Opening Yourself to God's Direction, An interview with Fr. Jonathan Hill, M.M.
Categories: Podcast

Episode 33. Opening Yourself to God’s Direction, An interview with Fr. Jonathan Hill, M.M.

 

 

We were just talking about Jonathan’s interesting background and history. So, his family has been in the United States for quite a long time, but he could actually trace his lineage all the way back to King Henry VIII, sort of.

 

Jonathan Hill
And beyond, and beyond, yeah.

 

So, we’re kind of sitting in the room today with the royalty, which is pretty cool. So, tell us a little bit about your family history and like what you kind of know about your ancestors.

 

Jonathan Hill
Oh, sure. Well, I’m the eighth generation born in Florida within my family. They’ve been in Florida since the 1840s. They settled down there because the land was cheap or free at the time. They wanted to get the American settlers down there to fight against the native Americans that were occupying the land. And so they had to be hardy settlers because, I don’t know if you know Florida, but living down there without air conditioning is not a pleasant thing to do, so they had to be pretty hardy people. But before that they were in Georgia and North Carolina and Virginia all the way back to the 1600s for the most part. English mostly, but I do have some Irish lines as well and the newest one came to the US around 1840, and they were actually Catholic, but the rest of my family was Protestant Christians back to the reformation period. And then once they had crossed over to the US, they had remained so, but then largely were baptist. And then prior to that in England, it links up to the royal families in the 1500s, at which point it’s fairly easy to trace back because they have such a good lineage in their genealogies all the way back to times of myth and fable.

 

How did you track all this, because once you start getting past like that third generation, there’s a lot of people, it starts to become big? What was your process for getting all that data?

 

Jonathan Hill
Well, I started in 1998, I believe it was, or ’99, as a 10th grade project for school. And I utilized some of the records that my great-grandfather had kept, and he has some of the lines back to the 1700s, to a revolution and war soldiers and so forth. And so then I also started going to the Mormon temples. Well, I guess the ward would be the proper term, the temple would be the larger place, but the local wards. A good portion of my family and the second cousins and great aunts and uncles are Mormons, so that made it somewhat easier because there were some records that kept there, but also they had the best access for things like the census records and so forth. So, I would begin scouring those records and looking at land records and other things as well, wills and so forth, and again, getting back generation by generation until eventually over the years it became so much easier when you had ancestry.com online and you had all the records of the Mormon Church online now.

 

Are you active in ancestry.com? Do you use it a lot?

 

Jonathan Hill
I do. I’m not currently a member with a subscription because I’ve largely formalized the tree, but with that tree, I’ve even branched out into lots of cousins. I have about 110,000 people now within that tree line listed there. Largely trying to group in a lot of the people in my home county who ends up being interrelated quite a bit because most of them in the north part of Florida are longterm settlers or they come from longterm settlers, and so it’s pretty easy to link.

 

Did you find anything cool on ancestry like any photos or anything, because sometimes you have the scans of the Census? And I know on Ancestry, I found a photo of my grandmother when she was a nurse at Pearl Harbor that my mother had never seen before, so it’s really interesting. I’m wondering if you had a similar experience.

 

Jonathan Hill
Sure. I’ve found some of my ancestors, some photos from the 1850s or so, the old tintype photos. One of them was he was holding a sword and various things. So, there were a few of those of those things that were around, but my family itself had quite a few of these records themselves and photos because my great-grandfather was the historian for that side of the family at least. But I found a lot of interesting things about our history. Of course, the majority of my ancestors who were fighting or alive during the civil war were for the confederate side because they were in the south and not surprisingly, but one of them had been a confederate soldier, then all of a sudden you find him in the records as a union soldier. And then after the civil war ended, he and his family are living on an island off of Florida where the Union army is based probably for his own protection because he was, I guess you could say, even-

 

He crossed the line.

 

Jonathan Hill
Yeah, he was a trader for the confederate cause. On the other side, I found, on my father’s side, the side that had been Irish Catholic, they settled down in Columbus, Georgia. And my ancestor in around 1845 when you came over, he became a baptist pretty quickly and probably because of his wife, but his brother remained Catholic and was the sheriff for Columbus, Georgia. His wife came from New York, and surprisingly, I was seeing that her ancestors, they were in New York and then shortly after the revolutionary war for about two or three generations, they were in Canada, and then before that, they were back in New York again. So, what had happened was they were loyalists during the war, and so once the war was lost to the loyalist cause they fled to Canada where it was safe for a few generations until they could return.

 

A few years ago, I think it was 2012, I was staying here at Maryknoll, and across the road at the Maryknoll Sisters, there was an old cemetery there. And so I transcribed that cemetery, it’s in their front lawn as you’re coming up on the driveway. And I began to research those people and come to find out I’m related to them through that line in New York. There’s some connection in there and so forth. So, all these things to me are just fascinating. I love history, I love what’s involved in all of that, and so it’s been a nice search. But I was very privileged because when it comes to records, it’s so easy for longterm Americans to find records, or even Europeans. So many of our brothers and sisters don’t have that privilege or that ability yet, but it’s increasing. I do a lot of transcribing online during as a hobby, records for the Mormon church because they have a really good system at familysearch.org, transcribing records. And then these records are free and available for anyone. And so they’re increasing their stock of records worldwide, making it easier and easier to find records if you come from South America or from eastern Europe even or even parts of Africa, South Africa.

 

So, I have to ask, maybe even from a theological perspective, what’s your opinion of the DNA linking like with 23andMe or Ancestry DNA, because then those connections boom, like it becomes exponential pretty quickly?

 

Jonathan Hill
It does, and I’ve done my DNA, work there as well. I did it on Ancestry, and yeah, it was just ancestry but then I used that DNA to go into other sites to the link up. I think it’s a wonderful thing. I mean, it shows also how much we are related in many ways and how they say that you’re connected to every person in the world by maybe five degrees or something like that.

 

Yeah, six degrees of separation.

 

Jonathan Hill
Six degrees. Sorry. Yes, so one degree off. But no, it’s a fascinating thing and theological it shows just how important we are to each other and that we really can’t say that this is about me and my tribe because we are all one tribe. And I think that’s part of the mission for me as well is that seeing the connections to my brothers and sisters in other parts of the world who are a part of me.

 

Take us back to 1983, fast forward right, time travel. So, you’re living in your grandparents’ home, right, or your grandparents’ home?

 

Jonathan Hill
Well, I was born that year.I was born in South Florida, which was because of my father’s job. He worked as a manager for Kmart and so they had moved him down to Fort Myers, Florida, and my brother was born in Port Charlotte, which is where we were living. But my father was concerned about the possibility of him being assigned to Miami, and he didn’t want us growing up in Miami. So he quit that job and then moved back to the family area in northwest Florida. So, by 1987, it was decided that we would move into my mother’s parents home. My grandfather had retired by that time. Well, he had worked for the US Air Force for his career, but had also been an engineer at NASA. And so my mother and one of my mother’s brothers was born at Cape Canaveral in Florida. And then he also had gotten married in Paris to my grandmother who she had a short career or a short stint before the marriage with the FBI back in a time when women, their job was as secretaries or something like that.

 

So, it was just she had a recruiter from the FBI come to her high school, and so she and some other girls there had gone to DC to do that work. Then she married him in Paris and my first uncle was born in Germany there. Then I have pictures of him in Morocco and Libya and all around, but I think that they lived only in Germany when his job was to patrol the border of Western and Eastern Germany, and then also in the Philippines where my mother had spent a couple of years of her … I think it was kind of like the middle school years, and then in California. Then when he retired, they moved back to the home area of both of my grandparents. So, in their retirement, they wanted to travel, and so they built this nice big house that allowed each of us to have our own rooms, our own bathrooms, and so it was very, very nice and can be inconvenient for us. And they wanted us to kind of care for the home while they traveled, and so we agreed to that. But a year later, my grandfather had cancer, a brain tumor and then died in 1988. So, that travel period of their retirement didn’t happen so much, but we remained in the house and cared for my grandmother until my grandmother’s parents both had passed away and then we moved kind of nearby into the next door house, and that’s where my parents still live. But that house reflected the journey of my grandparents heavily. It was a large ranch style home, but each room had a different aspects of their world travels and where they lived. And so you had a small library that was very German looking and based, and then you had the Taiwanese and Hong Kong influences of the living rooms and so forth. So, I grew up with this world around me.

 

Yeah, kind of like a museum in a way.

 

Jonathan Hill
A museum, it really was. We had some of these things that I didn’t appreciate until I got older. I mean, these chairs from Hong Kong where they were hand carved with lion heads and things like that and they were quite fascinating. But then even growing up as a child and my grandmother, she was a very intelligent woman. She was Valedictorian of her class. Her mother was … Gosh, she was so close to having her doctorate, but she didn’t take the final step in Spanish. So, she was fluent in Spanish. She was a school teacher. And so she would have us, as our childhood bedtime stories, would choose a story out of the Encyclopedia Britannica. So, I grew up with reading those stories from like the 1950s, and then I had the National Geographics and all these other magazines that just fueled the fire within me. And so I was prepped and primed, I think from the early age to desire to travel the world and see things.

 

She read your bedtime stories from the Encyclopedia Britannica?

 

Jonathan Hill
That’s right. That’s right.

 

I just had to rewind that for a second.

 

Jonathan Hill
Yes.

 

A former FBI agent, right?

 

Jonathan Hill
Well, yeah. She would have been a very strict woman in some ways and very ordered.

 

Now, did you have like a favorite, like all out of the encyclopedia and National Geographic, did you have favorite countries or favorite places that you were like, “I can’t wait to go there when I grow up?”

 

Jonathan Hill
Well, I was fascinated by the Amazon, but funny enough, I had two major dreams in my life growing up. One was that I would live in Wyoming and be a cowboy. That was one of my early dream. The other dream was that I would live in Kenya or near Kenya, but in the Serengeti and be some kind of vet for wild animals. So these are these early dreams? Interestingly enough in 2006, I ended up moving to Wyoming, but it was because of a job opportunity that opened up there after I had left another community in Chicago. And so I ended up living in Wyoming for two and a half years working on a ranch, but also with at risk youth.

 

So, that dream ended up happening without intending it. And then now I’m being sent to Tanzania, and of course I’ve been to the Serengeti and so forth in the area. So, both of those dreams of the early childhood have come to pass without me necessarily intentionally moving in that direction. But I was just fascinated with Africa and with South America. I think those were the two main areas for me.

 

As you were experiencing this awesome childhood in this like I imagine, this amazing super cool house, it’s like a museum, so your family is baptist.

 

Jonathan Hill
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

So you grew up baptist for the most part.

 

Jonathan Hill
That’s right.

 

Okay. So, when did you first kind of hear about Catholicism or being Catholic and what sort of made you attracted to the Catholic religion?

 

Jonathan Hill
Yeah.

 

Because it’s interesting too to know that it’s also in your lineage at one point.

 

Jonathan Hill
It is, yeah. So, there’s only one line that my great-great-great-grandfather began as a Catholic. Besides that, they were pretty much baptists from Methodist but Protestant back to the reformation time. And I grew up in an area that is and at least was, 90% baptist, in a very rural area. I knew one Catholic in high school growing up. Maybe there were a few others but they were not very vocal about that. I knew very little about the Catholic church except maybe in a negative fashion. The idea, at least at the time for the baptists was Catholics, they’re trying to work their way to heaven, they worship idols and saints and so forth. Typical evangelical understanding at least at the time. Things have changed a bit now. I think with the merging of politics of the evangelicals and Catholics that have changed or loosened some of those animosities. But they were there. I mean, the idea was of course, you had to have a personal relationship with Jesus, and so Catholics could go to heaven if they had that, but the chance was probably that they didn’t. And that was kind of the basis.

 

But I grew up with a great admiration and fascination for Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Her work inspired me, and that was a reflection for me of what I really wanted to do. I really wanted to join her order, because that was something that really was pulling at my heart, that type of work. And I forgot to mention one of my uncles was a missionary for a bit in Honduras. He’s a pastor in Mississippi, so that missionary work was always present there as well.

 

It seems like you sort of were trying to figure out if you wanted to do … Because you said you wanted to be a veterinarian at one point, I know you started to study nursing, so you always sort of had this calling to help people in some way or animals or help, I guess.

 

Jonathan Hill
I did, yeah. I loved animals. I was very moved by their pain. I grew up on a small farm. We had cattle mostly, and of course, other pets, and at one point raised rabbits and so forth. And so I grew up with the natural cycle of life and death and these animals, I also grew up showing animals in 4-H, and so that meant that we would raise them from being a calf until they’re a year or so older, and then we would show them at a fair, and then they would be sold and slaughtered. So, you grow attached to these animals but then you also learned how to be unattached. That the was the life of living on a farm. But whenever we had a calf that I remember that was born blind, and caring for that, and eventually it had to be put down, but it brought me to tears. I was crying after that fact. I was really moved by the pain and suffering of animals, but also other people. Nursing, yes. I always felt that I had to have a career that was geared towards helping other people. For me, I wouldn’t be satisfied in any other sense. And so that was one direction. But that was after I had already felt a calling to be a missionary in the eighth grade. And because I didn’t feel support from my parents, I didn’t really pursue that direction. So, I was looking at the navy as an option, and that’s why I was doing nursing, wanting to be a doctor, really. But then it didn’t feel like this was really the direction that I was being called to and so forth. And then I had that reconversion experience in 2002 at an Easter service, and I felt strongly God was calling me back to mission. And so with that, I decided this is what I need to pursue if I want to be happy in my life, and so I did it. And so I entered the Baptist college and again, pursuing the missionary vocation, was taking a degree in theology.

 

Really quick. What was that calling to mission? Like why mission versus nursing or some doctor like you said?

 

Jonathan Hill
Yeah, that’s a good question. It was a very intense experience at this service where I was brought to my knees, and it was an outdoor service because it was an Easter Sunrise service, and so that was the custom for the baptist. You could be outdoors for those services at sunrise. And I was brought to my knees, and I just felt so strongly that this was a call to mission. It wasn’t a call to anything else, and I knew it right away. How to describe that. I don’t know if you can really understand that without experiencing it. And I’m sure many people who are listening have at some point in life, or they will at some point in their life. It comes through, I think, a deep longing, a deep search, and you’re opening yourself up to God’s direction in your life, and sometimes clarity that happens a lot like that. A call it the work of the Holy Spirit, and I think that’s a big part of it. And so it moved me into the only direction that I knew, and that was actually going to the Baptist College, which was about 15 miles from my hometown.

My grandfather, the one who we lived in the house, of course, he had died, but in his retirement, he was doing work of turning businesses around that were in trouble. So, he had that skill. So, if they were financially in the red, he would bring them back to the black. So, he did that for a hospital nearby, for a trade school, and also for the Baptist college where I was, so they knew my family well there. And so I spent the next two years there, but see, it was there that interestingly enough, I had my first real challenge to Baptist theology, at the Baptist College. We had some professors who were not afraid to question some aspects of Baptist doctrine. That had never happened before for me. And when that happens, that can be either detrimental to your faith or it can lead you in other directions. It began for me a period of searching, I think. For the longest time, my faith, it was not my own faith, it was my family’s faith, and that’s not a bad thing, but this was now a process where my faith was maturing to where it was becoming my own faith. And so part of that process, I began experiencing some different churches. I went to the church of a friend whose father was a pastor.

It was an African American Pentecostal style church. It was church of God and Christ, and I was also doing mission trips to different parts of the world, and these parts were all Catholic. So, it was in Honduras, it was in Rome, Italy, but we were working with refugees there, and it was in the Philippines. So, these were all Catholic countries. I’m not sure how much of an influence that had, but it might’ve had some. But the real part, the real key part for me was when I had come back from the Philippines and I went to my parents and my family’s church, Baptist Church. And for Baptists, well, at least for the southern Baptist, the gift of speaking in tongues is not considered a modern day gift. It was something that was used at the time of the apostles, but it wasn’t brought forward into modern day. So they don’t use that gift nor do they believe it’s something that’s should be utilized or is active this day, and the pastor was kind of preaching on that topic. That’s okay, oh, no problem. That’s fine. The following Sunday I was at my friend’s church, which of course being Pentecostal speaking in tongues is a key aspect of that. But the pastor was showing us a video from, I believe it was Jamaica, and the church there and how they were all speaking in tongues and all these things were happening. And he told the community that he wanted us to be all speaking in tongues by the next Sunday.

He had a deadline that we’re all doing this, we’ll start doing it, which was kind of comical, for me at least. But out of everything that had been going on within the Baptist College, some of my experiences that my worldview was growing into these other countries, this was kind of like the straw that broke the camel’s back for me because then it became a question of, well, who’s right. And both were using the Bible as their resource, both felt they were being led by the Holy Spirit to believe what they were believing and doing, but they were on opposite ends, and so it was a question, well, who’s right? Not only in this but in key and core doctrine. You have all of these Protestant groups, and looking up, there were 20,000, 30,000 plus denominations of Protestants around the world, and they were all separated based on different things. And some may argue, well, they’re not very important, but sometimes they are. I mean, is baptism necessary for salvation? How are you saved? I mean, all these different things could not be agreed upon, and they couldn’t be agreed upon by theologians. And so that began a time of desperation for me.

I’m like, “Well, how am I supposed to know what truth is? What is truth?” As Pilate famously said, and I was wanting to know the truth, but I didn’t know how I was able to even begin to find it, because using the Bible alone obviously wasn’t working. And so I was at that time working for my father. My father had opened a large gas station, feed seed, hardware store, that’s since grown even larger since then, in the year 2000. Okay. And so this was now 2003. And so I was working for him there. And it was nighttime. I would close the store around 11:30 at night.

But I was sitting out there under the stars and there was nobody at the store, and I was just praying that God, “God, I need your help. Give me a clear sign of what direction I should go. I mean, should I be Presbyterian? Should I be Episcopalian? I mean, where do I find truth in this regard?” And surprisingly, for me, that was a dangerous question too because if you know the history of the Mormons, that was how Joseph Smith founded the Mormons. The angel came and said, “Nobody’s right and you have to go this direction.” Well, I wasn’t looking for that, but I was just asking God for some clarity.

Well, I went home and turned on the TV after work as I normally did, and the channel that the TV was on was on EWTN. Somebody must’ve been passing through and just stop there. Well, the program was The Journey Home. And this was a program that was geared towards ex-Protestants who became Catholic and their stories. And the guest speaker was an ex-Baptist minister, African American man, but he was talking about and touching on every issue that I was dealing with that time and was struggling with. So, that really dumbfounded me and I spent the night going to their website and looking at different stories and learning about these different aspects that were just kind of surface stuff on the Catholic church. And it led me to begin buying books on Catholic apologetics. And these were from Scott Hahn, other authors who were Protestants and they became Catholic, because they could speak the language better than a born and bred Catholic could to a Protestant.

 

They’d gone through the same thing that you were going through.

 

Jonathan Hill
That’s right, but they also knew our terminology, because Catholics were speaking a different language, and they would even use the same words and mean different things than what we would as Protestants. And so these guys knew how to talk to me. And so the more I read them, the more I began to say, “Well, this makes sense.” Hearing Catholic theology from a Catholic makes a whole lot more sense to hearing it from a Protestant who was anti-Catholic, and vice versa too, I imagine. So, that began a process of me now I’m looking in this direction. And so I devoured over 100 books on Catholic theology and began presenting some questions to Protestant friends, pastors, missionary friends, students, and professors as well as family.

I have an uncle, my mother’s older brother, the one born in Germany, had his doctorate in theology and New Testament history, and so the more I would ask questions or the more I would present these issues, the more I had to go back and keep learning and keep studying. And then I branched out into looking into Jewish history and Jewish theology. And there I began to really see some of the core doctrinal issues that I was struggling with as a present Protestant where they came from. Mary’s role in the church as Queen for instance. How does that play in? The notion and nature of the Eucharist and sacrifice.

Why it had to be the body and blood of Christ present as opposed to just as just a symbol? The keys of the kingdom, where that ties into Jewish understanding of theology and history of kingdoms. All these things began to make sense when I read them with Jewish eyes. And then reading of course, reading the early works of the early church fathers and mothers from the first centuries to the reformation, I was seeing a consistent Catholic theology that I didn’t realize was present there because we were not taught that as Protestants, as Baptist. In fact, whenever we would read the early works of the church, it would be snippets here and there that were used to show that these … Like Saint Augustine for instance, really believed what we believed as baptists, and so things were not put into their full perspective.

So, the more I read, the more I studied, the more I learned, the more I debated, I ended up writing a 95 or near 95 page thesis on Catholic versus Protestant doctrine, or you could call it my anti-Martin Luther thesis, and I presented that to the professors at my school, and that put me on the hit list.

 

Oh, I’m sure.

 

Jonathan Hill
And also to the pastor and to other people. And some were dismissive. I had one tell me, “I’ve studied Catholic theology when I was in school. I don’t need to study it again.” Okay. But there was one in particular, my new testament professor, who sat down with me and genuinely was trying to go through this with me, and I really appreciated his work and effort. At this time too, it was beginning to cause problems in the family. They were looking and knowing the direction I was going.

 

I was going to ask how this was being viewed from your parents.

 

Jonathan Hill
Yeah. So, with my mother, I was going through the process a little bit with her. My father was a little more stand back-ish. Again, she had more of a culture connection with the Catholics than my father who was born and raised in the deep south, all he knew was the way of the Baptist church. I remember one main argument we had, and because of that I respected my parents enough, I put it aside for a while. This is just going to cause too much trouble and problems. And it was probably a month or so later that … People in the area had known about what I was going through, and there was a customer at my dad’s store who approached me and wanted to know what is the Catholics position on the end times or the rapture? The rapture is a core evangelical doctrine of what happens at the end of the world, that those who are true Christians will be whipped away by Jesus into heaven. Their clothes will fall away, they’ll be raptured into heaven and then they’ll return at the end of time. This is not what the Catholic Church teaches. And this is a doctrine or belief that came out of the 1800s, and it utilized some parts of Revelations, some parts of the book of Daniel, it was this patchworking things here and there to come up with this new doctrine. Well, it’s taken hold so heavily within the evangelical circles that many people don’t realize that there’s any alternative to it. They just think it’s a cold, hard fact that the rapture is what will happen. So, that got me looking into a little bit more about what the Catholic Church teaches. And the Catholic church really doesn’t hold a heavy duty belief beyond the fact that Jesus will return again at the end of the time and that we will be reunited with Christ and so forth, but leaves a lot of room otherwise. But it got me back into it again. And at one point I realized that if I don’t want to become a Catholic, I’m not being true to my own self and to my own search for truth. I felt that if I didn’t become Catholic at that point, because I backed myself into a Catholic corner, then I would actually be, in my own perspective, sinning, because I believe what the church was teaching was true and that this direction was true, and so to turn my back on that would be a major issue, it would be a sin. I wasn’t saying that everybody had to become a Catholic as opposed to being Protestant, but for me especially, that was the case, I felt that I had to be. And by that time my family was much more, maybe resigned would be the better word than receptive. But I knew I was putting a lot on the line. I had to be willing to give up, not only the support of my … Possibly I could be ostracized from my family. That has happened before to people. Losing friends. The entire church community that I knew and grew up with was trained to be a missionary for, I was in the running to be a deacon. And then the pastor friend wanted me to be a youth pastor at his parish. I mean, there was a lot of things that I’m giving up, everything basically.

 

Yeah, sounds like a lot on the line.

 

Jonathan Hill
My future career. I had a girl in the Philippines where we were looking at the possibility of engagement, and giving that up, everything. And so that was scary. Yeah. But again, I felt like if I didn’t do it then I wouldn’t be being true to where I felt God was leading me. So, I had been attending the Baptist church at Saint Dominic’s in Panama City for off and on, on occasion. The Catholic mass, I mean, I had the head knowledge, that aspect was still kind of strange, new, and different, it was just different really. But the more I began attending, then on my birthday, March 9, 2004, I went to the pastor in the church office and I said, “I feel called to be brought into the Catholic church.” So, he began a series of meetings with me one on one where he would ask me questions about the faith.

 

Let’s take a step back. So, you felt called now to be a priest, not just a missionary, but a-?

 

Jonathan Hill
No, no, at that point, it was just to become a Catholic.

 

Oh, just to become Catholic. Okay.

 

Jonathan Hill
I didn’t know the process. I still felt called to be a missionary, but I didn’t know if Catholics even had missionaries at that point. But he began this one on one questioning with me, and he says, “You know more at this point than you would learn in RCIA,” because of all my self studying.

 

Right.

 

Jonathan Hill
So, he brought me in to the Catholic Church, because I was already baptized, so he just brought me into having first communion, then had me be confirmed by the Bishop at Easter or after Easter, I think it was. And then he offered me a job, and he says, “We want to open up a Catholic bookstore and gift shop here, so with your knowledge, you’d be perfect for it.” So, he gave me that. And then I began the process of looking at how do I be a missionary? And so the first thing I looked at was the monks, monasteries, and realized that was not for me. I looked at the diocese and looked at these different groups and so forth, but mission was still at the heart of it and none of these were really offering it. And so while I was in the courting process of different groups, the mission field was still at my forefront.

 

So then, how did you cross paths with Maryknoll then or first hear about Maryknoll?

 

Jonathan Hill
Interestingly enough, a Maryknoll priest stopped by my home parish for about 15 minutes, and I encountered him there, and I asked the pastor, “Who is he?” “Oh, he’s a Maryknoll priests. They do work in mission,” and so my ears perked up and I was like, “Oh, really?” So, that was the first encounter. Then when I began looking at religious groups or the possibility of religious groups, I did an online tests where it was like, testmyvocation.com or something like that, and so they give you this test and then they pair you up with certain groups. Maryknoll was the top of the list. So, Maryknoll contacted me and had been in contact with me. Well, but then I met a sister from Chicago, came down to my parish in Florida I think on retreats, she was in close connection with a new community up there of lost young men and so forth. And they were very traditional. So, their focus was on the Latin mass, oftentimes, they did both Latin mass and in English, Gregorian chant, it was all brand new to me, and the depths of the Catholic Church was just wonderful. So, I joined them for a bit and learned how the serve well, learned Gregorian chant, learn the Latin mass. It was great learning all those different aspects, but I still felt called to mission, and I didn’t feel like it was enough for me, so after nine months, I left there and went to Wyoming where I worked for two and a half years, which was only supposed to be a year, but ended up being longer.

 

As a cowboy?

 

Jonathan Hill
As a cowboy. I was a bartender because that was the only job for like 30 miles around, but also I was a counselor for the youth that were sent there by the courts or by their parents to overcome drug addictions or other issues. And so, yes, it was a 1880s working ranch. We would do cattle drives, branding, we lived in cabins and cooked over open fires, used outhouses.

 

So, hold on. I was just joking, but you actually did end up in Wyoming living on a cowboy farm?

 

Jonathan Hill
That’s right. It was a 40,000 acre ranch.

 

And it was full on cowboy if you were still using outhouse.

 

Jonathan Hill
Oh yeah, fully cowboy. I mean, we would ride horses for different parts of the work and so forth. No, it was a wonderful job. I enjoyed it. And then the economy went south and that job went away. But what was funny, or not funny, ha, ha, but how God works, and I’ve learned to be more careful with God. After that two years or so, I was getting my finances in order, because after moving to Chicago the first time, I had nothing in terms of money or possessions because I gave it up for a lot of stuff, and so I had to buy a truck and those different things. But I was getting my finances in order to be able to have things paid off in order to go into looking at Maryknoll or other groups. Well, by that time, I had fallen in love with Wyoming, and I couldn’t decide whether I was now wanting to be a priest for the diocese of Cheyenne in Wyoming, which was the entire state, or Maryknoll, because I had looked at other groups like the SVDs and so forth but Maryknoll kept sticking out to me. And so I went to the town, the nearby town of Cody, and got a spiritual director who was a priest there. And I said, “This is my struggle.” And he says, “Well, why don’t you ask God for a clear sign?” I said, “Okay.” So, I did. That was a mistake. Don’t ask God for a clear sign unless you want a clear sign. Okay? Well, I’m not sure how clear of a side I really wanted, but I got a clear a sign because three days later after praying this prayer, I lost my job and I was living there full-time. This was 2009, and this type of work was not a necessary thing. You didn’t have to send your kids, and it was a lot of money devoted, so we were having fewer clients.

 

I just think that time it was … I graduated 2008, and that whole year was just, the jobs were being cut everywhere.

 

Jonathan Hill
Yeah. Right. So, I was one of the first to go. Eventually, they ended up getting rid of almost everybody and closing down, and then they reopened again later on. So, I lost my job and I loved the job, I loved the kids, I loved the work, but I lost the job, I lost my home. Now I was thinking, “Well, now what am I going to do?” I figured out pointing back to Florida, I guess.

 

So, you took that as a sign not to stay in Wyoming and figure something else out?

 

Jonathan Hill
Well, hold on. Because on the way out, I’m driving down the driveway leaving, and I get a phone call from a Maryknoll priest, David Labuda, who was living in El Paso, Texas, and I had been in contact with him for a while. He says, “Hey, what’s going on?” And I said, “Well, this is going on.” “Well, come down to El Paso, stay with us, and we’ll help you find work down there.” So, I ended up leaving Wyoming into the hands and the arms of Maryknoll. That was my first clear sign. Now, this was a very rough transition period for me because I was attached to the work and the kids. I think I would have been happy doing that work my entire life. And so it felt like I lost everything, and even like my family, these kids were like my kids. They were teenagers and I was in my early 20s, but I just felt … Because it was there that I really experienced a conversion of my view of God. My view of God as a child was a little more harsh. You do this, well, God sends you to hell. There, I experienced kids who were adopted, kids who felt like no one loved them, or who felt like if they’d screwed up one more time, they were done. And I had this sense within me that they needed to know and feel unconditional love and support. And then once I began telling them, “Hey, you always have someone to turn to, you always have me, you always have other people to turn to. If you screw up, you screw up. Come back or just turn to us and say, ‘Hey, I screwed up.’ Let’s help you.” By offering that, that’s how I began to experience God within my own life and for me, a new way of really unconditional sense and love. And so when I was leaving that instance by force, it really brought me low inside. And also I didn’t have my debt paid off fully yet, so I was now trying to find work in an economy that was not very good. I ended up going back to Florida for a bit before eventually being accepted into Maryknoll and coming into Maryknoll in 2010. But that was a rough transition period for me. That was a time of really searching in my own self and soul. But by God, in some ways, you can call it God, forcing me out of Wyoming, I wouldn’t have been able to do it on my own, and I’m very grateful now looking back that that transition happened because I think I’m in a much better place because of it, and now heading off to Tanzania where my heart and soul is after two years being there in my overseas training. I’m so grateful for the path that it has led me, and even for the nine years of formation, which I think has helped me grow in so many ways, into a new person. And this is not the end of formation, formation continues through life, and I still have places to grow and so forth now as a priest. But the journey has been long but I’m very grateful for where it has led me, and I can say it all started back in my home and it led me here.

 

Have you ever reached out to the former pastor that you saw in EWTN and shared the story with him?

 

Jonathan Hill
The pastor, no, although we did have some people from EWTN had come to my home parish, and I don’t remember … Oh, I think they were members of the community that runs the program or runs the TV network. And I shared my story, and he had suggested that I come on, but I never did, to that program because he thought it would be a good story as well. So, that was the only connection I would have had there with him.

 

So, you did your OTP in Tanzania.

 

Jonathan Hill
Right.

 

Did you experience any kind of transformative experience there or did any specific event happen that made you want to go back to Tanzania once you were ordained?

 

Jonathan Hill
Yeah, so my overseas training was in 2015 to ’17, bit I first went to Africa in 2014, and I was doing a program in the Maryknoll Institute of African studies there, which was basically a master’s level month long course of field research, and I was studying African traditional religions. But in that process, I also went to South Sudan for for two weeks and then to Tanzania for two weeks. Well, I was kind of ambivalent about Africa as a region to go back to until the final two weeks in Tanzania. And there I was in Dar es Salaam, and I made friends with some young guys in the parish who brought me into their families. I felt connected. Oftentimes it can be that if you’re from the United States, if you’re white, if you’re a part of the church, you’re held to such high and different esteem. I felt like one of them in Tanzania, one of them with young guys, not necessarily treated so different and standoffish, in that sense. That connection, that relationship made me want to go back. And so when I went back, I didn’t go back to Dar es Salaam, but I went back to Mwanza on the other side of the country, and they’re getting involved in the parish work. I had 60 altar servers that I was working with daily and who never left me alone. I loved it and it was challenging at the same time.

 

Were these boys and girls?

 

Jonathan Hill
Boys and girls.

 

Boys and girls. What are the age ranges?

 

Jonathan Hill
Probably 12 to 17.

But I would just spend time with them, but also I was training them to serve the altar, but then I would bring them out daily a small group to go and visit the homebound or the elderly, the sick in their homes. I would bring them to their different jumuia, which was the small Christian communities that would meet on Saturdays, getting that connection beyond just serving the altar. And I loved it, and I loved visiting the people in their homes. I loved every aspect of it. I loved the liturgy. Like, “Yeah, I can really see myself doing this for my life.” And I just fell more deeply in love with Tanzania then. The food, the culture, the music, the people, every aspect of it was something that for me was calling me home. And as I left, I was telling the leaders of the parish that I’m leaving about but I’m leaving my heart here. I truly felt that because I’ve been gone two years but my heart remained there. And interestingly enough, my Swahili is better now than when I left because I would use a social media to contact and talk with people over there every day in Swahili. And so at least my street Swahili is better. I don’t know about my liturgical Swahili, but my street Swahili is better in that sense. So yeah. So for me, this is like going home. I leave within three weeks back there. Even though I’m now back in Dar es Salaam again, I will probably be back in Mwanza as well at some point. It’s like a homecoming for me and I’m so excited to go back.

 

Will you be doing the same kind of ministry?

 

Jonathan Hill
Well, so I’ll be in a different place but I’m going to be an assistant pastor at a parish, so I will be doing the same kind of ministry working in outstations, which are small churches where a priest is not always present, but we would go and visit these places because people often have to walk to church. So, outstations are how they can have services nearby when they’re farther away from the main church, so doing services there. For me, it’s just I am so excited now that I’m a priest to be able to be what the people need me to be. For me, service is the main thing, being a servant to the people. And so I can go to the outstations and offer them a mass when they haven’t had it in a month or so. And even as I can more often perhaps now, go to the homes and give them the, not only Holy Communion, but the anointing of the sick. It’s so fulfilling what they need me to be. I’m so excited about that aspect. Well, also I still love working with youth and kids, and so looking at ways of doing that. But I’m also tying into a small orphanage. Ever since Mother Theresa, I was wanting to do work with an orphanage, but I didn’t want to necessarily have to start my own and everything down there. But this is a small one. There’s about six kids. It’s a a little bit of a drive away, not too far from Dar es Salaam. I can go and visit, I can offer some financial support, and the group is Muslim, so it also offers an opportunity for inter-religious dialogue, and the young guy who is running the place is open to also having Christian kids there and raising them in their faith, right? So, this will then tie us into a kind of a partnership aspect as well if that opportunity arises. So, there’s many opportunities there with that that I can do and not have to devote myself full-time to it as well. So, I’m excited about the prospects and the possibilities, and most important is giving back there too.