More than a College Reunion
I attended my forty-year class reunion at Stanford University somewhat reluctantly. Although the insecure girl who had graduated forty years earlier had almost nothing in common with the woman I had become, the very atmosphere of the place still stirred up some of those long-forgotten anxieties.
In those far-off days, I had left my tiny town in Washington state to attend an awe-inspiring university in northern California, a move that had required a great deal of courage. I was as “green” as any freshman could be. Being assigned two California roommates only increased my insecurities. I wasn’t confident about my appearance. I wasn’t fashionable. And I wasn’t particularly brilliant.
My only armor against all this newness was a strong belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I had been a member of the Church for just four years, and my beliefs gave me courage to be different. But the years that followed weren’t easy. I ultimately earned my degree, but I never considered myself a “Stanford Woman”—someone who would make a difference and do great things.
These feelings of inadequacy, strangely unchanged by a lifetime of growth, still haunted me when I stepped into the reception hall for the reunion. Almost immediately, a former classmate who had lived across the hall from me in my freshman dormitory identified herself. I honestly didn’t remember her and was consequently surprised when she began asking me rather personal questions.
“Are you still a devout Mormon?” she queried, to which I said yes.
I continued saying yes as she asked me whether my husband and children were active in the Church, whether my son had served a mission, whether I held a calling in my ward, and whether my children had married in the temple and had families.
After enduring this catechism through a haze of bewilderment, I was finally enlightened. “Do you remember when we were freshmen and you used to go to church alone all the time?” she asked. “Well, you were the only one I knew who ever went to church every Sunday. I was really intrigued by that, so I asked you all kinds of questions about your church when I wrote a paper on comparative religions.”
She went on to remind me that I had given her pamphlets about the Church and that the best thing I had done for her was to write down my feelings about my religion. “Your thoughts held the central theme of my paper,” she continued, “and that paper stayed buried in my garage until just a few years ago. My son said he’d help me sort through my storage boxes and, believe it or not, he found that paper and asked for my permission to read it.”
She relayed the rest of the story with misty eyes: “That paper changed the course of his life. He decided to call the LDS church and ask for someone to answer his questions. He studied and finally asked to be baptized. He went to BYU, served a mission, and is now doing research for the Church in Provo!”
I was so overwhelmed by her words I was visibly shaken. Then a great mantle of peace settled on me, and the eternal wisdom of the Spirit whispered that it had all been worth it—the initial loneliness, the agony of being different, the years of anxiety.
While we were talking so intensely, an audience of interested listeners had gathered around us almost unnoticed by either of us. Everyone hastened to comment to me on the favorable experiences they had had with the Church, no matter how remote. My life-style, which had seemed so ridiculous to them in those days, now seemed to be an object of admiration and fascination.
As my husband and I drove home after that surprising and rewarding weekend, I began to see my life and blessings from a new perspective. My feelings of inadequacy vanished. I, a lonely, frightened, and insecure girl, had planted a seed that had borne fruit. And although Stanford had prepared my mind, the Church had prepared my heart—for the greater blessings of a wonderful family, for the life-style of my faith, and for the peace of mind that came with knowing I had made a difference.
Enemy Soldier at the Pulpit
My father was called to preside over the East German Mission at the outbreak of World War II. At this time, he was also drafted into the German army. He directed the affairs of the mission from the battlefield through his two counselors.
One Sabbath before Christmas, he felt very lonely, stationed in Denmark away from his family, and wanted to worship God in sacrament meeting. He didn’t know whether an LDS branch existed in Esbjerg, but he assumed there might be one somewhere in the city. He didn’t speak the language, but, dressed in his full military uniform, he hummed the tune of a favorite hymn as he walked on a city street. He hoped he would attract the attention of someone who could lead him to the Church.
Sure enough, as a little girl passed my father, she asked him in Danish, “Mormon?” and, seeing him nod his head, she led him to the branch meetinghouse.
My father risked his life, realizing that if he were discovered by Nazi officials among enemy people in their worship services, he could face a charge of treason, punishable by death. He also took a risk by surrendering his weapon belt to the branch president at the door and by accepting an invitation to deliver a Christmas message during sacrament meeting in another enemy tongue—English.
A young Danish girl who was a member of the branch wrote to my mother about the strange experience of having an enemy soldier in their midst:
Last night I visited the branch. There was a German there, your husband. Even though many Danish people hate Germans, we learned to love this man. He spoke to the congregation in English, and William Orum Peterson translated. Your husband related how only a month ago, he had lost everything he had, and the mission home had been destroyed. But he was thankful that his wife and children were safe. He then gave testimony of the truthfulness of the Church. It was wonderful to see a man in the uniform we hated speak with so much love for us. He was happy to be among the Saints.
Years later, after our father had died and our family had moved to Salt Lake City in the 1950s, we received another letter—this time from a woman who worked for the Genealogical Society of the Church and whose husband had met my father at the Esbjerg branch. She had enclosed a letter that my father had written while in Russia to the woman’s husband in Denmark. It had been censored and displayed a blue diagonal line across its face. We wondered how it had ever reached its destination, having been written in English by a German military officer in Russia to a man living in Denmark. Dated 17 May 1944, it read:
Dear Brother Olsen,
More than two months ago, I left Denmark. During these weeks, I have experienced the dreadful aspect of the war, but I have been wonderfully protected from harm and illness. I am thankful to the Lord for his many blessings, and I am looking forward to the time when I will be happy to meet my loved ones at home again. So far, my wife and children have also been protected from the terror of hostile airplanes flying over Germany daily. I am thinking of you and the other dear friends I met while in Esbjerg, and I wish you all the good luck in the world for the future. Give my kindest regards to all I know, will you please?
My father’s love for the gospel and for the members of the Church transcended national boundaries. He visited that Danish branch—and shared his love and his testimony with the members—despite the great risks involved. Later, still acting as wartime president of the East German Mission, he was starved to death in a prisoner-of-war camp deep in Russian territory near the end of World War II.
Rescued from the Street Gang
The student body in my New Jersey high school included several opposing street gangs who came to school armed with knives, chains, mace, clubs, and other assorted combat gear. They roamed the halls, terrorizing both students and teachers, and vandalized school property, looking for trouble.
On one particular day in 1971, my senior year, several small fires had been started in some of the classrooms, resulting in a rash of fire drills. Although students were instructed to wait outside until the fires could be extinguished, my friend and I decided, after the third fire drill of the day, that we’d had enough. We would sneak back into the building, go to our lockers to collect our books, and go home.
After entering the building through a back door, I gathered up my books and we went to my friend’s locker. Suddenly we heard the roar of screaming voices approaching us from around a corner. We turned around, and to our horror, a gang of about one hundred, wielding sticks and chains, came charging toward us.
We ran for the nearest exit, but as we opened the door, they pulled my friend back into the school by her hair. I tried to help her, but they turned on me and beat me to the ground. My vision blurred as I looked up into the crowd of faces above me. A sharp kick in my side sent pain shooting up my back and took my breath away.
Then suddenly a boy found his way to me and began pulling kids off of me, literally picking up several of the gang members and throwing them down the hall. By this time, the crowd began to disperse. The principal, vice-principal, and several of the male gym teachers were kneeling beside me asking me questions, but I could not speak. Finally, I was lifted onto a stretcher and wheeled into a waiting ambulance. At my side sat two paramedics and the boy who had first come to my rescue.
I was released from the hospital with severe bruises, including a bruised kidney, and ordered to remain in bed for two weeks. The episode appeared on the front page of the local newspaper the following day and, as I was reading it, the sheriff appeared at my bedside with a subpoena for me to appear in court to testify against my attackers. When I did finally return to school, an armed guard escorted me to all my classes and waited for me outside the room until each class was over.
At this point, my parents decided that it was time to move. My new high school was twenty miles from my old neighborhood and had none of the disciplinary problems that plagued my previous school. As I began to settle into my new surroundings and make new friends, a different experience awaited me: my introduction to the gospel.
A friend named Marci in my western literature class invited me to come hear her speak in Church. Upon discovering that she was a Mormon—the only Mormon, in fact, at that school—I was overcome with curiosity and accepted the invitation. I visited sacrament meeting, and this soon led to attending early morning seminary with my friend—and finally to accept the missionary discussions. Several months later, I announced that I wanted to be baptized. I felt as if someone had been watching over me, but at times I wondered if I was just reacting to the traumatic experience I had recently been through.
Before my baptism, an assignment as a substitute Primary teacher in our small New Jersey branch took me twenty miles away, to a chapel next to my old neighborhood. I arrived early and went inside to wait for the rest of the Primary crew.
In the foyer behind a glass case on the wall, I saw a picture. There, along with photographs of several other young men serving missions, was a photo of the boy who had come to my aid and had sat beside me in the ambulance. I stared in amazement. Another Mormon! It was as if Heavenly Father had sent a series of personal escorts to usher me through my conversion to the gospel. Suddenly, I felt very important in his eyes and received a confirmation as I stood in that foyer that I was making the right decision in getting baptized. He had indeed been watching over me.
Seventeen years later, while visiting my family in New Jersey, I drove to my old high school to have a look around. All of the doors were locked because of summer recess. I walked around to the back of the school until I came to a glass exit door. As I cupped my hands together and peered inside the darkened building, I saw that spot on the floor in front of my friend’s locker where I had been beaten eighteen years ago.
Many places are considered special in our church—the Hill Cumorah, Carthage jail, and the temple, to name a few—but to me, the small area of hallway in that troubled high school is sacred ground. It changed my life in a way I could never have imagined. And although I might have chosen a more peaceful way to be introduced to the gospel, I am grateful to have even been given the chance at all.