The reason that I don’t like to tell my conversion story is that it is boring. If I were to appropriate the famous Joseph Smith line, I would have to modify it thusly: “No man knows my history. . . . I don’t blame any one for not staying awake through my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I could not have stayed awake through it myself.” So don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I was raised in a very good, very normal, very happy family by a mother who was vaguely Catholic but only went to mass after natural disasters and an agnostic father. By age 14, I was a card-carrying atheist. (I actually attended a social with Madalyn Murry O’Hair, but that’s another story.)
When I was in high school, I began dating a boy, Jonathan, who was a member of the Church. I would occasionally ask him questions because I found it fascinating that an otherwise rational person could talk to me with a straight face about three parts of heaven, angels with gold plates, and the evils of drink. At this time, I was heavily involved in speech and debate and an important part of that little subculture is summer debate camp. I saved somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand dollars from my after-school job at McDonald’s so that I could spend three weeks at the University of Michigan’s debate camp. At the airport, Jonathan gave me a gift. I unwrapped it on the plane and was disappointed to find a Book of Mormon. (Not a missionary edition, by the way, but a triple with his name embossed on the cover.) I stuffed it in my bag and went back to reading A Prayer for Owen Meany. I was excited about my cross-country adventure and a little nervous about my first major event away from home. I was a little disappointed that, out of the hundreds of debaters in three- or four-person dorm rooms, I had somehow been assgined a private room. No matter.
Debate camps are divided into working groups. I was pleased to find myself in the group led by the debate coach from none other than Harvard. (I had, at the time, the same starry-eyed awe of Harvard that I think most kids growing up in upper-middle class suburbs have.) I imagine that the Internet and the availability of laptops has changed everything that I remember about debate, but back in the olden days, debate camp meant lectures on theory and, mostly, time spent researching, making copies, and cutting and pasting briefs for use in competitions. Everyone in the group would get a copy of everyone else’s briefs to take home. Debaters would then lug file boxes full of these briefs to competitions to whip out in the heat of the contest. (To understand how important these things were, I will tell you that I, in all seriousness, asked my father if I could take six file boxes on our ski trip because I was afraid to leave them home alone.)
Anywho, one day found me with my fifteen or so group members–and the Harvard coach–happily cutting and pasting in a classroom. Two or three of the copies that I was working on had been incorrectly copied and were unreadable. I threw them away. A few days later, a member of our group found hundreds of pages of copies and briefs in the trash can. I was blamed, because I had been seen throwing some things away.
The debate coach from Harvard University wanted me sent home.
I was horrified. I was terrified. I was alone. It was Saturday. I didn’t know what to do. We had a group meeting the next morning. The only excuse for not being there was . . . if you were at church.
So it was obviously time for me to find religion. But which one? Seeing Jonathan’s triple, I decided the Mormons would be as useful as any for my purposes. Their address was listed in the welcome package. This could work.
So I went. I couldn’t believe that a normal-looking person was talking about Jesus spitting in mud. Whatever. By the time I got back, my fate had been decided: I was being demoted to a group run by some yahoo out of the University of Kansas or something, but at least I wasn’t being sent home in disgrace.
I puttered the rest of my time there, not really motivated to create the best briefs possible, not sure that I could salvage my reputation in the debating world once I got home anyway. I skipped meetings to sit on the grass and read Owen Meany.
One night, I was in my little hovel-room, watching lightning. I thought, “God’s power is amazing.”
What the hell was that? I don’t think that way.
But I knew it was true. Right there. That God existed. (The rest–the mud on the eyes, the angel and the plates–took a little longer.) I started spending more time in the grass, alternating my reading between the Book of Mormon and Owen Meany. Will you think me disrespectful-bordering-on-blasphemous if I tell you that Owen was nearly as instrumental in my conversion as Nephi was? I started praying. I went back to the little emaciated branch that met at the Institute the next week. When I got home, I told Jonathan that I wanted him to baptize me. He said that I had to talk to the missionaries first. I went through several sets of sisters and was baptized in the Spring of 1992.
I think the only interesting thing about my story is that I wasn’t looking for anything. I could hardly have had worse motives for going to Church that morning if I had tried. And where exactly did that reaction to the lightning come from? I wasn’t responsible for that. I didn’t find religion; it found me. Why? And why doesn’t that happen to everyone else?
I can’t believe you read this far. Please share your conversion story in the comments, if you are so inclined.