The Mormon Experience

By


Not Me—I Smoke and Drink

One day about twenty-five years ago I was busy ironing clothes and caring for several children in my home. I was also enjoying a television show and a cigarette.

The doorbell rang. Two men wearing business suits and warm smiles stood at the door. One of them introduced himself as the bishop of the ward. I invited them in and very quickly explained that I had been baptized into the Church when I was ten, but that I had never been very active and knew nothing about the gospel. A few months earlier I had attended a Church meeting, and had put my name on a class attendance roll, but no one had spoken to me.

The bishop smiled, looked me in the eye, and said, “I have been praying for a teacher for the young women, and the Lord directed me here.” I told him he was crazy. He continued to smile, opened the lesson book he’d brought with him, and started to explain about teaching the class.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “I smoke and drink and I can’t teach sixteen-year-old girls.”

He then explained that I was to start teaching the following Wednesday. I kept saying, “no,” and he kept right on smiling. I told him I was inactive.

He said, “Not any more.”

I said, “I smoke.”

He replied, “You have until next Wednesday. God loves you. You can do it.” He smiled, left the lesson book, and walked out the door.

I was stunned. Then I got mad and yelled at the air, “You’d better find someone else, because I’m not going to do it!”

I tried to ignore the book, but my curiosity got the better of me. I read it from cover to cover, all twelve lessons. Wednesday drew nearer. I knew the lesson word for word. All day Wednesday I said I was not going, but at the appointed hour I arrived at the church. I was so scared I was trembling. I had grown up in the slums, lived through gang fights, fought for food, bailed my drunk father out of jail, and spent time in a juvenile delinquent program. I could fight my way out of anything, yet here I was, letting that bishop get me into a mess like this. Well, I’d show him! By this time I was sitting in the chapel and they were introducing me as the new Laurel teacher.

In the classroom, facing two angelic girls, I sat down and gave them the lesson word for word, even the parts that said “Ask the class.” After the class I left quickly and went home and cried. A few days later the doorbell rang and I though, “Oh, good, it’s that smiling bishop coming after his book.” But no, it was those two Laurel girls. One brought cookies, and one had flowers. They came in and taught me—about the people in the ward, about the young women’s program, and about the class. There were sixteen girls in the class, and they hadn’t had a teacher for some months. Lila and Lois were the only active ones.

I liked those girls, and I agreed to go to church with them the next Sunday. Afterwards, they came home with me for dinner.

With their help, I started teaching the other girls. If the girls wouldn’t come to church, we went wherever they were. We had lessons in bowling alleys, cars, and bedrooms, and on porches. I was determined that if I needed to go to class, those girls did too. One day we were giving the lesson to a girl who was hiding in a closet, and she came out and asked, “What about my free agency?” I told her I had never heard of that lesson and that she could come and teach us the next Wednesday.

Lila and Lois became like daughters to me. They taught me to sew, to look up scriptures, and most of all, to smile. Six months later fourteen of the girls were coming to class, and all were active within a year. Together we learned to pray, to study the gospel, and to help others. We made many visits to the children’s hospital. We laughed together and cried together in a bond of love. Fifteen months later, I was president of the Young Women.

I made a decision during that year of teaching that I would never say “no” to the bishop, and I never have. Two sixteen-year-old girls taught me that. I later learned that my smiling bishop was just as terrified of me as I was of him when he first came to the home, and he was sure I wouldn’t show up to teach the class. I sure showed him—and I’m grateful!

[illustration] Illustrated by Mark Buehner

Joan Atkinson, a pre-school teacher and mother of seven children, lives in the Palos Verdes (California) First Ward.

“You’re under Arrest”

On 25 July 1928, I was tracking on a street in Heilbronn, Germany. In those days, missionaries did not have to work side by side constantly, and often I would tract one side of the street while my companion tracted the other.

As I walked toward the next house, I saw a man sitting on a chair near the sidewalk. He was glaring hostilely in my direction. Many people in Germany at that time distrusted the missionaries, so I didn’t give it much thought.

As I spoke with a woman at the doorway to a nearby apartment, I heard someone coming up behind me. I turned and saw a policeman in uniform. I continued to talk, believing he had business with someone upstairs.

To my astonishment, he dropped a heavy hand on my shoulder and turned me around to face him.

“You will have to come with me,” he said quietly. “You’re under arrest.”

Astounded, I tried to keep my composure. I apologized to the woman and told her I would return later.

“Why am I being arrested?” I asked the policeman. He told me that I was accused of burglarizing an apartment and carrying off a valuable heirloom watch.

The officer explained that my accuser had found the watch missing the morning before. He contended that I had been the only person other than himself and his family to enter the building.

I remembered entering that building the day before. The first and second floors were occupied by a factory, but on the third floor was an apartment. As I had entered the building, a young man had approached me and asked where I was going and whom I wished to see. I had told him that I wanted to go upstairs and speak with the people who lived there. He had said nothing further, and I had ascended the stairs.

The door to the third-floor apartment had been left slightly open. No one had answered my knocks, so I had left and resumed tracting elsewhere.

I explained this to the officer. He was surprised to learn that he had arrested a missionary.

He then took me across the street to the man who had glared at me earlier. A teenager with the man looked ill at ease, but said “yes” when the officer asked if I was the burglar.

At the police station, I was ushered into the chief’s office. A police court, consisting of several plainclothes and uniformed policemen, was waiting for me. In a corner sat seven people who said they had witnessed my entering the building.

During the hour-long interrogation, I answered every question honestly and directly, with a prayer in my heart that the Lord would help me.

Then the seven witnesses testified against me. All stated that, except for the family, I had been the only person to go to the third-floor apartment the day before. It began to look as though I might spend several years in a German prison.

The police chief asked me if I had anything to say in my defense. I prayed fervently for assistance, then began speaking, hesitantly at first, in my broken German. I told those in the room why I was in Germany, and explained my mission. Suddenly I began to preach the gospel. A strange feeling came over me. I gradually lost control of my tongue, my arms, and my facial muscles.

The Holy Spirit had come to my rescue. I began to speak the language fluently, with confidence and power. When I concluded my testimony forty-five minutes later, I nearly slumped to the floor in exhaustion. There was complete silence in the room for at least a full minute.

Then the police chief said simply, “This man didn’t take the watch.”

He asked me many questions about myself and the Church. The hostility in the room and vanished. Then he turned to a detective and said, “Go with this young man to his room and search his belongings. If you don’t find the watch—and I’m sure you won’t—let him go. End this foolishness.”

As I walked back to my lodgings with the detective, I answered many questions he asked me. By the time we reached my room I had briefly explained the missionary program, the Book of Mormon, and our concept of the Lord.

The detective found two watches in my desk drawer. One was my old, broken watch, and the other was a cheap watch belonging to my companion. As the detective left, he assured me that I should contact him if I ever needed help during my stay in Heilbronn.

I breathed a prayerful sigh of thankfulness. The power of the Holy Ghost had been demonstrated in a miraculous fashion. I would never forget this day.

[illustration] Illustrated by Ondre Pettingill