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Friday means guests here at ye olde blog, and today kicks off a new series about conversions. I’ve always been fascinated with conversion stories — both into and out of a faith tradition — because religion is so all-pervasive. Major life changes like getting a new job, marrying, or having kids can certainly rearrange your life and priorities, but may not really fundamentally change who you are. But switching religions? That can involve changes at deeper levels. Religion helps shape our morality and worldview. It affects how we treat people and think of ourselves. It ties us to family traditions and, in many cases, defines our friendships.
It can be the box that holds all our marbles. What happens when you mess with the box?
I’m starting the series with a long-time friend of mine, Torie Brown Hunt. We grew up together, attending both the same church and elementary school. As a Korean with white parents, she was the first kid I knew who was adopted (making her, as she reminds me, “the only Korean in your childhood social circle”). We lost touch around high school only to reunite recently on Facebook, and I was surprised to learn my friend Torie — who always won the “best camper” types of awards at church camp — had joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
That’s a pretty significant conversion, so I asked her to share it as the first entry in this series.
Torie Brown Hunt, suburban Los Angeles housewife, doing housewifey things.
To Mormonism/LDS Church from a Southern Baptist childhood.
What led to your conversion?
I spent my youth attending a large, charismatic Southern Baptist church in Amarillo, Texas. I believed I was a true Christian because I listened to Amy Grant and wore t-shirts declaring my Team Jesus status. I frowned upon alcohol and rated R movies. I attended every available revival, camp, and mission trip. I worshipped God as outwardly as possible.
But behind the posturing, I knew I was a fraud. I desired a truthful relationship with Jesus Christ. At night, I sat in my bathroom floor1 pouring over my scriptures, kneeling in prayer. I knew Jesus was real. I knew God was real. I knew the influence of the Holy Ghost was real.
But there were empty spaces.
In high school, we watched a film about an African hunter-gatherer tribe. The tribe disappeared. They either left the area to follow the food supply, or they died. My heart pounded, and I think I even gasped aloud. If these people died, then are they in hell because no one told them about Jesus? They were good people. It’s not their fault some church group didn’t organize a mission trip to their hunting grounds. Would a benevolent, merciful God condemn them to hell for something of which they had no knowledge? The following summer I raised my concern with my church camp counselor. The answer I was given, “Yes, Torie. I know it’s sad. But they are in hell.”
That was an empty space indeed.
The next summer, I worked at an amusement park. One of my co-workers was Mormon. He liked to bring his scriptures to work. One day, I grabbed them, opened up to a random page, and began reading. It was an extract from the History of Joseph Smith. I read, “I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description…One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other – This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (JSH 1:17) While reading those words, the frenzy of the outside world became soft. Peace filled the room.
The empty spaces felt less empty.
At the same time, another co-worker knew I was reading the Joseph Smith History. So he also gave me a book. I don’t remember the title, but it was anti-Mormon. Essentially, it was a pocket guide to another book called, The God Makers. I read it. It made no impact.
Summer ended, and I headed off to college. There I found a building called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Institute of Religion. I registered for a class, “External Evidences of the Book of Mormon.” Here, I thought, I would find proof that the Book of Mormon is true. However, I found the class neither interesting nor compelling.
So, I continued my investigation, and scheduled appointments with the missionaries. Through our discussions, I was taught all the basic doctrines I already believed. Eternal Life is possible through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Baptism by immersion is an essential step toward Heaven. The Holy Spirit is real. Yes, yes, yes, I got it. Then one day, we touched on a topic as radical as I had ever heard. Baptism for the dead. Upon hearing this phrase, my face did the same thing yours just did. Baptizing dead bodies? Yuck. But my curiosity was peaked. So, I listened.
The missionaries explained that many people die without the opportunity to hear about Christ. Gasp! Could this be the answer to my burning question from high school sociology? Are the African hunter-gatherers really not in hell? My ears perked up, and my eyes widened. They went on to describe a merciful, loving God who has prepared a way for all people to receive the blessings of the gospel. All who have died without receiving the message of Christ are given the opportunity to learn it after they have passed. Baptisms can be performed by proxy. They can then choose to accept or reject what has been done on their behalf. Finally, I understood. My beloved African tribe would be taught the message of Jesus Christ.
Empty space filled.
I was baptized on November 14, 1992.
Life is never as clean and tidy as an 800 word essay. Pose a question, receive an answer, live happily ever after. It never works that way. Life is complex. Questions and doubt remain. There is a great deal more to this conversion story. This was less a story of my conversion than it was a story of some of the events leading up to my baptism. Conversion is a lifelong progression. But that is a story for another time.
What kind of impact did your conversion have on your friends and family?
As a youth, my Southern Baptist church leaders taught me that Mormons belong to a Satanic cult. I feared telling friends and family of my conversion. But, funny thing about true Christians…they practice true Christ-like love. Not a single friend or family member rejected me. Perhaps they don’t understand my reasons for converting, but they love me with a pure love of Christ, and I adore them for it. (And they don’t think I’m Satanic.)
What advice would you give someone going through the same experience or contemplating a similar conversion?
Immerse yourself in the scriptures and prayer. Access to the Holy Ghost is essential. The Spirit can be felt in millions of other settings, but there is a 100% return of Holy Ghostness on your investment of scripture study and prayer. (Yep, that’s a real word.)
What are three things you have learned in the process?
• A true testimony cannot be founded upon external evidences. That’s why my class at the Institute didn’t bear fruit. I could see proof in front of me, but until I exercised faith, the confirmation could not come.
• Fearing my friends’ and family’s reaction was pointless. I should have placed as much faith in them as I did the Lord.
• Being kind trumps being right.
If you’d like to get in touch with Torie, you can find her on Facebook.
A note for potential commenters: We’re doing this series to show the thoughts and events that lead to conversion, not to try to convince others to turn toward (or away from) a specific faith or tradition. I want to hear from you, but this is not a proselytizing series. Nor are we doing apologetics or arguing about the supremacy or failures of any religious tradition. There are other places for that. I’d love you to comment on Torie’s story, ask her questions, or share your own experiences. But I’ll have a pretty low tolerance for anyone coming in and telling her why she’s wrong, or why you’re right, or bashing either the Mormon or Southern Baptist elements of her story. Keep it civil and gracious, please.
She said it best: Being kind trumps being right.