Wednesday, July 25, 2012

My Conversion: Part 1

****Friends, here is the condensed first part of my conversion story, and it really, really does start way back in the beginning.  I'm including pictures that are relevant to the story: any religious pictures referenced are the ones I actually looked to as a child, and any pictures of myself are posted at the corresponding time/age of that segment of the story.  Thank you for giving me a reason to finally sit down and start writing this out.  Thank you for being interested. ****

When I was a little girl, I used to go to church with close family friends who had once been our neighbors.  They had lived next door to us when my family lived in the house we lived in when I was born, on Orange Street in San Bernardino, CA.

Sometime during the first six years of my life they had moved to a house on a big piece of property over by Cal State San Bernardino.  When I turned six years old, my dad was laid off and despite my parents search and struggle, we needed help.  These former neighbors had remained our close friends and they quickly stepped up to help.  They let us live in a 5th wheel on their property behind their house.  It was a humble situation really, but as a child I didn't know the difference.    

These neighbors has always been known to me as an aunt and an uncle though they were not blood relations. They were raising their grandchildren at the time so there were children around to play with.  They always asked me if I wanted to go to church with them. Of course I wanted to.  I loved church and had always loved going to church.  I'd always kind of been obsessed with churches.  I didn't know much about any religion in particular, but I had been to Catholic masses, Lutheran, Methodist and Baptist services all before second grade. When the question was, "church?," my answer was an easy and unconditional, "yes!," always with a hopeful, tentative glance at my parents.

My mother was raised Roman Catholic, in a convent even, and my father was raised Lutheran. Neither one cared much for their religions, both having gone to parochial schools, and this only seemed to pique my interest more.  I had been raised with religious symbols in our home and I had always had pictures of Jesus.  I was given children's bibles as gifts and had video cassettes of animated bible stories. One of my favorite toys was my Fisher Price Little People's Noah's Ark.  (I'm getting Adelaide one for Christmas :)  I'm not sure if I think my situation was ironic or not, that seemingly indifferent parents placed me in an environment bound to lead to questions...when they had no desire to be active in any church setting.  Thankfully, regardless of their desire, they always allowed me to attend any church service I wanted with those who invited me.   

So I did go to church with Aunt Sherry and Uncle Don, who happened to be LDS.  This didn't mean anything to me until about four years ago but more on that later.  To this day my mother maintains that she was okay with me attending church with them because "the Mormons" are big on family.  Regardless of her reasoning, I'm okay with it.  It's brought me here, along with other circumstances that I'll discuss later.

As a child in Primary, I never understood the Word of Wisdom, the Sacrament (I knew what the bread & water symbolized, but the words were bigger than me), or who the Missionaries were, but I knew that it all added up to one man and his Father and that everything about him was good.  The people I went to church with loved the same man that I had grown up seeing in pictures in my room and tucked away in my Precious Moments bible:

I didn't always know why Jesus was so wonderful, I couldn't comprehend many of His teachings or parables.  I just knew that I was supposed to love Him, so I did.  That simplicity has allowed me to understand why Heavenly Father wants us to be like children and why children are so important in the Gospel. In fact, this principle was impressed upon me even greater the following year when we moved again and I started attending a Baptist church.  They had an amazing youth program and I used to sing with them and learn with them, I was even Mary in the Nativity during the Christmas play (recovering from chickenpox, no less!).  One week I had a scripture to learn: Matthew 19:13-15.  That scripture has always stayed with me, because I knew that Jesus wanted the children to come to Him for celebration, help, sorrow and in happiness, to be led and taught by Him, to be blessed by Him, to allow us to return to Him and our Father. 

A year later, as I turned eight years old, my father got a job in Baker, CA and we moved yet again. With a population of 735 people, there wasn't an LDS church for at least an hour (Barstow) to attend.  I was 8 years old, I hadn't even known that I had attended an LDS church.  At that age, church was church and I though everyone loved Jesus.  I didn't understand the differences in denominations.  

While there wasn't a meetinghouse for at least 60 miles, I do remember having a missionary discussion at a friend's house after having a sleepover.  In the back of my mind I recognized them but we were kids and we spent a lot of time on our own.  We were in a rinky-dink town in the middle of nowhere; we were probably good practice for the missionaries. I don't know how they ever thought they could get us to a church an hour away, but I appreciate that they tried. 

Church became a fleeting thought for me shortly after that.  About seven years later, when we were 15 my best friend Michelle, who is Catholic, began studying for her Confirmation.  By this point I lived with Michelle and her family and they were amazing.  I just loved (and still love!) them.  They included me and never made me feel like the pain in the butt that teenage girls are (especially since I was/am a know-it-all!).  

Though religion hadn't been a thing I had really thought about since that lone missionary visit (minus the 3 out of 7 days I once attended of Vacation Bible School, where I initially didn't realize it was only 7 day long... *ahem*), I still prayed in my heart constantly, asking for Heavenly Father's protection when I had to walk home in the dark, or when I was afraid, or even just saying "thank you" for what I did have. (Only recently have I realized, but those fervent prayers under the stars were answered again and again and again, like Angel's wings covering me, a steady hand guiding me when I was unsure, and their power extended long after my prayers fell silent. ) 

When I attended Mass with Michelle (in Spanish, mind you) it was because I knew it would be boring for her and I didn't want her to have to do it alone. I did, at one point, consider fully converting to Catholicism, baptism and all, just so I could have the same religion as her. I wanted us to have the same everything, she was as close to me as a sister.  She still is, even though we don't live together, or even very near one another anymore, and we did drift apart a bit as we left high school, but all of my best memories from third grad on until graduation include her. I think the brief religious experiences we did share together had an affect on my path into religion before I even knew it.  I think more than anything, I respected the commitment that she expressed by completing the rites of her religion.  I wanted that, but I wasn't sure how exactly, or where, to find it.  

When I graduated high school at 18, I moved to Florida.  Very literally, when I graduated high school.  Graduation night I hopped on an airplane with my sister and moved to Pensacola to go to UWF and play volleyball.  

I had very few religious experiences there, I went to mass once with my sister (on Easter I think...?) & I had a teammate who was very Christian and my coach was also Christian, and they seemed to be the type to live their beliefs pretty loyally.  I appreciated that.  My roommate also seemed to have Christian beliefs; she had lost her mother to cancer a few years before and she was a really strong person.  I still really admire her though we no longer keep in touch.  I also tried going to church once with a guy in my dorm who I'd had a conversation with about wanting to go back to church.  He was Catholic so we went to mass at a church he'd been going to by campus.  After one mass there, I couldn't hold interest.  There was nothing that was taught there that made me feel better or want to be better.  So I gave up on that leg of my search.  

I moved home to California and got back into the swing of things with my old friends.  I worked at the Starbucks there for a year, having fun and living life.  I (finally, and very late) got my driver's license and continued my search for Christ, and ultimately for peace.  (I'm not entirely sure that getting my DL & searching for Christ are actually related, but just go with it ;) 

One night I was hanging out at my Starbucks with my bible, studying. I was going to actually try to read the whole thing finally, instead of just pieces here and there.  A man approached me and asked about it.  I explained that I had no particular background in an organized religion but that I knew of and loved Christ as the Savior; I just didn't know where to start.  He told me what he told his daughter who was my age:  "Start every morning with a Psalm.  When you complete that start at the beginning of the New Testament and work your way through it.  It doesn't have to be a race, you're not trying to beat anyone, you're trying to learn." Then he gave me a copy of the New Testament (something like a NKJ version). I got started with Psalms that night and I never saw him again.  

A few weeks later, in a similar situation, I met a guy a little bit older than me and an old man that he was with.  He told me I had a brightness about me and started asking me what seemed to be spiritually based questions.  I'm usually really weirder out by encounters like this, but they both ended up being really nice. The two men lived several hours from each other, but they were "meeting in the middle,"in Baker, so they could visit without making the long trip alone.  

As our conversation continued the younger man asked if I knew what the light of Christ was and explained that each of us had it.  Certain things started clicking for me, finally.  Maybe this explained why I felt like I was meant to fulfill something bigger than I was currently: I wasn't living up to the light of Christ that I had. When I moved to Las Vegas 6 months later, I dated the younger guy and we had a very good relationship for several months until one day, it just wasn't what we wanted anymore. He was a good guy and he and his friend taught me a lot, and though what they taught me wasn't my end result, they got me on the right track, got me asking the right questions and they were an integral part of my journey.  

My search continued...