When the Duttons (all names have been changed) moved into our ward for the third time, there was an almost audible groan. Each preceding time they had resided within our boundaries had been a challenge. They were one of “those” families:
—Kids: unruly, unkempt, many problems.
—Mother: overwhelmed by her responsibilities and unable to discipline her children.
—Father: usually out of work and unwilling to discipline the children except to punish them when others complained.
The first time the Duttons had lived in the Eighth Ward, my family and I hadn’t yet moved to Arizona. The second time we had just moved back from Kansas, but I taught the ward family history class then, and I never had any actual contact with any of them except to see them, hear about them, and judge them. Each of the first two times, they had lived in the ward for only a matter of months. But the third time we heard that Brother Dutton had secured a good job and that they had rented a house in our area. It looked like they would be staying. I was a counselor in the Primary presidency, and five of the seven Dutton children would be in Primary. Oh, no, I thought. What will Sunday be like now!
Sister Davis, our Primary president and a very spiritual person, called a special fast for the presidency. We needed to find out, she said, just what Heavenly Father wanted us to do about the Duttons. The rumor was that they would devastate the opening exercises and Sharing Time and make chaos of the five classes they would attend. We were pretty sure that their parents could not be counted on for any constructive support. In fact, we were told, if we did meet with the parents and “tattle” on the kids, the child involved would probably be severely punished when he got home, and we would have that on our consciences.
When Sunday came, it was as I expected. The Duttons were loud and boisterous and late. They made a grand entrance with their yelling and waving and clinging to each other. The pattern became established: two or three of them would get up and leave about midway through Sharing Time, and one of us would go out and find them and bring them back. Once a week at least two of the Dutton children’s teachers would come to a member of the presidency and, often in tears, ask for help in their classrooms. I was constantly frustrated. But never once did I see our president waver. She just kept saying, “We have to love them. They get enough negatives at home and at school. Let our Primary be where they can come for unconditional love. Heavenly Father wants us to love them. He loves them. He really does love them.”
It was hard. I would see our president put her arm around Alan and see him elbow her in the ribs and pull away. I would hear her say to Salinda, “I want you in Primary because I like you.” At first I thought our president was being less than honest, but when I looked into her face, I knew she wasn’t. And then I began to pray. I, too, wanted to be able to like the Duttons.
I began to notice things that I hadn’t noticed before. Reggie always wanted to say the prayer. He could never do it without help, but he always wanted to pray. Emily always wore the same dress. Every Sunday. But it was always clean and ironed. Justin smiled a lot. He had a hard time looking at anyone who spoke to him, but he smiled readily. Salinda seemed to be the protectress. She shielded her brothers and sister from anything she felt might hurt them. Often she would follow Emily or Reggie to class and stay until they were seated and okay. And Alan, a Blazer, had the shiniest, most beautiful black hair I had ever seen. He was meticulous about his grooming.
Sister Davis reported to us that she’d been questioned about our “problems” in ward council meeting. She told us that she had simply stated that the Duttons were great kids with a few little quirks, and that they just needed lots of love to work things out. She had reported that we loved the Dutton children, and that we had seen lots of improvement. I wondered where I had been during this marvelous transformation, but I didn’t say anything and just kept praying.
I began to notice other subtle changes. Reggie started saying, “Our dear Heavenly Father, we’re grateful for Primary,” before he would stop and ask for help. Emily found a ribbon to match her Sunday dress and wore it in her hair often. Justin glanced up and caught my eye one Sunday when I asked him about his Cub Scout work. I overheard Salinda tell Emily that Emily’s Primary teacher would take good care of her because she liked her, and that she would just have to be brave and go by herself to class. And Alan had stopped hitting Sister Davis when she put her arm around him each Sunday. Occasionally, he didn’t even pull away.
They were such unusual little things to notice, but in the case of the Duttons, they were unusual little miracles. I’m afraid all those moments of progress would never have meant much to me if it hadn’t been for Emily’s baptism. Her baptism brought it all into focus and changed my perspective. Forever, I hope.
Sister Davis asked me to play the piano at the baptism because our Primary organist was sick. I didn’t really want to go because it takes such a chunk out of my Saturday to get dressed up and drive to the chapel. But I did go because I didn’t want to disappoint Sister Davis. When I arrived, everything seemed to be going wrong. The bishop wasn’t there yet. The man in charge of filling the font hadn’t come. The library wasn’t open, and no one had a key except the bishop, and so the printed program that had been prepared so nicely by one of the ward sisters couldn’t be copied. The Dutton children were all running around from room to room, laughing and shouting.
The baptism started forty-five minutes late. It went something like this:
We all sang the opening song. Reggie gave the opening prayer without any help at all. The bishop welcomed everyone, and Justin looked him right in the eye when he spoke. Sister Dutton and her two daughters sang “Baptism” from the Sing With Me songbook. Emily was in her regular Sunday dress and ribbon, but on this special day she had a rose from someone’s garden pinned in her hair. She looked very pretty.
Then Salinda gave a beautiful talk on baptism that incorporated some stories from her own life. (She told me later that she had written the talk herself and that her mother had typed it up for her to read, and asked if I noticed that she had said it from memory. Yes, I certainly had noticed.)
Emily went timidly with her mother into the little room next to the font and emerged a few minutes later, in white, walking cautiously down the steps and into the water to meet her father. Brother Dutton took her left hand gently and put it over his forearm and held her right wrist securely within his palm. He raised his arm to the square and started to say the prayer. But he couldn’t. He tried, but the words, held by emotion, wouldn’t come out. His tears made little splashes into the font, and he cleared his throat and tried again. Four times he tried. And then, the fifth time, he said the simple prayer clearly and quickly and baptized Emily with the priesthood authority that he so humbly held. The long, tear-filled silence was broken only after I started playing the piano interlude, which I could barely see to do.
It didn’t seem very long before Brother Dutton came back, and then Emily and her mother. Emily looked fresh and angelic; her mother looked tired but happy; but her father—I think it was her father’s expression that made the greatest impression on me. As he sat there looking off into space, he looked wistful (I’ll say wistful because the dictionary says that wistful means “full of unfulfilled longing or desire; yearning”). He didn’t look hopeless or unhappy, but rather as if he was saying, “I’m doing the best I can do. Maybe it’s not as good as some people are doing, but I’m trying.” I could hardly see the notes on the music in front of me.
The Duttons’ home teacher gave the next talk. Then Emily was confirmed and received the Holy Ghost. Her grandmother bore her testimony and said how proud she was of Emily. I was proud as well. I was proud of all of them. I realized that I loved the Duttons; and I liked them, too. We sang “I Am a Child of God,” which had never held so much meaning for me, and Alan gave the closing prayer.
“If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?
“And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.” (1 Jn. 4:20–21.)
On the way home I think that I, too, received the Holy Ghost. I was impressed that the feeling of love for Emily Dutton and her family I had felt at the baptism was from my Heavenly Father. I also realized that too often I had thought the Morgans and the Prestons and the Hoolings (all well-dressed, well-mannered, leadership-holding families in our ward) were “the Church” and that the Duttons and “those” families were just problems to deal with. I felt as never before that I had seen more strength in that struggling, humble family than I had ever seen in myself.
“Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—
“But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.
“For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?” (Mosiah 4:17–19.)
I came to realize that “the Church” is made up of all those who love God and struggle to keep his commandments.
The next day, the Dutton children scrambled noisily into Primary ten minutes late, but later Salinda said to me, “I’m sorry we weren’t on time.” The Duttons still had problems, and Emily’s baptism had not changed that. But it had changed me.
Perhaps it’s not too late. Perhaps the Dutton family moved into our ward just in time to save my soul.