“Building Bridges,” Ensign, Mar. 1984, 51
I liked Judy the first time I met her. The wind was sweeping across our two yards and she swept right over with it, grinning and comfortable. “You must be my new neighbor,” she said, her hands busy with two little boys pulling at her in initial shyness.
“Yes, and you must be my new neighbor—who has ten children!”
She laughed. “I see my fame precedes me. Welcome to Hays.”
The real estate agent had mentioned, somewhat apologetically, that the next-door neighbor had ten children. “But they’re great kids,” he said. “You’ll never even know they’re there. I mean, they’re really well behaved.” He hadn’t known whether to believe me when I told him we had six children, five of whom were still at home. Since he lived across the street, I enjoyed imagining his mounting concern about property values.
Judy and I had an immediate rapport. Our youngest and oldest children were the same ages, two and twenty-one. In between was a varied assortment of freckle-faced, blondish friendly kids in her family and brown-haired, blue-eyed ones in mine. “How old are your children?” she’d asked. Then, “Oh, never mind. It doesn’t matter. Whatever their ages, I probably have one to match!”
Since our branch of the Church here is small and scattered, and since our furniture arrived late in the evening in early October, Judy’s two older sons were drafted to come over and help unload the truck. It was Judy, too, who popped in later that first week with a breezy offer of child-care trading, which immediately eased the problem of getting my older children settled into the new routines at school without having to chase two-year-old Ben at the same time.
By Christmastime Judy and I were friends. Our house sent a tray piled with goodies to her house, and her house sent a similar but differently laden tray to ours. Her son Jason and my son Mike were best friends, with all that best-friendship entails between eight- and nine-year-old boys. On warm and sunny days (which come interspersed, occasionally, into Kansas winters) we would sit on my steps or hers and watch the children play, chatting about everything from politics and sports to religion and motherhood. We had a great deal in common.
I had, of course, known many Catholic church members during my lifetime. But Judy was the first one I had known well enough to discover her devotion to her beliefs. One night Mike told me, “Jason and them guys are in their suits, going to mass.” Busy at something or other, I corrected his English and then envisioned Judy bundling eleven children into the car (by this time she had absorbed into her already well-filled house a nephew as well). All would be neatly dressed in suits, straw-colored hair carefully combed, bound for a mass to recognize Good Friday. With a sudden realization of her motivation, I felt a surge of emotion at the goodness of my friend. The next day, when beautiful cross-shaped Easter bread arrived from Judy for my family, I felt that it was truly a gift of love, and I cherished it. I served it as dessert to my family, which included a teenage houseguest, and found myself somewhat defensive as comments began about crosses and other symbols of our differences. I felt suddenly that such bread should be eaten with the pure love of Christ uppermost in our minds, and I made a remark to that effect aloud. The comments changed, and almost everyone at the table made it a point later to thank Judy for the delicious bread, and for her thoughtfulness.
Judy was a constant delight. One day she stuck her head in the car window and introduced herself to a close friend of mine, down from Wichita for a long-awaited visit. “Hi!” she said. “Are you a drop-in, or are you taking up residence here?” Ann laughed and replied that she was only here for the day. “Well,” joked Judy, “so many people come and go from this house, I figure if I ever need to get away from it all, I’ll just sneak into the basement and take a nap. They’d never know I was there!” Judy had previously expressed her interest in the fact that the missionaries came, stayed for a week or so, then departed, only to return again a few weeks later.
I guess the depth of my feelings for Judy really surfaced the day she came bustling in to see what report we had received from the doctor about my daughter’s leg. Lisa had been hit by a car on the previous Fourth of July, and her junior year of high school was being filled with repeated casts and long trips to Wichita to the doctor. The inability to dance, drive, obtain the usual teenage jobs, and do so many other things important to sixteen-year-old girls was frustrating for her. Lisa and I had made the all-day trip the day before in hopes of having the cast removed at last. But the news had been bad: healing was not at all satisfactory, and we had been given a choice between surgery for bone grafts and plate insertion, or a new electronic growth-stimulation device. Either option meant returning to the full-leg cast and severely curtailing already limited activities for Lisa. Having just been named cheerleader, Lisa was very upset that she would not be able to participate after all.
Judy, mother of several teenagers and therefore perhaps especially alert to their sensitive feelings, obviously shared our disappointment. “Tell you what I’m going to do, Lisa,” she said. “I have a book of saints at home, and I’m going to look through it for one who is particularly effective with the healing of broken bones. Then I’m going to issue a mother’s prayer for you. Mother’s prayers are especially powerful.” I was touched by the depth of my neighbor’s faith and by her desires in our behalf. “Besides that,” she said, “we’ll have a Novena.” Neither Lisa nor I knew what a Novena was, but Judy explained that it was a time set aside for concentrated prayers in behalf of one person. Those participating in the Novena prayed for nine consecutive days.
Immediately after the accident, Lisa had received a blessing from the bishop of the Arlington, Texas, ward where the accident had occurred. He had voiced the promise that she would be fully and wholly healed, emotionally and physically. I had already seen the blessing’s partial fulfillment. Lisa seemed to suffer no self-consciousness from the scars on her face. And when she had come close to death after going into respiratory arrest following surgery the week after the accident, our home teacher back in Wichita had come to us in the Intensive Care waiting room to say he had been assured she would be healed.
So there was no need to be concerned about whether the healing would take place. But perhaps we could consider requesting a quicker recovery, if it were in accordance with Heavenly Father’s will. Lisa and I had been discussing the appropriateness of asking the youth from our stake in Wichita and from our district here in Western Kansas to join us in a day of fasting, requesting that the leg might be healed without the need of additional surgery.
Moved by Judy’s offer of a Novena, I explained to her about the day of fasting. That idea was as new to her as the Novena was to me. “Well, okay,” she said. “Let us know when you’re going to fast, and we’ll hold the Novena during the same time period.” When she left neither Lisa nor I was dry-eyed.
This experience had deep impact on me. I felt the need to pray about Judy, but I was certain that she was completely satisfied with her own religion. It was obvious that she experienced conviction, strength, and comfort through her church. And yet, didn’t I have the responsibility to share the gospel with her, as a member-missionary? How could I do that without jeopardizing our friendship? Should I even try?
As I mused on these questions a day or two later, Mike came in. Almost idly, as he gulped down half a loaf of buttered whole-wheat bread (the symbol of our household, so it seemed, and one which had been happily shared with Judy and her family), Mike recounted an interesting conversation.
“Me and Jason were talking about churches yesterday,” he said.
“‘Jason and I.’ What were you saying about churches?”
“Well, Jason and his brothers wanted to know if I thought my church was right or their church was right.”
“Oh? And what did you say?”
“I told them mine was right, but I knew they thought theirs was right, and that was okay because they didn’t know much about mine.” I felt a little apprehensive and turned my complete attention to my full-mouthed son. “Oh? And what did they say?”
“They said their church was right.” Mike, who never stops talking, now seemed in need of prodding. “Well?” I asked. “What happened then? Did anybody get mad at anybody?”
“Oh, no, Mom. I just said I guess I can believe what I want to and they can believe what they want to, and since we’re all good boys we can just be friends anyway.” Grabbing another slice of bread for Jason he bounded out of the kitchen.
His words seemed peculiarly significant, and I felt that my little son had just been an instrument of the Holy Spirit in my behalf … only I didn’t know exactly how. All the missionary talks I’d ever heard seemed to stack up in my mind in argument against such a philosophical attitude.
The time had come. The house was quiet, for once, and I went to my room, knelt beside my bed behind a closed door, and prayed. I asked what my responsibility actually was. I expressed my love for Judy, for her family. I said I wanted to teach her the gospel. But, she was so content. What should I do? I asked.
The answer came as peaceful reassurance. I understood that before we can cross chasms we have to learn to build bridges, and I could see that I was building bridges to span traditions and differences. This was a pure Christian love. I understood that Heavenly Father loved Judy as well as me, and that He was her God as well as mine. I just needed to be patient. It was a beautiful moment for me.
Later, back in the kitchen, I peeled potatoes and contemplated the experiences of the day, and of the previous weeks and months. I thought of making the telephone calls to arrange for the day of fasting, and to let Judy know the time for her Novena. Glancing out the window, I mentally constructed wispy, lacy spans and beams of a beautiful feathery bridge reaching between my house and Judy’s.