I was seven years old when my dad made the one decision that would affect our family more deeply than any other.
That was when he decided to become a Mormon.
For several years my parents had been searching for a church in which they both could feel comfortable. Dad was raised a Catholic, but had a very strong negative impression about Catholicism, one which he never explained in any detail to me. Mom had bounced through several Protestant denominations, as her family had done for ages. When I was born, I was baptized a Lutheran, but I only remember going to Lutheran services once or twice.
My parents were pretty determined shoppers, and I recall being dragged into an innumerable number of churches as a boy. I was particularly impressed with one that had the most obnoxious burgundy deep-pile shag carpet I had ever seen. I figured that was the kind of cool church that Mannix would have gone to. (I was six, and my religious tastes were simpler then).
One night when I was seven, my parents had arranged for a photographer to come take pictures of our family at our home. We were just getting lined up for photos (me in my spiffy pants and jacket that were the same color as that church carpet) when the doorbell rang. Mom told Dad that some guys from the Mormon Church had come by earlier in the day, and that they were hard to get rid of. She told them to come back when Dad was home. Dad had amazing skills at throwing people off our porch, and I was anxious to see how he would get rid of these Mormons, whoever they were.
None of us knew what to say when he invited them in.
That started a process that, over a couple of months, led to my family joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (I found out, years later, that Dad invited the missionaries in only because he remembered his own father, who died when my dad was ten, once said something positive about Mormons). Dad was the last of the family to agree to be baptized, but Mom wouldn’t permit the family to join unless he did. That decision made huge differences in my family that, even at as a little kid, I was able to recognize. When I think about what life is like as a Mormon, I think about the differences I saw in my dad as result of his membership in the Church.
First, it helped my dad to unify the family. Mom had been married before she met Dad, and my brother and sister are from that previous marriage. In the year or so before we joined the Church (as I reached an age where I could start noticing such things), I sensed a difference in how he treated me as compared to my siblings, particularly my brother. There were conflicts that frightened me. But when we joined the Church, Dad seemed to do much more to emphasize the importance of a unified family. I am confident that the Church played a huge role in that. It gave him better examples of fatherhood that he could follow. He tried to hold weekly Family Home Evenings with us, complete with a spiritual message, games, and dessert (over the years, that usually was reduced to just dessert, but he made the effort.) He tried at one point to conduct “interviews” with the kids, to see how we were, what challenges we were facing, and so forth. Those were a complete disaster, since Dad just didn’t like to talk much, but we were all amazed that he was putting in that kind of effort.
Most importantly, a year after my family joined the Church, we went together to the temple in Oakland, California, where the family knelt together, holding hands at an altar, and were “sealed” together as a family. The LDS Church believes that the family is an eternal organization, and that through the sealing ordinance, families can be joined together for eternity. The significance of that moment was not lost on me, even as an eight-year-old. It’s one thing to get saddled with kids from your wife’s previous marriage. It’s another to commit to be their dad forever. The Church helped us to make our family right, and I never wondered again about my dad’s love for my brother and sister. It was real.
Second, Dad went from being a religious seeker to a spiritual leader in our home. I cannot overstate the importance of the Priesthood in Mormon homes. Because any worthy male can have the Priesthood, we don’t have to look outside the home for spiritual support or guidance. For example, once he joined the Church, my dad began leading our family in prayer every night. That practice continued throughout the rest of my life at home. Nothing can teach a young boy more about the importance of prayer than the sight of his own father on his knees.
We also believe that Priesthood holders can give blessings to the sick, and when we were ill, it was Dad who laid his hands on our heads and prayed for our recovery. I experienced at least one healing following such a blessing that I considered miraculous. But in all cases, I never felt I was on the road to recovery until my dad had given me a blessing.
Another tradition in the Church is that fathers give their children blessings before special occasions, like the beginning of a school year, a wedding, or moving away from home. Each year before school, my dad gave me a blessing, and I have followed that example with my own children. I cannot express how I have yearned over the 14 years since Dad’s death for just one more blessing under his hands.
Third, I began to see my dad act in the service of others. We had few associations outside of family before joining the Church, and even fewer friends. That all changed once we were baptized. Not only did more people take an interest in our family, but I saw my family reach out to others. It seemed that Dad was always off helping someone move, banding up newspapers at a recycling plant for a Church fundraiser, working at a Church farm, or doing any number of things for other people. But I only saw a fraction of what he actually did. My wife’s most cherished memory from Dad’s funeral, which burst our chapel at the seams, was having one person after another coming to us and telling us, “I remember when Bob helped me…” So many people, and so many stories. All about a man who was deeply private and reluctant to make friends. Without the Church, there would have been much less to talk about.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. Critics of the Church can gripe themselves hoarse with complaints about our doctrine and insist that we are misguided, heretical or worse. But I’ve lived in this Church for 39 years. I know what it has done for me, and much of that was because of what it did for my dad. I am sure that without the Church, Dad would have been a good man; the Church, however, helped make him something special. Dad wasn’t perfect, but I will always be thankful for all of the good the Church helped pull out of him.
In many ways, life as a Mormon is very different from life outside of the Church. I treasure those differences. They give my life greater depth and strengthen the bonds of love in my family. Only in the LDS Church will a father get woken up at 2 a.m. by a daughter in tears, saying, “Papa, I’m really sick. Can you give me a blessing?” Each time I roll out of bed in response to such a request, I thank God that my dad let the missionaries through the door.