Latter-day Saint Life

Why my first general conference solidified my faith as a new member

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Jon Propper smiles outside of the Chicago Illinois Temple.
Jon Propper

“There are messages in each general conference given as a gift and a blessing from heaven specifically for our personal life situations.” —Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf

There was a time before I was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when, due to feelings of depression and hopelessness, I sought out messages of personal guidance, affirmation, and strength.

Sadly, I didn’t find what I was looking for then.

In fact, it wasn’t until some years later, while watching my first general conference, that I experienced a long-awaited message from Heavenly Father that would draw me closer to the Savior than I ever anticipated and begin to heal some deep-seated wounds.

That powerful first experience during general conference has shaped how I approach the biannual event today, and why I joyfully anticipate each gathering.

But first things first.

My name is Jon Propper. I’m a 34-year-old Autistic man, and so blessed to say I am a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s a rewarding life, striving to faithfully live my covenants with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. Each day isn’t always easy, but there are so many sources of strength I have found along the way—especially the wisdom of general conference.

My first general conference was just three months after my baptism in January 2022. My journey to the Church had followed many hard years of spiritual wandering and personal upheaval. The pains of the past—in particular, memories of two suicide attempts, a forced mental health intervention and subsequent hospitalization, and alcohol-related health scares—hadn’t yet faded from my memory. But for me, finding the Church felt like the first right thing I’d done in a long time.

So, like many new converts, I carried a built-in enthusiasm to my Church membership: I was ready to learn, read, and get involved in . . . well, everything. I brought that same energy to general conference.

I was living in Florida at the time and made plans to watch all sessions of general conference from home via the Church’s YouTube channel. My wife, who devoutly practices her Jewish faith, was behind me with all her support: “Would you like special snacks? Want me to make a blanket fort on the couch for extra comfort? Need me to pick up a blank book for notes?”

Before I go further, it’s worth shining a light on this exchange with my wife. When I joined the Church, I did so with her support. She was supportive not because she fully understood my decision, but because she could tell that my involvement had a marked improvement on my quality of life. I strive to reciprocate her understanding and empathy in my own behavior; I never want her to feel pressure to participate in or join the Church.

Still, because general conference is such a significant time for me as a Latter-day Saint, much as I attend her synagogue on special occasions, she has frequently joined me in watching sessions of conference.

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Lindsay and Jon Propper while visiting Reeds Lake in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Photo courtesy of Jon Propper

For converts sharing spaces with friends and family not of our faith, it’s a great idea to extend a general conference invitation to those around us. However, it’s not appropriate to bribe or bargain for them to watch along look at it this way: even if someone chooses not to join the Church, the positive effect of the restored gospel in my life can still be a blessing to them—no strings attached! It makes me kinder toward them, more patient, more empathetic, and more willing to step outside my comfortable bubble to help others.

Do I want to share this gospel, especially with those I love most? Absolutely! But it can bless them even if they choose not to embrace it, depending on the attitude I display.

Back to general conference. In addition to my wife and I, two of the missionaries who had first welcomed me into the Church joined us in our home for Saturday’s livestream. They explained what to expect during general conference. For example, I had wondered if there would be a sacrament portion to the event. They explained no and gave me an overview of the structure of a general conference session.

I also had questions about the messages prepared: Were they extemporaneous? Scripted? Were replays available if I missed something? In reassuring tones, they explained that the Church provided transcripts and resources online in a timely manner following general conference. Regardless, I furiously scribbled notes the entire first session on Saturday. But it wasn’t until the Saturday afternoon session that I heard something that stopped me in my tracks and taught me the most important lesson I’ve learned about general conference.

Early in the Saturday afternoon session, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland gave his instant classic message, “Fear Not: Believe Only!” For those who haven’t heard it, Elder Holland describes how the messages of general conference are spiritually enriching in hard times. He gave examples, affirmed the importance of the Church as a network of support, and testified of Jesus Christ as a healer of all hurts.

In the climax of his message, Elder Holland directly addressed those who have experienced suicidal thoughts or attempts:

In a world that so desperately needs all the light it can get, please do not minimize the eternal light God put in your soul before this world was.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland

I was no longer writing notes. My face was wet with tears and the television was going blurry behind my glasses as I struggled with my composure.

Friends, I felt seen.

Context is important here. Yes, I had attempted suicide in the past. Yes, I had struggled with depression. And yes, I felt like Elder Holland was pleading directly with me not to let despair win. I knew clearly in that moment that this was God’s general conference, and if God wanted me to live, how could I argue with that?

All of these are fair reasons to cry on their own.

But there was more to it than that.

As the only convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in my family and social circles, I had struggled with second-guessing my decision to be baptized out of fear that I would be alienated by those who might not agree with my decision. Hearing Elder Holland speak so directly and authoritatively to my pain, in the name of my Savior, confirmed for me that there was no other place than here where I could feel God’s love so directly. After Elder Holland’s talk, I managed to grab some tissues and pull myself together, all while conspicuously avoiding the eyes of others until I had worked the tears out of mine.

I learned a lesson that day. Sometimes, general conference will be filled to the brim, moment to moment, with messages that we feel are directly for us. Other times, a single speaker will say what God needs us to hear, and it seems like nothing else penetrates with the same depth, perhaps until we revisit them later.

And you know what? That’s OK. When we watch or attend general conference, we should of course strive our best to pay attention, to be considerate and prayerful about the meaning of each message and its relevance to our lives. But we should never become so rigid in our expectations that we aren’t paying attention to God’s specific messages in the moment.

After my experience with Elder Holland’s talk, the pace of my notes slowed to a crawl. I followed along with each subsequent speaker, but I was less concerned with catching very spoken word and more focused on hearing God’s message for me.

To anyone—newcomer, inactive or returning member, or faithful Saint—I say this: don’t be surprised if God uses the messages at general conference to heal your hurts, to give you strength for today, and to show you how to love your neighbor as yourself. The experience may feel quite intense, or it may simply be a gentle reminder. Either way, God has not stopped talking to His children.

Thank God for general conference.

Jon Propper in his home watching general conference with the company of his dog, Dagny.
Jon Propper

▶ You may also like: How an Autism diagnosis and becoming a Latter-day Saint has completely changed my life

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