“Those ‘Mormonaries’ stopped by to see you folks on Friday night,” my grandmother commented as my family returned from a weekend trip. Later, my sister and I chuckled at my grandmother’s creativity. “At least she has a name for them now,” Susan joked. “They used to be ‘those clean-cut young men in their nice white shirts.’”
For my grandmother and brother, the first years after my father, mother, sister, and I joined the Church were a time of bewilderment and isolation. My grandmother had always lived with us. We had worshipped together in a church near our home, supporting each other in the various positions we held in that church. We felt a real sense of family pride and identity from the church activities we shared.
Now my grandmother and brother suddenly found themselves in a church different from the one the rest of the family attended. I remember their closed-door conversations when my brother would return home during college breaks. Although we had tried to keep Bruce aware of our changing attitudes through letters and phone calls, he was somewhat puzzled.
We all realized that there was a new and often uncomfortable difference among us. My parents, my older sister, and I had all experienced that mighty change of heart Alma speaks of. (See Alma 5:26.) That change had propelled us from our comfortable niche in our former church into a new religion—one that required immense commitments of our time and talents, but which graciously filled our lives with spiritual enrichment and larger truths in return.
My experience is certainly not unique. Many face the even greater challenge of being the sole Church member in their family. But the problems associated with religious differences within families are as old as the scriptures themselves. Both the Book of Mormon and the Old Testament provide ample evidence that great leaders do not always come from perfect family situations. Joseph, Nephi, and Alma, to name a few, all knew how it felt to be on a different side of a religious issue.
The Savior knew best of all how great the costs of discipleship can be. He warned his Apostles that sometimes their faith would cause difficult divisions within families.
“And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.
“He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
“And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.
“He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matt. 10:36–39.)
The gospel can create difficult divisions within families, but Jesus taught that the cause of true faith is the greatest endeavor any of us can pursue. With a positive attitude and deep faith, spirituality can be nurtured in any circumstance.
Many who enter the waters of baptism full of enthusiasm and hope find their family life unexpectedly problematical—lonely and sometimes depressing. Parents may have the disturbing sense of having abandoned a beloved child. The son or daughter whose parents are unwilling hearers of the word may find the challenge of sustaining a loving atmosphere in the home a more immediate concern than the eventual conversion of a parent.
A child who is raised in a part-member home must often face troubling discrepancies. While one parent may live and teach the Word of Wisdom, the other parent may do neither. One sister admits, “I’ve often held my breath, hoping my daughter could learn to choose what is right without condemning her father.”
But I have found that along with the unavoidable frustrations and sorrows can come humor, honest exchanges of feelings, and a deepening sense of compassion and concern for one another’s spiritual and emotional well-being. We can also experience an increased reliance on the Lord, deeper efforts in prayer, and great joy when small bridges of faith can be built and sometimes crossed together.
My own grandmother lived long enough after our conversion for us to experience some small successes in her attitude toward our redirected faith. She became quite proficient in the vocabulary of our church meetings and activities. She genuinely loved family home evenings and gleaned some knowledge of the gospel from them. She became a willing helper in our family’s genealogical search and developed friendships with many Church members, particularly with some of the older European ladies in our ward.
As we unloaded dozens of boxes containing a year’s supply of dried foods into our basement, she watched with mingled disbelief and amusement. But she was often a better missionary to our neighbors than we were; more people in our New York City neighborhood knew about our church through her candor than through our own efforts. When my sister married, my grandmother loved her new Mormon grandson as her own, despite her agony in being unable to attend the temple wedding. And she accepted priesthood blessings until almost the minute of her death.
With all these positive experiences, though, she never once listened to a missionary discussion. And she always remained nervous about the idea of baptism, even when my older brother eventually joined the Church. Moreover, her skepticism often raised unsettling questions in my own mind during my college years. Why couldn’t my grandmother, and so many like her, believe? Did she think we considered ourselves better than she was because we now belonged to another church? Why was it so difficult for us to talk to someone we really loved about our spiritual feelings? Were we limiting her opportunity to accept the gospel because we were afraid of offending her? Even worse, were we afraid she would reject the truth?
If faith is sometimes a source of contention and division rather than of strength and union in a family, remembering several positive concepts can help:
1. The parable of the sower may apply to family members. (See Matt. 13:3–9.) Our sense of urgency in sharing the gospel increases with the amount of love we feel toward our family. We need to temper our longing for a united eternal family with patience and restraint. Remembering that the seeds of faith fall on ground of different quality at different periods in life can help us wait patiently through the barren years for the time when the ground is ripe for budding faith.
We must realize, too, that the full period of spiritual preparation necessary for some may extend into the next life. The wife whose husband has been spiritually absent throughout their marriage may need to remind herself again and again that mortality is truly a brief period of time. Present uncertainties may see a glorious resolution through the sealing powers that link our arbitrary measures of time with the infinite stretches of eternity.
2. Prayer is indispensable. Patty Del Salto, a twenty-two-year-old teacher of sign language at the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York City, expresses what many feel. “Without the Lord, without Heavenly Father’s answers to my prayers, I could not have made it.” The only member of her family to join the Church, Patty immigrated to the United States at age ten and found her way on the subways to the nearest ward. During her adjustment to a new culture and a new life, she found her greatest strength in prayer. The lonely times were not so lonely, and the moments of joyful illumination were not lost in mournful wishing for the way things might be, because Patty learned how to pray sincerely and deeply.
3. Strength can come through sharing the experiences of others in similar situations. We need to share the vital experiences of our faith, lest our faith become unnecessarily cloistered. In fact, for some, the greatest trial of part-family membership in the Church is the inability to share their deepest feelings about the gospel. For example, Fred Benson, a widower of ten years now living with his nonmember mother on Long Island, defines loneliness as “a temple bus trip.” Brother Benson finds the inability to communicate freely with his family regarding the joy he finds in the temple one of his biggest frustrations. For members like Brother Benson, our Church community of brothers and sisters is essential for sharing spiritual feelings.
4. Learn to communicate better with your family in a way they can accept. “Instead of crying about the way things are,” says Brother Benson, “I’ve learned how to communicate with my family on their own level. They are not ready to hear about the gospel in any detail, but I try to let them know of the joy I’ve found through the gospel.”
A conscious effort to curb his frustrations and focus on the good has helped him develop a deeper love for his family. He has found great peace in doing all that he can to make his own testimony stronger. “The more I’m involved in studying the gospel, the easier it is to talk with my family, regardless of our differences.”
5. Focus on the positive; take strength from other successes. If we let it, a sense of failure in not having a “whole” family can destroy our peace and deprive us of the joy our Heavenly Father intends for us to feel. Sister Barbara Mattocks, a long-time member of the Church in western Pennsylvania, finds great comfort in the good lives of her children, who are faithful members of the Church—even though her husband has never been converted.
There have been difficult moments, she acknowledges—not being present at the temple marriages of her children, not being able to enjoy easy conversations about the gospel with her husband, and not having the priesthood in the home. But there has never been deep discord, either. “I’m thankful for all the support my husband has given me. He simply isn’t interested in religion just now, but he has never begrudged the time the kids and I have given to the Church.”
6. Soften by small steps. Tender explanations can help. Look for gentle teaching moments when you can express your faith on the level of the hearer. One family had to tactfully tell their extended family that they could no longer attend the gatherings held every Sunday at a local restaurant. Touched by their sincere explanation, the extended family moved their Sunday gatherings to a home.
Even the most demanding commitments of Church membership can often be shared. For Maggie Fernandez, all other challenges of being the only member in her family seemed small when compared with the task of explaining to her parents why she wanted to go on a mission. At first, there seemed no way to adequately express her feelings to her family. When she did try, there were many objections. Over time, though, feelings were shared, opinions were changed, and Sister Fernandez is now serving a mission in New Mexico.
7. Involve family members in Church activities whenever possible. Ask them if they would like to attend Church meetings or socials with you, listen to general conference, read an article, or meet the missionaries. A prayerful and loving question can do little harm, and reinforces the sincerity of your belief.
8. Experience the beauties of the gospel yourself. Record the moments of joy and enlightenment in your journal for future reference. They can nourish you in times of loneliness.
9. Seek to perfect yourself first. Nourish an unwavering commitment to the gospel—through Church attendance, scripture study, and fellowshipping with the members of the ward. You will be a better light to your family when you are actively and joyfully trying to live as the Savior would.
10. Keep a ready sense of humor. Do not become so engulfed in what you do not have that you overlook the rich blessings of family life that you do enjoy.
11. Never feel belittled or embarrassed because you don’t belong to a “model” church family. Each of us has individual challenges. Even those with pioneer roots and hundreds of Latter-day Saint relatives face the basic challenge of keeping their faith bright and serving the Lord.
Feelings of isolation are often a painful reality in a part-member family. But we can choose to cheerfully accept what is difficult and to build on what is good. We can still cherish the sweetness of family love and nurture our own personal growth. And we can patiently and prayerfully anticipate even greater joys than we have ever imagined.