Second, I found a great tradition of radical gospel living in the monastic and Franciscan heritage, which was not altogether absent in other traditions, but seemed most developed in the Catholic tradition. This includes contemplative prayer and mysticism, which are especially present in the Eastern Orthodox traditions, but also highly developed in the Roman West. I must admit that the Eastern tradition tugs on my heart very strongly, especially in light of the fact that the monastic heritage was birthed in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. But in the final analysis, I ended up settling for the Roman Catholic West because I am, in fact, a Westerner and I felt most at home there.
Lastly for me was the Catholic charismatic renewal. I was made most welcome by them in those initial years, and still am today.
You began your musical life as a recording artist in a rock band called Mason Proffit. What was your life like as a 70’s rock star?
Well, we were never full-blown rock stars. We played with a lot of rock stars, and were fully immersed in the whole rock life, but we were one of those "almost famous" bands. I never did any drugs, and only got drunk a couple of times. I decided the fun of it wasn’t worth the side effects; I was having a blast without it, so I figured why mess it up?
But it was a grueling lifestyle. We did 300 concerts a year for five straight years and made five albums. We would travel either by converted Trailways buses, or commercial airlines. It wasn’t unusual to drive 12 straight hours from one concert to the next. On those long bus rides we had a few choices: sleep, get stoned, or read. I chose to read, and it was there that I started reading about religion and philosophy. I also began to read about Jesus in a Revised Standard Version Bible my grandmother had given to me, and those red letters started jumping out. It was on those long bus rides that I really begin to seriously consider Christ.
I used to come home from concerts and pray, "God who are you — he, she, or it?" I really didn’t care. As we say in Arkansas,"I have no dog in the hunt." I had no agenda; I just wanted to know. After over a year of praying with no answer — and I think that’s important because God doesn’t always immediately answer our prayers — I had an experience with Jesus Christ that was unmistakable. So, at that point I began calling myself a Christian.
How did your religious conversion affect your relationship with music?
I think it made me more thoughtful. I was always interested in looking deeper than just the emotional impact of a particular musical style. I was looking for the energy beneath the vibration of the strings. It also affected my relationship with my bandmates. The guys were actually quite defensive about my conversion, in that they wanted it to be real and to be kept pure from all of the obvious impurities of the rock ‘n roll lifestyle. I still appreciate that to this day, and still consider them good friends. But the guys used to say, ”What happened to John Michael — he’s actually become a nicer guy!”
Real Christianity makes us better human beings. As the old saying goes, "Jesus doesn’t make freaks out of people. He makes people out of freaks."
It’s one thing to embrace religious faith, it’s another to found an entire religious community. Yours is one of the few that accommodates married couples and families. Can you tell us a bit about The Brothers and Sisters of Charity? What can guests expect when they visit?
We say that Jesus is our founder, the Scriptures are our rule, and our greatest law is love. Love is guided by truth so that it doesn’t just become misdirected human emotion. We integrate various spiritualities and states of life into one unified community. We also integrate the charismatic and contemplative, the spontaneous and liturgical, the monastic and secular, and the clerical and lay traditions of the church. If you were to visit us, in many ways you would see an integration of a traditional Catholic monastery and the more communal expressions of the Mennonite faith. It’s pretty amazing.