I need to preface the remarks that follow about my conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My mother converted to Catholicism in her early twenties after marrying my dad (raised as a Protestant, but by then an agnostic, and someone not exactly crazy about “God” after what he’d witnessed in Germany during WWII). My mother wanted us to choose our own paths but raised us as Catholics because that was her religion. Interestingly enough, not one of the four of us were baptized after birth or at any other time growing up. If you look at the doctrine of Catholicism, baptizing children as soon as possible after birth is critical to their salvation. My mother’s desire to have us choose our own path? That we did. My oldest brother served in the Peace Corp in Nepal for nearly five years, and converted to Buddhism while there, still practicing that philosophy as he nears age sixty in 2010. A side note here: my brother came home and married Yvette, a wonderful woman with a rich Jewish heritage! My mother was beyond thrilled; she never expected our family make up to include someone Jewish! (You can’t make this stuff up…!)
My other brother has lead a tough life battling manic-depression, and is now making up all the time he’d lost before being properly medicated near age 30. He now lives with his wife and son. He does not practice any specific religion, but is one of the greatest Christians I’ve ever known. He would literally give you the shirt off your back.
My sister, two years older than I, told me in 4th grade that she wanted to be a Catholic nun; little did we know she was serious! She lives in a Catholic order, Madonna House, and in 1983 she took her final vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and served as the House Director in Brazil for 18 years before returning several years ago to Ontario Canada where she began her service.
When my niece, Emily, had her “bat mitzvah”, my brother had asked my mom if she could at least write a letter to Emily for me to read to the congregation, as my mother’s heart condition would not allow her to fly from Utah to New Hampshire. I stood in the congregation, with my prayer shawl and yarmulke on my head, and read, : “Dear Emily, here I sit, the Catholic grandmother, writing a letter at the request of my Buddhist son, to be read at the bat mitzvah of his Jewish daughter, to be read by her Mormon aunt!”. Needless to say, the congregation enjoyed that irony immensely! Like I said before, you can’t make this stuff up….
And so now we come to the baby of the family- me. I grew up in the early -70s, a tumultuous time in U.S. history, and in our family. My oldest brother’s draft number was below 100 and the options of going to jail or Canada instead of Viet Nam did not sit well with my father, a member of “the greatest generation”. So things were not pretty at our house. And I was not in any way, shape, or form looking for religion. I wasn’t exactly “the type”. My mother had allowed us to “stop” going to church for Sunday mass when we were around twelve years old. It was 1974 and we, like other kids in that era, were up to some mischief- lying to our parents, drinking, “experimenting”, etc., and I wanted no part of being at home. As Joseph Smith said in his history, “no one need suppose me guilty of serious sin”; but I was headed for trouble.
All I knew about Mormons was that our Homecoming Queen at Catalina High School in Tucson, AZ, was beautiful, well-liked, and Mormon. Surely she wasn’t Mormon happily. Obviously her parents made her be Mormon. It was a cult, right? She was the only Mormon I knew, but what I knew about this “cult” was that they occasionally had to live on whatever food they had in their house until their prophet called from Salt Lake City and said they could shop again.
Huh?? (That was my version of the Church’s food storage program- incredibly ridiculous. But then I had also heard that Mormons couldn’t dance or drink root beer. Again, huh?? It always strikes me funny after all these years that the Church holds countless Church dances, especially for the youth. We dance a lot. And even funnier? We drink a lot of root beer!)
So this was my state of mind at the time. I had had a casual discussion with my sister that spring, after I had turned 16, about maybe getting baptized in the Catholic church because maybe I needed to practice “something”. She wisely advised me not to get baptized just to please my mom and dad, that it wasn’t a big deal to them if I did or didn’t. I kind of shrugged off the advice, agreeing with her that that was a dumb reason to do it!
Soon after that discussion, I met a girl in my choir class at school. She just seemed to stand out from all the rest of the sopranos and altos. I knew I’d never seen her at a “beer party”, or heard her swear, or had seen her engage in the adolescent gossip we all enjoyed so much. I feel now that what I was seeing was the light of Christ in her eyes. We quickly became friends. On a Monday night after school I called and asked if she wanted to play tennis (this was close to June and no one plays tennis before 9pm, when the temperature drops to an acceptable level of 90 to 95 degrees…). She replied that she couldn’t because of “Family Home Evening”. When I asked what that meant, she said it was the one night of the week where the whole family stayed home and played games and did things together. When I replied, and I remember the words (or word) exactly: “gross!!” She indicated to me that she liked spending time with her family., to which I replied, “I hate my family!” That interaction stayed with me for more than a few days, as I wondered if everybody came from a family more fun that mine.
During this same time, I played on our high school softball team with my best friend who had been raised as a Baptist. One day after practice she said she was going to the Mormon church that night. Having just recently met my choir friend, I was intrigued why a Baptist would be going to a Mormon activity! She said, “if we go to this ‘Mutual’ thing twice a month, we can play ball all summer!” (Mutual is the youth program for young men and young women of the Church.) Well, that sounded like a great deal to me! So off we went. (The Church at the time allowed two non-Mormons to play on a team as long as they attended the youth program twice a week.)
As happens, I started dating Mormon boys. And wow, were they a class a higher than who I’d been hanging out with! They were opening doors for me, they didn’t swear, they were positive. they were respectful. And fun! In fact, I had more fun sober with them than I’d ever had with guys who’d been drinking and doing drugs! (Isn’t this ironic that the young men of the Church helped pave my way into the Church and thirty five years later, I still haven’t found one to marry!)
I began to date one in particular, two years older than I was, and preparing to leave for two years as a missionary in the next few months. We were swimming at my friend’s pool when a discussion we were having about the Church was the catalyst to my asking, “how can I find out more about your church and your doctrine?”. He indicated I could take a series of twelve lessons on the doctrine taught by the local missionaries of the Church. I’m not sure why I asked “what happens next?” but he told me that then I could be baptized. Whoa, whoa, whoa! Who’s talking about baptism?? He assured me that I didn’t have to be baptized. I could make that decision any time I wanted to or any time I didn’t. That seemed to suffice for me.
So before you know it, I began taking the discussions at his house. Not that my parents minded having them at my house. This was just for logistical reasons. (In fact, after I began the lessons my parents had a supposedly ‘casual’ conversation with me, telling me they wouldn’t mind at all if I decided to be Mormon, that every Mormon they’d ever known were outstanding people. Again, whoa, whoa, whoa! (But gee, whose parents wouldn’t mind their daughter joining a church that frowned on tobacco, alcohol, drugs, sex before marriage, lying and swearing?!)
I enjoyed the doctrine very much since it made absolute sense to me. The missionaries were a little stunned after telling me about the visit of God the Father and His son, Jesus Christ, to 14 year old Joseph Smith in 1820. That I believed it right out of the chute, first thing. I had always felt the same way Joseph Smith felt, that none of the religions I’d known of could have the full truth since the doctrine of each seemed to contradict all the rest. A falling away and a restoration of the Lord’s church seemed as simple as 2 + 2 to me. And I found it comforting as well, to know that Heavenly Father really was ‘behind-the-wheel’.
At the end of the twelve discussions, I completely accepted all of the doctrine and commandments I’d been taught- except for one. I’d read the Book of Mormon from cover to cover- believed it without any doubts. I had even agreed to never touch alcohol, tobacco, coffee or tea for the rest of my life (funny that I made that same commitment to my parents at one time or another, and still did it any way- and here these two twenty-something elders asked, and I never did any of them again). No premarital sex? Not a problem? Go to church three hours every Sunday? Piece of cake. The only remaining doubt I had was regarding black men not being able to hold the priesthood in the Church. It just seemed a little racist to me and I couldn’t get past that, no matter how much I believed all the rest. When I expressed my feelings to Gregg, he smiled and asked if I believed Joseph Smith was a prophet? Absolutely. He asked if I believed the current president of the Church was a prophet. You bet. As an incredibly already wise nineteen year old pre-missionary, he answered, “Then you can’t pick and choose what revelations you’re going to believe in.”
That one statement from a kid preparing for a mission has probably made more of an impact on my testimony in the last thirty five years than anything else has. (Happily, all worthy males of any race or color were extended the rights of the priesthood just four short years later. And look up Gladys Knight‘s comments regarding blacks and the Church- so wise!).
To make this already-long story a little shorter, I accepted the invitation to be baptized, and was baptized by my choir friend’s father two weeks later- just four months after I had the conversation with my sister about religion. I still find my conversion nothing short of a miracle.
My parents spoke at my missionary farewell just five years later, and have always been so supportive of my choice to spend my life among “the Mormons”. And what a wonderful life it’s been!