s recording studio and recorded daddy’s songs. And one of those songs was, “Life without Jesus is like a doughnut; there’s a hole in the middle of your heart.”

My brother-in-law took a picture of me peeking through a doughnut for my first cover, and it was called “Musical Donuts.”

That was in 1982, and it grew from there in a remarkable way.

Tell me about the path you took to your conversion.

I didn’t convert to Catholicism, I discovered Catholicism. The word “converted” I wear reluctantly only because it communicates, and it’s an accepted part of Catholic culture.

When I used to drive by a Catholic church, I would pray a blessing on that church: “Lord, save those poor Catholics. Pour your Spirit out on that church. Amen.” Little did I know that I was praying for myself.

In 1991, we moved to Nashville to be closer to Integrity Music, which was based in Mobile, Ala. We went to a Baptist church, but that underwent a split. And then in 2001 we moved back home to Ocean County, N.J., and joined a church there.

We were home. But within six months, we were kicked out over a theological dispute over alcohol.

As I went through the last meltdown, I said to my wife, “You know, the Catholic Church has a unity.”  And we started going to Mass in our local parish that we would drive by every day — St. Francis of Assisi. This was in February of 2005. And we would kneel down in the quiet and, you know what? Catholics read the Bible every Mass. And when I saw the way they revered the Host, I was really touched. … And all of the priests — Father Steve, Father Kevin, Father Tom and Father John — revered Christ in the Eucharist, I could see it. I could feel it, too.

Was there one particular incident that brought everything into focus?

Back when I was in my 20s, I read How Then Shall We Live by Francis Schaeffer. He lays the blame for the fires of the Reformation at the feet of Thomas Aquinas. I had also been taught that to include Mary in the equation any more than two weeks around Christmas was idolatrous.

Right around February and March of 2005 as we were starting to “nibble” at Mass, I went to a Border’s bookstore in the Hamilton mall near Atlantic City. And I love photography.

Well, right next to P for Photography is R for Religion. I saw a book of sermonettes by Thomas Aquinas from Sophia Press. I pulled it out, popped it open to his teaching on “Hail Mary, full of grace.” And he asked the question, “How full of grace would the mother of Jesus Christ be?” This is the only time an angel has accorded a human being this kind of honor. I found it such a poignant, thoughtful question, beautifully stated and in no way idolatrous.

It was completely, profoundly Christ-centered. And it made me consider Mary as the singularly most Christ-centered person who has ever lived. Not just in her head and in her heart, but literally, in her womb.

I just grabbed the book, I bought it, and went out and read it to my wife in the car, and we both looked at each other … We had just gone to Mass a couple times … and now this was Aquinas, the guy who was to blame for the Reformation … I find out that he’s not an idolater. This guy is truly a Church father. And what he had to say about Mary, well, I devoured it.

We sat there in the parking lot of Border’s and I read it to Shelley, and in unison we said to each other, “We’re Catholic.”

At the same time we were considering these things, my daughter Sarah and her husband, Pete Johnson, did convert to Catholicism.

Were there other realizations that opened your mind and heart to Catholicism and the sacraments?

As the Donut Man, I was looking for an authoritative way to teach the children. I color-coded all of my videos for children who couldn’t read. I have the “yellow video,” the “green video,” the “red video” — matching the coveralls that I wore in the videos. And then I went to Mass and I saw the different colors that were keyed to the liturgical calendar, which gives you historicity.

I was never taught my baptism was symbolic. If my baptism circumcised my heart, crucified, buried and resurrected me with Christ in the waters of baptism, that ain’t symbolic. That’s sacramental.

My approach to communion was never symbolic. It was always sacramental. My approach to my wife was sacramental. And I knew that confession isn’t just to God. Through the Promise Keepers movement, with covenant groups in the evangelical realm, they were called accountability groups. Hello! That’s confessing, that’s invoking Jesus’ initiative with Peter: “I give you the keys. What you bind on earth is bound in heaven, what you loose on earth is forgiven in heaven.” … That’s sacramental.

The Catholic Church maintains this pattern in the Eucharist that Christ himself comes to us in the bread and the cup. Why would Protestants break that pattern and accept a communion that, at best, is a sweet meditation and a reverencing of Jesus Christ. … The Catholic Church has a fuller view of Communion. It’s not a question of right and wrong. It’s a question of good vs. miraculous.

What does the future hold for the Donut Man?

My kids tell me, “Dad you were a great Protestant evangelist and you’re going to be a great Catholic evangelist.” Well, we’re going to find out. I’m not going to bite the hand that fed me for 33 years. So I’m still going to reach out to my separated brothers and sisters. I am focusing on a new kid’s album right now with “The Eucharist Song,” “Holy Water on My Face,” and “All for the Love of Mary.”

Tom Wehner is the

Register’s copy editor.