“Don’t you ever read that Mormon bible,” my mother warned. It occurred to me then, at ten years old, it belonged on my list of things to do one day when I became a grown-up; as would many other things over time, precisely because my mother emphatically forbade it for reasons, which seemed to me, arbitrary and conjured. According to my mother, Southern Baptists are not to read other folks’ holy books because, “They’re not The Bible,” therefore, unholy.
“Only The Bible is The Bible,”
My mother clarified, and as for anything else, “if it’s not from The Bible it’s against it.” My curiosity, according to her, was not a legitimate reason to seek out the specifics on others’ religious beliefs. They were all going to Hell, even the Catholics, lest they repent — a message repeated all too often by the charismatic Pastor Fred Franklin of our beloved First Baptist Church of Green Spring. As it turned out, Pastor Franklin had a little repenting of his own to do, not just to God, but also to the husbands of several choir members. As the little girl who often dressed and fed herself before riding the Sunday School Bus to church, who often, by herself, occupied the second pew — learning about the the pastor’s all-too-human tumble and skid from grace was shattering. If Christ was “all forgiving” and Pastor Franklin was “saved” then why did they kick him out of the church? I counted on him to be there every Sunday. If Jesus forgave everybody’s sins, why wouldn’t everybody else? I didn’t know what adultery really meant, but I was sure it couldn’t be as bad as lying and swearing in the name of God that you weren’t. I couldn’t reconcile the books everyone was keeping — something was decidedly untrue and I didn’t know what it was. Certainly, if Pastor Franklin wasn’t forgiven, I had no chance at all. My trust in both so-called “Men of God” and my mother’s advice regarding what is or is not “Godly” began to tangle unmercifully in the wind of confusion. All I knew for sure was, based upon my own rap sheet, I was going to Hell — and the blueprint for redemption was in the hands of humans I had no power to question.
Nineteen years later, I let the Mormons in the front door. That mild, June afternoon, Elder Tyler and Elder Tim knocked on my front door wearing the standard-issue Men in Black style suits and ties, gold-tone name tags and matching, black, nylon backpacks slung around their right shoulders on a hooked thumb. They had parked their matching men’s bicycles side-by-side at the top of my driveway. I had never let them in before. I usually didn’t answer the door to them or others like them for the same reasons many people might avoid eye contact with the Hari Krishna at airports. I just didn’t want to hear what any of these missionaries had to say because, by my estimation, they were human beings purporting to have “The One and Only Truth” and I was seldom in the mood to any further offers or more promises of Salvation. Never mind the suspicion I secretly reserved that they may be under the influence of a weepy-eyed peacock dressed in a Sears suit who high-steps his way back and forth before the multitudes with tears streaming, waving a weathered leather book, every Sunday before lunch, only to host a hooker in a motel room later in the week. I was also sure not everyone was as misrepresenting themselves or ill-intended trust swindlers; I simply could not afford to be fooled again. I wanted to gain an understanding of the nature of God, where a safe access point might be, but I couldn’t risk any more spiritual abuse. Decidedly, I didn’t trust anyone who used intimidation and fear as a means to convince me of anything.
This day, the day I let the Mormons in, was different.
I no longer feared their pitch; I was no longer concerned that I would be admonished by my mother, I was simply very curious and thought it would be sociologically educational. I wanted the hard-sell, I wanted to understand their passionate persistence even while knowing full-well I was not buying. I wanted to understand their beliefs, not for adoption, but for the sake of understanding, period. Elder Tyler and Elder Tim, as oxymoronic as the title of “Elder” seemed to me for young men fresh out of high school, welcomed an opportunity that day to perhaps lead a divorcing mother-of-two toward the “Celestial Heaven” she would otherwise not reach except by the Mormon faith.
“So, who is this ‘prophet’ you’re talking about?” I asked without challenge after Elder Tyler presented his opening statements there in my living room. Elder Tyler rose from the couch toward the wing-back I was sitting in and assumed a marriage proposal position on the floor at my feet, fishing with a thumb and a plump finger in the back wallet-pocket of his black, polyester, dress pants which worked hard to forgive his girth.
“This is the Prophet,” he said presenting me with a laminated photo card of a substantial, gray-haired man, suited for Sunday who could have been cast as any college dean in 1981.
“Does this look like a man you can trust?”
Elder Tyler asked, earnestly offering the card to me for closer inspection. I took it from him politely and bit my tongue.
“Well,” I said, “Honestly, he just looks like a man to me. I don’t really have any point of reference for him.” Elder Tyler pivoted on his knee to Elder Tim and motioned toward the backpack on the couch from which Elder Tim promptly produced a fresh copy of The Book of Mormon and passed it to Elder Tyler.
“This is The Book of Mormon,” Elder Tyler said handing it to me. “I’d like you to read the first chapter over the next two days. Read it with your heart open and really notice how your heart is feeling, how it’s moving, when you read it. We would like to come back and visit with you again after you’ve done this. Would that be ok with you?” Elder Tyler’s fingers raked back his fresh crew cut as Elder Tim sat watching the scene, hands clasped and elbows-to-knees as they waited for me to answer.
“Can I keep this?” I asked wobbling the plasticized card.
“Uhhh, ummm . . .” Elder Tyler hesitated, glancing to Elder Tim and back to me. “Um, actually, I need that.” He answered finally.
“Well, I have — ” Elder Tim began, twisting to his own back pocket. Elder Tyler held up an open palm to Elder Tim.
“Actually, we may need those later today, I can try to remember to bring you one when we come back, if you’d like.” Elder Tyler explained to me, politely reaching for the card I held. I handed it to him and began to superficially skim the first page he had asked me to read.
“So, you want me to read the first chapter here?” I asked.
“Yes, and remember, as you read it, be sure to notice how your heart is responding to the Scripture; notice your heart responding to Truth.” Elder Tyler advised, patting his chest with his hand while Elder Tim nodded along.
“Okay. I’ll read it this week.” I said. I was as genuinely interested in what this book had to say as I was worried for these two. I more worried for their blind, passionate, idolizing faith in another human being; and much less so for their faith in a book of “Truth” which I had never read.
“I can meet with you again on Thursday, maybe, two-o’clock?” I offered.
“We’ll be here!” said Elder Tyler as he pressed hard on his knee to return to a standing position. Elder Tim gathered the backpacks as he stood up with his partner. They both bid me a blessed week and happily made their way with me to my front door. Elder Tyler was red-faced with pride and swollen with excitement. The pair mounted their Schwinn steeds and made off, peddling hard and hopefully to their next opportunity to share Salvation.
Thursday had come and by then, I had read the Elders’ assignment. I was thinking of how to tell them there had not been so much as a flutter in my heart, but that I found the story very interesting and that I had many very pragmatic questions for them. A few minutes before two, I was tidying up the front room when the doorbell rang. I quickly herded my barking yellow Lab and geriatric Pug through the kitchen, out the back door, and I made for the front door.
“Well, hello, Ladies!” I said with a blink of surprise. I opened the storm door to the two modestly dressed but otherwise unremarkable women wearing name tags, one with her arms full of reading materials.
“The others aren’t here yet,” I hesitated. “But please, have a seat.” I said, extending an arm to the sofa. The two looked at one another and came in. Just in time, Elder Tyler and Elder Tim rounded the driveway and tapped the kick-stands of their bikes in succession.
“How are you, Donna?” Elder Tyler called as he made his way to my front porch followed by his companion.
“Good, good.” I said holding the doors open. The two boys filed into the living room. The loyal barkers sounded off at the back door with their usual concern.
“You all can just have a seat. I’ll be right back. I need to hush those dogs.” I said gesturing toward the kitchen. When I returned, all four were still standing, paired as they had entered and shaking hands with one another.
“So, okay, um, have a seat where you’d like. I actually have quite a few questions for you.” I said.
“Ah, well, maybe we haven’t come at a good time,” the woman holding reading materials suggested.
“I’m sorry?” I said.
“We’re actually Jehovah’s Witnesses.” she explained.
“Oh! Uh . . . okay, well, wow!” I stammered. “Well, these two made an appointment with me earlier in the week but, please, have a seat! This is very interesting!” I said with a clap. “Is that okay with you?” I asked the Mormon boys.
“Sure!” said Elder Tyler as Elder Tim nodded along as usual.
“Oh, really, that’s fine, that’s fine. We can come back another time. Here are some tracts you can read to find out more about Jehovah’s Witnesses,” the woman said selecting several pieces of literature from the bundle she held.
“Thank you but, please, I would love to hear what everyone has to say. This is fascinating!” I insisted.
“Oh, no, really — we don’t want to intrude. They had an appointment. We were just coming door-to-door today.” she answered leading her silent teammate toward the front door with a beckoning glance after which the two left politely and apologetically and I closed the door.
“That was interesting,” said Elder Tyler, his proverbial Silent Bob nodded along.
“Wow, it was, wasn’t it?” I answered.
“I would have loved the opportunity to debate with them!” announced Elder Tyler.
“It would have been interesting,” I agreed, “but I think you’re wasting your time here, boys. You see, I knowingly swore my Salvation away when I was seven years old. I pawned it for the chance at a one-time reprieve from my mother’s punishing rage and her promise of an after-dinner belt beating from my step-father. She tested me with a swearing to God — I had to swear to God I wasn’t lying to her to avoid the suspended consequences. She made it clear that if I did swear to God and I was lying, I would go straight to Hell. No passing GO, no two-hundred bucks. So, guys, I can’t un-do that. I made an informed decision a long time ago and there isn’t anything you or Jesus Christ Himself can do to un-ring that bell — but I gotta tell ya, it’s very interesting to me how hard you’re working at saving everyone. I really hope we all make it somehow.”
“Well, there is a way for us all. Just allow your heart to say yes to the path and you will be washed clean.” Tyler said.
“Tyler, I appreciate your faith and I am fascinated by your devotion — but I don’t think you understand what I’m trying to tell you. All I really know for sure is that I’ve got to find a way to right this with God and I hope He’ll reconsider. And guys, I’ve heard the ‘washed clean’ promise from every well-intended religious person I’ve ever listened to. I know you believe it. I’m sorry to tell you that it all — not just the Mormon faith, but it everyone’s position sounds as promising as an Amway infomercial to me — if everyone is wrong to everyone else, who can really be right? And more than that, if I’m already going to Hell, at least I know why I’m going. I can’t afford to make any more judgement errors, guys. I hope you don’t feel offended. I’m just being honest with you.”
“But when you open your heart and begin to embrace the true path of Christ, that which was previously untold before Joseph Smith — ”
“Guys. Thank you for your concern, really. One of these days, I think God will know that if I had it to do it again, I would have taken the belt beating instead of this. Fear is what I was served — wrapped up in power and a human’s need to control and intimidate me. Unfortunately, it was from the heart of a woman who was supposed to have been a safe harbor. I’ve had Salvation promised to me even after that — in my own church. They said I was “saved” and “redeemed” when I took the long, audacious walk to the front of the church after being pushed from the pew by the same woman who helped me broker my damning deal with God — no one knew my fate was sealed and there was nothing any human could do about it. The only thing I can be right now is accountable — and this regret and shame . . . that’s the Hell I bought with my fear. So, really, I’m just not going to buy one more human being’s interpretive guarantee of Salvation. We just don’t know what we don’t know — but I can assure you, I will find my way to God and hope I can prove myself sorry and that He has mercy on me.”
“Well, Donna. When your heart opens, you can call me any time. My number is right here on my card and, um — Elder Tim, yeah. We have one more appointment this afternoon, so just keep the Book of Mormon handy and I’m sure you’ll find all your answers in there.”
The boys gathered their backpacks and bid me their sincere goodbyes. Straddling their 10-speed bicycles, I watched from the door as Tyler stood with his left foot on the bike’s pedal and the other planted on the driveway, shaking his head.
“Man, can you believe that? Jehovah’s Witnesses! They totally just bolted! They didn’t want to debate with us, man. That would have been a serious story!” Tyler said to a nodding Tim who began pedaling, quickly taking a six-length lead heading eastward with Tyler and the strained seams of his pants pressing hard to catch up.
It’s been fifteen more years since I closed my door behind those earnest Mormon boys — but I never closed my door to being open to seeing God where ever and in whomever He shows Himself. In every breath of nature, every faithful, compassionate, loving human he has created. For my friends whose paths are Hindu, or Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Baha’i and Jewish, all of you whose paths to others may seem divergent — they have all taught and shown me our common Truth: that all Judgement lies with God, that we all have the capacity for and the duty to show love with respect and to reach out to one another in compassion rather than to seek power and control — and that we’re all guilty of something, sometime.
And, the best thing I came to believe through every human of faith that has touched my soul since: The nature of God, The Omnipotent, The Cherisher, The Creator, The Compassionate and Most Merciful can comprehend the depths of a seven year-old little girl’s terror. He had always recognized the weight of desperation her soul carried, unable to protect herself or call upon anyone for intervention or mercy. He could pardon, and had long ago, her swearing upon His name as the only protection she could find — even if it meant she was willing to pay for it with her eternal life. He recognized her want to survive even when she didn’t know if she would. And He waited for me to finally show the compassion for myself that He had already issued to this wounded, confused and frightened child when no one else, not even she, would have.