I found the following story on the internet, written by an old friend of mine whom we’ll call “Gary.” In this story I am “Elder Y”:
Eight years ago, last month, I met the Mormon missionaries in Austria, Europe.
In January of 1997, exactly twenty years after I was born, to the day, I flew into Vienna. I noticed on the plane, that there were Mormon missionaries on the opposite side of the DC-10 we flew in on–three Elders, and one Sister, as they called themselves. They spoke with a few of the people of my group of nine, but not with me.
At the time, I was studying with Brevard College in their study-abroad program so that I could enjoy being in Europe and learn German.
Unbeknownst to me, the Mission President for the Austria, Vienna mission of the Mormon Church had just opened the area I would be staying in: Altmuenster, which is one hour out of Salzburg.
Living in Austria was incredible and exciting, besides exceptionally cold. For two months, I struggled with the language and struggled with my beliefs.
The year before, I had stopped going to Mass, feeling a little less than worthy to do so. Also, I had strong reservations about what I then saw as contradictions between how I felt about what I had read in the Bible and what I felt I should believe as a Catholic. I felt the two did not match up.
After two months of being in Austria, around March, I met the missionaries at the foot of the apartment complex all of us Brevard College people were living in.
I was out dumping garbage, at the time, with nothing but a pair of pants and a t-shirt on. It was very cold, so we only spoke long enough to find out that Elder X–the younger of the two–was from Idaho and had been on the same plane as myself, and Elder Y was from England. They asked if they could stop by in about two or three days and I said, “Yes.”
That was it. That was the beginning of my new life.
When they came over, they talked about their beliefs in God the Father, Jesus Christ, and they spoke of one Joseph Smith, Jr., who I had heard about before… When I realized that these men, who were my age, were not some kind of religious nuts (as I before thought someone would have to be to dedicate two of their prime-time years to their religion), I began to re-evaluate what I had before thought about this Mormon prophet. I decided I would be skeptical in the strictest sense of the word: I would neither believe what they said, nor would I not believe it, I would simply hold judgement until I knew more.
As I read the Book of Mormon over the following weeks, I felt calm and peaceful. The book consumed me to the point that I neglected my studies, making B’s instead of A’s at subjects I then loved. Every spare moment I had was dedicated to reading this fascinating story, which I still believed could have been written (as opposed to translated) by a farm boy from New York.
By the time I got to a book called the Book of Alma, in Chapter 32 of that book, I found a verse which struck me. Up until that point, I had been reading the book for leisure, as if my eyes could not stop. I got so much out of it, but I had only rarely considered that its veracity as an issue.
Elder Y had constantly told me, to the point of annoyance, to “Ask!”, meaning to ask of God if the book were true, if it really was a God-given book (or just the allegorical dream of a farm boy).
When I read, “…if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place fore a portion of my words,” I felt it was time to ask.
Until that moment, I thought Elder Y was being whimsical to say that God could directly answer a question, especially one where I would have to receive a definite “Yes” or “No” answer. I had not realized how much I wanted to believe what the Elders were telling me because of how it resonated with everything I had come to believe on my own as both a faithful Catholic, a non-attending Catholic, and, most importantly, a Christian.
Not only could I feel that desire, but I also felt like I was ready for an answer.
When I knelt to pray out loud, for the second time in as many months, I asked for God to “please tell me if these things are true” and I closed in the name of Jesus Christ.
As I knelt there, all alone, I felt an overwhelming feeling of joy wash over me. I felt calm and happy, and I wept for joy. I felt that, the whole time, since the first page, I had known that the book was true. I felt its words seep into my soul just as I had felt the words of the New and Old Testaments before. It was the same feeling, nothing waivering from the Spirit of God I expected.
I can verify Gary’s story and the conversion he relates. We had no other tools to convert him other than the Book of Mormon and the promise that if he would pray about it, God would answer him. I read this story for the first time yesterday. Even now, eleven years later, I do not doubt that God answered his prayer. Gary’s was not a manufactured experience with the numinous.
Gary joined the church in Austria then returned home to the US. He studied at SVU then served a mission to the Caribbean before moving to Utah.
So far, this story is Ensign-worthy. There is more to tell from those weeks in 1997, tales of prophecy and revelation that would strengthen our faith in the Lord’s care for his scattered sheep. Unfortunately, things soon take a different turn.
The conversion story on Gary’s blog dates to April 2005. Less than a year later, Gary wrote the following:
Well, I saw this coming from a mile away: Jen and I broke up.
Thankfully, she brought it up first–something which I always dread doing. All of the reasons are on my side. I was not as up-front and straight-forward as I would have liked to have been.
My dilemma is pretty simple, in that I love my beliefs, I love the church I go to, but I’m not all that religious to begin with, and after a year of being “disfellowshipped” (one step above excommunication from the Mormon Church), I’ve actually been debating whether to come back as a full member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at all.
As I’ve been thinking about this in December and January, I decided that I do not want to come back to “full fellowship” status. It’s just too much.
I was born without religion, but with an ambitious soul. I was raised Catholic, and more specifically, American Catholic, which is another way of saying “very free-thinking Catholic”.
When I became a part of the Mormon Church, I wanted to do everything right, keep on the path, make my way to become whatever the Church wanted me to be. After serving a Mormon mission in the Dominican Republic, I was excited to go out, get married, and have a family, which is the highest calling of life in Mormon doctrine.
Two and a half years and about 100 dates went by before I started feeling depressed, lonely, and completely alone, in general. It’s not that the Church wasn’t helping me out, and it’s not that I didn’t have good friends, it’s just that I did not fit.
By nature, I loath authority. I respect it, but I loath bowing down to authority, unless I must (or unless I’m feeling particularly cowardly). I kept on finding myself thinking about the things I used to do before becoming Mormon that helped me to loosen up and enjoy life. Good friends and good times, usually with alchohol as the social lubricant. This goes against the authority of the Mormon Church, but I don’t give a damn.
Most of the darker times in my life have came when I imagined I was doing everything I was supposed to do. The darkest time in my life came when I completely abandoned everything I was supposed to do for everything I was not supposed to do. That was over two years ago, now.
It seems that in tipping the scales from good to naughty, I find balance and moderation are best (even though the moderation part is a bit difficult sometimes).
The bottom line? I will still be as active as I wish to be in my church, but my church is not my life. I would rather be happy doing things I’m not “supposed” to do than be miserable doing everything I’m “supposed” to do.
Today, Gary’s Facebook profile lists him as an “agnostic.” Last month he wrote this on his blog:
Inasmuch as there are prophecies, scriptures, dogmas, doctrines, offerings, meetings, recitals, churches and/or things that frankly creep me out, I am not interested in religion. As far as there is nature, love, acceptance with justice, mercy, and hope, I am for those things. Still, I’m not for formal religion. Not anymore.
It seems his path away from the church is complete, eleven years after his conversion in that little town in Austria, three years after writing that first post.
Gary’s story is devastating to me. Not because I fear for Gary’s damned soul — certainly I empathise with his loneliness as a single convert in a family church and the terrible struggle this must entail — but because it taints an experience which meant the universe to me all those years ago. I have not asked Gary whether he now doubts God’s revelation to him regarding the Book of Mormon. I suspect he still believes that that moment was endowed with meaning, just not ultimate meaning. Still, our encounters with the divine are so fleeting that when they lose their full power, something rare is lost. Why is conversion so fragile? Gary was the future of the church outside of the inter-mountain legacy; his loss of faith breaks Elder Y’s heart.