“Is this a prank?” Steve “Dusty” Smith wondered, surprised and confused as he listened to the woman on the phone saying that President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency, wanted to speak with him. But once the distinct, accented voice came through the other line, Smith knew it wasn’t a prank. He was speaking to an apostle, and President Uchtdorf had just one question for Smith: would he share his story.
Smith gave a brief overview of the last quarter-century of his life and his unexpected journey of finding the Church, losing his testimony, actively fighting against the Church, and then reconverting to the gospel once more.
Once Smith finished his story, President Uchtdorf asked, “Is that the whole story?” Smith recalls, “I said, ‘No sir. That’s just the Reader’s Digest condensed version. I figured you’re a busy man.’ And he said, ‘I want to hear your whole story.’”
Finding the Gospel
With a Catholic grandfather, a Baptist Grandmother, and a Lutheran mother, Dusty Smith couldn’t help but believe in God. However, growing up attending three churches that preached significantly different beliefs left Smith confused about who that God was.
But Smith cherished his faith, praying, studying, and attending church until one day in 1980, he received a phone call from a good friend who told him that a sweet, 13-year-old girl he knew well had been running home from school when, not realizing the back glass door wasn’t open, she ran through the pane and a piece of glass pierced her neck, killing her.
“I can’t tell you how angry I was at God.” Smith says. “I didn’t stop believing in Him, but I wasn’t real happy with Him. Thirty-seven years later that still brings tears to my eyes. I still see that little girl.”
Smith couldn’t make sense of how a “beautiful, smart girl with the whole world in front of her” was dead and mass murderers like Ted Bundy could still be alive. Smith stopped praying. He stopped reading. He stopped attending church. But he couldn’t stop believing.
Three years later, Smith discovered something that renewed his hope in God.
After graduating from the University of Texas, Smith was home visiting his parents, searching for something to read to help pass the time. That’s when a book fell off the shelf in his room, one he’d never seen before: The Book of Mormon. He later found out that it had been given to his mother while she was on a trip to Salt Lake City, and she had stored it untouched in his room.
“I happened to open the book up to 3 Nephi, and I read [about Jesus Christ’s visit to the Americas] and I went, ‘Whoa, so He visited here? That would make sense,’” Smith says.
Smith was so impressed by what he read that he went straight to the phone book to look up The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “It listed wards and stakes. That meant nothing to me, but it was lunch time, so I called the stake,” Smith recalls with a laugh. The stake president, who had briefly stopped in his office to pick up something he had forgotten, just happened to be there to answer Smith’s call and connected him with the missionaries.
Immediately, the teachings of the gospel resonated with Smith, explaining questions he had since childhood, even explaining dreams.
“When I was a kid, elementary-school age, I used to have this reoccurring dream every night for a year. Three people that in my mind I knew were Peter, James, and John were in heaven, and they were walking away,” Smith says. As the three figures walked away, the clouds parted and a ladder descended from the heavens, leading to earth. Then a voice came, speaking to the men, who nodded and began descending the ladder. “I never understood that dream until I read about the Melchizedek priesthood and how Peter, James, and John came down and [restored it on earth],” Smith says. Suddenly, the nature of God, the plan of salvation, Smith’s purpose on earth, all of it made sense.
Getting Baptized and Losing Faith
In April 1983, the missionaries baptized Smith as a member of the Church, but the new chapter in his life didn’t come without sacrifice.
“I gave up so much to become LDS. I had been dating a girl for two years and she left me,” Smith says. “My family disowned me. . . . Our relationship took a beating.” But Smith’s conviction to the gospel was enough to confirm this was the right choice.
Already in his mid-20s, Smith had no plans to serve a mission, no funds, a fiancé, and ambitions to become an attorney. But one day while sitting in sacrament meeting in 1984, Smith says, “I just felt this presence, this feeling come over me, and it said, ‘You need to go on a mission.’ So I quit my job, left my fiancé, and served a mission.”
But Smith almost returned from his mission before it even began. “When I was in the MTC, my family was against me being there. My fiancé was against me being there. I felt all alone. I went to a payphone and I called the Church headquarters. . . . I said to the lady that answered, ‘If nobody cares that I’m a missionary, I may as well go back home. Nobody cares I’m here.’ She said, ‘Could you hold please?’ A few minutes later, a voice comes on. A baritone voice says, ‘Elder, my name is L. Tom Perry. If nobody else cares, I do. Be my pen pal.’”
Smith would need those letters and that encouragement later in his mission as Elder Perry wrote to him during the entire two years.
While serving as a missionary in Honduras, Smith’s fiancé married another man and his parents divorced.
“That’s a trip. You’re listening to a cassette letter, right? And when they hit start and stop can be a week or two weeks apart, but when you are listening to it, it is only seconds apart. So I am listening and my parents are saying, ‘Well it’s a great day today, son. The weather is great. We’re doing great. I’ll catch up with you in a day or two.’ Click, click. ‘Son, we’re getting divorced.” Smith made it through his mission despite these challenges, however, and things started looking up for him when he got home. He dated and married a woman he met on his mission, began attending Western Michigan University Cooley Law School fulltime, and started a fulltime job to pay his way through school—a feat unheard of for those in rigorous law programs.
It was during this time Smith attended the Hill Cumorah Pageant in Palmyra, New York. “There were a lot of anti-Mormon protestors around,” Smith recalls. “And I debated with them—that was my third year of law school. I came back from that wanting to be the smartest Mormon ever so I could debate with these folks and show them the error of their ways. But the more I studied, the more I discovered things I didn’t believe and hadn’t heard before.”
Gradually, Smith descended into a spiral of anti-Mormon literature and disillusionment, angry toward the faith he had sacrificed his family, his girlfriend, and two years of his life to join. Smith poignantly recalls the exact day—November 11, 1989—when he lost his testimony in the Church.
Fighting Against the Church
Smith not only stopped attending church, he asked for his name to be removed from the records and began actively fighting against the Church he had once loved: “I spent from 1989 on battling against the Church. I hated the Church. It had deceived me. It had broken up my family. It had cost me so much.”
Smith joined several online debate boards, using his skills as a litigator to tear down Mormon beliefs. He taught classes in other churches demonstrating why the LDS Church was false and deceptive. “I was very vocally anti-Mormon,” Smith says.
Even as an active anti-Mormon, however, Smith’s connection to the Church never fully disappeared. Smith met a friend on a debate board, a Mormon named Mike. Despite debating viciously against one another, the two became friends. “Mike kept saying, ‘You’ll be LDS someday,’” Smith remembers. Mike’s insistence seemed not only impossible, but insane. However, Mike didn’t give up on Smith. “Every week, every week since 1999, he put my name in the temple,” Smith recalls.
By 2005, the deep hatred Smith felt for the Church began to ebb. “I started to feel a pull to come back,” he says. But after attending church a few times, Smith still felt he couldn’t belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He could not receive a testimony of those things he once knew and still felt the pain being a member of the Church had caused in his life.
But he still could not shake the Church from his life. In 2009, while dreadfully ill with the swine flu, Smith’s son brought two visitors into his room—LDS missionaries who just happened to knock on the door. Though Smith told them they were unwanted, the elders offered to give Smith a blessing. At the time, the swine flu pandemic had terrified people around the nation. In fact, Smith’s own doctors refused to see him when they learned his symptoms. But here were these two young strangers willing to love him, willing to bless him, willing to try to heal him, and it touched something inside him. Smith agreed.
“They gave me the blessing. I was healed right then,” Smith says. “I got out of bed and walked them down the stairs.”
After the blessing, Smith tried attending church again and even met with the stake president. But once Smith learned he would need to have a Church hearing to be eligible for rebaptism, he walked away.
“But the pull never went away,” Smith says.