I am a Mormon. I haven’t always been: my family converted when I was in grade school, Dad casting off his skeptical, sometimes Presbyterianism for this new faith of golden plates and modern prophets and smiling, dark-suited young men, toting scriptures and riding bicycles, Mom reluctantly following, her Roman Catholicism, the Roman Catholicism of generations of her Polish and Hungarian ancestors, a much harder thing to leave. I went to church and graduated high school and went on a mission, became one of those smiling, scripture-toting young men, dressed in a dark suit and pedaling my bike through the streets of East Los Angeles. I went to college and married a lovely Mormon girl and started a family and kept going to church. I became a bishop, the leader of a Mormon congregation. I held my wife’s hand and watched as our eldest child left for his mission, another smiling, scripture-toting young man, this one sent to pedal his bike in the small farming communities of eastern Nebraska.
I didn’t choose Mormonism, not at first. This was my parents’ conversion. I accepted the move from Our Lady of Czestochowa parish to the Niagara Falls ward without comment, statues and Latin and immaculately-robed priests administering Eucharist in a votive glow giving way to a simple, unadorned chapel and sturdy, unadorned hymns, and the earnest chaos of teenage boys, all wrinkled white shirts and sneakers, passing sacrament to the congregation, because when you’re a kid, you go where your parents go.
When you’re a teenager, you go because there are girls and cookouts and basketball on Wednesday nights, the social connections far more important than principles or doctrines. Soon, social connections aren’t enough. There are other organizations, other girls, other places to play basketball, easier places, places that don’t require any of Mormonism’s heavy lifting. You either slip away, or you find a reason to stay. You find your faith.
That is what happened to me. I cannot explain it. It took time. It took solitude and prayer, and what came was subtle, almost imperceptible. There was no flood of extraterrestrial light, no supernatural manifestation, no celestial extravaganza exploding like fireworks across my brain. There was stillness, and peace. Doubt didn’t disappear, not completely, but as Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz writes, along with the doubt there was also “right beside me, close enough to touch them, definite, indisputable things.” I have spent the better part of my life collecting slivers of surety, seeking God, and finding him in whispers and in shadows, in the kindness of loved ones and the courage of strangers, in the warm reassurance that comes when, like the Apostle Peter, I swallow my fear, my lingering doubt, and say, “I know.”
This is not an easy thing for others to accept. Faith is a little like potato salad, or Thanksgiving dressing: everyone has a favorite recipe; everyone is convinced that their recipe is the only way to do it properly; and everyone is horrified by the absolute mess everybody else makes of it. Some of my siblings have drifted away from Mormonism. My mother’s family remains, with few exceptions, staunchly Roman Catholic, and looks at our four-decade foray into Mormonism with some degree of bemusement. Even my wife, who traces her ancestry back to the earliest days of Mormonism and is a card-carrying member of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers (think Daughters of the American Revolution, with oxcarts and calico instead of petticoats and powdered wigs) has a family tree peppered with the “fallen away.” Mormonism isn’t to everyone’s taste.
Faith is not threatened by other recipes. Faith understands that you can’t force feed your spiritual experiences to others, and they can’t force feed you: real faith, lasting faith, isn’t threatened by differing voices. Real faith is respectful. Real faith is tolerant. And real faith is unafraid to embrace all that brings light and truth and love to a tired and careworn world.
Joe Jackson, the English singer-songwriter, reminds us, “You never leave the past behind; you just accumulate.” Faith is a collection, memories and traditions joined to insights and impulses and heart-heard whispers, gathering and reforming, strengthening us, helping us to know. There were moments in my service as bishop, presiding over a decidedly atypical congregation of West Africans and Central Americans, Argentines and Tongans, Filipinos and yes, a Daughter of the Utah Pioneers or two, watching another generation of earnestly chaotic teenage boys in wrinkly white shirts and sneakers passing sacrament to the congregation, when I’d remember childhood Sundays at Our Lady of Czestochowa and think, “This would be better with candles.” I love our simple, unadorned meetinghouses and our sturdy unadorned hymns, but there is great beauty, great comfort in the warmth of that old parish. When I am tempted to take casually sacred things, I see my resolutely Catholic grandfather waking up very early in the morning to pray and read his bible, and my heart softens. My path, what I know, has taken me places my grandfather would not recognize, but I am here because of him.
There are so many others who light my way: my mother, named for the Catholic patron saint of hopeless causes, who has endured everything that seven children and young widowhood could throw at her, without ever losing her sense of optimism. My friend Scott, who eschews religion, but burns with a compassion for the downtrodden that is genuinely Christlike, and my friend Joel, who’s so Mormon his family tree is chock full of polygamists, and possesses an inexhaustible ability to serve others with kindness and good humor, which is genuinely Christlike, too. The Muslim teenagers at our kids’ high school, all Levi’s and hijabs, unashamed of their faith and unafraid to be regular American kids, and our younger son’s collection of friends, every race, creed, and color crammed into our living room to watch soccer, all of them respectfully bowing their heads as we offer a blessing on the pizza and potato chips.
I am a Mormon. I know the path I am on. It is illuminated by thousands of good examples, thousands who, each in their own way, sit right beside “definite, indisputable things.” The beauty of the journey is that all of us, no matter what we know, help light one another’s path, and all of us, shining together, make the whole world glow with possibilities.
Editor’s note: The NewsHour is hosting a series of columns on faith this week.
Joining the discussion:
- Ben Greenberg, a Modern Orthodox rabbi from the UJA-Federation of New York on how Pope Francis inspires him;
Wendy Thomas Russell, author of “Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious” on the rising number of Americans severing their ties with religion;
- and Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.”