Jean would always remember the night when she really learned that her Heavenly Father hears and answers sincere prayers, even when uttered by a weary 17-year-old in the backwoods of southern Georgia.
Four years earlier my sister Jean joined the Church in Natchez, Mississippi. I joined about the same time but was working and living out on my own. Throughout high school, Jean was very active in her small ward. Mother saw to it that she attended every meeting, every seminary class, and every Super Saturday held. Jean’s testimony grew strong in such circumstances, and her bubbly personality made her a favorite with the youth throughout the Jackson Mississippi Stake. I don’t suppose any other girl was as happy as Jean during those years. She was leading a busy, productive life, learning things that would be valuable to her in the future and having fun times with members her own age.
When Jean’s senior year began, she started her first journey through the refiner’s fire. Our mother and stepfather were divorced, and Mother drifted further and further from the Church. She no longer cared whether or not Jean even went to sacrament meetings much less all her other activities. Jean trudged on with the help of her friends and the support and sympathy of her bishop’s family. Her testimony grew stronger still, and she continued in all of her activities.
At graduation time, Jean learned that her trials had only begun. Mother remarried and moved far away. Jean had no choice. She had to go live with our father in rural Georgia. He lived in a tiny, isolated town where he was the minister of the only church.
Our father had always been bitter toward the Mormons, and that bitterness had turned to hatred when all three of his daughters had been baptized. Jean was his baby, his special pet, and it cut him to the quick to see her not only in a religion different from his but as a Mormon and a devout Mormon at that. He looked upon her move to his house as an answer to prayers. Now things would be different. Now he would be able to show her the error of her ways.
Although I live more than 200 miles away, I came as often as possible during the summer and took Jean to my home in Columbia. However, the summer soon ended, and Jean had to start commuting to college. Jean had a car to make the drive back and forth to school but not for her personal use on weekends. The nearest branch was 30 miles away, and even if she could get there, Dad wouldn’t let her go. There wasn’t an institute at her small college, and it just seemed that there was no way for her to have any contact with Church members.
Days turned into weeks, and then months had gone by since she had attended a meeting. She read her scriptures, wrote daily in her journal, and spent hours on her knees. As she grew closer to her Heavenly Father through earnest prayer, Jean’s testimony of the gospel grew. She began to realize how often she had taken the opportunity to attend meetings and functions of the Church for granted, how she had even wished meetings would hurry and be over. During this time, Dad made every effort to break her testimony. He quoted scripture after scripture, but Jean’s seminary scriptures stood her in good stead. She was able to parry with scriptures of her own. Sometimes he threw things at her that she couldn’t or, to stop an argument, wouldn’t defend. While her testimony wasn’t harmed, it did make Jean weary as she faced each day on the defensive, knowing that everything she loved and considered holy would be denounced in her father’s booming voice at mealtimes, in discussions with her stepmother, or in his verbal prayers.
Some nights only hours on bended knees kept her from total despair. She fought back the desire to rage against her Heavenly Father for deserting her. Soon even the scriptures she loved were difficult to read because they produced such a terrible longing for her old friends, teachers, and bishop. Often she lay in bed at night with tears streaming down her face trying to remember that she wasn’t the only Latter-day Saint in the world. She tried to be strong, but she was young and alone and there had been no contact with members for so long.
One night in January, Jean reached rock bottom. Her father and stepmother had baited her and prayed aloud for her soul until she was ready to scream. No one understood the trials she was going through. Her sisters sympathized, but we were too far away to be any help. Finally Jean knelt by her bed and poured her heart out as she had so many times in the past. She told her Heavenly Father that she knew he loved her and that he had promised no burden heavier than she could bear. She begged for some sort of help because the burden had grown so heavy that she could not bear it any longer.
When Jean left Natchez, her records had been sent to the nearest branch. Once the records were received, she was assigned home teachers. However, as no one had ever met Jean and she lived so far away and had never attended a meeting, the home teachers didn’t visit her. In their minds, she was probably someone who had joined the Church at age eight but had never been active. Someone in the branch had heard that a Mr. Swilley in Egypt, Georgia, was the Baptist preacher there, and this Jean was probably his wife. No way were they going to drive all that way to get a door slammed in their faces!
In a small branch, the work load is heavy for each member. The home teacher lived 15 miles on the other side of the town where the branch was located, a total of 45 miles one way on country roads from Jean. Months went by, and each month his home teaching report was complete except for Sister Swilley. Being a good and conscientious man, this bothered him. He decided to go at least once just to see what sort of circumstances she was in.
The night came when he couldn’t rest until he had made the effort to see this sister. He called his companion, a young boy of 16, and they began the long drive. As they drove farther into the countryside, they began to be uneasy and wished they could turn around and go home. Yet something urged them on. Little did they know that at that moment, Jean Swilley was on her knees begging her Father in Heaven to throw her a lifeline. As her prayer ended and she dried her tears, Dad knocked on her bedroom door. “Jeanie, there are two men outside, and they are asking for you. They are Mormons, and I won’t ask them in, but you can go talk to them on the porch.”
Jean flew through the house and onto the porch. She stood on the steps, and tears fell again as the older of the two men stretched out his hand and said, “We are your home teachers …” He didn’t have to say anything else because Jean fell into his arms and cried out all the pain and loneliness that was there. Finally someone had come. God had indeed heard her prayers.
As Jean told her story to these wonderful men, I know that their hearts were touched. They expressed sorrow for not having come sooner and promised to make the branch president aware of her situation. They prayed with Jean and told her to call them when it got too hard and left with the most beautiful words Jean had ever heard, “You aren’t alone anymore.”
Jean is still not allowed to go to church, but her spirit is so much stronger now that she knows her Father in Heaven is aware of her needs and answers her prayers. Dad said the home teachers could keep coming as long as they had a talk with him first. When Jean explained the situation to the home teachers, they told her that they would talk with him and do it gladly.
Jean’s home teachers had every excuse in the world not to visit her. It was inconvenient—one and a half hours just in driving time. She had expressed no interest in seeing them. They did not think she would welcome them, and they were busy with other church responsibilities. Still, they obeyed the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
Those home teachers will never know just how happy they made my sister nor will they know how thankful they made me for a Heavenly Father that heard my sister’s prayers. How can they know what will come of their talk with my dad? Or that Mother, who had drifted so far away that she denied the Church on every opportunity, would cry when told that her baby girl wasn’t quite so wretched anymore and why. How could they have known that Mother would say through her tears, “I knew He would take care of her and hear her prayers.” I know that more good will come because those two men listened and obeyed. I hope that I will learn to listen and obey. I hope we all will.