“It Was Hard to Be Different”

By Helena Hannonen

Lappeenranta, Finland (now studying at Brigham Young University)

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    In the early summer of 1960 two young men were pedaling their bicycles up and down the streets of Lappeenranta, knocking on doors and talking to people; we could tell that they were foreigners. To us children this was exciting, and we missed no opportunity to hear what the neighbors had to say about the Mormons.

    Then one evening my widowed mother told my brother and me that she couldn’t believe the unkind things that were being said about these missionaries, and she didn’t like the way they were being treated. She said she was going to give them a chance to come to our home and tell their message. How grateful I am for her Christian spirit!

    The elder who taught us spoke very little Finnish. Often he asked us children if we understood what he said, and we did. He explained the gospel simply and beautifully, and we were all baptized in August of that year.

    At school for many years I was the only Latter-day Saint. Although it was hard to be different and accept the unkind comments and actions of my classmates, I often told myself, “Dare to be different!” Gradually I overcame the fear of being hurt by the unkindness of others. I didn’t isolate myself, but learned to face people and respect their right to be different, too.

    When I was 12, I had my first debate with my religion teacher. My answer to a question was influenced by the beliefs taught by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the teacher said I was wrong. As I stood and listened to her, I could feel the Spirit of the Lord with me, and I was able to quote passages from the Bible to support my statements. Finally, she had no more answers. From that day I have had a testimony that the Lord listens to our honest, humble pleading.

    My mother, though physically weak, was spiritually strong; she helped me walk in the way I had chosen, leading with a firm but gentle hand. Instead of spending my evenings in the dark, smoky cafes that were popular among the youth, I was encouraged to study music, art, books, and sports. Soon I had the respect of my classmates and was a leader among them.

    Every time my class at school was asked to conduct the morning religious service, they wanted me to present the views of my faith to the whole student body. My class supported me by replacing the singing of their church hymns with recordings of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

    Seven years went by, and my religion teacher asked me to give a 15-minute presentation in class about the Church. The question-and-answer session that followed took the next two class periods. Then the teacher came to me and said she knew I was right, and she was ready to read the Book of Mormon.

    I have been blessed with rich experiences, and the Savior has been my shepherd, my light, and my special friend during all the years of my youth.