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Missionaries go beyond the bike

Sister Pearson, left, and Sister Webb, middle, sing happy birthday and eat cupcakes with the Higgins family following their day of biking. - Eric Mandel, The Reporter
Sister Pearson, left, and Sister Webb, middle, sing happy birthday and eat cupcakes with the Higgins family following their day of biking.
— image credit: Eric Mandel, The Reporter

Editor's note: This is the final piece in a three part series on "Biking with the Mormons." You can catch up with part one and part two.

My cheeks feel slightly flush as I sit in front of my plate that’s holding a chicken pot pie and mashed potatoes. The questions I’m being asked aren’t making me uncomfortable, per se, just pushing me out of my spiritual comfort zone.

I’m searching through my brain’s incomplete notecards on Judaism principles and practices.

“Is synagogue a weekly thing?” asks Kathy Higgins, my meal hostess, who is also celebrating her birthday. “… What is Shabbat? Is that a family thing?“

I’m not used to being the primary source on such pointed questions. Ever since college, telling people that I am “Jew-ish” has been enough. I was Bar-Mitzvahed at the traditional age of 13. I’m a biannual (at best) temple-attender. I fasted once on Yom Kippur, only to find out I was a day early. I believe that faith is a good thing.

The Higgins family — Kathy and her husband Steve, along with children Spencer, 6, and Stephanie, 7 — invited me, sight unseen, into their home with the Mormon missionaries I’d followed for the day. Now, Kathy is hoping to learn more about me.

“Do rabbis report to someone higher?” she continues.

“I don’t necessarily think there would be a leader,” I respond, shaking. “There’s probably a hierarchy of rabbis, kind of. Maybe just based on their knowledge of the Torah. Probably.”

During my day of probing into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, some Church members countered with interest into my own religious background. This should have been expected, since much of my time was spent with Sister Mikayla Pearson and Sister Savannah Webb, who bike around the area daily, asking strangers about faith and religion, discerning the likelihood of conversion to the LDS Church.

When asked, and sometimes pressed, I’d babble about my own prayer perceptions. No one seemed to judge me for my responses, though I don’t think my half-explanations spawned any Hasidic converts, either.

I learned much more from them.

Over a period of about eight hours, we biked multiple miles and stopped at three LDS member homes (going inside twice, once for dinner), and checked up on two individuals who had shown interest in learning more about the religion.

There are 337 families and about 650 members in the Lake Sawyer Ward, which covers Covington, a majority of Kent and portions of Black Diamond. There have been 11 convert baptisms in the ward since sister missionaries took over two years ago. There have been only 20 total in the last five years.

Hours prior to my meal with the Higgins family, we met with Sister Jenny Wolf, who recently moved into the ward.

While Wolf went to get her Bible, the sisters sat next to her infant son, whose mini elbow perched up on the couch armrest. The cuteness was almost too much for the sisters to handle.

But there are rules on their mission. And one of them prohibits holding babies.

I presume this precedent is out of liability concerns. So do the sisters. However, when I ask Randy Grover, the director of public affairs for the Kent Stake of the Church, about it later, he said he’s never heard of that rule. Apparently the specific stipulations vary from mission-to-mission, ward-to-ward.

One constant of at-home visits, though, is some sort of scripture discussion led by the missionaries. With baby in tow, Wolf, who missioned in downtown Tokyo in the early 2000s, turned on a video “message” from mormonchannel.org. There are dozens of these videos on the site that feature gospel songs attached to uplifting messages about everything from bullying to testimonies about Jesus by the Church’s living apostles. After the video, Pearson read scripture from the Book of Mormon and the trio discussed its current day application. Wolf opened up, quite frankly, actually, about difficulties she’s encountered as a first time parent. She talked about asking God for help.

“There are times when I’m like ‘are you even listening?’” Wolf said. “But there are times, too, where I wake up the next morning completely refreshed even though I’ve only had four hours of sleep.”

The threesome then prayed together. The sisters gave Wolf a challenge before leaving: to pray for gratitude – don’t ask for anything, simply thank the Heavenly Father for the gifts she has.

And then we were off.

Steve Higgins, the witty Brit who originally thought Mormons were Amish and spent their weekends in “witches covens,” is explaining his conversion to the LDS Church. He was 21 and was convinced to attend a weekend retreat. He was skeptical, to say the least.

“I was completely intolerant,” he admits. “I knew absolutely nothing.”

But he enjoyed the clean fun, confidence and honesty of the LDS believers he met. Then the music started.

“At that point in time I’d never danced sober,” he says. “So that was kind of weird — to do not-drunk dancing.”

Steve explains that he couldn’t get the weekend out of his mind. He called a local Church bishop for more information. After only a few lessons, Steve invited his friends to a baptism. The water immersion ceremony was held Sept. 3, 1995.

“When you feel the spirit, when you get the prompting to the spirit, when you read the scriptures and take the challenges that are in the scriptures to pray... it’s a very hard thing to deny because you felt something,” he says. “And it’s just something that you don’t usually feel. Like a warmth.”

I received an email from Brian Gilman, of Renton, shortly after my first story in this series published. Like me, he was born Jewish, but decided to convert to the LDS Church and is now part of an organization of Jewish-to-LDS converts called B’Nai Shalom. The group was founded in Salt Lake City in 1967, but a Seattle chapter of between 25-30 members opened last year. B’Nai Shalom is not officially connected with the church, but, Gilman said, received approval from the church presidency.

I called Gilman for his story. How did this happen? Turns out, it took time. A lot of time.

A Bar-Mitzvah bred Cleveland native, Gilman is proud of his family heritage — which includes great-grandparents who were killed in the Holocaust. Though he’d occasionally attended temple for the High Holy Days (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), he never felt truly religious. The 48-year-old met his wife, Kathi, a non-practicing Mormon (at the time) in 1991. She refocused on the LDS church in 1999. Gilman spent six years in “religious limbo,” as half of a “part-member” family, attending church gatherings and listening to the missionaries. But nothing really clicked. He wasn’t interested and had no desire to learn.

“Really I was just supporting my wife and her callings in the church,” he said.

Gilman told me that the main thing holding him back was Jesus.

“As a Jew, I had no idea or conception of Jesus Christ or Messiah,” he said. “He wasn’t part of my life growing up. I didn’t know how to accept that. I had a hard time accepting Jesus Christ.”

Then, suddenly, he said, something changed while watching a church video he’d seen multiple times before.

“I had this overwhelming feeling that I hadn’t experienced before,” Gilman said. “I felt that was the answer I was looking for.”

Gilman, who has five kids with ages from 6 to 21, was baptized in March of 2005 and joined the LDS Church. But it wasn’t that simple. He feared telling his parents and never told his brother, who died in 2005. Although his mother accepted his transformation, Dad was a different story.

“He said, ‘so you believe in Jesus Christ?’ I said, ‘I do,’” Gilman said. “All the family pictures were taken off the wall. He was pretty upset about my decision.”

“All I could do was share my testimony with them and say it was right for me,” he added. “Now we mainly just avoid the discussion.”

The Jewish and Mormon religions have a complex relationship. While the religions are based on the same principles, and Mormons hold the Jewish people in high esteem, there was also some notable controversy over Mormons baptizing Jews who died in the Holocaust. It didn’t sit well.

The baptism concept is difficult for Gilman, too. But maybe not in the way you’d think. He would like to baptize his own deceased family.

“That is something I struggle with,” Gilman said. “For my grandmother and grandfather – I know how proud they were to be Jewish and a lot of times those who aren’t Jewish don’t really understand that. Judaism is more than a religion. It is what it is... For my brother, I think I would need my sister-in-law’s permission. I haven’t gotten to that point where I’ve decided one way or another.”

As we discuss our day of biking at the dinner table, the sisters graciously leave out the embarrassment of my blown out tire. They’d offered to walk or find an LDS member with a truck who could give us a ride. Flustered, I insisted that I could cycle on the flat to our cars.

It was during that time that Pearson called out to a male teenager on the street. She’d recognized him from Mormon gatherings. The teenager’s surprised friend responded: “Dude, I didn’t know you were Mormon.”

The uncomfortable youngster averted his eyes when responding to Pearson: “You might be confusing me with somebody else.”

Pearson tells the Higgins family that she was not mistaken. The kid just wouldn’t admit the truth.

“Sometimes the right thing isn’t always the most popular thing,” Kathy Higgins says.

I’ll be honest. I kept waiting all day for something, I don’t know, “weird” to happen. But nothing ever did. The fact is that I met nice people during my time with the sisters. But I’m also not here to say the Lake Sawyer Ward represents the whole LDS faith or culture.

A Newsweek article from January 2014 discusses how many Mormons are losing faith during the Google age — people finding direct contradictions in the Book of Mormon compared to true American history and disturbing facts about the Church’s founding prophet Joseph Smith. About the difficulties of growing up in the LDS as a homosexual and the unnervingly high divorce rate in Utah, the proverbial Mormon capital. One man in the article describes how leaving the church makes people feel like “aliens” — unable to interact with non-Mormons. His group of PostMos  — Post Mormons — cover topics such as “how to order coffee at Starbucks” and “how to shop for normal underwear” after a lifetime of only wearing Temple garments.

There’s also been a fair share of  behind-the-scenes controversy in the LDS Church. For example, the church reportedly hasn’t disclosed its assets in the U.S. since 1959. Church policy also kept black people from participating in LDS temple ceremonies until 1978.

I decided to ask a few of the more contentious follow-up questions to the missionaries at Mormon.org – the site pushed by the sisters. I online chatted with a Mormon named Robert.

Do Mormons believe that God came from outer space?

“Nope,” Robert wrote. “Unless ‘outer space’ is where He lives, since there are many words that describe where God lives.”

Do Mormons believe that God was originally a man?

“Simply, no. We believe God is Eternal.”

What is the Church’s stance on divorce?

“It is frowned upon, but it happens. We believe that families are eternal, and divorce hinders that. “

Why did Church policy keep black people from participating in LDS temple ceremonies until 1978?

“In short, the reason is because though God had promised that the Priesthood would be extended to all worthy males, it was not yet time.”

Is it OK to be gay?

“It is not okay to have homosexual relations, having those tendencies are temptations that one cannot control, but what we do with them is in our control. Much like any heterosexual relations outside of marriage it is against the commandments of God, but homosexual marriages are not approved by God and will not condone sexual relations within homosexual relationships.”

Why can’t women be priests?

“In short, because God has commanded that the Priesthood be held by males but the blessings of the Priesthood be upon members of the church, and their posterity regardless of gender.”

Could the prophets change their minds on that, too?

“We do not know, but as it stands women cannot. If the prophets receive revelation and it becomes unanimous among the apostles, then it will happen, other than that we do not know. We do not know what is left to be revealed before the end, but if that is one of them, so be it.”

Why can only those who pay full tithing be allowed into Mormon temples?

“Because God said so. Ha, this is really simple. We are not hiding anything, but we also don’t claim that the Lord doesn’t expect much of His children.”

About half way through my questions, Robert snuck in his own: “what role has religions played in your life?” That was followed by: “We would love to be able to set up a time and present why we believe what we do, and how you can come to know as well.”

...

Following dinner and a rendition of “Happy Birthday to you…” I followed the sisters via car to an appointment with a prospective convert, 21-year-old Pratik Loomis. Pearson met Loomis in the rain on the street. They’ve had multiple sessions, often on a big rock near his home.

When we arrived, Loomis said he was busy and needed to reschedule. I asked him why he’d decided to talk with the sisters in the first place.

“Just to find faith,” he said.

I say my goodbyes to the sisters. It’s time for me to go home. I’d give them hugs, but that seems like it might be against the rules. It’s also fairly unprofessional. We shake hands and head to our respective vehicles.

I turn on my engine and notice Pearson jogging to my window.

“Wait,” she yells.

She hands me a pamphlet titled “The Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” and asks, “Will you read it?”

I smile and, this time, my brain doesn’t swear and quickly search for an escape excuse.

“I will,” I respond.

It’s a miracle.


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