The Chaplain Changed His Mind
We bid farewell to our loved ones, shouldered our duffel bags, and walked up the loading ramp onto the Sea Ray, a merchant marine ship docked in San Francisco.
The Philippines, forty-four days away, was our destination, where we would serve as replacements during World War II. Of the 2,500 men who swarmed the decks, at least three of us were Latter-day Saints. More than anything, we wanted to meet together in our own sacrament meeting.
We approached the ship’s chaplain and asked if we could use the chapel for our meetings. We were surprised when he said he didn’t have the time to conduct a special meeting for so few. We would have to attend one of the meetings held for other faiths.
We explained that we would conduct our own meetings, and that we only needed the chapel at a time when it wasn’t in use. He insisted that there were not enough of us to make it worthwhile to occupy the chapel. We responded that it would be worthwhile to the three of us.
We continued to ask. He continued to reject. Finally he left, emphatic that we would have to attend one of the services already scheduled.
So we began looking for a secluded spot on that crowded ship. Every available space on deck was occupied by soldiers who preferred the fresh ocean air to the crowded, stuffy quarters below deck. After searching the ship from end to end, we decided the only way we could meet was to sit cross-legged on the crowded superstructure of the deck and study the scriptures together. We wouldn’t be able to enjoy the privacy and freedom that would allow us to partake of the sacrament and to sing and pray, but at least we could be together.
While we were discussing our options, the ship’s shrill whistle interrupted our conversation. “Now hear this,” the loudspeaker blared. “There will be a church service held at six o’clock in room 45 for all Latter-day Saints.” We were shocked, yet pleased that we had been granted a place to meet, and we wondered what had changed the chaplain’s mind.
It was already ten to six, so we scurried to the stairs and descended into what had been a food-storage area. The large room was cluttered with long, thick shipping planks and small wooden barrels. There was no furniture anywhere. But we were excited to have a place where we could partake of the sacrament, sing, and pray.
We began to make benches of the planks and barrels. Before long, young men dressed in combat green fatigues began to descend the stairs, asking if this was the place for the LDS meeting. They pitched in, and soon the room looked organized and ready for services. The sound of boots on the stairway continued. When we counted, there were thirty of us for our first meeting in what had hurriedly become “our lower room.”
Using the songs and prayers in our servicemen’s edition of Principles of the Gospel, we made all the arrangements for a special sacrament meeting. For the sacrament, we partook of the bread from half of a field mess kit and drank water from the same canteen cup. We felt the Spirit of the Lord rest upon us as we listened to impromptu talks and instructions. Our hearts were touched as we were drawn together in our feelings of love for our Heavenly Father and his Beloved Son. Memories of our families and homes became vivid and warm.
We lingered after the meeting, not wanting the time to end. It was the nearest thing to home we would experience while at sea. All week, we looked forward to the next service. These gatherings became bright spots that carried us through some discouraging days.
Our services continued Sunday after Sunday. Unknown to us, the meetings had attracted the attention and curiosity of the chaplain. When we gathered on fast Sunday in January 1945, we were astonished to see our ship’s chaplain descend the stairs into our room. He asked if he might attend our services, and we made him welcome.
Men in combat green bowed in reverent prayer, sang, blessed the sacrament, and partook of those emblems with humility and sincerity. After the sacrament, one by one, the men stood and bore testimonies that were filled with gratitude for the teachings of good parents, for homes where love and fun and happiness were a part of growing up, for the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the earth, and for living prophets.
After the meeting, the chaplain approached and asked if he could speak to us during our next service. We granted his request without hesitation.
Sunday came, and we turned the time over to the chaplain after administering the sacrament. He stood before us as we sat upon our pews of plank and barrels. “I don’t know who you are or what you’re doing here, but whoever you are and whatever your mission, please continue,” he said. “In all the years I studied to become a minister, in all the services I have conducted, in all the church councils I have attended—I have never been lifted spiritually as I was in your meeting last Sunday. Please continue to set the example for others that you have set here.”
We were impressed by the obvious change that had taken place in his heart and mind concerning Latter-day Saints.
We continued to meet in our sacred lower room each Sunday until we reached the shores of Leyte in the Philippines and the tides of war scattered us throughout the South Pacific. Since then I have often wondered about the chaplain and where he is today. I am thankful to him for providing us with a place to meet. And I am grateful for those special meetings that we held in “our lower room.”
“Not Me—I Smoke and Drink”
One day about twenty-five years ago I was busy ironing and baby-sitting several children in my home. I was also enjoying a good soap opera and a cigarette.
The doorbell rang. Two men wearing business suits and warm smiles stood at the door. One of them introduced himself as the bishop of the ward. I invited them in and very quickly explained that had been baptized into the Church when I was ten, but that I had never been very active and knew nothing about the gospel. A few months earlier I had attended a Church meeting and had put my name and address on the roll sheet, but no one had spoken to me.
The bishop smiled, looked me in the eye, and said, “I have been praying for an MIA teacher, and the Lord directed me here.” I told him he was out of his mind. He continued to smile, opened the lesson book he’d brought with him, and started to explain about teaching the class.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “I smoke and drink. I can’t teach sixteen-year-old girls.”
He then explained that I was to start teaching next Wednesday at the skating rink where they met for church. I kept saying, “no,” and he kept right on smiling. I told him I was inactive.
He said, “Not anymore.”
I said, “I smoke.”
He replied, “You have until next Wednesday. God loves you. You can do it.” He smiled, left the lesson book, and walked out the door.
I was stunned. Then I got mad and yelled at the air, “You’d better find someone else, because I’m not going to do it!”
I tried to ignore the book, but my curiosity got the better of me. I read it from cover to cover, all twelve lessons. Wednesday drew nearer. I knew the lesson word for word. All day Wednesday I said I was not going, but at the appointed hour I pulled into the parking lot, so scared I was trembling. I had grown up in the slums, lived through gang wars, fought for food, bailed my dad out of the drunk tank, done a stint in juvenile hall. I could fight my way out of anything, yet here I was, letting that bishop get me into a mess like this. Well, I’d show him! By this time I was sitting in the makeshift chapel and they were introducing me as a new Laurel teacher.
In the classroom, facing two angelic girls, I sat down and gave them the lesson word for word, even the parts that said “Ask the class.” After the class I left quickly and went home and cried. A few days later the doorbell rang and I thought, “Oh, good, it’s that smiling bishop coming after his book.” But no, it was those two Laurel girls. One brought cookies, and one had flowers. They came in and taught me—about the people in the ward, about MIA, and about the class. There were sixteen girls in the class, and they hadn’t had a teacher for months. Lila and Lois were the only active ones.
I liked those girls, and I agreed to go to Sunday School with them the next Sunday. They came home with me for dinner, and then we went back to sacrament meeting. We had a break between the two meetings back then.
With their help, I started teaching the other girls. If the girls wouldn’t come to church, we went wherever they were. We had lessons in bowling alleys, cars, and bedrooms, and on porches. I was determined that if I needed to go to class, those girls did too. One day we were giving the lesson to a girl who was hiding in a closet, and she came out and asked, “What about my free agency?” I told her I had never heard of that lesson and that she could come and teach us the next Wednesday.
Lila and Lois became like daughters to me. They taught me to sew, to look up scriptures, and most of all, to smile. Six months later, fourteen of the girls were coming to class, and all were active within a year. Together we learned to pray, to study the gospel, and to help others. We made many visits to the children’s hospital. We laughed together and cried together in a bond of love. Fifteen months later, I was president of the MIA.
I made a decision during that year of teaching that I would never say “no” to the bishop, and I never have. Two sixteen-year-old girls taught me that. I later learned that my smiling bishop was just as terrified of me as I was of him when he first came to my home, and he was sure I wouldn’t show up to teach the class. I sure showed him—and I’m grateful!
During the Great Depression, my father, Owen M. Jensen, served a mission in what was then the Eastern States Mission. Through the years, he spoke only occasionally about his mission, so we were surprised when he shared with us an experience he had had with Joseph and Irene Cornman.
A few years ago, my father received a visitation in the middle of the night from two spiritual beings whom he recognized as the Cornmans, a couple he had taught while on his mission. He had spent a lot of time working with them, but they had never been baptized.
Dad says that he was wide awake and was not at all frightened as they conversed. The Cornmans looked the same as he had remembered them fifty years ago. They told him that they had now fully embraced the gospel but could progress no further until their temple ordinance work was done. Would he do it?
Mother awoke and found Father sitting on the bed, thumbing through his missionary journal. He soon found that Joseph and Irene had lived in Towson, Maryland.
Mother and Dad went to Salt Lake City, where they tried in vain to research the Cornmans. For the next year and a half, every effort proved futile. A Maryland genealogist whom Mother and Dad hired reported that the Cornmans had moved from Towson in 1944 and she could trace them no further. The search seemed at a dead end.
About this time, my parents traveled east to meet their grandson, who was finishing his mission. They met him in New York, then traveled to Washington, D.C. On their way, they made a point of going through Towson, Maryland.
What Dad had remembered as a town of five thousand people had become a sprawling city of eighty-four thousand. Mother said she felt a warm feeling come over her as they drove into the Towson area. She felt as if someone was urging her onward.
Dad easily found the old Cornman home, but the present occupants knew nothing of the Cornmans. My parents split up and went door-to-door, asking people if they knew anyone who might remember the Cornmans.
They were eventually referred to Isabel Justice, who was in a local nursing home. Miss Justice, a sharp nonagenarian, remembered the Cornmans well. In fact, she had recently received a letter from their daughter, Ruth, who lived in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
Ruth remembered Dad as a missionary, and she invited my parents to visit her. As they talked, she asked, “Why are you so interested in my parents?”
Father recounted all that had taken place, including the visitation from her parents and their request to him. He told her they had fully embraced the gospel of Jesus Christ and desired to be sealed to their family for eternity.
Ruth provided what information she could remember right then, and told them she would have exact dates by the next morning. The following day, Dad and Mother got all the information necessary to complete the temple work for Joseph and Irene Cornman.
The experience increased the testimony of our whole family, not only of the continuing progress made in the spirit world and the importance of temple work, but of the eternal effects of our earthly missionary efforts.