A Hike to Eternity


It all began about eleven years ago on a warm, beautiful winter day in our Oakland, California, neighborhood.

“Let’s hike up to that Mormon temple on the hill,” Michael, then eleven years old, suggested.

The whole family—my husband, Stewart; Michael; Martin, nine; John, five; and myself—had our chores out of the way, so it was the perfect time for just such an excursion. But Stewart and I exchanged troubled glances. We weren’t Mormons, and neither of us was sure it was a good idea to venture onto Mormon property.

We had lived just below the Oakland Temple for more than a year, but we had never gone near it. We were an interracial family and, though we had heard the Mormons now allowed blacks to hold the priesthood, we were certain we wouldn’t be welcome there. Besides, we really weren’t interested in going anywhere near a church with such a well-known image of discrimination against blacks.

“Michael, I don’t think we’d better go there,” I said. “Mormons don’t like blacks, and they especially don’t like mixed families.”

“Oh, Mom, they won’t care if we just hike up to their temple. We won’t hurt anything. Please—it’d be a great hike!”

We batted the problem around a bit, with the boys assuring us that by going “the back way,” we could get to the temple without being seen. Finally, since they were so eager to go, we decided it would be worth risking an embarrassing situation.

There was just one thing the kids had failed to tell us about this “back way”—it was up what seemed to be a ninety-degree cliff left after a landslide had washed away the hill behind the temple grounds. What a climb! And the stress of listening for someone to yell and tell us to get off the property didn’t make it any easier.

When we finally reached the top, we stopped the boys. “Don’t run off exploring. Stay close to us and be ready; they’ll probably ask us to leave as soon as someone sees us,” we warned.

As we turned the corner onto the main grounds, we couldn’t believe our eyes—the sight was magnificent! There were trees and flowers, fountains, a running stream, and wrought-iron gates and fences. The temple was the most breathtakingly beautiful building we had ever seen. Other buildings stretched off across the grounds to our right.

“I wonder what they use all these buildings for?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Stewart said, “But it looks like there’s a visitors’ center over there. Maybe they have something we can read. Should we chance it?” Just then, a man leading a group of people came out of the center and headed across the courtyard toward the temple.

“Look!” Michael said, “He’s taking them up to the top. Can we go, too? If we’re quiet, they won’t even know we’re there.”

Decision time. While not as curious as Michael was, Martin and John really wanted to see where the stairs went, so we decided to trail along behind the group. The plan was to keep the other people between us and the guide.

“Remember, stay at the back, and don’t say anything. Just listen to what he says,” I cautioned.

Up we went, grabbing a handful of Church brochures from a rack at the base of the stairs. As we stepped onto the terrace that encircles the temple, all of Oakland, San Francisco, Marin County, and the Peninsula stretched below us. Tiny cars made their way over the Bay Bridge, while the Golden Gate Bridge stood silhouetted against the Pacific. The world seemed truly to be at our feet.

But the guide’s words gradually began cutting through my fascination with the scenery. He was explaining the huge bas-relief of the Savior preaching to the Lamanites. As he retold the story of the peoples journeying to this hemisphere from the Holy Land and establishing their culture, Stewart and I exchanged surprised glances.

Only a year or two before, we had traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, and toured the ruins of Monte Alban. As we had climbed back and forth across the Zapotec pyramids, we had puzzled over the similarities between these ruins and those found in the Middle East. There didn’t seem to be any possible way the two cultures could be connected, but we couldn’t rid ourselves of the nagging feeling that somehow they were. It was a mystery we had discussed numerous times, but we had never found a satisfactory answer to the puzzle.

Now, standing here on the grounds of a Mormon temple, the pieces started to fall into place. Not only had we found some answers to the mystery, we had found a whole church that taught all about what we had seen and that also explained how it had happened. It was amazing!

But the Mormons? How could that be? We had outlived our “hippie” days and had been looking for a church for our family, but this didn’t make sense. We had finally found a church that could answer some of our questions, and it was probably the one church we would never join. We knew the Mormons didn’t want us, and we were certain we didn’t want anything to do with them. What were we going to do?

What we did was begin moving closer and closer to the front of the group. By the end of the tour, when the guide asked who would like a free Book of Mormon, guess who were in the front row with their hands up!

Much to our relief, he didn’t chase us off. Instead, he smiled warmly, wrote down our address, and told us we would be getting a call in the next few days to set a time for someone to bring the book to us. He asked if we had any questions. Not wanting to press our luck, we said no, thanked him for the tour, and left before he could change his mind about giving us a copy of the book.

I wish I could say we had a deep theological discussion as we headed home, but we didn’t talk much. Stewart and I were trying to figure out this latest curve in our lives, and the boys were hurrying to get back to their friends. Even Michael, the force behind our exposure to the Church, was more interested in stopping for an ice-cream cone than in talking about Mormons.

A few days later, as promised, I got a call from a polite young man who called himself Elder Nelson. He asked when he and his companion (What in the world is a “companion”? we wondered) could bring us our Book of Mormon. I set a time and then couldn’t resist saying, “You called yourself ‘Elder,’ but you sound about nineteen.”

A boyish giggle came over the line as he said, “Oh, no, I’m twenty.”

That night, Brad Nelson and Kirk Bodine—or Nelson and Bodine as we lovingly called them ever after (even though we later learned that their names were to be preceded with “Elder”)—walked into our home and began leading us on the path to the Lord.

They surely must have been two of the most dedicated missionaries in the Oakland Mission. There wasn’t a day that went by that they didn’t make contact with us. It seemed as though if they didn’t have an appointment with us, we would find a note, a religious book, or a picture of the temple at our door.

While Nelson and Bodine did bring us the truth via the basic discussions, they made that truth come alive through their actions. They lived the beauty they preached.

Bodine had had polio as a child and was forced to use crutches or a cane to get around. I can guess at how extreme the pain must have been because, shortly after our baptism, it forced him to return home—and forced is the accurate verb. He was devastated at not finishing his mission and felt he had failed. I tried to tell him that maybe his mission had been to bring our family into the Church, and, if that was the case, he had certainly been totally successful. It didn’t seem to help much, but it was all the reassurance I had to give at the time.

Bodine’s strength and determination to teach his faith made a far stronger statement about his beliefs than any words he ever said to us, and that beautiful spirit was matched by his voice. Tears still come to my eyes when I remember watching him and Nelson, sitting side by side, harmonizing on “‘Give,’ Said the Little Stream,” with Michael, Martin, and John gazing up at them. Is it surprising that, to this day, it’s my favorite Primary song?

Nelson? How can I describe what Nelson meant to our conversion? I never told him, but I can pinpoint my decision to join the Church to the moment he made one particular comment. He was getting ready to teach us a discussion, and I was sitting there with my cigarettes and a glass of wine. I told him that while many of the things they were saying seemed true to me, I could never join the Church because it would mean giving up cigarettes and wine, and I wasn’t willing to do that.

He sat there a second and then said, “The Church won’t tell you to give anything up. You’ll know what you have to do when the time comes.”

I didn’t respond, but it was the perfect answer. If he had done something else—quoted scripture, rationalized, evaded, even suggested that I pray about it—I would have balked, and I doubt that our family would have joined the Church. (At least, not then!) But he didn’t, and at that moment it became clear to me that if I truly believed what the Church taught, I could not continue smoking and drinking. The two could not exist together, and, in my heart, I already knew the Church was right. I couldn’t pretend otherwise, so I kicked an eighteen-year habit and never smoked another cigarette or took another drink.

Stewart and I laugh about it now, but long before we had the final discussion, we knew the Church was true. In fact, we remember standing in our kitchen after hearing the third or fourth discussion, wondering how long Nelson and Bodine were going to make us wait before we could be baptized.

They didn’t rush us. They gave us all the discussions, supported us when we first went to church and found out we were welcome (the last major hurdle), worked with the boys to help them decide whether they wanted to be baptized, and answered our hundreds of questions. A month after we began the discussions, Stewart, Michael, Martin, and I were baptized, and John, who was not yet eight years old, was blessed.

A year later, our family was sealed in the Oakland Temple.

In the intervening decade, our family’s “hike to eternity” has carried us halfway around the world and back again to our present home in Oregon. We’ve taken some wrong turns and detours along the way, and some of the trail has been rough. But in all our wanderings, we have never found hide nor hair of the racism we had worried about. What we have found is a world filled with Bodines and Nelsons—Church member “co-hikers” who are always ready to reacquaint us with the map and put us back on the right path to eternity.

[illustration] Illustrated by Allen Garns

Myrna Branam is nursery leader in the Corvallis Second Ward, Corvallis Oregon Stake.