It Took Thirteen Years to Cross the Street

While I was growing up, I lived across the street from an LDS chapel. But it took me thirteen years to cross the street and go inside.

My family moved to Ogden, Utah, in January 1956, when I was eight years old. I didn’t know much about the Mormons. But each week before my Baptist Sunday School class, I listened to my friends recount anti-Mormon stories.

As I grew older, I was impressed to enter the ministry, so I began training to enter a Baptist seminary. Studying the Bible was easy for me. I loved the stories and parables, and I became well-acquainted with many of the biblical characters.

But as I studied, questions arose in my mind. What about heaven and hell? What is the “cutoff point” for heaven?—and countless more. Unfortunately, my pastor couldn’t help.

He exhorted me to have faith. But I wondered: “In what?” If he didn’t have the answers, where could I find them? I tried many different Christian faiths, and found that none of them had the answers. So I broke with Christianity completely.

Throughout this time, I had also developed a new hobby: arguing with Mormons I met. Those who tried to talk with me about religion were overwhelmed by my verbal onslaught of scriptural scholarship. “How could those Mormons be right,” I thought, “if their beliefs are so easy to destroy?”

During the summer of 1967, I landed a role in a theatrical production and met three people who I came to respect deeply. The first, T. Leonard Rowley, was the director of the play. He was truthful, just, and sensitive—an impressive man with rare spiritual insight. I was unaware until much later in our relationship that he was LDS.

The second, J. D. Stokes, was the star of the show. He had worked with many of the “giants” of show business; yet there was no doubt of his religious affiliation, nor of his devotion to the Church. He was every inch a Latter-day Saint.

The third, Jeanne Nowak, was not a Mormon. She charmed me immediately. She was not only beautiful, she was talented enough to star in numerous musicals and intelligent enough to graduate at the head of her class in psychology.

In the fall of 1967, I entered the Navy and was stationed on an oiler in the Far East. In my spare time I haunted the ship’s library, reading all I could find on Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Taoism—but I did not find the answers to the questions that so troubled me.

Before long, I was ordered to Vietnam, where I served as a combat journalist. The assignment afforded me great freedom to read literally hundreds of books on theology. I also interviewed clergymen of many religious persuasions. Again, I found no answers—only more questions. Was I just wasting my time? I wondered.

Then, in the summer of 1969, I received a letter from Mary Lee Memmott, a friend who had never lost hope that I would embrace the gospel. Amid the rest of the news from home, one item jumped from the page: “Oh, by the way, did you know Jeanne Nowak joined the Mormon Church?”

I was shocked. “She’s too smart to have done that,” I thought. “She must have been tricked.”

Then and there I vowed to expose the Mormon fraud. It was the very least I could do for a friend.

The camp library offered little information about the LDS Church. Finally I asked one of the chaplains where I might find a Mormon. “You might ask over at the post office,” he said. “The lay leader is named Orvin Shepard.”

A few minutes later, I arrived at the post office and asked for Shepard. A man stopped what he was doing and came over to me. “I’m Shepard,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

I explained that I wanted to “disprove Mormonism” and needed to borrow a Book of Mormon. He told me to wait and slipped into the back room. He returned carrying a handful of tracts, a Book of Mormon, and a doctrinal compendium entitled Principles of the Gospel.

He seemed too cooperative. Suspicious, I told him that I wanted to be left alone and that I didn’t want to see the missionaries. My promise to return the books as soon as I was finished was countered by a quiet smile. No, he said, I could keep them.

I retired to the barracks to begin my “attack.” I knew it would be unfair to attack beliefs, but in order for the Church to be all it claimed to be, it had to be completely logical. Therefore, I would attack the logic.

I decided that Principles of the Gospel would help me get right down to the doctrines, so I started there. My fine-tooth comb cut into page one and a day and a half later emerged—empty. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t logically discount a book.

But the Book of Mormon was another story. Joseph Smith certainly couldn’t have known as much about the Bible as I did. He had only a third-grade education! The Book of Mormon would provide my loophole, I was sure.

I found it on page 520: “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.” (Moro. 10:4.)

If I accepted Moroni’s challenge and received no witness of the truth, I could look any Mormon in the eye and declare him wrong. For a week I practiced praying. I was sincere and grimly serious. I wanted to do this thing properly; it was much too important to play around with.

In mid-August of 1969, I humbly knelt in the shadows behind my barracks and prayed. I told God that I had read the book that Latter-day Saints say is from Him. I admitted that there were some good things in it and that I wanted to know if it was true.

I closed my prayer in the Savior’s name. No sooner had I done so than I received the most powerful witness that I have ever experienced. It was not the answer I was seeking. But I had asked, and now I knew. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the only true church on the earth! I knew it; I dared not deny it.

What would I do? I smoked; I drank. I was not a righteous man. I knew my family would disapprove. Could I hurt them that way? Membership in the LDS Church would mean a complete commitment to change my life-style. But that didn’t matter. I knew the Church was true, and there was only one thing for me to do.

That Sunday I ventured into the chapel for LDS services. Within the next few days, all of my questions were answered. But the answers to my questions were secondary compared with the testimony that burned within me.

I was baptized in the South China Sea off China Beach near Da Nang, Vietnam. Since then, my life has been full of joy. As a direct result of my membership in the church of Jesus Christ, I met and have been sealed to my wonderful bride in the house of the Lord, and we have been able to adopt four beautiful children who have also been sealed to us for time and eternity. God lives! And I have finally crossed the street to enter his Church.

Kent Hansen, a U.S. Navy journalist, serves as first counselor in the Yokota (Japan) Servicemen Branch.

Our Family’s Reverence Lesson

After a recent stake assignment in a neighboring city, I came home to find my wife, Wendy, upset and frustrated. I asked her how the children had behaved at church, and she told me that they had been irreverent in sacrament meeting. Irreverence is usually not a problem in our family, so I gave my four children a quick lecture and sent them on about their Sabbath day activities.

Wendy felt that the subject needed more attention than that, so we decided to devote our family home evening to reverence.

The lesson began in the usual manner—another message on why we should be reverent and what would happen the next time the children chose not to be reverent in Church meetings. Our children didn’t seem particularly interested. They began to fidget and look away—until the lesson took on a new twist our family will never forget.

I asked Nathan, our eight-year-old, to go into another room for a few minutes, then return when called to tell the family a story he liked. The children thought we were going to play a game, as we often do during family home evening. While Nathan was out, my wife and I told the other three children that when he returned and began to tell his story, we would all talk, giggle, and fidget.

Nathan returned and began. An excellent storyteller, he has won ribbons for his talent at contests. He thought this would be an easy assignment, until he realized that no one was listening to him. Without his audience’s attention, he began fumbling for words and leaving out portions of the story. Frustrated, he finally sat down—without even finishing his tale.

I asked him how this experience had made him feel. Hanging his head, he replied, “Really bad!”

We next asked our second son, who is seven, to leave the room. When Nolan was invited back to tell us his story, he said, “I don’t know any stories.” He knew what was about to happen and how it had made his brother feel, and he wanted no part of it.

When he tried to tell his story and we didn’t pay attention, he became upset and said, “I can’t do it! I can’t talk when other people are talking!”

Here was the teaching moment I had hoped for. I explained, “Now you know how your teachers feel in your classes at church and school, and how it makes the speakers feel when the rest of the congregation or class is irreverent. They feel bad inside, just as you do now. They would like to just sit down and quit, too.”

My children understood. They had learned an important lesson.

So that we could experience the positive side of this lesson, we asked our children to sit up straight, fold their arms, and look at Nathan as he told his story again. This time there was a dramatic difference. He did an excellent job, using facial expressions and hand gestures without stumbling on one word.

After our children had gone to bed, I felt proud of the success of our lesson on reverence. Our children had truly learned something that night! But then a thought came as if someone had hit me over the head with a sledge-hammer: The children had learned, but what about me? Did I know the meaning of the word reverence?

I thought about my past behavior. How many times had I whispered during church meetings and classes? How many times had I worked on talks or read during meetings? How many times had I interrupted others when they were speaking? Upon examining my own actions, I found that I had also been late for church and appointments, dozed off in meetings, and not looked at teachers or speakers when they were speaking to me. I seldom expressed appreciation to the teacher, the speaker, or others for a job well done. And occasionally I stood out in the hall during Sunday School class, visiting with people I saw only at church.

Together, Wendy and I looked up the word reverence. The dictionary defined it as “a feeling of profound respect often mingled with awe and affection.” I began to see that a feeling of deep respect means much more than just not talking in church meetings. Leaving Cheerios on the chapel floor is irreverent, just as is allowing a child to run unsupervised through the halls. There are many little things that I had never even thought of as having to do with reverence. I needed to work on being more reverent as much as my children did!

Since that day, our family has learned to enjoy our meetings and glean more from them than we ever have before.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Stephen Moore

Randal A. Wright, a Primary teacher in the Williamson (Texas) First Ward, is director of the institute adjacent to Lamar University.