About 20 years ago, possibly on this very Sunday, I had one of the most important turning points in my life. This story is a hard one for me to share, but I felt I had to write it down. I didn’t start writing my journal till a few months after this event, and I didn’t want it to be lost.
I was just starting as a freshman at Brigham Young University in Provo, and had also just barely turned 16. In case you’re wondering, I had skipped a grade in elementary school, and ended up finishing my last two years of high school in one year via an independent study program. I had moved out of my parents’ home to live with my grandma, who lived about 2 miles from BYU, in large part because I didn’t get along well with most the guys in my youth group at church. My family doesn’t specialize in “black sheep”, so this was about as close as any of us got to “running away from home”.
Not wanting to repeat the experience I had had with my home ward, I didn’t want to be part of my grandma’s congregation. I didn’t want to be a college student hanging out with high school kids, even if we happened to be the same age. So I went to the student ward whose boundaries I lived within. The problem is that being an off-campus student ward that didn’t at the time have any apartment complexes in its boundaries meant that almost everyone in that congregation was of returned missionary age or older (21+), meaning I was the youngest person in the ward by over half a decade. I didn’t fit in at all, or have anything in common with anybody. Nobody was mean at all, but nobody at the time was really any more than “check the box” friendly either. I really didn’t feel like anybody understood me or really cared about me.
Being a teenager and a college freshman, and being away from family the first time is a challenging enough time for most people, but combine that with not really having any close friends, being 2 years younger than almost everyone I knew, and thus not really feeling like I had a connection to anyone made for an extremely depressing and lonely time. I personally hope that most of you reading this have no idea what I’m talking about.
Anyhow, this wasn’t working for me, so I went to talk with the bishop of the student congregation, and he told me that while LDS policy is pretty clear that you’re supposed to attend one of the wards in whose geographical boundaries you reside (we’re not like other faiths where you’re encouraged to shop around for a congregation you like, you’re supposed to worship and serve with those around you, from all walks of life), that in his opinion I might be better served if I found an on-campus freshman student ward to attend. I’d have to eventually move into that ward’s geographical boundaries if I wanted to stay, but at least at the time it was the best option he could suggest.
The only challenge was I had no idea how to find a freshman student ward to attend.
I remembered that a few of the students who had been in my freshman orientation “Y Group” had lived somewhere down in an on-campus housing complex known as Heritage Halls. But I wasn’t really sure where, or when on Sunday they went to church. I was getting ready to give up on the LDS church and organized religion at this point, but wanted to give it one last chance. I decided I’d head down to Heritage Halls, and find a place to wait to see if anybody I recognized happened to stop by. If they invited me to go to church with them that Sunday I’d go. Otherwise, I was ready to be done. It’s not that I thought the church was false, or that anything like that. I was just spiritually and emotionally done.
That was 20 years ago today.
As you can guess if you know anything about me, I did meet some friends there that day. When I told them that I was trying to find a ward to attend, they didn’t hesitate for a second, but cheerfully suggested that I should join them and their ward. As a brief aside, I have a Pandora station going in the background as I’m typing this, and right as I typed that last sentence a song started playing talking about how You’re Not Alone. I’m not sure there’s a more fitting way to put how I felt that moment.
They took me in.
I was young enough to be their annoying little brother, but they took me in. They introduced me to their other friends. After church, they asked if I sang, and when I said yes, they invited me to join them for choir. And when they found that my walk home was 2 miles, they invited me to stay around for dinner, and ward prayer that evening.
I was home. For the first time in many years, I felt like I was really and truly at home.
Did life stop being awkward for me, being 2yrs younger than all of my peers? No. Do I really feel like any of them understood me at all? Did I even understand me at all? No. Was my social life all roses from there? Not even remotely. But I was home. I knew that even though they didn’t understand me, they really honestly cared. In some ways that made it mean even more. Of all the places in the world I could run away to, and all the crowds I could’ve fallen in with, I’m not sure I could’ve found a classier group of 18 year old men and women on the planet.
Spiritually speaking, that year really was a turning point for me.
I wouldn’t be ordained as an Elder in our church for another two years, but when I sang “Ye Elders of Israel” with the brothers in that ward, I really felt that the song meant me as well. When the sisters sang “As Sisters In Zion”, I truly came to appreciate that the errand of angels was quite often given to women. After all, it had been a group of those sisters who had cheerfully invited me to join them that day 20 years ago.
Being surrounded by such good examples gave me strength, and made me want to be a better person–someone who worthy of having friends like that. It gave me a desire to know for myself if the restored gospel was true. In the end, I had to know, and finally got my answer. And when I did, the answer was that “You know it is true. You’ve always known it’s true? Wherefore can you doubt?” I truly gained my own testimony that year, a desire to get my life in order so I could serve as a missionary, a testimony of the prophet at the time, Gordon B Hinkley, and a love for sacred music. Most of what I’ve become as an adult was a direct result of events that year, all of which were triggered by a simply offered invitation when I needed it most.
I’m pretty sure none of those sisters or brothers in that ward had any idea of what they did for me. They were just 18 year olds, doing what came naturally to them–reaching out in friendship to someone who needed it badly. But they made all the difference in the world to me.
I’ve since lost track of almost all of them. But I hope and pray wherever they are, that if they’re ever found in the lonely and depressing circumstances that I was in that day, that they too can have someone be there for them with the gentle hand of human kindness. I don’t know if any of them remember me anymore, but I hope I’ll never forget.