Andy Upton: They Helped Him Build a Testimony
In the hot, dry southern Australian summer of 1979, Andy Upton was perched on the roof of his home, busily engaged in some uncomfortable renovation work.
Suddenly, the earnest face of a young man appeared over the top of the ladder. His white shirt and tie—even in the middle of summer—were the unmistakable attire of a Mormon missionary.
“Look, you can see I’m really busy,” Andy Upton told the young missionary. “If you really wanted to help me, you’d get into some jeans and get up here.” The missionary promptly disappeared, and ten minutes later returned with his companion, both of them in jeans and casual shirts. For much of that afternoon, the three men worked on the Uptons’ roof.
For the Upton family, this was the closing chapter in a long story that finally ended in their baptisms.
Andy had first encountered LDS missionaries at a friend’s house in Adelaide when he was nineteen. He had even gone to a fast and testimony meeting, but the missionaries left the area soon afterward and the contact was lost.
Seven years later, the Uptons had a brief acquaintance with two more missionaries. They heard two of the missionary discussions, but then moved and lost contact again.
Four more years passed before another pair of tracting missionaries knocked on the door of the Upton home. Elders Craig Winter and Grant Scabelund were told by Andy’s wife, Roslyn, that they could come back and talk to her and her husband together. But again, they found the Uptons planning to move.
Andy remembers Elder Scabelund seeming deeply disappointed. “He took the time to bear testimony to me very strongly,” Andy recalls. “He bore testimony of the Restoration with such force that I couldn’t forget it. After they left, I prayed about it as he had urged me to do, and received a strong witness. The feeling of peace and calm stayed with me for the next two days.”
But with the pressures of moving and the demands of setting up a new home, the spiritual feelings were pushed further and further into the background. (The Uptons’ life had been hectic for years. A successful pop singer with a number one record to his credit, Andy had music engagements as well as a daytime job in a timber yard.)
It was the appearance of Elder Scabelund at the top of that ladder that finally prompted the Uptons to make a decision.
“What really impressed me was the fact that those missionaries came back with their jeans on to help,” Andy says. “By this time, Elder Scabelund had a different companion. He had gotten our new address from my wife, and whenever they came they would help with the work before they talked to us about the gospel.
“We still had problems scheduling appointments, but finally my wife and I talked about it and decided we should drop everything for the Church.
“I had already received a witness, but the timing had been wrong. Now, we were ready.”
The Uptons, who now have four children aged two to thirteen, were baptized in November of 1979—eleven years after Andy’s first encounter with Latter-day Saint missionaries.
Brother Upton is now mission leader in the West Lakes Ward, Adelaide Australia Marion Stake. His wife is Relief Society home-making leader.
Margaret Lawson: Kununurra’s Solitary Saint
It isn’t possible to get much farther north in Australia than the township of Kununurra without paddling in the Timor Sea. The town is a remote farming and mining community of three thousand people—just one of them a Latter-day Saint.
Except for Margaret Lawson, there isn’t another member of the Church within 700 kilometers (437 miles). Her ability to stay fully “active” for the past fourteen years has set an example for other isolated Church members.
Born in England, Sister Lawson emigrated to Australia in 1966 at the age of 30. She suffers from acute arthritic and bronchial conditions, so her doctor had recommended a warmer climate.
First settling in Perth, a major city on the Indian Ocean shoreline of western Australia, Sister Lawson encountered Latter-day Saints in a local theater group. When she took on the job of stage manager, both the manager of the group and the lead male actor were Latter-day Saints.
Every time the group started or finished rehearsals, the manager called them together for prayer, Sister Lawson recalls. “Even though the rest of us were not members, it gave me a very warm feeling—I always used to quietly pray before I went on stage, and this seemed right, somehow.”
An invitation to attend Church meetings followed, and Sister Lawson was soon baptized. Naturally cheerful and enthusiastic, she served as ward and stake drama director in Perth and became thoroughly involved in the Church.
But her health continued to deteriorate. When she finally needed a cane to walk, her doctor told her she should go to the north of Australia, where the climate is distinctly warmer and much more humid. Ever since then, her home has been in Kununurra, where she works as a medical laboratory technician.
In order to maintain her commitment to the gospel and build her spirituality, Sister Lawson set some standards for herself when she moved to Kununurra that she has maintained ever since. She reads two or three chapters from the standard works daily, systematically working her way through each of them. She also reads every piece of Church literature she can get. “I subscribe to all the Church magazines,” she says, “even the Friend. I read every word in them—but I must confess I’m not very good at dot-to-dot!”
Twice each month, she receives a phone call from the Relief Society president in the city of Darwin, 700 kilometers away—the center of Church activity in Australia’s vast Northern Territory. The phone calls are a welcome morale booster, as are the photocopies of lessons from the Relief Society and Sunday School manuals which are also sent.
Normally, Sister Lawson has an opportunity to take the sacrament only once every six months. When she can get the time off work, she travels to Darwin for district conference—a weekend trip that costs her an average of $350 for air fares. Occasionally, the mission president or another priesthood holder travels through the town, and Sister Lawson often takes that opportunity to ask for a blessing.
Sometimes, because employees in the mining industry tend to be mobile, other members will take up temporary residence in Kununurra. Even one more member is enough for Sister Lawson to consider it a “branch.”
Her advice to people in isolated circumstances is to “make a friend of Heavenly Father.
“You have to study regularly, talk to him as if he is a real friend, and then try to make a friend of others around you. You don’t have to change your standards just because you associate with nonmembers who feel and behave differently.”
Sister Lawson says it’s especially important to become involved in the community. She is president of the local theater group, treasurer of the local Progress Association, and vice-president of the town’s Cultural Coordinating Committee.
Endowed in the London Temple while on leave, Sister Lawson is 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) from the Sydney Temple—too far to travel regularly. However, she recently launched Kununurra’s only genealogical society. Her eventual aim: to serve a temple mission in one of the tropical-climate temples.
Bob Cowan: The Moment That Changed His Life
Bob Cowan left home when he was nineteen, and for three years he crisscrossed the Australian continent in his small yellow MG-B sports car. Like many young Australians, he felt the urge to see something of the vast continent he called home.
In the three years that followed, he circled the country twice, working in twenty-six different jobs. But the traveling also brought him a blessing he hadn’t counted on—he became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
His nomadic life “was marvelous at first,” Bob now says. “It was all I ever wanted to do—travel, see Australia, not be worried about ties or commitments.” His system was to drive until he found a locality that interested him, work for a while, and then move on.
But two things happened during his travels which were to have a profound influence on his life.
Working as a post mortem (autopsy) attendant in a hospital, he came face to face with death for the first time. It was a sobering experience for a young man who had felt until then that life meant having fun.
Some time later, driving through Townsville in north Queensland, Bob witnessed the aftermath of the cyclone which ravaged the city in 1972. “The destruction was incredible. I remember just sitting in my car and thinking there had to be more purpose to life—something more.
“I had seen everything I ever longed to see. But at the end of it there was nothing. Just a feeling of emptiness.
“I remember saying a silent prayer as I sat in my car: ‘God, if you are there, do with me whatever you need to do.’”
The following day, Bob Cowan parked his sports car on what he describes as a paradisiacal beach outside Cairns, many miles to the north, and then found he couldn’t restart it. Waiting for a mechanic to bring help, he began to sculpt in the clean, moist sand. Soon he was approached by a woman who complimented him on his talent, and then led the conversation into a gospel-related discussion.
“She told me that the local branch of her church was having a cruise the next day, and asked me if I’d like to come along,” Bob says. “I knew nothing about this woman or the church she talked about, but as I was sitting on the back of the tow truck, with my car being taken back to town, I received a strong spiritual witness that this invitation was the answer to my prayer.”
At the wharf the next day, the missionaries—clearly fore-advised by the sister who had spoken to him—flagged down his yellow sports car. Bob joined the Church group on the cruise. “All the time I was on the boat, I had the distinct impression that I was at home,” he says.
The missionaries did not go on the cruise, but the next day they gave Bob a Book of Mormon and urged him to read it.
Bob’s plans were to travel on to the remote northern Australian town of Weipa, so he took the book with him and read it from cover to cover—mostly in the tiny, two-man aluminum hut where he was staying. Deeply responsive to what he read, Bob knew he wanted to be baptized.
He flew back to Cairns for several eventful days. The elders taught him all six discussions in a single night; the following day he was baptized, and he attended Church on Sunday.
Returning immediately to the isolated town of Weipa, Bob was unable to attend church for another two years. “I was excited to be a member,” he says, “but I knew very little about the Church. I knew nothing about the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, or the history of the Church. In one conversation with a nonmember, I told him I thought he was mistaken when he said the Mormons were led west to Salt Lake City by Brigham Young.”
But in 1974, two years after becoming a member and now aged twenty-four, Bob was sent to Brisbane by the company for which he was working. Promptly looking up the address of the Church in the local phone book, he began attending regularly. He acquired gospel knowledge rapidly, and little more than a year later departed on a mission to Perth—three thousand miles away on the other side of the continent.
Soon after returning from his mission, he was called into the presidency of the Australia Brisbane Mission, and a year later as a counselor in the Brisbane Australia Stake presidency. He has served in that position for more than seven years.
President Cowan recalls his earlier life with some wonder.
“I have never been able to locate the sister who first invited me to that Church social event, but it was the moment that changed my life.”