Happy Friday everyone! Welcome to Part 2.
I grew up with no religious background. My father was raised Roman Catholic and referred to God as “The Man upstairs.” My mother believed in God but said it didn’t matter if we went to church or not.
“If you are a good person, you don’t need to worry,” she said.
What I learned about God, I learned from attending church with my friends. In West Valley, New York, I went to the protestant church with Erin, the Jehovah’s Witnesses with my neighbor Jon, and then to the Catholic Church, with Emily.
We occasionally attend Catholic mass, listen to the priest at the pulpit recite words in Latin, sit in wooden pews, and then on the kneeler. Back on the pew and a couple more times on the kneeler. I follow the rest of the family’s lead. I wonder how those circular wafers taste. I’m not interested in the wine. Emily says I can’t have a wafer because I am not Catholic, so I remain seated while the members go to the altar to partake of the wafer and wine.
The experience I had at Emily’s church was unique. It filled me with a spiritual sense of wanting. I needed to learn more about God, but there wasn’t much I could go on. At the age of 10, I wanted to believe there was someone looking out for me, someone I could talk to when I was having a hard time, but none of the churches I attended made me feel like God was listening. When I think back on this time period in my life, it’s strange that I was that interested in finding a place to worship.
Here’s the continuation of the previous post.
I become friends with Dana, a girl with dark brown eyes, long lashes, thick chestnut hair, and a contagious smile. I meet her family. I see the same smile when I meet her mother and her mother’s mother, and her siblings. She has a younger brother and three younger sisters, one of which is a newborn. Her mother has just finished nursing the baby, and I turn my head in mortification while she covers herself up and adjusts her shirt. I have never been around a nursing mother. She places the baby on the sofa cushion and asks if I wouldn’t mind changing her outfit. I have never changed a baby, let alone been around one. I struggle with putting her tiny arms in the onesie. She begins to fuss. Dana’s mother sees the challenge I’m facing and says not to do it like that. She puts the baby’s arm through the armholes gently. I am embarrassed that I can’t fulfill a simple task. Dana’s sisters run through the house, chasing each other and laughing as they run into their room. Dana turns into the second mom and tells them to stop it.
“Go outside!” she tells them. She shakes her head at them, annoyed, but I think about how fun it would be to have other siblings to interact with. I find myself coming over to her house after school when we have papers to type and print out, using her dad’s computer. My parents have never been interested in owning a computer and think the new technology is a waste of money. They provide me with a typewriter instead. It is not until I am moved out and in college when they decide to purchase one.
Dana is the same girl who was assigned by the woman at the front desk at the start of the school year to show me around to my classes. We are provided a locker, and I struggle the first week with getting the thing to open. I spend my rides home on the bus memorizing how to open the lock. Turn the dial right to the first number, turn the dial left, skip the second number the first time, turn the dial right again, and go to the last number.
The subject of religion comes up when we talk, and she tells me she is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They are LDS for short, but their religion is commonly referred to as Mormonism. Many of the families in the Delta area come from the pioneers that settled in the Salt Lake Valley with Brigham Young. She comes from one of those families. In school, I learn that only a handful of kids are not Mormons (referred to as non-Mormons). In my grade, there’s Billy, Gretchen, and Carlos, who are Catholic. My mother was raised Protestant, and my father grew up Catholic, but I am without a religion. There is an invisible wall that divides us non-Mormons from the Mormons, but it’s there. Mormon kids talk about their ward or how their parent is in the stake presidency. They speak about scripture study and Patriarchal Blessings. They laugh about what happened during Sunday school.
This is how things are around here, and nothing will change that, so I decide to learn about the church that discourages the use of “God” in everyday language. Dana tells me that I must take discussions presented by the Mormon missionaries to become a member. The missionaries are young men between the ages of 19-21 who sacrifice two years of their life in service to the church. The missionaries called to this area, and other parts of Utah know that it is oversaturated with Mormons. Rather than convert people to the religion, they are given the task of bringing inactive members back into the fold. They must convince people who stop going to church to return. They are the mouthpiece of Jesus Christ shepherding His members back into total activity and in charge of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ to unbelievers so they too can have eternal life. When they find out I am interested in learning more about the church, they are thrilled to be teaching a non-believer. I am their eager student. They call me the golden child.
# # #
The missionaries meet with me at my house each Thursday afternoon, right before dinner. We sit in the living room while my father stays in the kitchen reading the local paper. I can hear him rustling the pages now and then. During the first discussion, they provide me with a copy of The Book of Mormon. It is to be used in conjunction with the King James Version of the Holy Bible because this version is the most correct translation. I stare at the book with its soft blue cover and gold foil writing. I open it to the introduction. There is a section already highlighted in yellow for me that reads,
We invite all men everywhere to read the Book of Mormon, to ponder in their hearts the message it contains, and then to ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ if the book is true. Those who pursue this course and ask in faith will gain a testimony of its truth and divinity by the power of the Holy Ghost. (Book of Mormon, vii)
This book is an ancient work from inhabitants of North America, translated from a set of engraved gold plates by the church’s first prophet, Joseph Smith using the Urim and Thummim. I turn the words over in my head. I don’t know what the Urim and Thummim is, and I don’t ask. I file it away in my brain. Maybe I’ll ask Bart. The Book of Mormon and the story about Joseph Smith seem so extraordinary that I believe it must be true. It has to be. How could a boy of 14 create such a grandiose tale? I take their word for it. Why would anyone waste two years of their life volunteering for something that isn’t true? I continue to justify my reasoning because there are so many members. They all can’t all be wrong.
The missionaries tell me that these scriptures will help me throughout my life. They say it is important to read this book each night before I sleep and when I finish it; I have to go back and read it again and again because they say certain verses will have a deeper meaning depending on where I’m at in life. They reiterate the power of prayer and promise that I can receive a confirmation of the truthfulness of what they teach me. I am neither skeptical nor a believer, but I take to the task of reading the pamphlets they provide me each week answering the questions in a notebook. I learn that there is a lot of praying. I need to pray over every meal, when I rise, before I go to sleep and when I make important decisions.
They talk about the Word of Wisdom, a law of health prohibiting the use of alcohol, coffee, teas, and any substance that is habit-forming or destructive. I know I won’t have a problem with the Word of Wisdom and I doubt this will ever be a challenge from where I live. Besides, I’m twelve, and none of these things are issues for me at my age.
At the end of the last discussion, they ask me if I am ready to be baptized. I tell them I believe that the church is true, and I accept the invitation to be baptized, but first, I have to get my parents’ approval since I’m not of legal age to make that decision on my own. A year ago, I didn’t know anything about the Mormons, and now there is nothing more important to me than becoming one. I have limited knowledge about the church and haven’t really received any answer about the truthfulness, but I am tired of being an outsider.
My father tells me he’ll talk to my mother about it. When he does, she asks to speak to me. The last time I spoke to her was at the airport in New York.
“Hi, Mom.” It’s the first time I’ve called her that. I find it juvenile calling her Mommy at this age.
“So, you want to get baptized?” She asks.
Without a hint of hesitation, I say, “Yes, I do.” A flashback from another time comes back to me. These are the exact words I uttered to the dean in the Philippines, four years ago. I don’t want to tell her that I’m doing this to fill in a missing piece in my life. All I have ever wanted is to feel like I belong somewhere. I want to wear nice dresses with my hair perfectly brushed and attend church meetings each Sunday. I want to join in school talk about going to my youth activity at the church, like the other kids in school.
“It is okay with me if that’s what you want to do,” I call the missionaries with approval.
# # #
My father and I drive out to San Francisco to pick her up from the airport. She has lost so much weight. She looks happy and healthy. I squeeze her tight and cannot believe she is here. She takes one look at me and asks my father what happened to me? When she left, my hair was longer, and I didn’t have any acne. She asks my father to stop at the closest drugstore where she purchases acne cream and barrettes for my hair. When we arrive home, I allow her to brush my hair and apply the cream to my face. She shows me the things she has brought home for me, a thin gold necklace with matching earrings and jogging pants sets that I will never wear out of the house because they are childish. I thank her. It is strange having her home again. I have missed this interaction with her. I didn’t realize how much I needed her here with me. Thankfully, after a few weeks, my hair is no longer a helmety mess, and my acne has cleared up considerably.
On the day of my baptism, I have a photo taken of me sandwiched between my parents in the white jumpsuit that I will be baptized in. Dana is also in attendance, and we take a picture together. Moments later, I am baptized as an official member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. This significant event occurs less than a month after my 12th birthday. Dena presents me with another copy of the Book of Mormon. The cover is black with gold foil lettering. The edges are gilded with gold, and the pages are made from rice paper. They make a pleasant crinkling sound when I turn the pages.
Each Sunday, the family that lives around the corner takes me to church. The Larsen’s are a family I wish I had been born into. Dave and Marge are like my church parents. The Larsen’s have six children. Melanie is away at college. Cory is on a mission in the Philippines. Robyn is a sophomore in high school. Layne is my age, Becky is a couple of years younger, and Katie is three. They have a shaggy dog named Peanut. They try to befriend my parents by bringing over homemade bread that Dave makes or desserts from Marge. My parents continue to keep their distance from the Mormons because they have no desire to join the church, and I wonder if they will ever accept the invitation to learn more about it.
# # #
There are nights when I can’t stand indoors, so I come out to look up at the stars. The nights are clear, and I embrace the solitude that I once despised. Life isn’t so terrible in the middle of nowhere. I look down from the sky and over to the Larsen’s. They live in a two-story house with lots of rooms. It’s a Monday night. Since 1915, the church has designated Monday nights as Family Home Evening to strengthen family ties. I can see the blare of their television bouncing off the walls in their family room, knowing they are all together, most likely watching a wholesome family show.
The closest my family comes to time together is watching whatever show my father wants to watch. It’s usually a western with John Wayne or a crass comedy like The Bundy’s. I become more judgmental of my parents as time goes on. They drink coffee and tea. I decline to drink Oolong tea when we go to Chinese restaurants. My parents tell me there’s nothing wrong with tea, and I stop myself short from reciting the scripture about what the church thinks about it. My father likes to drink Guinness with his spaghetti. He has no problems swearing. Every other word is filled with expletives, and I worry about what my friend’s parents might say if they knew. I am taught in the church that swearing is not acceptable. Some of my friend’s parents don’t like it when they say, “What the freak!” because the intent to say the f-word is there.
# # #
On one particular Sunday, I get into an argument with my parents when I came home from church.“Hey Dais, can you run down to the gas station and pick up a gallon of milk?” My father asks smiling ready to hand me the keys. It was an innocent enough request, but for me, it was challenging my belief system. The church strongly discourages shopping on Sundays. If any grocery shopping needed to be done, there were six other days in the week to satisfy that need.
“No,” I replied.
“Because the church doesn’t allow shopping on Sundays,” I say. It was the first time I stood up to my father and I wasn’t backing down. want to keep it that way.
“Well, I’m your father. I thought you were supposed to obey your parents.” He says. I know the commandment, but correcting him right now would make me sound like a smart aleck. I have learned in church that I should honor my parents when the way is correct. In this instance, I know what I should do.
“Dais, just go to the gas station.” My mother pleads. He has a temper and she doesn’t want to hear about it later.
“I’m not going.” My heart is pounding. He looks like he’s going to yell, but stops himself.
“I’ll go my own goddamn self then.” He grabs his keys and he’s out the door. My mother disappears into the kitchen and I retreat to my room. My parents never asked me to run out to the store on a Sunday ever again. I am torn between obeying my parents and obeying the church, but it appears I have chosen to follow the way of the church.
# # #
As I get older, I will learn about the many other things the church leaders encourage the youth to do and what they prohibit. They discourage tattoos and body piercings. Dating is permissible after the age of 16. There is no swearing, and I am to remain chaste until I get married. Some of these things seem trivial. I thought God only looks in our hearts, but the leaders say we have an image to uphold. A clean appearance is what matters most.
I will begin going to the temple and participate in baptisms for the dead. I become a full tithe payer and attend Seminary. I earn my Young Women’s Medallion, equivalent to the Eagle Scout Award for a young man in Boy Scouts. My picture and the year I receive it are added to the plaque in the church’s foyer. It is strongly instilled each Sunday that we abide by church guidelines so that we can one day enter the Temple to receive our endowments (promises made to God, represented by special garments worn underneath everyday clothing) and then to one day be sealed to our significant other for all time and eternity, preferably to a young man who served an honorable two-year mission proselyting the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the non-believers. I wonder what future challenges I will face. Will I be blessed enough to have a family like the Larsen’s? Only time will tell.