About a year ago, I reviewed a book by Katarina Jambresic called A Global Testimony—a compilation of LDS conversion stories that she’s collected from 60+ countries around the world (available in Kindle/paperback here). The book has stuck with me, partly because the experiences in the book are so different from what I see among saints in the U.S., and partly because of the sheer scope of the project. Where’d she get all those great stories?
I recently asked her that question, and she offered to share the story of the book. So here you go, in her own words…
Twenty years ago, on February 25, 1996, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints marked a historic milestone: for the first time ever, there were more members living outside the United States than within its borders—and the membership abroad continued to grow three times as fast. As a convert myself, who moved to the U.S. from Europe, I was intensely curious: Who are these converts, and how are they finding the church?
The book is an attempt to answer that question.
The first step was the hardest: finding people who had a story to tell. I was determined to show true diversity rather than relying on friends of friends. As a General Conference interpreter, I had access to a broad set of international members, and when we were off the air I went from booth to booth explaining the project. Many of those interpreters were able to connect me with converts in their home countries.
I then joined every Facebook mission group on earth that would accept me (if you belong to one, I’m probably part of it too). Often when I posted about what I was looking for, the same names would keep popping up as a “must contact.” Others I added to my list after reading about them in church literature or newspapers. Living in a very international city (New York) and being well-traveled myself, I had a lot of help along the way in tracking these names down.
As I came across names, I sent them an intro letter with a list of questions to help them organize their stories. I wanted the readers to really get to know these individuals, their personal and cultural background, but there was a special focus on the conversion process — those moments of feeling and recognizing the Spirit for maybe the first time, the verses of scripture that had the greatest impact, how they recognized truth, trials they went through. Those details make these accounts so powerful.
A couple of them I had to interview over the phone and help write, but the rest were submitted as essays. They came mostly in English (with the exception of South America where I ended up translating from Spanish) and I edited carefully to preserve the individual voices. I would then send further questions to expand on some interesting sections and/or give extra background on terms and traditions that may be foreign to a typical Western reader. Speaking languages from the three main Western groups (Slavic, Romanic, Germanic) came in handy when a statement made no sense in English but I knew what they were trying to say.
There was a lot of emphasis on seeing the Lord’s hand so I asked that they share experiences where that was evident. I was surprised at how candid many of the participants were in sharing their struggles. Anything from self-esteem issues to family problems and sin—all to demonstrate and testify of the infinite power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Many of the converts were already some form of Christian, but there is a good number of others, including former atheists. We did our best in the editing process to be careful about how other religions were portrayed.
The converts were also asked to share some of the political/historical/cultural background to give context to their thought process.
Take Ukraine or Latvia for example. Religion was somewhat taboo before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many were atheist and then suddenly, in the early ‘90s, there were all these missionaries coming in with new ideas. Many African and Southeast Asian cultures worship ancestors. A Palestinian convert risked getting arrested every time she set out on her three-hour journey (that included climbing walls and hiding from soldiers) to the only accessible branch — in Jerusalem. She had been doing it for 14 years. It is helpful to understand the economic hardship of Romania to understand why one would spend over a week hiding in a locked container on a ship across the Atlantic where he almost died. When he later converted and read about the Jaredites, “it was all too familiar.” It is amazing to read of the young men in Africa, often from broken families and extreme poverty, embracing the gospel and gaining a better vision for their lives and the faith to get there.
From backgrounds as culturally, socially, financially, educationally, geographically and religiously diverse as can be, these people had one thing in common — they found the truth they didn’t know existed and had the courage to follow it. No matter what. Their stories are fascinating. Some of them signed the documents and established the Church in their countries (Congo) while others translated the scriptures (Ukraine, Latvia, Turkey, Belgium) or became Area Seventies (Latvia, Bolivia, Philippines). They are traditional families, singles, single parents, children joining without parents, parents of inactive children, “golden” converts, former addicts, the rich, the famous, the poor and everything in between.
Collecting and editing the stories took about a year and a half, and I feel so grateful to have had the privilege of compiling it. May our collective testimony of a living Christ and His gospel add to the power of faith in your life.