“Smiling in Memphis,” New Era, Oct. 2003, 20
Take a walk in Memphis, Tennessee, and you’ll know why they call it the blues capital of the world. Memphis is a music town, with music that’s a little sad. A melancholy saxophone blares on Beale Street. And it always seems to be pouring rain here.
But Latter-day Saint teens prove there is plenty of sunshine in Memphis. They wear bright smiles, even when they stand alone. Most of the teens are the only members of the Church in their schools in an area of the United States known as the “Bible Belt,” where churches of other faiths stand on nearly every corner. Being around so many Christian religions creates questions for LDS youth about how Latter-day Saint beliefs fit into what other religions believe.
A lot of people living in the Bible Belt have heard something about the “Mormons,” but what they’ve heard isn’t always correct. Every day at school, teens in Memphis are bombarded with questions and misperceptions about the Church: “So what do Latter-day Saints believe?” “What makes your church better than mine?” “Why don’t you have a preacher?” “What is the sacrament?” “What is the Book of Mormon about?” “How many moms do you have?” “Why do you always wear modest clothes?” “What do you do in temples?” And on and on. So how do the Memphis teens answer all these questions?
White Station High School’s Allison Bray, who has had a lot of practice answering questions, says, “It’s really hard to talk to them. Sometimes they’ll ask a question, but they don’t really want to know what I have to say,” she says. “I’ll stop and pray for help. And if I don’t know how to answer, I’ll go home and ask someone, read about it, or look it up in my scriptures and get back to them.”
With all the questions they get asked, the Memphis youth have thought of a lot of resources, like the scriptures, to answer people’s questions. Michael Sandridge of Christian Brothers High School has found a good way to answer a lot of questions. “It’s kind of hard sometimes, but I’ve found using the Articles of Faith to describe what we believe really helps,” he says.
Even when they have the resources, the youth realize they need to work on their attitudes too. Amanda Slauson, the only Church member in Craigmont High School, says being open to other students’ questions instead of getting defensive has helped her the most. “I try not to argue,” she says. “If I treat it like a discussion, focusing on what we agree on, as well as what’s different about our religions, then I never have a bad experience.”
Tracy Brumley of Southhaven High School tries to consider everyone’s point of view. “I explain the best I can, try to stay calm, and realize they were brought up in a different religion, so my beliefs might sound weird to them,” she says.
These teens have different ways of dealing with the questions that come their way about the Church, but they all rely on their testimonies and on the Spirit to guide them as they try to share the gospel. They also use the things they are taught by their ward leaders and their seminary teachers as background for their answers.
The Memphis teens actually look at all the questions they get as blessings. It’s a chance to study and search out good answers. The search itself can lead them to some profound insights.
Blaine Volstorf attends White Station Middle School and says the questions he gets are the building blocks of his testimony. “Sometimes, because of their questions, I question myself. But finding the answers makes me have a stronger testimony and helps me understand more about the Church,” he says.
Brett Barnett of West Junior High says it’s tough to face other students’ criticism, but it’s kept him strong. He says, “I may be the only member in my school, but I stay strong because I have the truth. Even when I’m physically alone, I’m never spiritually alone.”
When your faith is questioned every day, you have to decide pretty quickly which side of the line you’re on. Allison McEwen of Houston High School says, “When I was younger and my peers questioned things, I doubted too. But by going to the Lord in prayer, I found the answers that made me stronger. After I found out for myself that the Church was true, their questions didn’t bother me anymore.”
As the student body president, Allison gets a lot of questions about Church. “I like to be different,” she says. “The Church is something positive that definitely puts me aside from the rest.” Even in the face of difficult questions from friends, she knows that the Lord is aware of her and is willing to help her find the answers, and that has been a great blessing.
Lenora Bendall feels the same way. She is setting an example as the only member at Gateway Christian School. “Having to set an example, because I know everyone at school is watching me, has made me stronger,” she says.
All the youth agreed attending seminary every morning gives them strength to face their situations at school. Lenora says that taking her seminary teacher’s challenge to read and pray about the Book of Mormon pulled her through a time of doubt and helped her gain her testimony.
Another blessing, the Memphis teens say, is good friends. Jonathan Stambaugh of Collierville High School says, “A couple of years ago I didn’t go to seminary and didn’t really like church. I only hung out with guys on the baseball team, and even though it was fun, it felt empty. Then I started hanging out with Church friends, and things were so much better. My Church friends help strengthen my testimony.”
Jonathan is putting his chances at major league baseball aside for a mission. He says, “I would rather be a good guy than a good baseball player, because, without the gospel, nothing has a point.”
It’s scary to roam the school’s halls knowing you’re the only one who believes what you do. You don’t know from one day to the next how you’re going to be treated or what you’ll be asked next. So how do these southern teens develop solid testimonies? Amanda Slauson answers, “I know a lot of teens wonder if they really know if the gospel is true. But down here you have to know one way or the other because people are asking you about it every day. Every time you answer a question, you share your testimony. And when you share your testimony, you get this feeling—you realize that you have the faith to make it.”
It’s no wonder why in the land of the blues, these teens are smiling.