What if you weren’t a member of the Church and you attended different churches with your family when you were young? And what if the teachings you learned there were confusing but you knew they should make sense because you believed that “God is not the author of confusion”? (1 Cor. 14:33). Then what if you learned about the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and those teachings agreed with what you had always believed? You gain a testimony and want to be baptized, but you can’t—yet.
If you can imagine this situation, you can understand a little of what Gina Paulino, of the Hingham Massachusetts Stake, went through before joining the Church.
Years before she was taught the gospel, 11-year-old Gina told her mother she believed that “there has to be just one church that is Jesus Christ’s. All these churches can’t be true, because they all teach different things.”
And she believed that “there must be an existence in heaven before we came here.”
And that “there must be different levels in heaven because not everyone has the same amount of goodness.”
And that “people who have died and weren’t able to hear the gospel message—someone must be able to stand in for them so they can be baptized.”
Young Gina believed all these truths before she had read the Book of Mormon or met with the missionaries or even attended a Latter-day Saint meeting. Gina’s mother had learned a little about the gospel more than 20 years ago from her sister. But Gina’s mother didn’t join the Church then because her husband wasn’t ready to do so. So when Gina told her mother about these beliefs, her mom would cry and say, “You’re right. There is a church that believes that.”
Gina’s mother was baptized in 1998, when Gina was 13. Gina knew then the Church is true, but her dad wanted her to wait until she was 18 to be baptized.
At age 15, Gina asked her dad again if she could join the Church. They talked for several hours. She told him how much she wanted to get baptized and that she knew the Church is true. He agreed to let her attend church and Young Women. At that time, only two other teenage girls attended Gina’s branch.
Seven months later, Gina’s father said she could be baptized.
With that good news, Gina began taking the discussions, which were held at the meetinghouse. Gina’s mother was there, as were a couple of other members of the branch. Gina’s talks with her mother in the past few years had given Gina a basic understanding of the gospel, but the missionary lessons strengthened her testimony of the Atonement and taught her the importance of baptismal covenants. She learned to abide by Church standards like dressing modestly to show respect for her body.
Shortly before Gina was baptized in December 2001, her nonmember friends left her. They thought Gina was joining a cult. But Gina didn’t let that stop her, because joining the Church was so important to her.
A couple weeks after her baptism, Gina drove two hours to her first Church activity: a semi-formal dance. Gina knew only one person there. At the next activity, ice skating, she met more Latter-day Saint teens and exchanged e-mail addresses with them. In the months following her baptism, she began to get to know more youth in her stake.
As the only active teen in her branch, Gina took home-study seminary. She started it a few months before she was baptized. She studied the scriptures on her own, then met with her teacher at the church once a week. When Gina’s teacher moved out of the state, Gina’s mother volunteered to teach. They had seminary every morning at 6 a.m.
Gina enjoyed being the only student because she didn’t have to compete with other students to ask questions. “My mom and I grew so much closer,” Gina says. “We had that connection. I absolutely loved doing seminary with my mom.”
As a new member, Gina wanted to get as much from seminary as possible—to catch up for all those years without the scriptures. What was supposed to be an hour-long lesson sometimes stretched to two hours. Gina says the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants “are the two most important books that I’ve grown up without. To be able to learn about them in depth was wonderful. To get my mom’s insight along with my study was an experience I would never want to give up.”
Gina lives in a stake that covers a lot of territory. Her Church friends live about two hours away. Besides the time involved, the cost of gas makes it expensive to drive to see her friends. But it’s worth it to Gina because her friends are strong members of the Church and such good influences on her.
Gina was the only active teenager in her branch; she was the only student in seminary; and her Church friends live far away. Why does she go to all the effort? “I know what I know, and I know it’s the truth,” she says. “To be with people who have a strong testimony of the same things I do is worth driving two hours to have that spiritual backing up.
“There is wear and tear during the week, but you just have to stay strong. When that weekend comes, you’re ready for some Latter-day Saint fun and goodness surrounding you,” Gina says, laughing. “It’s definitely worth it.”