New Normons Series: Why I joined the church I was sure was a fraud
By: Jake Parsons //
In June of last year, a pair of LDS missionaries knocked on my door in Oklahoma City. I told them I was busy (I wasn’t) so they asked if they could come back another time. I agreed, trying not to be rude, but I had no intention of ever seeing them again. They came back a second time and I gave them the same routine. They came back several more times, and I either wouldn’t open the door or would just tell them I was too busy to meet.
But before I elaborate on all the tricks I used to avoid them, let me give a little backstory.
My early religious perceptions
I grew up “Christian,” by way of having prayed Jesus into my heart at some point as a toddler. In high school, I got a little more serious about my faith after some family turmoil. I started to read and study the Bible constantly, attended Church regularly, and had what I believed at the time was a “personal relationship with Jesus.”
After a few years of doing my best to be a Christian, it simply wasn’t filling any of the holes in my life I had sought to fill in the first place. The scriptures I had studied so diligently seemed hollow and untrue. I quickly noticed the problem — I didn’t believe any of the things I had “faith” in. I had never searched for truth in my religious life, and at the age of 18, I realized I had accepted the truths others claimed, but none of it was true to me.
Around this time, an LDS friend invited me to take the lessons with the missionaries. Having grown up in Southern California, I’d known plenty of LDS kids in my youth. Aside from a slight social awkwardness, the kids were mostly normal. They were almost universally nice, hardly ever swore and although they seemed very happy, they were always missing out on most of the fun. They were a little different, but certainly didn’t fit most of the stereotypes I’ve heard throughout my life.
So as a 19 year old I decided to take my friend’s invitation. What I heard in the lessons was interesting, but nothing that changed my view of God in the slightest. Having already decided that the Bible and the story of Jesus Christ wasn’t true to me, the story of a supposed prophet in 19th century America finding a gold bible went over my head like a gold balloon.
I believed in a God, knew I wasn’t Him, and resigned myself to figure out the rest, whatever it was, whenever it happened.
During the next 10 years, I didn’t spend much time considering my lack of faith. Of the time I did spend, I worked to reassure myself I was being the most logical person in an illogical world. And in a world where most believe in some form of a talking donkey, people swallowed by whales, virgin births, mistranslated papyri, modern prophets, ascensions to heaven to meet God, directional praying, etc., it wasn’t difficult to assume that I knew better than any of them.
Then on that day in June, the LDS missionaries showed up on my doorstep.
Avoiding Mormon Missionaries 101
I’ve told you I tried to avoid the missionaries, and I really did try. But for some reason, I couldn’t flat out tell them no. It was an odd feeling to say the least; I’m generally the first one to send an unwelcomed stranger away. Be it a Jehovah’s Witness (“I worship the Great Hawk; get off my porch”) or a lady selling skin care products in the mall (“Sir, can I ask you a question?” – “I believe you just did…”)
I had this strange desire to hear them out, even though nothing in my temporal life was out of sorts. I was reasonably successful for a guy in his twenties, I wasn’t going through any sort of emotional or financial distress and I wasn’t overly conflicted about my view of the world. But, for whatever reason, I wasn’t able to look them in the eye and send them away.
Of course, that didn’t stop me from continuing to spend weeks going to great lengths to avoid them. I’d park elsewhere to make them think I wasn’t home or I’d hide under the window in my living room if I heard a car door shut. In one particular instance I was late in getting out of my chair, leaving the missionaries standing on my doorstep watching my empty chair rock back and forth while my car sat in the driveway. I figured surely, as socially awkward as I perceived Mormons to be, they could take a hint as obvious as the ones I was giving them.
But they didn’t take the hint, and I finally relented. Our first lesson was short and rushed, but there was something reassuring about my decision to let them in and in agreeing to read what they asked. We set a time to meet again, but I decided to go to a bar with some friends instead. Of course, the missionaries wasted no time in following up the next day and we had another lesson. This time, they left me a few scriptures to read, one of which was Alma 32.
Therefore, blessed are they who humble themselves without being compelled to be humble; or rather, in other words, blessed is he that believeth in the word of God, and is baptized without stubbornness of heart, yea, without being brought to know the word, or even compelled to know, before they will believe.”
As I read Alma 32, I began to pace in between verses. It was certainly odd to find myself walking around because of the power of words I knew to be untrue. I went through this question over and over again:
“How can this fraud stir my emotions like this? This is still a fraud, right?”
It was an experience powerful enough that I committed shortly later that I would do what the missionaries asked: read what they asked and pray like they asked. I then committed to the missionaries that I would look them in the eye when I gave them my answer. In my head, there was still a zero-percent chance I would ever become a Mormon. There were too many holes, too many inconsistencies. But I couldn’t deny there was more to it than I had anticipated.
At some point I realized that I was wasting my time by trying to guess how my journey would end. Maybe I would become a Mormon, or maybe I wouldn’t. Whatever decision I tried to convince myself to make would surely be the wrong one. How can I honestly find “truth” if I immediately dismiss everything as untrue?
Preparing for faith
As I continued the lessons, the missionaries would occasionally bring members, which changed my perspective just a bit. I knew the missionaries would be leaving my neighborhood reasonably shortly; they were only here to spread the gospel, not make friends. But the members were different. They live where I live. They were willing to be accountable for everything the church entailed long after the missionaries left. If my neighbors were willing to make a commitment to something I didn’t think was true, I figured I should at least make the commitment to decide what I actually believed.
As the lessons progressed, I followed through on giving things up in my life that might block an understanding of a higher power, excluding one: I wouldn’t give up watching football on Sundays in order to attend church. For weeks, I made excuses or just told them I wasn’t going to come. Finally, one week, I agreed to attend exactly one hour of church.
I walked into a church service for the first time in years that Sunday and was amazed at what I saw. Unlike the relative calm, uniformity of the churches I’d been to, this was total chaos. There were kids running up and down the aisles, some of which appeared to go unclaimed by a parent for more than half an hour. The entire hour was filled with screams, cries and utter mayhem. One particular baby sat in front of us and gave the death stare to one of the missionaries for a solid 15 minutes. It was uncomfortable to say the least.
Then there were the adults! I had never seen such a hodgepodge of people. There were people of all ages and of surprisingly diverse ethnic backgrounds. There were some people dressed professionally, while others appeared to grab whatever wrinkled pair of khakis, thrift store dress shirt and dirt stained tie they could find.
I left amazed that THAT was the church they kept bugging me to attend. Yet when I came home, I didn’t regret going. I had a strange feeling that I had done something right. Two weeks later, I gave up insisting on watching my favorite team on Sunday and agreed to attend church until I found an answer about Mormonism.
Finding an answer
As I continued to attend church, read the Book of Mormon, and pray, I became desperate to find an answer. Some answer. Any answer. My experiences searching all of the deep doctrine and claims about Joseph Smith that I was sure would disprove everything, turned up a lot more truths than I had imagined, while raising questions in my own mind about what truth is.
The missionaries, increasingly frustrated by my inability to find an answer, would encourage me to pray for specific things. I obliged, but instead of getting the answers they wanted, I’d get answers to questions I hadn’t asked.
They kept pushing me to just make a decision, to take a leap of faith: Is it true or isn’t it true? I didn’t know. They endlessly tried to explain how I would come to feel a spirit I couldn’t presently feel. Surely, they thought, I must be doing something wrong. Of course, I was every bit as frustrated. It’s not as if making painful sacrifices and meeting with strangers in formal attire is a hobby of mine. I wanted the answer the Book of Mormon promised, or I was soon finished with the whole thing.
My second baptismal date came and went, and I was seemingly no closer to an answer than when I started this process. By this point, I had read the entire Book of Mormon, and countless other LDS and non-LDS sources all trying to find truth. But I still had so many questions left unanswered. I was at a familiar crossroads from my youth; how can I base my life on something I don’t know to be true?
Then, it happened. My friend Danny invited me to write a post about my experience investigating the church for Normons. As I began writing that post, I struggled to explain exactly what led me to keep looking for an answer that I wasn’t sure even existed. Then something happened that changed that post into this post.
I remembered reading Alma 32, which was the kick that started my search. On a whim, I picked up one of the many Books of Mormon I had collected by then and flipped right to it. As I started to read the same chapter I had read countless times over the previous months, I began to feel something that to this day I can’t describe. I dropped the Book of Mormon on the table and paced. I kept asking myself the same question as if my mind was a broken record: “Is this it? Is this it?” After several minutes of asking myself a question I already knew the answer to, I got down on my knees and prayed. I don’t remember what I said in my prayer, but I will never deny the feeling that I had reached out and touched the very face of God. And, in turn, our Heavenly Father touched my heart with a feeling of love and hope that was undeniable and stunningly beautiful.
It was an answer more obvious than anything I had ever experienced. I’d sooner accept 2+2=5 as truth than deny the answer I received on my knees.
All of a sudden, the questions I had, and even still have, about the gospel were turned on their heads. The deep doctrinal issues that had brought me great trouble about the church now brought me great peace. As I searched far and wide for evidence, trying to find the total case for or against the truthfulness of the Church of Jesus Christ, I found the truth to be beautifully simple and before my eyes: our Heavenly Father loves us, and through our Savior Jesus Christ, he has provided a way for us to return to Him.
I don’t know the gospel is true because my mind could finally make sense of it. I know the gospel is true because of the personal and powerful witness that filled my heart.
I know the gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to soften the hardest of hearts, turn anger into love, provide peace in turbulent times and bless those who weren’t looking to be blessed. I don’t know those truths because someone told me about them, I know them because they happened to me.
And if all that isn’t true, nothing is.