After a year’s separation, I spotted my handsome son striding across an ancient Italian piazza. I rushed to him and clutched his shoulders. Words I never planned to say tumbled out of my mouth.
“Come home,” I whispered, “Come home, come home.”
Harry was not on furlough from the military. He had not run away or been kidnapped. He was a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
I had missed him more than I could have imagined. As a non-Mormon mom, I couldn’t understand what had driven my youngest son to put his life on hold for two years to face loneliness, long workdays, daily insults, and a complete lack of interest in his message of salvation. Even though I had had a deep faith of my own for many years, this extreme commitment mystified me.
Searching for Something New
Harry had been exposed to quite a few variations of Christianity. His father, Michael, and I came from Catholic backgrounds, but we each drifted away to other churches. Throughout his childhood, Harry and I had gone to a nondenominational church, a born-again congregation, an evangelical Presbyterian church, and finally to a Methodist church with Chuck, his stepfather and my husband, whom I had married when Harry was seven.
In middle school, Harry ended up back at the Presbyterian church, which had a large, active youth group. But as he got older, it bothered him that many of his peers who claimed to be serious about their faith didn’t act like it when Saturday night rolled around. During his junior year of high school, he told me he wanted to explore something new.
Through an old soccer buddy, he started hanging out with a group of Latter-day Saint teens and visiting his friend Curt’s Mormon church with increasing frequency. Chuck and I didn’t think much of it until he asked if he could go away for a weekend youth retreat. We were surprised and a little amused but gave our consent.
After the retreat, he told us he was serious. “Is it okay if a bishop comes here to talk to you?” he asked. “I need your permission before I can study with their missionaries.” I knew almost nothing about the Mormon faith, so I welcomed the bishop’s visit.
When I talked to the bishop, I had to ask, “If Harry becomes a Mormon, will it separate him from us? Will he feel he’s a better Christian?”
He explained, “Becoming a Mormon should only make Harry a better son, closer to his family.”
“What about going on a mission?” I asked. “Is it true kids can’t talk to their parents during that time?”
“Many Mormon youth do serve a mission,” he said. “But it’s not mandatory.”
I feared the mission, but the strict LDS moral code sounded good to me: no smoking, no alcohol, and no sex before marriage.
As Chuck and I told friends about Harry’s spiritual exploration, reactions were mixed. Too often, we were offered an odd fact or misconception about tithing or polygamy, racism or sexism. On the positive side, many people know about the Church’s “clean living” standards and congratulated us on having fewer teen problems to anticipate.
The response of a messianic Jewish friend of mine was more than shocking: “When I read your note about Harry exploring Mormonism, I immediately began weeping, my spirit was so grieved.” Despite the negative reactions, my young son was impressive; he defended his decision politely and firmly.
Before long, two bright young missionaries gave Harry his lessons, which fascinated me. None of it seemed formulaic, and no topic was uncomfortable. At Harry’s springtime baptism, the church was filled with multi-denominational family and friends.
I was increasingly happy with Harry’s choice. I watched my son finish high school without alcohol fueling his fun, with fabulous friends, and with Christ in his heart and on a poster on his wall. At the same time, he was still a normal teen who drove too fast, spent too much time on the phone, and talked back on occasion. He grimaced whenever I said, “I don’t think nice Mormon boys act that way.”
Heeding the Call
Toward the end of his sophomore year at BYU, Harry announced that he was submitting his mission paperwork. A knot formed in my gut, but I respected his decision.
When the assignment letter came, we gathered 25 people in our living room to watch Harry rip open the envelope. As he read aloud, we learned he was headed for northern Italy: the Milan mission.
I choked out a little cheer as my core became warm. I was certain this was a personal blessing from God to me. I had so feared a third-world assignment. My grandparents’ homeland of Italy was familiar to both Harry and me. I’d been to Italy many times, and we’d done two family trips: one to Venice and one to Rome. I was confident that the (mostly) warm Italians would (mostly) cradle him, and I was sure he would be fed abundantly.
On a gray September day in 2006, “we” reported to the Missionary Training Center. That morning, I wasn’t the emotional mess I expected to be. I was numb. I had discouraged my husband from coming because I was afraid of how I’d react, and for some reason I thought it would be better for him to not see me fall apart. But I wished he were there to share the experience with me. This regret will stand as one of my life’s major mistakes.
The speeches at the MTC were funny and upbeat, but despite the light tone, I could look around and see by the tissue proliferation that I wasn’t alone in my sadness. When it was time to separate from Harry, I grabbed his hands and held on tight until I absolutely had to let go, finger by finger. Then I simply watched him walk away.
Back in Maryland, my numbness gave way to a sobbing mess, then mild misery. Sometimes I would call Harry’s name in the house, pretending he was in his room. While walking the dog, I’d feel a warm breeze and imagine it continuing across the Atlantic to touch his cheek.
But I had felt something powerful at the MTC, and when I returned home, I told Chuck that for the first time I wondered how this church could not be true. He was more than a little shocked. I had said early on in our experience with Harry that although I had not objections to the Church for my son, becoming Mormon would never be for me.
Throughout the two mission years, Harry and I exchanged long weekly e-mails, but phone calls were only allowed on Christmas and Mother’s Day. As I missed him more and more, I vowed to try to see him.
Mission presidents cannot prevent parents from seeing their children, but most missionary parents are Latter-day Saints who are familiar with the policies. Being a nonmember gave me the nerve to ask—repeatedly.
Each time I wrote, I received a compassionate call from a mission president who told me why parental visits were a bad idea. It could distract my son and put him off balance. It might affect other missionaries who would wonder why they couldn’t see their parents as well. Although I listened, I couldn’t ignore my overwhelming drive to see my son, and ultimately, I was granted permission.
We met in Bergamo in the midst of an Italian vacation with Chuck. Harry brought seven other missionaries to join us for gelato. I cried with guilt when I saw their sweet, smiling faces and told them I hoped my presence did not upset them. They all insisted they were happy to meet me and understood my struggle with the separation.
“It was such a wonderful thing to see you,” Harry e-mailed later. “I miss you,” he wrote, “but I know where I am supposed to be.”
I learned that though time does pass, it does not necessarily fly. The cherry blossoms bloomed, vibrant gold leaves fell off the trees, and snowdrifts piled high. Finally, two years came to a close. I readied his room: I hung new posters of places he’d served, charged his cell phone, and opened the windows to let fresh air blow the emptiness away.
Our reunion came at Dulles International Airport, where my 22-yearold ran into my open arms and embraced his dad, stepdad, and family and friends who could be there.
Harry made up for lost sleep by napping whenever he could, but he got up to make appointments on time. I should not have been surprised at this new sign of maturity, but I was. Listening to him speak on the phone in flawless Italian gave me deep joy, reminding me of my grandparents speaking it around the house during my childhood.
A Stirring Within
About a year after Harry returned, I had the opportunity to meet a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “How do you explain to people,” I asked, “how you get tens of thousands of young men and women to take such a long break from their lives to do missionary work?”
“It’s very simple,” he said. “They know. They know it’s true. You can’t talk to 19-year-old boys with their own car and a girlfriend, having the time of their lives, and say to drop all that and serve a mission unless they know it is true, that the Book of Mormon is the word of God. They could not survive out there if they did not know it.”
As I absorbed those words from this man—with my head, heart, and soul—I thought about how the mission shaped my son and how the experience changed me—forever and for better.
I’d known the vibrations in my core at the MTC were distinctly not separation anxiety. I’d been an active listener as Harry learned about the Church. After I sat in on one lesson, I realized I was asking so many questions that the missionaries were addressing more of my needs than Harry’s. During subsequent lessons, I stayed in the kitchen, where I could listen to them in the dining room while I made dinner. When curiosity got the better of me, I popped in but withdrew as soon as my question was answered.
While Harry was on his mission, I had what I call my “mountaintop experience.” One crisp October afternoon, I’d been to our Methodist church for a picnic, where I spent a lot of time talking to the two LDS men whose Salt Lake City company had created our new steeple. One of them had served his mission in northern Italy, where Harry was right at that moment, and we really connected over that.
Driving back home, I received this message: “You know it’s true—your heart leaps when you talk to them.” It was not delivered in a Charlton-Heston-as-Moses voice, but I was positive it wasn’t from my own musings. I tightly held this miracle inside for quite a while, not wanting to upset Chuck, who was not on the same page. He was wary of my often-stated attraction to the otherworldly happiness and peace that, to me, Mormons exuded. He knew I was a seeker, a restless Methodist who had been raised Catholic and who had journeyed through the born-again world and was happy at an evangelical Presbyterian church before I met him.
My “mountaintop message” that this church was true made me feel comforted and blessed, but I oddly had no sense of urgency. I sauntered along my own spiritual path pretty inefficiently for more than a year, meeting with missionaries, getting close, backing away. I would read the Book of Mormon for a stretch and then put it aside.
Back at BYU, Harry was supportive of me but also sensitive to Chuck’s concerns and my need to come to my own conclusion. I had some soul-stirring moments during prayer with LDS friends. I thought I’d always read the Book of Mormon with real intent, but at a meeting with missionaries at a friend’s home, I realized that I did not have real intent: I had not been ready to act.
Running round in circles on this spiritual track, I knew my main hurdle was that whatever victory I achieved for myself had to honor my marriage. Chuck had nothing against Latter-day Saints or the Church. He had more than a few Mormon friends and was comfortable in LDS services and events, but understandably he dreaded the unknown of how—and how much—our life might change if I converted.
Through it all, whenever I had uneasy moments about a point of LDS theology or my journey in general, I reminded myself that I was a follower of Christ, and Christ was surely leading me. Although my path was uneven, I mostly felt tortured by my inability to commit.
It was such an issue that Chuck and I went to therapy. We worked diligently at navigating the waters I was agitating. I met with our congregational care pastor, who urged me to travel my revolutionary road. She said, “You are not here on earth to make your husband comfortable.” That was all well and good, but I was too grateful for a strong marriage to risk damaging it.
The following spring, Chuck and I spent time in New Hampshire with his dying brother. Afterward, I went to our Methodist church to attend a special contemplative worship service. I thought peacefully in a candlelit room full of still, centered people. During the silent half hour, I had a revelation: I might not have to choose one path over another.
Soon afterward, I told Chuck that if I were to receive a diagnosis similar to his brother’s, my greatest regret would be not resolving my spiritual unrest. He understood, really understood, and I felt it was safe to move forward.
I promptly met with the bishop and asked if I could be baptized if I intended to attend half of the time and continue to worship with Chuck on alternate Sundays. He said he didn’t see any reason why not and stated emphatically, “Your marriage comes first.”
Last summer, my returned missionary son baptized me as my older son and husband smiled on, among so many friends who were instrumental in my quest. For all the angst that went into my decision, my first full year as a Latter-day Saint has gone very smoothly.
Validation of God’s perfect timing can be found in my happy marriage. This may not say much for me, but I have not changed so drastically that I’ve rocked our marital boat. I promised Chuck I would not try to win him over. I respect his faith and am very happy to be able to live out mine.
When people ask me about what led to my decision, I often tell them that I first fell in love with the Latter-day Saints, then I embarked on my investigative journey. It was in a backwards way that I came to believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that the Book of Mormon is true. One declaration by a recent convert will always penetrate my heart: “Joining this church was like falling backwards into heaven.”
Instead of being torn and conflicted, I now enjoy attending services at both churches. My soul is at peace because I feel my Heavenly Father is with me wherever I am.