The bishop and his two counselors stood in the hallway, posed to shake hands with those few college students who had braved the rainy evening. As I stepped inside, one of the counselors walked over to me and said, “Hi there. I’m Brother Johnson. I don’t believe I’ve met you. Are you a freshman?”
“No, I’m a senior. I came to this cookie dunking last year, and you asked me the same thing then.”
“Yes, you did. But I didn’t have the beard last year.”
“Oh sure! I remember you now.” But his face still wore a question mark. “Well, hang up your coat and meet some people. I guess you’ve met the bishop.” He pointed to a large man now standing just inside the recreation hall.
“Was he bishop last year at this time?”
“Then I haven’t met him.”
Brother Johnson walked over to the bishop. “Bishop, this is … what did you say your name is?”
“Greg Jeffreys.” He grabbed my hand and shook it eagerly.
“Where you from, Greg?”
The bishop placed a hand on my shoulder. “Are you related to President Jeffreys?”
“He’s my father.”
“Well, how about that! I attended a regional meeting once and met him. How’s he doing?”
“He’s always doing good,” I said with just a touch of sarcasm.
“You say you’re a senior here. Do you go home a lot?”
“Hardly ever.” There was a long pause. It is sometimes assumed that the offspring of stake presidents’ counselors will, by osmosis, turn out okay. For some time I had been living proof that the assumption was not entirely valid.
“Look, Bishop, let’s not beat around the bush. I’m inactive. I have no interest in the Church. I come here every year at this time to see what kind of girls you’ve got, and also to have my annual glass of Kool-Aid and a chocolate-chip cookie. So, if you’ll excuse me.”
I walked away leaving him hunting for the phrase that would make everything all right. I grabbed a couple of cookies and a glass of punch and sat down.
The cultural hall had been disguised as much as a five-dollar decoration budget would allow. Along the perimeter of the gym floor was a single line of folding chairs. Underneath one basket two long folding tables had been set up and covered with white paper. In the center of one of the tables was a punch bowl. A stack of paper cups lay waiting for the rush that never quite materialized. On each side of the punch bowl lay a plate of cookies and a pile of napkins. Hanging from the other basket was a sign reading, WELCOME NEW STUDENTS TO THE STUDENT ASSOCIATION OF THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS. Someone turned on a record player and the sound echoed in the big recreation hall, distorting the music.
There was a group of about twelve guys and seven girls standing around talking and eating cookies. Every few minutes one of them would come over and introduce himself. I was enjoying being unfriendly.
My eyes then focused on the latest visitor. She entered my life wet. The letters on her freshman beanie had started to run. Her long dark hair was also wet and was beginning to make her look like a cocker spaniel. She shook hands with the bishop and his counselors, walked with the bishop over to the punch table, and filled up. She was introduced to the group and finally sat down with one of the clean-cut types.
When he ran out of punch and had gone to get refills for both of them, I walked over and sat down.
“I guess you know why I called this meeting,” I said.
She smiled back. “Are you president of the Student Association?”
I evaded her query—but built upon it: “In the interest of the organization, we’d like to get some information about you.”
Her friend came back with two glasses of punch. I stood up and said authoritatively, “Thank you. Jim. I’ll take care of this.” I reached over and took the cups from his hands, gave one to her, and kept the other for myself. He stood looking at me for a moment, and then turned around and walked away, shrugging his shoulders as he went.
“He told me his name was Bob,” she said.
“Oh, was that Bob? Now you see why I need things written down. I was about to fill out your personal information card. I must have loaned out my clipboard to someone. Let me use this napkin.” I reached in my shirt pocket for a pen. “Now then, for our records. Name?”
“Where from, Debbie?”
“I see you’re a freshman. Where do you live?”
“Ellsburg Hall, room 212.”
“Yes. Extension 2364.”
“Now, Sister Forsburg, I hope you don’t think I’m prying, but we need to know this in planning activities. Are you engaged?”
“Currently going steady with anyone?”
“No. I was, but we broke up at the first of the summer.”
Forgetting the role I was playing, I asked, “Debbie, for our records, what color eyes are those?” I once stood on a high cliff and looked down into a pool of clear water. And that’s the way her eyes affected me.
She was beginning to suspect the line of questioning. “Aren’t you going to ask me if I’m a member of the Church?”
“My very next question.”
“I am. I was baptized two years ago.”
“Debbie, I want to welcome you here. I see that our program is about ready to start. But I’ll be seeing you again soon.”
I walked out into the foyer and grabbed my coat. As much as I wanted to get to know Debbie, I knew it was time to go. As I walked out the door, I heard the bishop announce, “We’d like to have you meet the officers of the Student Association.”
The next day I walked over to her dorm and phoned her from the lobby. “Debbie, this is Greg Jeffreys. I’ve got a confession to make. I’m not really with the Student Association.”
She laughed. “They spent the entire evening reassuring me of that.”
“Could you come down and walk with me over to the SUB for a fresh lime? We need to get acquainted.”
“Because I’m going to ask you to the festival dance and I wouldn’t want you to go out with a stranger.”
That was the beginning. We spent a lot of time together after that. And that meant that sometimes she went with me to a Student Coalition for Peace meeting. But it also meant that I went with her to Sunday School and Sacrament meeting.
I don’t know when I realized that Debbie was not just another college activity that could be closed up like a textbook at the end of a semester. But by festival time I think we both knew it.
One afternoon when we were studying at the library, they announced on the loudspeaker that there was a call for me.
“That better not be anther girl,” she said.
“Debbie, can you keep a secret?” I whispered, looking around to see if anyone was listening. “It’s the president. He’s got an important message for me. I’m the one they come to when they have something big. You see, during the summer I moonlight for the CIA.”
She was unimpressed. “They say a spy’s best trait is to be inconspicuous. You flunk there.”
I walked to the check-out desk and asked for my call.
“Greg, is that you?”
“Yes. Your mother and I are in town on our way to Salt Lake City. We wanted to have dinner with you. Could you make it tonight?”
“If you have a date, bring her along. We’d like to meet her.”
As we drove to the old hotel on Main Street, Debbie asked, “What are your parents like?”
“What does that mean?”
“My dad doesn’t do anything but take care of his business and work for the Church. No golf, no bowling, no country club bridge games. He’s either opening a new gas station or attending some Church meeting.”
We pulled into the parking lot along side the hotel.
“I remember a few years ago he took the family to Yellowstone Park where we lived in a trailer. ‘No phones, no meetings. A chance to get where nobody can get ahold of us,’ he told us. But about Wednesday he wandered over to the MIA they have there for the park employees. By the end of the week he was up to his neck in Church work again, showing them how to improve their home teaching.”
“He must be a real leader, Greg.”
“I guess so.”
“And your mother?”
“She’s one of those good sister types who makes the Relief Society go. In high school, whenever I came home and smelled fresh bread in the oven, I knew somebody in the ward was sick.”
My parents ate her up. She was the first girl I had dated since high school with whom they didn’t have to resort to a discussion on the weather. In fact, I was left out of the conversation, mainly because it revolved around the Church.
“We’re on our way to general conference,” said my mother.
“Gee, I wish I could go with you. Ever since I was baptized I’ve wanted to at least be in the same room with a prophet. It must be wonderful to be there.”
My dad smiled at her. “Well, come on. We’ve got plenty of room.”
“No, thank you. I’d better not. I’d never pass if I left now.”
Dad turned to face me. “Greg, I see you’re not making any barbers rich.”
I couldn’t resist. “Dad, I see that you’re not either.”
He touched his nearly bald head and laughed. “Well, you’d be surprised. I still go to the barber. I’ve got a little in the back here that keeps on growing.”
“Greg, are you going to Church at all?” my mother asked.
“I’ve been going with Debbie.”
“Why, that’s wonderful. Debbie, you keep it up. Greg is a good boy.” I groaned and shook my head. But Debbie reached over, touched my hand, and looked right at my parents as she replied, “I know that.”
As we drove back to the dorms, Debbie said, “I like your folks, Greg.”
“I knew you would. Everybody does.”
“They’re harmless, Debbie. That’s all I can say. They don’t hurt much of anything. But then they don’t help much either.”
She was annoyed at me. “What do you want them to do? Grab one of your banners and picket?”
“At least that would be something.”
“What do you want out of life, Greg?”
“Peace in our time,” I mimicked.
“The gospel can give you peace of mind.”
I pulled over to the curb at the dorm. “Look, friend, having a date with you is like carrying a tape recorder of my parents reading from Thirty-Second Masterpieces of Inspirational Thought. Would you get off my back?”
We sat in a cold silence.
“Look, Debbie, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
“Take me to the door. I’ve got to study.”
We walked up to the entrance of the dorm. “Debbie, they’re having a seminar Sunday night at the SUB. It’s on a discussion of Future Shock. You’ll come with me, won’t you?”
“What time is it?”
“I can’t. The bishop called me to be organist, and sacrament meeting won’t be out until 8:30. Why don’t you come with me?”
“Again? I did that last week. Haven’t I stored up enough for a while?”
It was the wrong time to clown. She had had it with me. “You just don’t get it, do you?”
“Anything about the Church.”
“Why does every discussion have to come back to the Church? I don’t want the Church, and the Church doesn’t want me!”
“Greg, you can’t be a rebel all your life. What are you going to tell your kids about religion?”
“A little religion never hurt anyone.” I bit the words off.
“I’ll be at sacrament meeting, Greg.”
“I’ll be at the seminar, Debbie.” And so it went. With every date I grew to love her more. And with every date the difference in our attitudes about the Church became more like a serious wound that we kept opening up to see how it was healing.
* * *
It was three weeks after my parents had come. We were in a small park in town where there was a set of swings and some old distinguished-looking trees. We were sitting on the swings enjoying the early evening solitude. I was playing my guitar and singing.
“You know a lot of songs, Greg.”
“I learned most of them when we used to stage sit-ins. When you’re sitting around some administrator’s hallway, it’s nice to have something to do. Did I ever tell you that I went to Chicago?”
“How did you like it?” she asked eagerly.
“I wasn’t on a Boy Scout tour,” I snapped. I couldn’t believe that she didn’t know what we had done at Chicago. “Don’t you associate anything with Chicago?”
She wrinkled her nose, a sign I had learned to recognize as indicating deep concentration. “Carl Sandburg.”
That broke me up.
She climbed to the top of the slide, cleared her throat, and began reciting “Hog Butcher for the World.” After four lines she paused, wrinkled her nose, and confessed, “I forgot the rest.” For her finale she slid down the slide, and then turned to me and took a bow. “Ta da!” she sang.
I put my guitar down and motioned to the stairs. “After you,” I said. We both climbed the stairs. We sat up at the top of the slide. I put my arms around her and we went down the slide together, “making a train” as I had called it when I was four or five years old. We landed in a pile at the bottom of the slide. After we got untangled, I helped her up and we sat down on the merry-go-round.
“Debbie, we are crazy. You know that, don’t you?”
“You’re Miss Goody-two-shoes, and I’m your friendly neighborhood hippie.”
“You’re not, Greg. You’re just playing a part. The hair, the beard—it’s a costume. Underneath waiting to get out is a man like your father who will be an effective leader in the Church.”
“It’s not true. Somehow for me the Church never took.”
She took my guitar, retuned it, and began singing in clear tones, “Give Said the Little Stream.” When she got to the part, “There is something all can give,” she looked up and smiled at me. She pointed her finger at me and said, “The Church wants to join you.”
“Debbie, what are we going to do? We’ve fallen in love, but there’s no way we can both be happy. You told the Sunday School class that you weren’t going to settle for anything less than a temple marriage.”
She thought a while before answering.
“Love was meant to last forever. But in this life, death robs us. First we see our parents sliding year by year. Lines of worry grow into deep ravines. They begin walking with a cane. Their fingers become gnarled by arthritis. Then someday they leave us. In a few years the same thing happens to us.”
The stillness of the night was occasionally disturbed by the sounds of the crowd at the high school game a few blocks away.
She continued. “But death is not the end. In the resurrection those broken bodies will become perfect. No more canes, no more arthritis. A man and a woman who have honored the promises made in the temple will experience the joys of marriage again. This time forever.” She touched my hand lightly. “I want that for my marriage.”
“But I won’t ever be able to go to the temple. Never.”
“I’ll get someone else then,” she whispered. It was as if the words had fought a long battle in order to escape from her lips.
“I thought you loved me,” I said.
“It’s more than that. I’m in love with you. There’s a difference.”
“And you’d toss everything we’ve got going for us into the air because of the Church?”
“Greg, I know Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. What else can I do?”
“Maybe you believe it sincerely, but you can’t know it.”
“C’mon Debbie! This is the twentieth century. You can’t know anything is true. You’re in college. How can you swallow that now?”
She stood up. “And how can you sit through a fast and testimony meeting and not be moved. Why can’t you feel the influence of the Holy Ghost?”
We were standing up facing each other.
“I feel what can be recorded—sound, light, heat, taste, touch. That’s what we’ve got in this world.”
“No it isn’t. I know beyond any doubt that Joseph Smith was a prophet.”
“You can’t say that.”
“I am saying it, Greg.”
“That’s the same jazz I get from my parents every time I go home. I don’t want it from you.”
“Because it’s tearing us apart. I love you, Debbie. You’re everything I’ve ever wanted. Except for your belief in the Church.”
“The things you respect in me are things that have come from my membership in the Church. Why are you fighting so hard?”
“Why? Welcome to the world! We’ve got problems to be solved. Our generation are the ones who have got to get it together before it’s too late. The Church may be all right, but it’s just not relevant in our day.”
“Injustice, hate, pollution, poverty, wars! How does the Church propose to solve these problems?”
“If people would live the gospel of Jesus Christ, these problems would be solved.”
“Do you mean that the only thing you can suggest is for the whole world to join the Church? These are problems that won’t be solved by simple homespun ideas from Utah!”
“There’s a prophet of God in Utah. That’s worth more to me than some panel of experts predicting what the future will bring, or telling us that Christian ideals are old-fashioned, or that chastity is emotionally unhealthy. I’ve seen the gospel change the lives of people for the better. They pay their tithing and they get out of poverty. They have family home evenings and their love for each other increases. They live the Word of Wisdom and they are healthier. What program have you ever advocated that would touch people like that?”
It was the same argument we’d gone through before. “We’re not getting anywhere with this,” I said. “Let’s walk back to the car.”
I guess we both knew as we walked slowly to the car that we were breaking up. If we had loved each other less, maybe we could have gone on. But our love was too deep. Each disagreement brought pain. And if we married with our differences, we would live the same argument day after day.
Have I told you that when she laughed it was like the song of glass bells that ring with a gentle wind? And that she beat me at Ping-Pong eight consecutive games? And that she taught a Primary class for which she practiced the lessons on me? (“Greg, sit down and pretend you’re a four-year-old. Boys and girls, I’m going to tell you a story. What do you think about that?”) And that on one Saturday morning we got in my car and rode across the country roads, singing together? And that she talked me into taking her to the river to show her how to catch a fish with a spinner? (“Why would a fish want to eat a crummy piece of tin?”) And that her hair was like a halo around her face?
It was over.
On the way back to the dorm she tried again. “Greg, have you ever read the Book of Mormon?”
“I’ve read parts of it.”
“The first few pages, until they start quoting Isaiah.”
“It’s a very confusing book.”
She gently rebuked me. “But aren’t you the college intellectual? The seeker of truth? And you’ve never read that little book?”
I pulled up to the dorm. “Not completely through, no.”
“Greg, I want you to read it this week.”
“It’s no good, Debbie. It won’t make any difference.”
“Greg, I want you to get a testimony so you can take me to the temple.”
“It won’t work. I’m not going to fake a belief even for that. Regardless of what I’m not, I am honest.”
“I know you won’t fake it, Greg.”
“Then why do you think it will make any difference?”
“There’s a promise with the book. You do your part and the Lord will do his. Greg, please read it and pray about it.”
I was worried about her. “Debbie, I don’t want to hurt you. If you believe in this, that’s great. But I don’t want to destroy your faith. If I read that book and nothing happens …”
“I know you, Greg. And, at least a little, I know my Father in heaven. It won’t fail. I know it.”
“For such a little girl you sure know a lot.”
“Will you read it?”
“Okay, I’ll read it.”
“And will you pray about it?”
“Debbie, I’m not even sure there’s a God.”
“There is. Ask him.”
“Okay, I’ll pray.”
“What will you pray for?”
“To know the right way, I guess.”
“No,” she said.
“No? What then?”
“Ask if the Book of Mormon is true.”
* * *
What can I say? If you’ve already got a testimony, you know what happened. And if you don’t, you’ll say I copped out because of her. At least that’s what my friends said when I told them about the Book of Mormon. If I could only make them see. But I can’t.
You know, it’s funny how a guy can grow up in the Church and escape a testimony of its truthfulness. I guess everyone must find out for himself the way Moroni said, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
Two weeks after it happened I walked into the foyer of the ward chapel. It was early Sunday morning before priesthood meeting. Brother Johnson was just walking out of the bishop’s office. When he saw me, he walked over and shook my hand.
“Hi there. I’m Brother Johnson. I don’t believe I’ve met you.”
“I’m Greg Jeffreys. I met you at the student open house. You walked up to me and said the same thing then.” I smiled and shook his hand.
“Yes, you did. But I had a beard and longer hair then.”
“Oh sure. You and Debbie have been going together.”
“Right. I need to talk to the bishop, Brother Johnson. I hope I can be advanced to an elder soon. I’ve got a date with Debbie at the temple.”