What do we know about the covert life of our members? Take Irma.
She was around sixty when I, a young convert, got to know her. Each Sunday morning she shuffled from the front door to her chair in the living room we called our chapel. Always the same seat, third row on the right. She sat down, her chest heaving. It would take her a few minutes to ease down. The creases on her face exuded an elemental sadness. Her dress, outmoded, hung over her knees, but unable to hide the webs of varicose veins on her swollen lower legs. She had the portly contour of the worn-out female worker, tenacious but tired, fed for years on cheap fatty rations. She was from a submissive generation.
– Good morning. Good to see you, Irma.
She nodded slowly, a little dazed, pleased to be recognized.
We knew she had a problem. Coffee. It was obvious from her sporadic questions in Sunday School or Relief Society.
– Can coffee keep someone out of heaven?
– What if someone obeys all the commandments, except coffee?
Irma had been baptized quite a few years ago. She belonged to that group of early Antwerp pioneers, a leftover of immersions in the city’s swimming pool, by missionaries long gone. The details of her conversion were scant. Her husband did not join. Still, he had given permission for her baptism, but never attended Church. Irma had made clear that home or visiting teachers were out of the question.
Her faith was simple and straightforward. In any lesson, when questions were so clear-cut to be unanswerable for those who thought to be wise, she was the one to respond promptly, with the echoing orderliness of the Catholic catechism she remembered from her childhood years:
– Why is it important that we obey God’s commandments?
– It is important because they come from God.
– How do we know they come from God?
– We know because it’s said in the Bible.
But that coffee problem remained. More than once the teacher, spurred on to act upon the needs of the individual, prepared a special lesson on the Word of Wisdom. About the evil chemicals in coffee. The diseases it fostered. About David O. McKay politely but firmly refusing the cup of tea the Dutch Queen offered him. The touchstone of our commitment. Irma listened, hunching up on her chair, soaking in the words. We knew she got the message.
When I was called as branch president, I interviewed her. She looked down, avoiding eye contact, as if sitting in a confessional struggling with guilt, and evaded answers. I was too young, twenty-three, too innocent to be able to probe behind the weathered face.
One night, not long after the interview, I got a phone call. It was her daughter. As she introduced herself, I sensed the same limitations as Irma’s. She spoke in dialect, trying to sanitize vowels into proper Dutch. It sounded clumsy.
– You’re the Mormon priest, aren’t you?
Sad news, she said. Mother has been hit by a car while crossing the street. Killed instantly.
I scrambled for the right words.
– Don’t feel sorry, she said. It’s better for her. You know what I mean.
– I… I am not sure I knew her that well.
– You know my father is a beast. Mom must have told you.
It all came out. Irma had bargained her permission to be baptized at the expense of increased abuse. It was the first time in my life I heard the raw details of the evil hidden behind tidy doors.
– And then there was that thing with coffee.
– I know, I said naively.
– Yeah, he forced her. That was the deal: on Sundays, he wouldn’t let her go to your church, unless she first drank coffee with him. He knew how to get her. But she loved you people. You’ve been good to her.
Irma got a Catholic funeral. Her husband refused any other arrangement. A day after the burial a handful of us went to the cemetery to bid our own adieu. I dedicated the grave — that her body may rest undisturbed till the morning of the first resurrection. Next to the temporary black cross planted in the churned up soil we laid a modest wreath. On the ribbon it said: “From the Mormons, To a Saint.”
Irma, up there in glory, forgive us for not having understood, for not having searched for more inspiration. And, at least in your case, for the inept lessons on coffee.