I was born in Armenia when it was part of the Soviet Union. My parents taught me and my two siblings to be honest, good, and morally clean, and they did everything to give us a good education. But one of the first things I learned in kindergarten was a philosophy that religion is the opium of the people. And until I was 12 years old, I never knew there was a God.
When I was 12, a terrible earthquake destroyed 90 percent of my hometown, killing more than 50,000 people. I was in school when the noise became louder and louder, and everything around us began to shake. I was pulled into the crowd, trying to escape the building. Amid all the confusion, I suddenly realized I might never see my family again. In that moment, I saw a red knit scarf my mother had made for me hanging in a large hallway to the right of the stairwell. Following an impression, I broke from the crowd and went to retrieve the scarf. In that instant the ground shook for the third and last time, and I witnessed the stairwell collapse with all my friends in its ruins. Upon regaining my senses, I found that the whole school was a huge mass of rubble—with the exception of that tiny area housing me and my red knit scarf.
My entire family of five survived. When my father saw my mom, my eight-month-old sister, my seven-year-old brother, and me sitting in the middle of the street after seven hours of searching for us, the only thing he said was, “Blessed be Thy name, God.” I had lost my home, but for the first time I heard the name of God.
Eleven years passed. I had just graduated from the medical university in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, where I was a medical resident in ophthalmology. While doing some volunteer work, I met two Latter-day Saint missionaries and we became good friends. They were welcomed in our home just as anyone else, but as soon as they started to talk about God, the whole atmosphere became tense. My parents told me that missionaries “teaching their religion” were not welcome in our home. Personally, I was not interested in religion, but I had not stopped them because there was something different in the eyes of those missionaries—something so innocent, pure, and magnificent. I was very interested in finding the source of the light I noticed in their eyes.
After my parents expressed their disapproval, I avoided meeting with the missionaries and finally arranged to meet them at their church building but just to say I was too busy to proceed with our discussions. Arriving at our appointment one hour early, I entered a room with lots of chairs and about 15 people in it. As I sat quietly, trying not to disturb anyone, I was astonished by the unusual but unbelievably familiar feelings. I felt just like I had when I was five years old and could run home, hug my mom, and tell her all that I had done—certain that she loved me, that she would always be there for me, and that everything was all right. After the long years of wandering in spirit, I knew I was home.
That night for the first time in my life, I knelt and prayed to God. If there was a Heavenly Father, I wanted Him to answer me, to tell me if the things the missionaries taught were true, to show me why I felt so different. It is hard to describe what happened next. I had never before felt the presence of my Heavenly Father so tangibly. I knew He loved me. He knew me. He had always been there. I slept that night knowing with all the strength of my heart that I had found my way home.
I started studying the gospel very carefully. After four months of intense investigation, I decided to be baptized.
My life soon turned upside down. I lost my job and had to end my medical residency. As my interests and values started to change, my old friends started to disappear. But hardest of all for me to accept was that my parents were against my baptism.
I loved my parents dearly. They had given everything they had to provide me with the best education and environment. They were proud of my accomplishments. But when they heard my decision, they were shocked. It was the first time I had wanted to do something they did not agree with, and it was very difficult for all of us. But I knew that God wanted me to be baptized. So even if my family would deny me, I couldn’t deny my Heavenly Father.
My family did not accept the invitation to my baptism, so on my baptism day I went alone to the church. There were many people at the baptism, but I felt my only “family members” were the two missionaries. Then as I turned to go to the baptismal font, I saw my mother and brother. It was the happiest day of my life. The presence of my family was like a beam of sunshine that brought me the hope of a brighter tomorrow.
The following year was full of blessings. In addition to responsibilities in my branch and much volunteer work, I found work in a private hospital and was able to continue my education. My mother came to Church meetings several times after my baptism, and she joined the Church five months later. But most important, I had my Heavenly Father’s love as part of my life, and I had the assurance that I was finally on my way home.
I wanted to share the light the gospel brought to my life, so exactly one year from the date of my baptism, I sent in my application to serve a full-time mission. Hoping that my father’s heart had softened, I told him about my decision. His reaction was unexpectedly angry. I sat quietly in my room all night, and after work the next day, I was too scared to come home. I was still working when my father came into my workplace. After a long silence he finally asked, “Do you really want to leave all of these things—your home, your friends, your education, your work—only to go someplace you don’t even know?” I said, “Yes.” After that, we did not talk until the day I left for my mission. That day came 10 short days after I received my call to serve in the Utah Salt Lake City Temple Square Mission.
When I left to serve a mission, my mother and sister were members of the Church. Six months later my mother wrote me a letter, saying, “I found an extra copy of the Book of Mormon in our home. Your father said I must have put my book in the wrong place. I’m so excited. Something is happening.” We later found out that four months after I left, my father stopped the missionaries in the street to ask them what a mission was like, where they ate and slept, how they were supported, and what their schedule was. He wanted to know why this Church was more important to me than anything else.
Eight months after I left, I received my first letter from my dad. He wrote, “On 2 December 2000, I was baptized. Little by little I learned about the gospel. I am so proud of you. I’m so proud of my girl who didn’t give up and pulled us onto this path.” By the time I finished my mission, all of my family members were converted to the gospel and many relatives and friends had decided to join the Church.
Because of the truths I have learned, I feel obligated to live a meaningful life. I know that God lives and He knows each one of us. It doesn’t matter what education or background we have; when we are close to Him, we can feel His love. I know these things not because my parents taught me, not because everyone else around me believed them, but because I feel them with all my heart. The light I saw shining in the eyes of those first missionaries is the same light I felt when I visited the meetinghouse for the first time and knew I had come home. It is the light I saw in the eyes of my family members as one by one they came into the Church. And it is the light described in the scriptures: “If your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light” (D&C 88:67).