[After I posted my conversion story, Gina sent me hers. I thought it was wonderful and asked her permission to share it with our readers. With her gracious permission, here is Gina’s story.–Julie]
I am afraid my conversion is not an especially remarkable story, but I think that most peoples’ search for the truth is not; it is instead a slow turning, a reconciling yourself to things that you had not before supposed, a gradual distilling on the soul.
My early memories and impressions of the church are brief. My mother’s embarrassment at only having caffienated soft drinks in the house to offer the mother of a friend that was playing at my home who unexpectedly turned out to be Mormon. The time that I was one of a bunch of junior high girls at a slumber party huddled around a ouija board that was unexpectedly working, and the one Mormon in the bunch trying to strike up a religious discussion with the spirit in the spirit world.
And then, my first real boyfriend. I was fourteen years old, and could not have fallen harder in love with everything about him. As for myself, I was just beginning high school and well versed in the nuances of what we called the “alternative” scene. I owned lots of sexy black clothes, t-shirts with Robert Smith and Morrisey on them, Joy Division bootlegs, a growing appreciation for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the obligatory disdain for all “mainstreamers.” Given such preferences, this was an unlikely boyfriend. He was semi-redneck and drove an old, beat-up white pick-up truck, was a huge Rush fan, and as many intelligent high schoolers, an Ayn Rand devotee. And a Mormon. For the first dreamy, emotional while, we were so drawn to each other it seemed certain we would one day marry. But to my shock, he explained a few days later that we couldn’t marry; he had to marry a Mormon in a temple so he could be sealed to her, and even if I was a great person, I didn’t qualify. To this point, our conversations about religion had mostly been limited to a long, confusing rambling he had subjected me to about a ship coming to America full of people from Jerusalem, some became wicked and their skins turned black, and then most everyone died. It seemed unlikely and racist, and made little impression on me. A religion that would be so exclusionary to only allow its members to be sealed to others of its own faith seemed a further confirmation that this was a strange church I didn’t want to have much to do with. And then the traumatic breakup several months later, the wild emotions, and it was over.
But not really. He had a best friend, Trevor, also a Mormon. We became genuine friends, and occasionally spoke about religion. I remember one time telling him that I thought it was silly for Mormons to not be able to drink decaffeinated coffee. Expecting some logical defense, he took me completely by surprise by simply stating that sometimes in matters of faith, you do something simply because you follow leaders that you believe are inspired. You don’t need reasons or proofs; just their counsel is enough. I cannot emphasize how significantly this stuck me. At this point, I was a pretentious teenager, over-confident in my wisdom and knowledge of things of importance. I assumed that everyone, as I did, saw religion as a convenient moral teacher. I believed in a God, but not revealed religion. It had not occurred to me in my naivety that someone I thought highly of would think differently than I did; to do things not only because they made sense, but because of genuine faith in the transformative power of obedience.
I grew up Catholic, and sadly was probably fairly representative of many modern American Catholics. My mother, sister, and I went to mass on Sundays or Saturday evening and I was beginning classes for confirmation. My family said a brief prayer before dinner together, but otherwise rarely spoke of God, read the Bible, or discussed spirituality. I usually spent the car ride home after church picking apart the homily from mass in my self-impressed way. As I began confirmation classes, I became even more disillusioned. The other students seemed as unfounded in matters of faith as I was; oddly, the classes were organized as pseudo-debates about moral issues. Even such fundamental questions as drug and alcohol use and premarital sex were discussed as if our church had no substantial or unquestionable positions. It was, to me, unacceptably galling. All the day long I lived in a world of moral relativism among my peers, and I went to these classes searching out the right way to live, looking for the water in the desert that seemed to sustain my Protestant, and especially Mormon, friends. I stopped attending classes and politely told the teachers that I would not be confirmed a Catholic.
This was a gesture of sincerity, not rejection, on my part. I genuinely began to long for the truth and power of faith that I knew many had found before me. I became even more serious, avoiding the frivolity of the high school cafeteria by hiding out in the girls’ locker room during lunch so I could read Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky. I shed my black clothes and withdrew from organized social groups, instead handpicking my associations from those I deemed genuine and sincere. I was lonely, but so, I thought, were all great searchers of truth. Trevor invited our friend Wendy and me to go to church with him; it was a fast and testimony meeting, and all I remember of Sacrament meeting was that my old boyfriend blessed the sacrament, and the sound of his voice pierced me through. Two of the young women had been in a minor but frightening car accident that week, and the most lasting impression I had of that day was the odd sensation of being in the Young Women’s room, and Wendy and I being the only two people that weren’t crying as young women and leaders tearfully bore testimonies that sounded foreign to us. I began rising a half hour earlier before school each day to read the Bible.
One evening in the fall of 1993, the doorbell rang, and there was Trevor with the Mormon missionaries. They were just in the neighborhood, he explained, and thought they’d stop by. Could they come in? And thus began my first real encounter with the doctrine of the Mormon Church. I found it glorious. My attraction was very intellectual on the surface; it was how I knew how to interact with ideas. But I also wrote, “The missionaries have been coming and telling me about their religion and I have been praying a lot about it, and I really do feel that it is the true church.” I was trying to feel, and decided at their invitation to fast and pray. I don’t remember what their exact invitation was, but knowing what I do now, it was probably to know if these things they had taught me were true–if Joseph Smith actually saw God the Father and Jesus Christ, and if the Book of Mormon was true. But I fasted and prayed instead to know what I should do–if I should join the church or not. Towards the end of my fast I took a walk outside alone. We lived just through the woods from the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is so beautiful in fall. The day was cold and sharp and I pondered and wandered. I remember feeling that joining such a church was extreme, and part of me desired to remain uninhibited by the label of a religion, but even as I felt these things I knew I was justifying myself in wrong. When I thought about joining the church, I felt free and that I was yielding to the truth, and when I thought not, I felt I was turning from the light. And that was the entirety of my experience. There was no drama, but the way was clear before me. I knew that joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would draw me closer to the truth.
I spoke with my parents about my desire to be baptized. My father, a man also wary of organized religion, did not forbid it, but strongly encouraged me to wait upon such a weighty decision, perhaps until I was a little older. I did not argue, or even disagree. I felt no urgency to be baptized; I merely felt that I knew which way the truth lay for me. I was very much drawn to the ideas, not necessarily the efficacy of the ordinances the church could offer, and so I did not feel much lost. I merely kept reading the Book of Mormon, loving much of the doctrine I found there. I knew that I could call to ask any number of friendly people for a ride to church, and if they had called me I would almost certainly have accepted. But I was haunted by the voice of my old boyfriend blessing the sacrament. Although it was over a year since we had broken up, I still missed him more than I liked to admit, and yearned to hear that voice. I was very wary of mixing a weighty matter of eternal truth with the desire to see an old boyfriend, so I was reluctant to take initiative to attend church and muddy the waters in my mind. So I studied on my own, content.
The summer of 1994 before my senior year of high school, I attended a month-long summer program for several hundred high school kids at the University of Richmond. You can imagine the social chaos and stress as hundreds of teenagers simultaneously tried to define themselves to each other. I was overwhelmed and annoyed, unsure of how or where I wanted to fit in and sorry I couldn’t seem to rise above the social Darwinism of high school. I felt alone, and retreated to safety of ideas, books, and the library, where I found the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Again, I was immersed in the ideas and doctrine that I loved, but now without the friendly but awkward 19-year-old intermediaries in a white shirts and ties. I spent much of my free time there reading, and felt a reawakening of my desire to actually join myself to this church. Someone’s parents had arranged for a shuttle to take Mormon kids to church on Sundays during this program, so I was able to attend church again for four weeks. My attendance at that ward is the first time I remember feeling the spirit at a church meeting.I knew this was where I wanted to be.
Upon returning home, I received my driver’s license and the use of a car, and was thus free to again attend church without relying on other ward members. I started going to church, and even early morning Seminary where we studied the Book of Mormon. But the feeling grew within me that I should make this official and actually be baptized into the church, so I spoke with my father again, asking if I could now be baptized. He said it would be fine if I was sure this was what I wanted. The next Sunday I mentioned to my friend Laura that I was going to be baptized, and to my surprise she was ecstatic. What seemed to me a mere gesture, she recognized for a covenant, and insisted we go tell the missionaries right away. The missionaries in our ward, both different from those who had taught me the original discussions, almost fell over, one exclaiming that this was the best day of his entire mission. We set a baptism date for two Saturdays from then, and a time for them to begin teaching me the discussions again.
My baptism day came without much of the indecision and difficulty that seems to plague many converts. I was excited and happy, especially that my family could be there with me. To my friend Trevor, now on a mission to Chile, I wrote, “Being confirmed was incredible. I have never felt the spirit so strongly. I thought I was going to float away I felt so light.”
And so it began, my journey in this church. The lightness sometimes returns, the confirmation that all is well and that I am, in deed, drawing closer to God. My start, inevitably, is mingled with the many experiences of being fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen years old; the wonder, the sincerity, the arrogance, the insecurities. I am grateful that at such a precarious time in my life, full of so many crossroads, God reached out in small but real ways to start me down such a blessed path, so full of growth and joy and hope.