While interviewing Gary Zimak about his new book, Find a Real Friend in Jesus: Ten Amazingly Easy Steps, I found a fascinating backstory of how a conversion experience propelled him into a career as a full-time Catholic evangelist.
Nancy: How did God guide you into a career as a Catholic evangelist rather than another career?
Gary: As you know I speak a lot about overcoming anxiety. One of the things about me is that I’m not the bravest person in the world. I’ve never been someone who wanted to be in business for myself. I always wanted the bi-weekly paycheck. These are not the qualities that a full-time evangelist would typically have.
After my conversion took place in 2004, I started wanting to get more involved in my parish. As I learned more about the Lord, I said, “I’ve got to share this with other people.” I got involved with my parish by teaching catechism classes.
Then I felt moved to create my website, www.followingthetruth.com. As this went on, as I got to know Christ more and share him on a limited level with people, I wanted to share him on a greater level. I got this crazy idea that I wanted to do this full time. I wondered, “Where is this coming from?”
My wife and I talked this over, and I said, “You know honey, if I just quit my job, that’s crazy! What if I’m wrong?“ I felt the Lord calling me. (I wrote a lot about going through this journey in my book Faith, Hope and Clarity.) I prayed, “Lord, let me work for you full time.” My wife prayed. I thought it was going to be through a Church, a diocese or something like that but nothing was coming about.
EWTN saw my website and invited me to do some Catholic radio part time. I was still working my full- time secular job until January of 2012 when I got laid off for the first and only time in my life.
My wife, God bless her, said, “Gary, I don’t know if you will ever get this chance again. Why don’t you give it a shot and see what happens?”
That was without any speaking engagements on the books or any way to make any income. I went from six figures to no guaranteed income. It was a process, but little by little the Lord led me along. I tried some things; some things started working, but it was challenging. What happened? The Lord really kicked me out of the boat, and I needed that.
Nancy: Tell me about your conversion and that defining moment when you realized God loved you personally, and you gave him your life?
Gary: Tough question but I know when it happened. As a cradle Catholic, I went to Mass every Sunday but for most of my life, I went through the motions. I thought “All I’m supposed to do is go to Church,” and my life was about pleasing me.
My big conversion experience began in 2004 when I suffered medical symptoms. I was always worried about my health, yet the doctors didn’t know what was wrong with me. One test led to another, and they thought I might have some sort of lymphoma. They saw some enlarged lymph nodes in my abdomen — and that’s cancer! I panicked and really made it a point to find Jesus because I thought I was dying.
I originally wanted to get to know him and get to know the teachings of the Church because I didn’t want to have to face him and be judged, knowing that I’m a lousy Catholic. But what happened in the next several months is that I got to know Jesus on a personal level. And he and I became friends. Our friendship shifted from me wanting him to serve me and help me, to him bringing peace to me and my wanting to serve him.
Several months later my symptoms vanished! The lymph nodes went down in size. The doctors never knew what was wrong with me.
Nancy: Did you go through a period of discernment, counseling or some particular devotion?
Gary: Just prior to the layoff, I consecrated my life to Jesus through Mary. That total consecration was a big step for me. I expected the Blessed Mother to lead me somewhere; I just didn’t expect it to be through a job layoff!
It was amazing. When I got laid off, as I said, I was torn between getting another traditional job and somehow working for the Lord. I was collecting unemployment, putting some resumes out there, while trying to become a paid speaker. My spiritual director said, “Gary, you’re doing the right thing. Of course, you have to support your family.”
As time went on, I saw through circumstances how the Lord was sending me people who encouraged me and sent me work as an evangelist. I prayed throughout the day, went to daily Mass. The Lord has been leading me ever since then.
I think a lot of times the Lord does speak through circumstances. If he wants me to be a full-time speaker then eventually he’s going to send me some speaking engagements. That’s what was happening on a gradual basis.
Nancy: How did your spiritual life change?
Gary: I started going to daily Mass, and that has been such a tremendous help to me. If you want to get to know Jesus, one of the best things you can do is go to daily Mass. Once I started doing that my life changed.
I’ve been at this, as a full-time Catholic speaker and author, for four and one-half years. I look back on my books, and I wouldn’t change anything I wrote. Even though I was writing what I think the Holy Spirit wanted me to say, I don’t know if I was necessarily living it as much as I am now. I feel this call to become a better person. That’s the one thing that is really hitting me.
As I go out and I speak about Jesus, I don’t want to live a different life than what I teach. I’m called to be more patient, more charitable, and to do things I don’t necessarily want to do. That‘s the fruit of my ministry. It’s causing me to seek perfection. I have a long way to go but I’m trying to be better and it’s affecting my whole family as well.
Nancy: It seems you were writing and speaking prophetically, not just what you wanted for others but what you aspire to do and struggle to become. Is that how you see it?
Gary: You can struggle with writing or speaking and realize you’re not feeling or living this as much as you should. If you have a good prayer life, a good relationship with the Lord, you realize there are changes you have to make in your own life. Sometimes I feel my writing and my speaking are addressed to me. I hear the Holy Spirit speaking, and I say, “Yeah, I need to do this!“ The Holy Spirit teaches us through our writing. That’s one of the beautiful things about what we do. It’s a spiritual journey. It’s not just being a writer or a speaker; it’s this relationship journey we are on with the Lord, as we grow through our ministry.
Nancy: Many people want to work full time for the Lord, but few can do that. It must take a tremendous act of faith every day to go out there and not know if your income will be enough.
Gary: Especially for someone who is prone to anxiety! I’m starting to get how this works. I’ve been at the edge of the cliff so many times. I have sat in Adoration and said, “Lord, I don’t want to do this if you don’t want me to. Please let it fall apart if it’s not your will.” He never lets it fall apart. I still struggle. We live month-to-month and homeschool as well, so I’m the breadwinner, but we’re getting by one month at a time. It’s a process but now I’m realizing how he works. Through all this, my family and I are learning to trust more in God’s providence, so it’s bearing fruit in so many different ways.
Nancy: What prompted you to write Find A Real Friend In Jesus?
Gary: I always feel like the Holy Spirit prompts me to write these books. I knew Jesus, but I didn’t know him as well as I wanted to. I recognized that so many Catholics have a problem with their personal relationship with Jesus. For whatever reason, it is not something that comes naturally, especially to cradle Catholics. We think it’s a Protestant thing; we don’t ask, “How do I get to know Jesus?” I took it to the Lord, spent some time in Adoration, and prayed, “Lord, I want to get to know you better. I feel like writing this book would help.”
Then I wanted to share the message. I was able to get a contract for the book. Through writing it, I grew much closer to Christ. It was a great spiritual experience for me.
Nancy: One of the features in Find a Real Friend in Jesus is the promise we can all have a real friendship with Jesus through encounters with him. Then you put the readers into the lives of biblical characters who had brief encounters with him. What responses do you get from this exercise?
Gary: I’m a big fan of the Bible, and I read it every day. I like to look at these encounters, especially in my own life. When I look at what happens with people, Jesus and me, I just get more excited to really get to know him on a deeper personal level.
The response has been good. It’s a technique I like to use in my life and when I speak as well. I want the listeners or readers to be aware that if you have a personal encounter with Christ, your life is not going to be the same.
When I go out — and especially when I speak about anxiety — I’m totally confident that if whoever is listening to me speak or reading my books starts talking to Jesus, I know that the Lord is going to come through. Changes will happen in their life, even if I don’t know them personally, I know Jesus personally and I know what’s going to happen.
Nancy: How did the sacraments influence your choice of the Ten Amazingly Easy Steps that are the framework of the book?
Gary: The sacraments are huge because I realize that I need grace. I have a tendency to try to control things. That doesn’t work in our lives. It’s not going to help get us to heaven. We can’t force ourselves not to worry or to be peaceful. As you know, I’ve seen daily Mass have an incredible effect in my life. I try to let people know the power of receiving Holy Communion every day whenever possible. It’s an incredible opportunity for us to grow in virtue. I can’t do it alone, but with the Lord and the grace he sends through the sacraments, great things can happen.
Also, the Sacrament of Confession helps me tremendously, especially in overcoming the sins I commit over and over. I commit them less frequently now, I still have a lot of work to do, but the grace I received in Confession is incredibly powerful.
I want to use all the graces of the sacraments. I use the grace of the Sacrament of Marriage with my wife and children every day in the challenges we face. So I’m a big believer in grace.
I realize that when I was baptized and confirmed I received the Holy Spirit, and I have the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. I’m at a point now that I want to get to know the Holy Spirit better. I see a book coming, because the Holy Spirit is a mystery to so many people.
I have these graces, and I’m not using them. I know the Holy Spirit can do much better work in my life, and I am now focused on that. I’ve tried to force writing a book, with no success. I don’t consider myself a natural writer. I depend on the Lord and the Holy Spirit to inspire me.
Nancy: Where does the Body of Christ fit into our relationship with Jesus?
Gary: Jesus wants us to have a personal relationship with him, but he doesn’t want us to do it alone. He wants us to do it in community as part of the Body of Christ. I wanted to emphasize in the book that we are not meant to have a “me and Jesus” relationship exclusively. It’s more than that. Christ founded a Church, and he’s active in his Church, speaks through his Church, and wants us to be a part of his Church. If I take the me-and-Jesus mentality too far, I can start to believe things that conflict with his Church. When that happens, we create our own version of Jesus. If you want to get close to Christ, you need to do it through his Church.
Nancy: What’s the main principle you want your readers to take away from Find a Real Friend in Jesus?
Gary: That Jesus wants to be our friend. That if I don’t accept his offer of friendship, he’ll be sad because he has a human heart. He can feel emotions. If everyone else in the world accepts his offer of friendship and I don’t, that’s going to hurt him. He really loves me so much that he’ll feel sad if I don’t become his friend. That makes me feel loved. It makes me want to respond. That’s the real message.
A side message is that it is possible to have a personal relationship with Jesus. Many people sitting next to us in church don’t know that’s possible. They have such anxiety, and yet walking with him every day can alleviate so much of that.
When we have a relationship with Christ, we have a desire to bring souls to Christ. Once I had that personal encounter with Jesus Christ, I wanted to share him with others. And that’s been the quest for 12 years now. It’s been trying to get to know Christ as good as I possibly can and share him with others. That desire in me just grows and grows. I just can’t quit doing what I’m doing.
Gary Zimak is the author of several books, including Find A Real Friend In Jesus: Ten Amazing Steps. He is a frequent speaker at parishes and conferences and is recognized as the leading Catholic speaker on overcoming anxiety. In addition to hosting his daily radio show on BlogTalkRadio, Gary is a regular guest on EWTN television and radio. His website is www.followingthetruth.com.