1: How We Minister
Stories in this episode: A High School Student tries to find his tribe when he moves with his parents to Eastern Europe; A no-coffee, no-swearing study-abroad with BYU students sets one woman on a path to Christ; and a congregation in Virginia shows us what it means to truly love every person as they are, where they are.
KARYN LAY: Welcome to This is the Gospel, an LDS Living podcast where we feature real stories from real people who are practicing and living their faith every day. I'm your host, KaRyn Lay.
When President Russell M. Nelson announced the new ministering program in General Conference he called it, "A newer, holier approach to caring for and ministering to others." If your ward or branch is anything like mine, then that means you've had lessons and discussions galore about what this whole ministering thing looks like. We can define the word and we've probably figured out how to do ministering interviews. But, how do we, as a church, actually do it? How do we give and receive this kind of love and care? Our episode today features three stories of people whose spiritual lives have been blessed by the power of ministering.
Our first story comes from Brett, who shares his experience of moving to a totally new country as a young man. And what I love about his story is that it illustrates how the act of ministering to others can sometimes be the key to opening us up to the care and love that we need for ourselves.
BRETT: My dad got a calling in the church that sent him overseas so we had to go to Eastern Europe. And I'm the youngest of six but everybody was out of the house by the time that calling came, and so I went over there alone and my mom encouraged me to enroll in a local high school there.
There was a small branch there, not many youth in the entire area, just a couple my age in the country. So the situation at these schools was that the students that were in my grade had all been together from their first year in school when they were little. So socialization with outsiders, especially to Westerners like myself, was a little difficult for them. Their culture was also a little colder by American standards and I really did not find my place, didn't fit in. I'd go to school I didn't understand anything. I was learning, "Hi, how are you," in the language, and we were learning about atomic structures and calculus and things way beyond introductory language books. I went to school for a social experience and I certainly observed one, but I was not at all part of it. I would sit at my desk.
And the situation at church wasn't much different from that. I felt very alone. I had no idea why I needed to be there. My dad had a calling, my mom was supporting my dad in his calling and I was hanging out. It was about every three months that I would just lay in my bed and cry because I thought I was trying so hard. I would feel pretty hopeful that I'm being a nice guy, I'm doing very friendly things. And then, it seemed like every few months it would just hit me that things are just going to be lonely for a long, long time for me. And I really felt like, by being obedient to the commandments, as I understood them, that things would just work out. That maybe I wouldn't have friends but at least I'd be always happy or something. And it would hit me that, every few months, that I just wasn't happy. It was really pretty miserable.
At a particularly difficult time of this year, towards the end, unfortunately, of my stay there, I decided to visit someone in my branch. There was a boy in the branch who was my age. He had cerebral palsy. He was wheelchair-bound and only communicated through looking at pictures that you put in front of him. He'd go through this binder and he would find the picture and you'd turn the pages for him and he'd find the one.
He lived a little far away and I never knew how I was going to get there to go visit him. But at a difficult time, I decided I was just going to visit him and I made the trip out there to his house and his face just lit up. He was very happy to get this visit from me. The place that I was in, sociologically, has low happiness rates, but this kid was the happiest person I knew in the whole country, not just when I visited him. He always brought a great spirit.
I felt so uplifted, I felt so much hope, and I made this connection that I didn't expect. It was just the start of me understanding that I'm not the only one who's lonely. There are other people in this world that feel like they don't fit in and church is a place where everybody comes, from all sorts of pain and from all sorts of joy, and we're there to look out for each other and support each other. And this was the first time that I realized I wasn't the only one who needed a friend and who may not know what their place in this life. Everything changed. I came from a place where I was feeling so lonely, to a place where I felt like I had a purpose, and my loneliness was swallowed by the concern that I learned to have for others.
We find the full measure of blessings that the Lord is willing to give us when we're not focused on only ourselves. We find the greatest feelings of belonging of joy when we look around ourselves and realize that there are others on this journey.
KARYN: Our next storyteller is Julie. Ministering came into Julie's life in the form of an authentic and sincere friendship. And this is a story about how that friendship demonstrated a Christlike love that put her on the path to the Savior.
JULIE: I grew up in Blacksburg, Virginia, in southwest Virginia. I was born in Canada, my parents were both immigrants from Europe. So I grew up Catholic and I'd say we were culturally Catholic like we were 'chreasters' we'd go definitely Christmas and Easter. And then I went to a Catholic school and then I just kind of fell away. It's kind of hard to describe, but I guess I just lost a testimony of whatever I'd had, although I'm grateful for my Catholic upbringing that I had. I went to graduate school for Middle East Studies. I came out to D.C. and I learned Arabic between my undergrad and graduate school that summer.
And one of the professors just seemed Mormon, he had that Mormon hairstyle. He went to BYU and we were like I think he's Mormon but it seems like he drank Diet Coke and so I was like can he really be Mormon?
And I stayed in touch with him because he and his wife are super sweet. I wanted to study abroad between my first and second year of grad school, so I asked him like, "Do you know of any good study abroad programs?"
And he said, "Well I don't know a lot, but I'm co-directing this one with BYU next summer," and I was like, "Oh can I go?" And he was like, "Yeah. But just so you know, Mormons are a little weird and I was like, "Oh that's OK. I had three Mormon friends in high school and they liked Star Wars a lot and they really liked ballroom dancing and were all really smart, but they were cool!"
So I just decided to go on the program and there were a couple oppositions where some people were like oh you can't go without coffee the whole summer. Or, man, you have to like do this ecclesiastical endorsement and I was like I'm pretty sure I can like follow these rules for the whole summer. And so I had some opposition, but I like no I'm gonna go like this looks like a great program. I really like, you know, Professor Robert and his wife and I'm gonna go on this. So, I went to Jordan and I thought I would just be learning Arabic and about Jordan, and I did. So I was exposed to this Jordanian culture and then I was also exposed to the Mormon culture. But it was just a wonderful summer.
I had one roommate. Her name's Rebecca, but her nickname was "Bags." And I got to know her well enough that I called her "Bags". And she grew up in Provo, and she would call herself a "Molly Mormon." But I think she was just salt of this earth like Molly Mormon applies or judgmental, but she was really sweet. And so she helped me feel really welcome and she just truly wanted to get to know me, she didn't have an ulterior motive. She just wanted to get to know me, and she helped me out. And like we went everywhere together and she didn't make me feel like I was a drag by us going everywhere together. And we like rarely had arguments or, if we did we kind of worked through them. And she was just really sweet and she was just very effusive in showing that she enjoyed my friendship and then that made me feel like she was a great friend. And then just being, literally being a friend. And then sort of knowing that the gospel was the root of her being so sweet and then hearing about her missionary experiences when she was in Chile. And then learning about-- hearing about her family and then I think her being willing to read the scriptures with me when I suggested it. And just always being there for me, like there were other nice people on the trip, but she was always there for me.
There were lots of jokesters and there was one jokester who I really didn't mind his teasing, his name's John. And he was like such a big tease, but his teasing belied his heart of gold. And his friendship helped me see that, first of all, that I had lots of friends, and I could tell that he loved Christ even though he went about it and sort of a weird way. And it just helped me see that like Mormons can be jokesters and they can be funny. And I think I really needed laughter because there wasn't a lot of laughter in my home. And my previous study abroad, I just had such feelings of depression that I think I just really need that laughter and to feel like I was connected with someone. So it was just awesome to have this great study abroad experience and like people who are super friendly. The camaraderie I had with the people in Jordan like really helped me to see the love of Christ and I think they were like ministering to me, in a way. So yeah, it was just so fun to be on that trip and having so much fun and be learning about the gospel. But I knew that I wanted to be around more Mormons because it was just such a happy feeling.
So, I told Donna Lee Bowen, one of the professors who just come out for a week from BYU, I was like I want to know more Mormons. Can you help me when I come back to D.C? And I start going to institute. I mean people just want to know, they're all up in your business. They're like, literally like not being a joke, like literally asking you, "Have you prayed to know the Book of Mormon is true?" "Are you meeting with the missionaries?" "Are you an investigator?" Just kind of intrusive, and I know it was with a heart of gold, but I literally said to someone like, "Can we just be friends?" And she later said she was grateful that I said that and maybe, I think people weren't realizing they were being so intrusive, but it's like do we have to label everyone? So it's kind of interesting, contrasting those experiences and I don't know if I would've found the church if I haven't been in Jordan with Bags, like truly becoming my friend. And like wanting to get to know me for me, not because I was this new person at church. That summer I was there, and so they had to get to know me. And then when I started going to church they just kind of wanted to know my status. So yeah that was really interesting coming back to the U.S.
As I kept meeting with the missionaries, during the Book of Mormon, I was like well I know this is true, why would I put it off? I should just do it now. Why should I put off something that I know is right for me? So I had had a few baptismal dates that I knew I wasn't going to make and then finally, like after my graduation from grad school, I was like this is it.
And as I stepped into the waters of baptism, I was like my whole life has led me to this point and I am so grateful for everyone I met, including all the Catholic youth leaders and the non-denominational youth leaders I met. And my roommate, Bags like everyone that I met had sort of helped me lead up to that point of committing to Christ in this new way through being baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was just an amazing feeling to have so many people there. This is it. This is right for me and I feel like, when I was on that trip I had no idea I'd eventually be baptized. I had no idea that I'd be married at 25 to, you know, a wonderful man and that I'd have three kids, and end up being a mom and mostly, mostly loving being a mom. And that I would be able to like have a community, got to know Christ better and that relationship is strengthened. I think Christ loves people no matter what, even if they made mistakes or are a little bit different. And so I think true friendship like my friendship with Bags showed me that, you know people are there for you, just like Christ was.
True friendships, people who are interested in you, laughter, people being willing to help out, having the spirit of Christ, this is the gospel to me.
KARYN: Our final story in this episode comes from James. James is an openly gay member of the church whose ward in Virginia showed him that there is simple power in ministering in the Savior's way.
JAMES: As many things in life, the process of coming out, or discovering your spirituality, or examining your beliefs or your own perception of yourself in relationship to God, is ever-changing.
I had had, from years earlier, a deep feeling to never leave the Latter-day Saints. And at the time that I had received that impression, it didn't make any sense to me because I felt that that would never be a concern or a thought that I would ever have. But that impression always had stayed with me. And in the middle of my process of wrestling what my own beliefs are and my coming out process in 2011, I just couldn't take the inner turmoil that I was feeling while I was at church, so I stopped attending. And so I started attending other congregations and other faiths, in a search for, every Sunday, how am I going to pray and with whom will I worship and sing hymns? And in 2012 I knew that I needed to walk back in the door honestly, and decide how I'm going to do that.
So I had left from a singles ward and I decided, I was in my late 20s early 30s, I decided to go to a family ward and go back honestly and be honest about who I was when the questions of marriage and dating were to come up. I'd always been lying about why I hadn't married a woman in the temple and I decided that I was no longer going to be doing that, but that the Lord wanted me to be honest with myself, honest with other people and to take courage in that. So I feel like that was the time in my life where I made that decision and I felt an overwhelming rush of the spirit that Sunday that I walked back in. It was very scary for me at times, knowing that I would have to speak something that I had never spoken before.
So I came Sunday, to church, and I was introduced as a new member of the church and there was a family there who invited me to dinner afterward. And so I showed up there and pretty quickly, questions are asked, are you single are you married? Oh, you're not married, I'd love to set you up. And I knew that evening that I had made a promise to myself when coming back that I was always going to stand up for myself and be honest rather than lie about my orientation or my life, who I am. And so I told them I'm a gay Mormon and I'm here at church again for my first time. They, at first, appeared to not know what to say, but there was someone there who was so gracious and said, "Oh well thank you for telling us and we're glad to know," and it turned out to be so so nice. At the end of that dinner people came up to me afterward, there were several people there that night saying thank you so much for sharing yourself with us. And you have a friend here and we're glad you're here. Which was surprising to me, in a way I wasn't sure if I would get that or if I would need to just go back to the other ward I was attending previously. So I started going to church regularly in my home ward and I knew that that would bring opportunities for me to get to know people and vice versa and eventually that the bishop would get to know me on a personal level.
The elders quorum presidency came to my house to visit get to know me and asked if I would be willing to serve as a home teacher and I was so hungry for that opportunity to really fellowship and to teach the gospel to people. And so I accepted, said I would love to be a home teacher. And then later on that visit they asked me more about my life and work and family and I ended up coming out to them and it was so funny because they said, "Oh thank you for telling us, we hope that doesn't mean that you won't be a home teacher still because we're really desperate, actually, for home teachers." And I said, "No, I would love to serve as a home teacher." So the fact that I was offered an opportunity to serve and contribute my gifts was a big part of me feeling welcome in the ward. Soon after that, I met with the bishop and he called me in to get to know me and I was a little bit worried that maybe he heard I was gay and wanted to give me some sort of interview. But he really got to know me as a person and I ended up coming out to him again, because often we ask each other, "well do you have a family or a spouse, are you from here?" So I came out to him as well and he said, "I want you to know that there is a place for you, a person like you in our ward" and I said, "That's great to hear because I know that there are other gay people in our ward boundaries who want to be here but they're afraid. Can I tell them that they're welcome here too?" And he said absolutely yes. And then he asked me about how's my home teaching going. And it's funny because we had done the home teaching just the night before and I had a report to give him and I feel like, again, the ability for me to contribute and for me to actively participate in the ward, really helped me be integrated. But again, they had to put that faith in me that I was willing and able and had value enough to do that. And so that was a big part of me feeling welcome in the ward.
Since that time they've asked me to speak several times in Sacrament meeting, I've held callings, stake callings, I've helped plan, I am a home teacher and I'm able to sing in the ward choir, share my talents. And I believe what we see in my ward is really a reflection of the scripture that talks about each one of us as a member of the body of Christ and each of its parts, while it may be different, has value and something to contribute, and the eye can't say to the hand, "I have no need of you," that we're all as followers of Christ needed and that Christ respects that. And I feel that there's a term called "radical inclusivity," and I feel that my ward practices that and the fruits that have come because of that in my life have been: joy and fellowship and connectedness, increased spirituality, opportunities to serve, to be served, and that we know fruit of the gospel by whether it's good or bad. And I've seen great fruits from being included.
So hearing or preaching the gospel is one thing, but if we look at the term faith, it's an action verb, like love is. We can have a feeling of love or we can do something to love and I feel that this example of radical inclusivity is on my wards part, an action word, that it's not just words but it's welcoming me into the home, welcoming me at a Sunday school class. We're taught that often God will help us through another person and if you don't have a ward around you, sometimes it's hard to feel the help and love and presence of God. And that's probably too why we're asked to meet together often with the Saints, to worship and to sing and partake of the sacrament.
So for me, having that fellowship with a ward is really important in maintaining a relationship with the Savior. To be honest, from what I hear from other Latter-Day Saints who are LGBTQ, many people don't have the experience that I have. So I feel like I'm very blessed to have my ward. But I acknowledge that there are many people who are trying to experience that and finding or trying to wrap their mind around how can they have an experience like that. But what I got was, we need you and please share your gifts with us and it's made all the difference for me to have that. Because I feel in my deepest, most intimate moments with the Lord and the spirit in prayer, that's how I've been received by God. And to have that reflected by my ward leaders was really amazing and so moving for me. And yet, at the same time, really I yearn for my friends who are in a similar situation to have the same experience. This can be a very controversial topic to certain people and I feel like all I can do and perhaps all my ward can do, or my family can do is try to do the best we can with what we're given, with the understanding that we're given, with the knowledge that we're given. It may not make perfect sense, but if we see good fruits coming from it, we can at least know that we're taking a step in a positive direction. Everybody, no matter who they are, needs the Ministry of the Savior: Gay people, straight people, people across the whole planet.
KARYN: I love that each one of these stories illustrates that there's no one way to minister in the Gospel of Jesus Christ except, by following the example of Jesus Christ. If we do that, we're gonna be okay. That's it for this episode of "This is the Gospel." Thank you to all of our storytellers for their heartfelt stories, and thank you for listening. Join us for more stories next time, and until then, if you'd like to find other episodes of "This is the Gospel" podcast or our video series, please go to LDSliving.com/ThisistheGospel. See you next time.