My father was a good man, but growing up I remember seeing him in church only four times: three times for blessings of my younger siblings and the fourth time for the funeral of my younger brother. As a boy, I never knew why my father, who was a member, was not active in the Church. When I turned eight, it was my mother who took me to the bishop for my baptismal interview. The Sunday morning came for my baptism in July 1951. My father loaded the family into our old Chevy and drove us out to the warm spring where my oldest brother, Elton, performed the baptism while my father watched from the car.
I remember sitting as a youth in sacrament meetings looking at the fathers seated with their families; I would daydream that my father was with us. Don’t get me wrong; my father set a good example in many ways, but when it came to the Church, he was not interested.
Growing up as a cowboy in eastern Nevada and southwestern Utah, my father had developed a Word of Wisdom problem and had fallen into inactivity. Following my parents’ marriage in 1931, my mother, the bishop, and several family members had encouraged my father to become temple worthy. My parents were sealed in the St. George Temple in 1933. Shortly after their temple sealing, my father fell back into his old ways and stopped all Church activity.
For the next 30 years my mother pushed, pulled, coaxed, pleaded, and at times tried to bribe my father into activity, but he would not budge. There were others who did their part to encourage my father: family members, bishops, and home teachers. My mother’s prayers were always full of hope, but as the years went by her hope became harder to maintain. My father just showed no interest in the Church.
When I graduated from high school I wanted to go on a mission, but circumstances made this decision difficult. My father had told me if I wanted to attend college or go on a mission I would have to earn my own money; with seven children in the family he simply could not afford to pay my way. I knew what I needed to do and decided to look for a job in southern Nevada. It was 1961, and jobs at the Nevada Test Site were plentiful and paid well. Shortly before my departure, my father’s contracted job was completed, so he decided to go to southern Nevada with me.
Following our initial interviews in Las Vegas, we went to Mercury (the Nevada Test Site base camp, about 70 miles northwest of Las Vegas) to get our physicals and report for work. I remember praying earnestly that my father and I would find employment.
Following our medical reviews, the doctor asked my father to step back into his office. My father gave me a look of curious concern: not a smile, not a frown, but a look touched with nervousness.
When my father emerged from the doctor’s office, he was pale. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“My X-ray,” he said. “They found a spot on my right lung. It’s about the size of a quarter.” We were both shocked. The doctor rejected him for employment and told him to quit smoking immediately. He said that in six months my father could come back to the clinic, at which point they would reevaluate his condition and eligibility for employment.
I was assigned to report to work at Area 12, the underground testing site about 40 miles north of Mercury; I would work as a cashier in the cafeteria. It was a nervous and tearful farewell as I drove my father back to Las Vegas that afternoon to catch a bus to St. George, where my mother would meet him. Driving back to Mercury alone I cried again. I also prayed. An assurance came to me that afternoon that everything would be all right. I just had to trust in the Lord and be patient.
My father told me later he made up his mind on the bus ride back to St. George to quit smoking. He never smoked again. As the months went by, I kept my father updated on employment opportunities at the test site in weekly letters and occasional trips home.
Almost a year later, my father reapplied at the test site. He was given a clean bill of health and reported to Area 12 as a miner. The ensuing months were a wonderful time as we spent most of our evenings together. My father became my best friend.
About this time a friend of mine who was serving on a mission sent me a set of missionary discussions to help me prepare for my mission call. I began studying the discussions after work. After a few weeks of practice, I felt impressed one evening to ask my father if I could practice the first discussion on him; Dad would be my first investigator. To my astonishment, he agreed.
I remember being surprised at the answers my father gave me that evening. Following the discussion I told my father I was impressed with his knowledge of the gospel. He smiled and told me that even though he had not been active in the Church for a long time, he had grown up as a faithful boy in the gospel before drifting away from activity. Suddenly, I was impressed to ask him why he was not active. I began by telling him about my daydreaming as a boy, about how I had wished he had been with us at church.
After listening intently, he told me that some 30 years before he had tried to change his life when he got married. He had succeeded long enough to be sealed in the temple. During this critical period, someone had seriously offended him and he slowly slid back into his old lifestyle. I said, “That happened years ago. What does it have to do with today? Why aren’t you active today, Dad?”
First he looked puzzled, then he talked about the time our home burned down and the bishop came to see the family only once to drop off a case of condensed milk. Next, he told me about the neighbor who had wronged him in some minor business dealings back in the 1950s. Lastly, he spoke of other Church members he felt were hypocrites and said he could never be a hypocrite. After listening to him rationalize for several minutes, I mustered all the courage a 19-year-old son could and looked him directly in the eyes. “Dad,” I said, “when you go to the judgment bar, the Savior is not going to ask you what the bishop did or what your neighbors did. He is going to ask you, ‘Clifford, what have you done?’ You won’t be able to blame a bishop, a neighbor, or anyone else. You’ll have to stand before the Savior and answer for yourself.”
My father turned and walked out of the room without saying a word. I remember my mind being flooded with thoughts and worries: What have I done? Was I prompted to ask him about his inactivity? Have I lost the friendship of my father? How can I ever rebuild the trust and friendship we have developed? What should I do?
After my father’s hasty departure, I knelt down by my bed and poured out my heart to Heavenly Father. I asked for a blessing on my father that he would understand my concern and that the darkness in his mind would be removed. I asked that he be blessed with the courage to honestly face the questions I had posed. For the next three days, my prayers continued. On the third evening, my father came to my room. I could tell by his appearance that he was a changed man. He said, “Son, you’re right. I have to change my life.” He told me that he had been praying for the past three days. He knew he needed to change but didn’t know how to do it. “Son,” he said, “I’m afraid. How can I change my life?”
With tears in my eyes and a prayer in my heart, I hugged my father and said, “With the Lord’s help we’ll do this together.” We spent the next several evenings discussing the principles of the gospel as we studied all six missionary discussions. My father was worried about his past life; I remember telling him to look to the future. His old life was now behind him. We talked about the role of the bishop in the repentance process. And we talked about what my father needed to do to put his life back in order. He would need to give up coffee and alcohol, pay an honest tithe, recommit to his priesthood and Church duties, and prepare himself to return with Mom to the temple.
We read the accounts of the Apostle Paul and Alma the Younger. We talked about the courage it takes to change, and I assured my father that the Lord had prepared him over the last year to face the challenges of changing his life. He had not smoked for over a year and was eager to continue on his journey back to the Church.
Shortly after this experience, I received my mission call to Scotland. My father and I agreed to write every week; he had so many questions. I would give answers and provide encouragement and love. The months passed, and my father progressed as he met with the bishop and dedicated himself to live the commandments, continually praying for spiritual guidance and strength.
My father and I exchanged 104 letters during my mission, each one gospel centered. His letters told of the challenges he faced and the progress he was making. At the end of my first year in Scotland, my father was fully active and ready to return to the temple with my mother. She was overjoyed by his return to the Church. Soon my father began to tell me about his missionary experiences working with people in our stake back home. I marveled at his spiritual growth.
When I returned from my mission, I could hardly recognize my father. He was now a high priest, a temple ordinance worker, a faithful home teacher, and a great missionary among the less active. My mission was certainly rewarding, but the greatest missionary experience of my life was the reconversion and recommitment of my father to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Over the next several years, my father must have thanked me a hundred times for caring enough to love and challenge him back into full activity in the gospel. He said the gospel had made his life complete. I will never forget my father’s parting words to me shortly before his death a few years later. He simply said, “Thank you, son, for having the love and courage to challenge me to change my life.”