20907_000_005As a convert, I often found myself struggling to remain connected with my family while living my religion.
One Sunday morning after I finished teaching a Relief Society lesson, one of the sisters surprised me by saying, “I sure appreciated hearing about your family.” I looked at her dumbfounded. I had shared a story about how the family I was raised in had coped with such problems as divorce and alcoholism. I wondered what she could possibly have appreciated about the example I shared.
My look of puzzlement prompted her to explain: “Your family sounds like mine. I was raised by alcoholic parents, and my home, too, was marked by contention and divorce.”
“I guess some of us live in two worlds,” I replied. “In one we create our own Latter-day Saint homelife, and in the other we try to maintain a cordial relationship with our extended families.” Later, as I reflected on our conversation, I realized how the gospel had brought light and knowledge into my life, and I pondered how different my home was from the homes of my own brothers and sisters. As I thought about the path that had taken me out of the lifestyle I had grown up in, I could feel only gratitude.
I grew up outside the Church in a home where a curse was quick off the lips, where the house was full of cigarette smoke, where family was so fractured that holiday gatherings often began or ended in arguments and hard feelings, and where religion and religious people were shunned.
Somehow, despite all that, I felt a deep need inside to be religious. I never shared my feelings with my parents, especially my mother, because her reaction to such things was usually explosive. As a child she had had her heart broken by a hurtful experience with another church, and as a result she detested organized religion.
So I often took the Bible from our bookshelf and read it at night in secret. Whenever I was ill, my grandmother would pray for me, and I’d pray too in my heart because I believed there was a God who could heal me.
As I entered my teen years I began looking at various churches. Each time I heard of a new religion I would search the encyclopedia to learn more about it. One day, at age 13, I was reading in a teen magazine and saw a religion I didn’t know mentioned: Mormonism. I turned to the encyclopedia, which had a small listing with a short discussion of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. But what caught my eye was a mention of the Word of Wisdom. This was the first time I found a church that officially opposed drinking and smoking. A warm feeling came over me, and I knew then I wanted to know more about this religion. But because I assumed all Mormons lived in Utah, I put my interest on hold.
In my senior year of high school, I was discussing with a friend the many places she had lived, and she mentioned Provo, Utah. My heart stopped, and before I could think I exclaimed, “You’re not a Mormon, are you?”
Taken aback, she replied, “Yes, I am.”
“I have been wanting to read the Book of Mormon for so long! Can you get me a copy?”
She was surprised, and, needless to say, I got a Book of Mormon the next day. My friend also offered to introduce me to the missionaries. I knew I couldn’t meet with them at my place, so I arranged to meet them at my friend’s house. At this point a split began for me at home. My father was quietly supportive, but my mother was vocally opposed. Her strong feelings made me cautious and caused me to take things slowly and to carefully study each doctrine set before me. When I learned about temple marriage and eternal families, my heart leapt within me for joy. A marriage that could not be easily discarded took on purpose and meaning, and I knew that was the kind I wanted.
I continued reading the Book of Mormon. One night I cried myself to sleep after reading of Christ’s visit to America. I was overcome with the realization that Christ truly was the Savior of the whole earth. He was indeed my Savior.
When the missionaries invited me to be baptized, I agreed. My father gave me permission, but my parents clashed about it, and my mother fought with me. I felt guilty. I wondered why she was unhappy about my decision to join a church when my cousin who was two months younger was already serving time in the state penitentiary. When I was baptized in February 1976, my mother did not join my father and sister at my baptismal service.
Bridging the Gap
In 1978 I was married in the Washington D.C. Temple, much to my mother’s dismay. As the years have passed and children have come to bless our home, I have found myself increasingly living a different lifestyle than my extended family. I often feel out of place, even with my brothers and sisters. Sometimes they keep things from me because they feel I wouldn’t understand. At other times I avoid them because their cigarette smoke triggers my bronchitis. Through the years, however, I have found many answers on how to live in these two different worlds within the context of gospel principles.
Keep communication lines open. Church teachings have shown me the need to forge strong bonds with my brothers and sisters. This has been difficult in some cases, but I know how important it is to maintain contact. I feel an obligation to be at family functions. I write newsletters and send pictures, share family history, and attend family reunions. I want my family to see there is another way to live, another kind of world where I have faith in Jesus Christ and know that Father in Heaven loves us, a place where life has meaning and purpose.
Withhold judgment. As I have maintained this family connection, I have had to be cautious about appearing to be judgmental. I often get my ears scorched with foul language or find myself feeling awkward when introduced to someone’s new girlfriend whose standards are different from mine. I miss aunts and uncles who have left the family through divorce. I feel disturbed at some of the treatment I witness parents giving their children. Staying positive and withholding advice or commentary about their chosen lifestyles has helped to keep me from being labeled as a snob.
Extend invitations. To help further understanding of our gospel-centered home, I decided to invite family over more often. One of our more successful events is an annual female cousins’ weekend, which we expanded to include the aunts. We had 10 family members attend our most recent gathering. There we did crafts, including some I learned while attending Relief Society homemaking meetings. During the evening we did lots of talking, and as a result, some were surprised to find my husband, children, and I a normal family with normal problems. We found common ground as parents struggling with raising children in this day of negative and worrisome influences. Now we keep in touch and talk more often on the phone. Best of all, those who attended this year’s event are already looking forward to next year’s cousins and aunts’ weekend.
Remember the positive. I have found it helpful to look back and specifically note the many good lessons I learned growing up. My mother was a wonderful teacher who taught me to ask questions about things and to evaluate new ideas. One of my favorite memories was her teaching me that my body was a temple to care for and respect. I was also taught a work ethic and encouraged to develop my skills. Choosing to remember my parents’ well-meaning and positive efforts despite the many problems and difficulties in our home helped me continue to extend my love to them. After my father passed away, my mother began to mellow, and this too has helped keep the channels of love and acceptance open.
Over the last 20 years we have seen some softening and greater acceptance among our extended family members. One day my brother heard negative and false information being taught at his own church about Latter-day Saints. Because he had seen how we lived the gospel in our home, he knew the things being said were false and actually spoke up for us.
Sometimes I wonder where I would be without the gospel, which provides me a refuge, a safe place among good-hearted people who care about me and listen with empathy to my concerns. Today I enjoy a home with the gospel and the priesthood at its foundation, healthy children who have enriched our lives, a husband who is my friend, and opportunities to develop new talents discovered as I have attended Relief Society. Ahead is a bright future in which I feel I can accomplish anything as I continue to put the Lord first in my life. My world is a generally happy world, and I hope that by keeping close to my extended family, despite our differences, I will one day be in a position to reach out to them or to their children and invite them into my world.