One of the problems was the whole Jesus thing. My Jewish friends seemed perfectly complete without a Savior-figure, and I had a lot of trouble visualizing this not-quite-man, not-quite-God.
A far more important problem was that my adored father, while the grandson of pioneers, did not like the Mormon Church very much. "Mormons make me nervous" was about all I ever got out of him, but as time went on I realized his objections to the church involved a lot more than that, not the least of which was that the priesthood hadn't been extended to black men. Dad was a liberal Democrat (I think that's partly how we ended up in the Jewish neighborhood) in what appeared to be a pretty Republican church. I considered myself a liberal Democrat, too, when I wasn't describing myself as a radical socialist. I was a teenager in the 1960s after all.
Even so, I faithfully attended Primary, the children's program, on Wednesday, and while I chose not to participate in the Mutual Improvement Association for teens, I kept going to church on Sundays off and on through my teenage years, sort of hanging on to the fringes of Mormonism. This was partly because it gave me a unique identity among my Jewish friends, but mostly because the members of my ward tenaciously refused to give me a chance to really leave. They were obstinately friendly, non-judgmental, supportive, and kind. They listened to my adolescent ideas with genuine interest and respect. They never allowed my provocative clothing or militant buttons to separate me from them. They owned me, whole-heartedly, no matter our differences.
Then, when I was a senior in high school, my father developed cancer and died shortly thereafter. I applied to college during the time he was sick, and so I chose a university in Florida he had rather whimsically suggested I apply to because, he said, it was a place he'd like to visit in the wintertime. But my choice didn't save his life. He died in June, with the 17-year locust in full voice in our Maryland yard. That September, I boarded a plane and flew alone to Miami. I knew no one in Florida.
I soon made friends in the university dormitory and drifted rather dream-like through this brave, new world. Then, after a few weeks, two men called "home teachers" from the local ward were assigned to visit me--the local home teachers found me--and one very persistent one came to the college each Sunday to take me to their small suburban ward. He came again faithfully each Thursday night to ferry me to Young Adult activities. I think I was the only college student in the group at the time but, much to my amazement, I enjoyed the young adults. We had fun.
It was the first time since Primary I had really liked the Mormons of my age group, my peers. I had nothing in common with any of them besides church membership. I don't think I would have agreed with any of their political views, but like life with the adults in my home ward, that just didn't seem to be very important to them. There was a happy genuineness about them, an innocent sincerity that attracted me.
So I kept going. And after one wild semester at the University of Miami, my home teacher took me to a slide show presentation about Brigham Young University, the LDS-owned school in Provo, Utah, and suggested I think about transferring there. Without committing myself (or telling anyone back home), I applied for the spring semester, and I was accepted.
In the next couple of weeks, my late-night walks on the University of Miami campus became long internal dialogues arguing for and against transferring to BYU. One night, I ended up, around midnight, exploring the non-denominational university chapel. Inside the empty, dimly lit, and undecorated room were four or five rows of wooden pews and a plain pulpit. Pretty familiar territory.
I sat in that chapel unable to decide, wrestling with doubt and fear and confusion. After a while, I was too exhausted by thinking to think any longer. I picked up a Bible that was lying beside me on the pew and started thumbing through it. I'd read very little of the New Testament, except the Christmas story in Luke. It was getting near Christmas, so I turned to the gospels, thinking I'd read something comforting on the Christmas story. Shortly thereafter, I found myself in Mark, skimming along the chapters, just reading a verse here and there.
In Chapter 9, something slowed me down, I'm not sure what, but I began really paying attention around verse 19. Here was the story of a father who had come to Jesus and the disciples with a terrible, desperate need: a cure for his son. Jesus was not very friendly--he seemed cool and more than a little put out. Still, the father tried to find the right words to convince Christ to heal his son.
"And [Jesus] asked this father, How long is it ago since this came unto him? And [the father] said, of a child. And ofttimes it hath cast him into the fire, and into the waters, to destroy him: but if thou canst do any thing, have compassion on us, and help us.
And Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. And straightway, the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief."
And suddenly I was there, looking into the eyes of this Jesus promising so much, listening to him telling me that I can have what I want, if only I am a believer. And I am choosing to trust him with the truth of my own ambivalence, my own doubting, and waiting in despair for his reply.
And Jesus says, that's good enough.
Six weeks later, I left for BYU, and life as a Latter-day Saint. I am grateful to this day that, for my Savior, my doubts and my fears are not a barrier. As long as I am willing to trust him, to open myself to him, it is good enough. He is my perfect friend, and I will try to be as good a friend, to all I meet.