“It Took Thirteen Years to Cross the Street,” Ensign, Aug. 1986, 42–43
While I was growing up, I lived across the street from an LDS chapel. But it took me thirteen years to cross the street and go inside.
My family moved to Ogden, Utah, in January 1956, when I was eight years old. I didn’t know much about the Mormons. But each week before my Baptist Sunday School class, I listened to my friends recount anti-Mormon stories.
As I grew older, I was impressed to enter the ministry, so I began training to enter a Baptist seminary. Studying the Bible was easy for me. I loved the stories and parables, and I became well-acquainted with many of the biblical characters.
But as I studied, questions arose in my mind. What about heaven and hell? What is the “cutoff point” for heaven?—and countless more. Unfortunately, my pastor couldn’t help.
He exhorted me to have faith. But I wondered: “In what?” If he didn’t have the answers, where could I find them? I tried many different Christian faiths, and found that none of them had the answers. So I broke with Christianity completely.
Throughout this time, I had also developed a new hobby: arguing with Mormons I met. Those who tried to talk with me about religion were overwhelmed by my verbal onslaught of scriptural scholarship. “How could those Mormons be right,” I thought, “if their beliefs are so easy to destroy?”
During the summer of 1967, I landed a role in a theatrical production and met three people who I came to respect deeply. The first, T. Leonard Rowley, was the director of the play. He was truthful, just, and sensitive—an impressive man with rare spiritual insight. I was unaware until much later in our relationship that he was LDS.
The second, J. D. Stokes, was the star of the show. He had worked with many of the “giants” of show business; yet there was no doubt of his religious affiliation, nor of his devotion to the Church. He was every inch a Latter-day Saint.
The third, Jeanne Nowak, was not a Mormon. She charmed me immediately. She was not only beautiful, she was talented enough to star in numerous musicals and intelligent enough to graduate at the head of her class in psychology.
In the fall of 1967, I entered the Navy and was stationed on an oiler in the Far East. In my spare time I haunted the ship’s library, reading all I could find on Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Taoism—but I did not find the answers to the questions that so troubled me.
Before long, I was ordered to Vietnam, where I served as a combat journalist. The assignment afforded me great freedom to read literally hundreds of books on theology. I also interviewed clergymen of many religious persuasions. Again, I found no answers—only more questions. Was I just wasting my time? I wondered.
Then, in the summer of 1969, I received a letter from Mary Lee Memmott, a friend who had never lost hope that I would embrace the gospel. Amid the rest of the news from home, one item jumped from the page: “Oh, by the way, did you know Jeanne Nowak joined the Mormon Church?”
I was shocked. “She’s too smart to have done that,” I thought. “She must have been tricked.”
Then and there I vowed to expose the Mormon fraud. It was the very least I could do for a friend.
The camp library offered little information about the LDS Church. Finally I asked one of the chaplains where I might find a Mormon. “You might ask over at the post office,” he said. “The lay leader is named Orvin Shepard.”
A few minutes later, I arrived at the post office and asked for Shepard. A man stopped what he was doing and came over to me. “I’m Shepard,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
I explained that I wanted to “disprove Mormonism” and needed to borrow a Book of Mormon. He told me to wait and slipped into the back room. He returned carrying a handful of tracts, a Book of Mormon, and a doctrinal compendium entitled Principles of the Gospel.
He seemed too cooperative. Suspicious, I told him that I wanted to be left alone and that I didn’t want to see the missionaries. My promise to return the books as soon as I was finished was countered by a quiet smile. No, he said, I could keep them.
I retired to the barracks to begin my “attack.” I knew it would be unfair to attack beliefs, but in order for the Church to be all it claimed to be, it had to be completely logical. Therefore, I would attack the logic.
I decided that Principles of the Gospel would help me get right down to the doctrines, so I started there. My fine-tooth comb cut into page one and a day and a half later emerged—empty. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t logically discount a book.
But the Book of Mormon was another story. Joseph Smith certainly couldn’t have known as much about the Bible as I did. He had only a third-grade education! The Book of Mormon would provide my loophole, I was sure.
I found it on page 520: “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.” (Moro. 10:4.)
If I accepted Moroni’s challenge and received no witness of the truth, I could look any Mormon in the eye and declare him wrong. For a week I practiced praying. I was sincere and grimly serious. I wanted to do this thing properly; it was much too important to play around with.
In mid-August of 1969, I humbly knelt in the shadows behind my barracks and prayed. I told God that I had read the book that Latter-day Saints say is from Him. I admitted that there were some good things in it and that I wanted to know if it was true.
I closed my prayer in the Savior’s name. No sooner had I done so than I received the most powerful witness that I have ever experienced. It was not the answer I was seeking. But I had asked, and now I knew. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the only true church on the earth! I knew it; I dared not deny it.
What would I do? I smoked; I drank. I was not a righteous man. I knew my family would disapprove. Could I hurt them that way? Membership in the LDS Church would mean a complete commitment to change my life-style. But that didn’t matter. I knew the Church was true, and there was only one thing for me to do.
That Sunday I ventured into the chapel for LDS services. Within the next few days, all of my questions were answered. But the answers to my questions were secondary compared with the testimony that burned within me.
I was baptized in the South China Sea off China Beach near Da Nang, Vietnam. Since then, my life has been full of joy. As a direct result of my membership in the church of Jesus Christ, I met and have been sealed to my wonderful bride in the house of the Lord, and we have been able to adopt four beautiful children who have also been sealed to us for time and eternity. God lives! And I have finally crossed the street to enter his Church.