We Were the Church—in Iran


“Think of it this way,” Roger said as we discussed our forthcoming move to Iran, “even the children of Israel lived 40 years in the desert.” He paused to let that sink in, then added, “Just think of it as going on another mission. We’ll be there two years.”

We loved the whirl of church activity in our ward on Guam where we were completely and happily involved. But when the thick brown envelope arrived from Pahlevi University in Shiraz, Iran, we knew Roger would be teaching English there and we would be moving.

We could never have made our decision without fasting and prayer; it also took a healthy sense of adventure not to get discouraged—a different language, unfamiliar culture, different currency, different foods, and probably no other Latter-day Saints. Everything would be completely unlike anything I had known before.

Roger had taught for five months in Saudi Arabia before we were married and was familiar with that part of the world, but for me it would be all completely new. And it was such a long way from home.

After spending the summer letting our daughter Jenny get acquainted with her grandparents, we reluctantly took our leave. We stopped in two or three places in Europe en route, and even though I had never seen Europe before, I wasn’t able to give it my whole attention. What about Iran? Where would we live? Would anyone speak English? Was it remotely possible that we could find some Latter-day Saints?

In Rome on our first Sunday away from home, we couldn’t find the Latter-day Saint chapel, so we took a bus tour to St. Peter’s Square. It was very large and magnificent, but not being in Sunday School that morning made me miss the Church more than ever.

The next Sunday, we were in Iran, but the Moslem Sabbath is Friday and Sunday is a regular workday. So we tried to read some scriptures, but the business of living kept getting in the way. We quickly sensed that our spiritual life needed a more definite structure.

Friday was Roger’s day off, so we adopted it for our Sabbath, too. At our first “Friday School” meeting we decided to start reading the New Testament together. We had an opening prayer, then took turns reading the chapters and discussing them. This was a spiritually satisfying experience, although we still missed sacrament meeting, and I felt lost without Relief Society.

Soon after our arrival in Iran, we wrote to the Switzerland Mission president, Edwin Q. Cannon, Jr., informing him of our address and asking him to request our membership records. (At that time, the Saints in Iran, and in other Middle Eastern countries, were the responsibility of that mission. Now Iran has been assigned to the International Mission, headquartered in Salt Lake City.) Still hopeful of finding some nearby Latter-day Saints, I hoped President Cannon would send us names and addresses of two or three other families in Shiraz. He could not furnish us with area Latter-day Saint families, but he did authorize us to participate in the sacrament in our home.

This made me realize for the first time that there were no other Latter-day Saint families nearby and that we were dependent on ourselves for our own spiritual progress.

I suppose it was silly, especially for two who were born into the Church and who at this time had been married nearly three years, but we were shy about taking the sacrament by ourselves in our own living room.

Perhaps it was the commercial atmosphere of the noisy street outside, where vendors with donkeys peddled everything from rock salt to watermelons all morning long. Perhaps it was the threat of interruption from our landlord’s family just across the garden, who considered us and our house an extension of their own family and house.

Then came news of another young Latter-day Saint family believed to be in Shiraz. I remember saying, “Let’s wait till we find them before we hold another sacrament meeting.” And pride wouldn’t let me amend my position, even when I saw the disappointment in Roger’s face. “Okay,” he shrugged. It turned out that the other family wasn’t in Shiraz, and we didn’t talk about the sacrament again until almost spring.

The winter was more severe than normal. Snow fell, temperatures dropped, and my homesickness, depression, and spiritual emptiness soared, despite our Friday School study classes and daily family prayers. We talked about our feelings, but that didn’t make the loneliness and emptiness go away.

I couldn’t get used to the cold, the language, the food, the people, and the dreary rain that fell as winter dissolved into spring. I had friends to talk to, a child and husband to care for, books to read, and a comfortable house to keep, but again and again I wished I were back home teaching Primary, planting roses, and canning peaches.

Before winter was over, several events helped change the direction of my sadly wanting spiritual life. First of all, we turned our Friday School into sacrament meeting. Perhaps our desperate need for spiritual nourishment helped us overcome the shyness we had felt about taking the sacrament in our home. Perhaps we had come to accept our aloneness and were properly humbled. At any rate, we planned our study classes for the early afternoons when, we happily discovered, the vendors stopped vending, the landlord’s family had lunch, and Jenny napped.

We felt we had overcome important obstacles to spiritual progress. A favorite hymn went through my mind:

“Thy spirit, Lord, has stirred our souls,
And by its inward shining glow
We see anew our sacred goals
And feel thy nearness here below.
No burning bush near Sinai
Could show thy presence, Lord, more nigh.
‘Did not our hearts within us burn?’
We know the Spirit’s fire is here.
It makes our souls for service yearn;
It makes the path of duty clear.
Lord, may it prompt us, day by day,
In all we do, in all we say.”

—Hymns, no. 204

The second event that boosted me out of my self-pity was truly an answer to prayer. All winter I kept asking what service I could possibly give to the people in Iran—how could I be useful? Then one of my American friends told someone who told a teacher at the community school that they thought I might be interested in tutoring. Except for a Church teacher training class I took as a student at Brigham Young University, I had never had any formal instruction either about the psychology of elementary students or about teaching methods for elementary material.

It wasn’t exactly like teaching Primary, where I had experience, because I wasn’t giving scriptural instruction, but my Church background gave me the confidence I needed as a teacher. I knew that my own attitudes and philosophy of life would influence those children more than the English, geography, or mathematics I would teach them. It has been one of the richest experiences I’ve ever had.

During the Persian New Year, No Rooz, Roger had some vacation time coming, so we returned to Europe to see a few places we had missed on our way to the Middle East. We went back to Rome, and this time we found the Church. There is an active branch there, and it includes a few American military families. It was like finding an oasis and taking a long, cool drink of sweet water.

Before we had left Shiraz for Europe, we had received a letter from President Cannon: “Sister Cannon and I will be arriving in Shiraz at 2:50 p.m. on April 13. We will look forward to meeting with you.” What a grand event!

Now there would be Latter-day Saints to spend a leisurely evening with and to speak the language of MIA and genealogy and missionary work. We relished the chance to absorb their influence and spirituality.

President and Sister Cannon didn’t fail us. They were just what we needed. And they came at the right time, like the spirit of assurance that comes when you’ve prayed about something and know that you’ve made the right decision.

Since then we have continued our sacrament meetings, finished the New Testament, and begun the Book of Mormon. And we have found two other Latter-day Saint families in Shiraz, both with the military. We meet for Sunday School every Friday and take turns giving lessons. It’s so much fun, and is almost like being back home.

Although these families will soon be completing their assignments and leaving, I now won’t feel deprived. We’ve loved them and grown by our association; but in a measure, the long “winter of our discontent” has given us the strength to stand on our own spiritual feet.

Perhaps that’s why we’re here. Perhaps I couldn’t have gained this kind of self-confidence teaching Primary back home. Perhaps now I’m more ready to make the contribution to the Church that I long to make. And perhaps I am one of those to whom the Lord referred when he said:

“And for this cause, that men might be made partakers of the glories which were to be revealed, the Lord sent forth the fulness of his gospel, his everlasting covenant, reasoning in plainness and simplicity—

“To prepare the weak for those things which are coming on earth, and for the Lord’s errand in the day when the weak shall confound the wise, and the little one become a strong nation, and two shall put their tens of thousands to flight.” (D&C 133:57–58.)

Surely, each phase of our lives prepares us for doing more of the Lord’s work. Sometimes it takes two years in the desert for us to understand that.

[photo] Pamela and Roger Williams with their daughter, Jenny.