How It Starts

by Larry A. Hiller

Assistant Managing Editor

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    These conversion stories may seem different, but they all involve a few simple things any member can do. Even you.

    You never know how it’s going to start.

    At a school party in Melbourne a few years ago, Emily Denning walked up to Lisa Bignell and said something shocking.

    For Brett Allen and Ben Marwick of Perth, it started with simple friendship, but it really got going the night they spent several hours riding their bikes in circles.

    Down in Hobart, Tasmania, Selena Meure invited Sally Vellar to Sunday dinner and, in Sally’s words, “It was horrible. I have to be honest. It was terrible.”

    Emily and Lisa

    Why was Lisa shocked? Well, the two girls had never been more than just acquaintances, classmates. So you could have knocked Lisa over with a feather when Emily walked up to her and said, “I’ve been meaning to ask you about this for a while. I want to know more about your church. I want to become a Mormon.”

    Lisa says, “I sort of jumped because it was really unexpected. I guess I never thought she’d be interested.”

    It turns out that Emily had known for several years that Lisa was LDS. It also happened that Emily had been searching for the right church for about six years. “I was trying to find the truth, something that sounded right to me, not what other people thought I should believe. I wanted to find out for myself,” she says.

    Emily visited a number of different churches, but none of them “clicked” as she puts it. In the meantime, Lisa’s family was participating in their ward’s “set-a-date” program (where members are encouraged to set a target date for having someone prepared to receive the missionaries). “We had been praying for a couple of weeks, when Emily came up to me. Because we never really hung around at school together, we didn’t know each other a whole lot. I was shocked, but then I thought immediately, This is an opportunity. I’d better take it.”

    So Lisa invited Emily to a fireside where they were showing the film “How Rare a Possession.” Emily says, “I figured, well, there’s only one way to find out if this is right or not. I felt even before I came to church that I was going to join. It was just a feeling I had. When I walked into the chapel, everything just fell into place. I had this really good feeling.”

    That good feeling was just reinforced as Emily continued to attend church and firesides and took the missionary lessons. Her only regrets since her baptism? Emily looks at little children in church and sometimes envies them, “growing up in church, with Primary and seminary, Young Women and all the rest of it.” She wishes she had been a member all her life. She knows how she’ll raise her own children someday.

    Brett and Ben

    You can see why Brett and Ben became friends in the first place. Both quick-witted. Articulate. Fond of taking a subject apart and looking at it from all angles, arguing opposite sides just for the sheer pleasure of it.

    You can also see how their first gospel discussions must have been frustrating for both. Ben, the nonmember, his mind racing ahead, full of detailed questions. Brett, the member, wanting to keep things simple at first, focusing on testimony.

    It all started with friendship, when Brett moved and started attending the same school as Ben. As Ben tells it: “We became pretty good friends, and occasionally I used to call him up in the morning—in the first term this was—and he was never there. His dad would say, ‘He’s in seminary.’”

    Ben knew a seminary was where people studied religion, and that aroused his curiosity a little more. He and Brett had already been having those frustrating religious discussions, including the infamous evening when they were riding their bikes home from school and started talking about the Church. “I just rode around in circles with him for several hours, talking,” Ben recalls. “When you get involved in that kind of thing, you don’t notice what the time is. So of course we drove to our respective homes and got blasted for the lateness of the hour.”

    Later, during the holidays, Ben was at Brett’s house with a couple of Brett’s LDS friends, who were there studying to finish off the seminary term. That’s when they invited Ben to join them at seminary. “I thought I might as well see what it was all about,” Ben says simply. So he started attending early-morning seminary, riding his bike to Brett’s house, where the class was held. The subject was Old Testament. Ben took to it like a frog to flies, completed the rest of the seminary year, and even received a certificate.

    In fact, Ben didn’t just enjoy seminary. As Brett puts it, “He stole the show. All of us sort of viewed seminary as something that you needed to do if you wanted your parents to let you live. But Ben thrived on it.”

    Once Ben started attending seminary, it wasn’t long before he, his sister, Josie, and his mother, Eleanor, were receiving the missionary discussions. They had the usual struggles and challenges, but all three were eventually baptized, and now Ben is thinking about his own future mission. He’s also continuing those gospel discussions with Brett, but from a very different perspective.

    Sally and Selena

    Dinner was a disaster, and it had nothing to do with the food. In fact, when Selena and Sally talk (and laugh) about that time, the food itself is never mentioned.

    It started when Selena swallowed her fear and decided to participate in her ward’s set-a-date program. Lacking the nerve to ask the Lord for something more specific, Selena prayed that she would be presented with a situation that would show her who was the right person for her to try to fellowship. What she did next was brave. Selena set a date for the missionaries to come to dinner at her house, a dinner where she would have her unknown investigator present.

    As the date approached, Selena was talking about it with a new friend, a convert of about two years named Stephen. He offered to bring his nonmember sister, Sally. “I thought, there’s my answer,” Selena says. So they went to see Sally.

    Now, Selena claims she told Sally the missionaries would be there. Sally doesn’t remember that part. She simply recalls that her brother showed up with a girl she barely knew from school, and that girl invited her to Sunday dinner. Great. That’s a nice, friendly thing to do. In fact, the invitation was extended to another friend of Sally’s, too.

    But Sunday arrived and the friend didn’t show. So Sally went to what she thought would be a quiet dinner with a few new friends. And that’s when the disaster struck. There was Sally, casually dressed in jeans, walking into a house full of Mormons still dressed in their Sunday clothes. In addition to Selena’s family, there were four missionaries (two of them had sort of invited themselves at the last minute). “I just sort of went, ‘Aaaagh!’” Sally recalls.

    After dinner, the missionaries tried to give a presentation on the Savior, but the light was bad, and Sally was so uncomfortable she could hardly concentrate. Afterward, the missionaries asked her if she would like to take the discussions, but she was still feeling kind of numb and put them off with excuses about schoolwork.

    That night, though, as she sorted out her thoughts, Sally decided, “Maybe I should just find out about it.” So she agreed to the discussions. And that’s all it took. “After the first discussion I just thought, Man, this is excellent. I love it. I have to know more.” She had the first four discussions in one week.

    Sally encountered tremendous opposition from some of her friends at school, people who told her that if she joined the Mormons, they would have nothing to do with her. But the Spirit had born witness. And when she got discouraged, the elders gave her blessings.

    It was August, the middle of the Australian winter, when Sally (at her request) was baptized in the ocean. Afterward, everyone got cold, wet hugs. Her brother Stephen confirmed her. Not bad for something that began as a disaster.

    How It Ends

    Actually, the missionary work never ends. Emily wants to be married in the temple and raise her children in the Church. Ben plans to go on a mission. At last report Sally was working to introduce a friend to the gospel. But first it has to begin. And it begins with friendship. It begins with letting your membership and your values be known. And it begins with faith that if you do your part, the Lord will do his.

    Photography by Larry A. Hiller

    Emily (right) visited a number of different churches, but none of them “clicked.” Then she approached Lisa at a party and asked a shocking question.

    (Above) Sulfur-crested cockatoos fly wild in the Australian countryside. (Far left) Lampposts are an elegant reminder of Melbourne’s colonial past.

    Ben (left) became friends with Brett at school. It wasn’t long before the gospel came up. But their discussions went in circles—literally—until Ben joined Brett at seminary.

    (Above) Perth is a large, modern city, a favorite port of call for U. S. ships. (Far right) Kangaroos don’t roam the streets in Australia, but they do visit a cemetery outside Perth, where they stop to smell—then eat—the flowers.

    Selena Meure (left) had to swallow her fear before she could bring herself to invite Sally Vellar to hear the missionary discussions.

    What Sally thought would be a casual family dinner became sort of a disaster. Still, she was willing to listen.

    (Above) Hobart, Tasmania, is a charming town, with a colorful harbor. (Right) This crimson rosella was really photographed near Melbourne, but was too pretty to leave out.