Here’s the funny thing about conversion stories: they never really end. Sometimes, we measure the end of the story as when the convert enters the waters of baptism. But in many ways, that is only the beginning of the story. There are many trials and tests to come after baptism, just like anyone else’s life. At each juncture we have a choice to make. Are we going to carry on in our faith and trust that the Lord has a plan for us, or are we going to go a different way?
The Beginning of Things
Let’s rewind ten years, all the way back to 2003 (good golly, was that really ten years ago?). That’s about when my story begins. I was 18, getting ready to graduate high school. So. Ready. To be done with high school. If you had asked me then if I would ever think of joining the LDS Church, I would have laughed in your face.
Not that I was completely crazy in high school, but I was crazy enough that there are still a couple of my friends who look at me and say, “I can’t believe you’re a Mormon now. It’s not even possible.”
It started with a good friend of mine. Let’s call him Stefan. We’d known each other since elementary school. He used to stalk me at recess, and he was (and still is) LDS. That year we went from friends to good friends to more than friends. His mother was having a heart attack about his dating a non-member, which I totally didn’t get at the time. Looking back now and seeing how I was, I TOTALLY get it. My sons are never EVER dating girls like me!! (Well, the old me.) P.S. – I love you, Stefan’s Mom, you were just who I needed at that time in my life.
One day Stefan and I were walking to class and he asked me, “So, what does your church believe?” I had grown up in another Christian church. I was comfortable there, it was familiar. There is even a rumor in our family that way back in Medieval Scotland we invented said Christian church (major bonus history points if you can guess the name of it just by the clue I left in that sentence). But up until that day, I had never thought much about the doctrine of that church. I had never thought about what I actually believed.
Or maybe I had, but it was too stressful to think about for any length of time. I used to lie awake at night asking questions of my dark ceiling.
“If God never changes, then why are there a billion churches and religions in the world?”
“What about the Native American gods?”
“What about the Ancient Greeks? Is there one God or different gods for every little different thing?”
“Why did Christians think it was OK to kill non-Christians in wars?”
“How do we know who’s right?”
“Is anybody right?”
“What if we all have it wrong?”
So that day, with Stefan asking me that question, I had no answer for him. I had no answer for myself. I decided to find out what I believed.
I read up on the doctrines of my church. It was easy: we didn’t really have any. The church believed in Jesus Christ and being nice and following your conscience. Admirable, yes, but being nice and following my conscience wasn’t answering my questions.
The Plot Thickens
Stefan and I became engaged about a year later (confused yet?) So I thought I would learn more about his faith. In our hometown, St. Helens (No, St. Helens is not on the mountain. Google it.), my church was next door to the LDS church, so occasionally we would go hang out with the Protestants in the morning, and then attend Sacrament meeting down the street.
So, long story short (not really, it’s still a long story, but whatever), in the summer of 2005 it was time for me to move away to college, having exhausted my resources at Portland Community and eager to finish my degree. So I left for Southern Oregon University and my first apartment. Stefan had decided a few months before that he was ready to serve a mission, and so he stayed behind. My first few months in Ashland were so hard. I knew I had left my hometown for good, and I was trying to get the hang of living on my own. But it was lonely, and I would find myself experiencing almost debilitating anxiety. I would stay up until the wee hours of the morning writing, just trying to bring on some sort of catharsis. Sometimes I couldn’t even go to class. I would call Stefan way too much.
I asked him one night, when I was feeling particularly awful, “What should I do?” And he answered simply, “Read your scriptures and pray.” So that’s what I did. I pulled a Bible off of my shelf, the red one with my name embossed in gold on the cover, that I had received as a confirmation gift from my congregation back home. And I also pulled out the Book of Mormon that Stefan had given me back in high school. That night I prayed, and felt the warmth enter my heart that told me I was on the right track. And I finally slept.
When I moved to Ashland I was lucky enough to find a job right away at my favorite shop on the plaza. In keeping with Ashland’s culture, it was a total hippie store that had been around for over 30 years. We sold everything from incense to tapestries to sari silk skirts to posters of Bob Dylan. I honestly loved working there. I came home every day smelling like India (not that I’ve ever been to India. But half of our merchandise came from there, so I figure that’s at least what certain parts of India smell like). I loved the tourists that came through during Shakespeare season and asked me how much the tax was for their purchases (Oregon has no sales tax). I loved my awesome employee discount.
One day I was at work, dusting off a shelf of glassware and listening to the radio. It was slow that day, and I was letting my mind wander. I thought to myself, “If I could change anything in my life right now, what would it be?” The moment that question entered my mind, Someone behind me whispered, “Join the Church!” The answer was so audible to me that I actually turned around to see who was talking to me. There was no one. But I knew what I had heard, and I knew from the fluttering in my chest that it was the right answer to my question. And yes, I did have a moment where I thought I was completely crazy, because here I was, The Girl Who was Never Going to be Mormon, now firmly resolved to begin investigating in earnest after hearing a disembodied voice in her ear.
But I knew I had heard it. I still know that I heard it. And I knew that I had better darn well do what it told me to do.
The next week, I went down to the LDS Institute of Religion and signed up for a Church History class. I felt a little strange, the lone non-member in a class full of bubbly LDS youth. All I had for scriptures was still that red Bible and my paperback Book of Mormon. The Church History class required a lot of reading from the Doctrine and Covenants, so my classmates were obliged to share with me. Pretty soon, I decided that it was time to get my own set of scriptures. The day they arrived I was rushing out of my apartment, almost late for Institute. Something told me to stop and check my mailbox before walking up to campus, even though the package wasn’t due to arrive for another two days.
The nice thing about Deseret Book, sometimes they’re actually ahead of schedule with their shipping.
I didn’t expect to be so excited to get scriptures in the mail. I ran back inside, tore open the box, and sat down on my bed holding my new triple combination (Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price). I had never read the Pearl of Great Price before, and now here it was, my very own copy. No more sharing with Bridget, whom I often sat by (Bridget, you were so patient with me.) I skimmed through it, and a warm feeling that was becoming more familiar to me spread through my chest. I knew it was real. I knew it was true. I put the triple combination and my new King James Bible in my bag and went to class. I’m pretty sure I carried my new scriptures with me everywhere for the whole term.
Just a few days after signing up at Institute, I got a call at my house.
“Hi, this is Brittany. I’m in charge of activities at the Institute of Religion,” said the chipper voice on the phone. I had a feeling that if I ever met Brittany, I would like her. She explained that the Institute students were planning a ballroom dancing activity in nearby Medford later in the week, and she wanted me to come along.
“I don’t know,” I hedged, “I have a lot of homework.” This was true. I don’t remember my exact class load, but it was probably over 18 credits. I don’t know how I survived college.
“Come on!” she urged, and I could actually hear her smile, “You deserve a break!”
“OK,” I said, “What time?”
The Friends I Always Wanted but Didn’t Know it
At the Evergreen Ballroom, we learned how to fox trot, and the instructors made us rotate partners so I got to know a lot of the other students. Well, the guys anyway. There was Kurt, who was tall, and Colby, who was even taller. Jeremiah, however, was shorter than me and had a loud, infectious laugh. Colin was big and even louder. I met Brittany, and instantly liked her. I also met Crystal and Jessa, who lived in the same dorm as Brittany. Later, after my baptism, the two of them would become my roommates and dear friends.
|Jeremiah got to be taller than me in this picture, anyway.|
On Mondays the students who lived in Ashland met in Brittany’s dorm room for Family Home Evening. The first time I attended, Brittany taught the lesson about the Plan of Salvation. It was taken from a Primary lesson she had taught the children at church a few weeks before, so it was nice and simple for me, which I appreciated. But what struck me most was how after the lesson, when we were all discussing Heaven and eternal life and being with our Heavenly Father again, the other girls in the room all spoke about how wonderful it will be when these things come to pass and I knew that they believed beyond a shadow of a doubt the reality of the promises in the scriptures. Up until that point, I had talked and read of Heaven and Jesus’ second coming and eternal life and really wanted to believe in it, but everyone around me just seemed to be going through the motions, just talking about it, not really anticipating it. Here were these girls, talking about it, reading about it, and actually believing and preparing for it, physically and spiritually. This was completely new to me, but I liked it.
But I still didn’t feel ready to make that leap to baptism. I didn’t know if that’s where I was ultimately headed. I hadn’t even met with the missionaries yet.
I continued to read my scriptures every night and pray. Most nights in my prayers I asked to know if I was on the right track, if this was truly where Heavenly Father wanted me to go. Every time I asked, I felt that same warmth and a quickening of my heart. One night, I was studying my Church History manual, when I came across a section regarding D&C 6, so I turned to it in my scriptures, not being familiar yet with it. Verse 14 struck me like a brick between the eyes:
“14 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, blessed art thou for what thou hast done; for thou hast inquired of me, and behold, as often as thou hast inquired thou hast received instruction of my Spirit. If it had not been so, thou wouldst not have come to the place where thou art at this time.”
It was like section 6 had been written for me instead of Oliver Cowdery. In those two sentences I knew that Heavenly Father had been guiding me and that I was doing what he wanted me to do.
I called Stefan.
“I want to be baptized,” I told him. He was quiet for a moment, and then said something entirely surprising.
“I’m sorry,” he said. When I asked why he was sorry, he replied, “I pushed you into it.”
“How could you do that?” I asked, “You live on the other side of the state.”
“I don’t know, I just don’t want you doing this just for me.”
“I’m not,” I said, and I knew it was true. I told him about D&C 6, and he understood.
I went home for a visit at Spring Break. Stefan called me to say that President Thomas, the Stake President, wanted to meet with me.
“So you want to be baptized?” asked President Thomas when I sat down in his office. His eyes twinkled at me across his desk. True story: President Thomas and my dad were pretty much best friends. I’m fairly certain a part of him thought this meeting was hilarious. He asked me when I was going to be home next. I said probably not until August.
“We’ll do it here, then,” he said, “In August.” I had five months to prepare.
News that I had set a baptism date spread like mononucleosis in a coed dorm. One tiny detail remained: I still hadn’t met with the missionaries to take the lessons. Then one day my friend Andrew walked into the Institute classroom and said, “Hey, Kelli, the missionaries are here to see you.” He tried to be cool about it, but I suspect he bribed them with Subway to get them to come talk to me RIGHT THEN.
They were eating their sandwiches in the library, Elder Combs from Colorado and Elder Fuentealba from Chile. I shook their hands and we made an appointment to meet back at the institute in a few days so they could begin teaching me.
Combs and Fuentealba were both 21, nearing the end of their missions, and the same age as me. I felt like we were friends and at the same time I felt like they were light years ahead of me. The first time we met was the 8th anniversary of Elder Fuentealba’s baptism, and knowing that he was a convert too further put me at ease. That day I told them about my experience reading D&C 6. They were also unfamiliar with that scripture, but marked it and later told me they had used it as a reference when teaching another investigator. Elder Combs bore his testimony during the lesson, and his face was so open and honest, almost glowing with sincerity and faith. Recently, I had been struggling with the inevitability of Stefan’s leaving for a mission. I honestly didn’t want him to go. But when I met with “my” elders, and I saw how much they loved what they were doing and how much they loved the people they met, and what a difference they had made for me in just one hour, I gained a much stronger testimony of missionary work. I knew Stefan had to go. I came home from my meeting with the elders and said a tearful prayer of gratitude.
When I had taken all of the lessons, sometime in July, I had one last appointment with Elder Combs and his new companion Elder Pace (Fuentealba had finished his mission and gone home to Chile. I still miss you, Jose Luis!) for my baptism interview and to fill out a few forms before I went up to St. Helens for my baptism. I was to meet them at the church building next to the Medford Temple. I had never been to the temple, so I asked Elder Combs how to get there.
“I can’t remember the street name,” he said, “But you can look it up on Mapquest.”
Mapquest sucks. It switched the street names, and I wound up 45 minutes late for my interview. The missionaries had gone. It was annoying, but I figured I would just have to reschedule for later.
When I got home, the phone rang, and Elder Combs was on the other end. I explained to him the Mapquest suckage, and I was very sorry I had missed them. There was a beat of silence, and I imagined Combs looking at Pace with palpable relief.
“Oooohhhhh, you got lost!!” he said, probably breathing for the first time in hours. We rescheduled, and the second time I was able to find the temple and be interviewed without a hitch. It took me months to figure out why the elders had sounded so relieved about my getting lost.
They thought I had gotten cold feet and ditched them. Until I realized that, the thought had never crossed my mind that investigators cancel their baptisms, and often. My husband would later tell me that I was probably about as “golden” as investigators get. Maybe, but it took me over two years to get there.
The Day Arrives
I was baptized on August 13, 2006 in my hometown of St. Helens, Oregon. Stefan did it, his first baptism, and he was so nervous that I actually had to be dunked thrice (the first time my knee popped up out of the water, the second time he said the prayer incorrectly, and the third time was the one that mattered). I forgot to bring a towel, so that was fun. But what I remember most was feeling so clean and new.
|Not Combs and Fuentealba. I honestly don't remember these guys' names. Sorry, guys! I really liked you, though!|
I also remember feeling surrounded by love, not only from Heavenly Father, but from my family and friends as well. In a twist of bad real estate luck, my parents ended up having to move the day of my baptism, but I knew they wanted to be there, and that meant a lot. They helped me to pick out the hymns we sang at the service and my mom made some treats for everyone to eat afterwards. I knew that this was more than a lot of converts get from their families, and I was very grateful. Jeremiah, Jessa, Crystal, and our friend Libby drove all the way from Ashland for the weekend. Brother Whitney, our Institute teacher, took time out from a conference he was attending in Portland to speak at the service. President Thomas was there, as were so many of my friends from my St. Helens ward family. When Stefan’s father confirmed me a member of the LDS Church, the circle of Melchizedek Priesthood holders around me was so large they had to take a moment to figure out how everyone’s hands would fit on my head. I felt so blessed, and I knew that I had made a choice that had permanently altered the course of my life for the better.
|Real friends drive 300 miles to see you get dunked underwater!|
Stefan left on his mission about five months later, in January. It was hard to say goodbye to someone who had been there for me almost my whole life, but I was grateful for the perspective and the faith I had gained in the last several months to help me understand how important his mission was and all that he would learn and teach in the time he would be gone.
Converts often talk about the adversity they faced immediately before or after baptism. I didn’t really experience any just before baptism, but Stefan leaving on his mission was probably the greatest trial of my life to that point. I was determined to wait for him, but I think we all know that Heavenly Father had other plans.
So that’s really it, the end of the beginning of the story. There are moments I could point out after my baptism that were converting experiences for me; gaining a testimony of the importance of temple marriage, for example, or even things that once seemed trivial like Relief Society enrichment nights or the Nursery program that I now know are so essential and inspired. But as for the story of my going from jaded Protestant to full-blown Latter-day Saint, that’s about the size of it. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary, but it was everything that I needed at every point along the way, and I am happy to share it with you.