France, January ’97—I woke up in a strange bed to the sound of Shawn’s voice. There was a conference of some sort somewhere in the region and a member invited me for the weekend. Shawn was telling me to get up as he sat on the bed. “Shame Elder French isn’t gonna be there,” he said.
4—Being LDS in France and in the closet
10—In hindsight, this was the end of an era. I had tried hard to conform to my religion but opposition came from all sides and brought me to breaking point. Even the Temple meant sorrow.
Elder French’s mission ended in my ward. His companions came and went but he tarried there until the end. On his last night he knocked on our door. He never talked about religion lately, so he was one of the few Mormons my mother tolerated. He gave me a hug but didn’t let go. No spoken word. As he walked away I knew he was crying. It wouldn’t be long before he left the Church. We both knew it. He decided not to keep in touch with any Church member and I never heard from him again.
“How’s things at the ward,” Shawn asked as I was pulling myself out of the arms of sleep.
“Stéphane’s left after he got married. Sonia’s gone too—married—and even Robert is moving. I knew I had to get used to missionaries leaving but I didn’t expect having to see all my favourite members go too.” Some of my best friends from school had also moved to Ireland or America. And today I was going to say goodbye to Shawn and Elder Larson, as their mission was coming to an end. Was it normal to feel the things I felt. Was I lamenting the end of an era or did I have abandonment issues because of my runaway father?
I felt like an impostor.
“But there are new people too, right? I hear Benjamin finally got baptised. Did you give him the New Members’ Discussions?”
I felt like an impostor when we taught him. Because he was so enthusiastic, so much more than other new converts I had ever met. He reminded me of me back when I joined the Church. And that spirit I no longer had.
“That’s because he’s newly baptised and you’re used to the Spirit now.”
Benjamin had chosen me to ordain him to the Aaronic Priesthood, “because you are an example and helped me a lot.” And I felt the Spirit very strongly after I ordained him. So, maybe Shawn was right.
I also felt the Spirit at New Year’s. I helped decorate the meetinghouse for the party but I didn’t stay. I always spent the last night of the year with Katy and our friends at the country home where I received that first and powerful testimony I was holding on to. ¹
“I’m sure you heard about those rumours about me?”
Shawn laughed. “I know, dude! That’s bad! What did you do with Elder French?”
“I haven’t done anything bad. I’m just so tired of that and I can’t stand the members anymore! I’m glad I’m away this weekend. I just need to leave for good.”
“What about the Army?”
About that! They were fading out the Service National and only took 1/4 guys. I prayed about it and I felt that I shouldn’t worry at all. What did that mean? At the recruitment centre I gave the letter my doctor wrote about me “suffering from depression” and the Army not being “the right environment” for me. They asked for my opinion and I think they were surprised I was so positive.
“I said I’d do it if they thought I should. But I’m exempted.”
“I actually don’t think I am. I’m just so stressed and tired and anxious all the time…”
“That means you can go on your mission sooner than planned!”
Shawn knew how much I wanted to serve a mission and share the Gospel with others like it had been shared with me. I had issues with members but my faith was intact. I hadn’t converted for them. I had my testimony before I met any of them.
“When are you going to take out your endowment at the temple?”
I had been to the temple to be baptised for the dead. A revelation received through Joseph Smith commanded Mormons to give those who never heard the restored Gospel in their lifetime the opportunity to receive all the essential ordinances (such as baptism) by proxy.
Baptism for the dead is a strange and controversial doctrine. Some folk cannot understand how dead people can join a Church and Jews took umbrage when Holocaust victims’ names were put through. I understand those reactions. But those who believe in the soul ought to see that the departed are free to accept or to reject those ordinances done for them in Mormon temples. And those who don’t believe in the soul ought to see baptism for the dead as nothing more than empty words and gestures using random names.
Many young Mormons experience the temple by being baptised for a list of names of people of their own gender, often put together by families who did their genealogy. Mormons deemed worthy during an interview may go to the temple to receive their endowments, usually before going on their mission or getting married—a Masonic sort of rite of passage with washings, anointings, ‘tokens and signs’ and temple undergarments to be worn at all times.
France did not have its own temple. It was a long drive to go to the nearest one. But I always enjoyed being on the road. It was a distraction. It took me out of my hometown where I suffocated. Lately I mostly kept to myself. I’d go home after classes and I’d go home after meetings at church. I felt tired all the time and sometimes I’d just burst into tears for no reason—alone or (embrassingly) in public.
I immediately felt attracted to him. In the temple! I felt so ashamed and so confused as this in the one place where Satan had no power.
The last time I went to the temple was bittersweet: I had this notion that one soul among all those names I got dunked for had accepted the ordinance I did in their behalf. The Spirit was strong as I came out of the large font resting on twelve oxen, the same as in every temple across the world, dressed in white as for my own baptism in a river. This was when another young guy I didn’t know, from another ward, came to replace me. I immediately felt attracted to him. My smile disappeared. In the temple! I felt so ashamed to experience that in the most sacred place on Earth.
The road back home was no distraction. As well as embarrassed, I felt so confused: the temple is the one place on Earth where Satan had no power. So, all this time it was not Satan tempting me—all those impure thoughts I had were my own! I looked at the cars and winter scenery flying by, overwhelmed with spiritual anguish.
“Get out of bed or we’ll be freakin’ late, dude!”
It was the last time I saw many people. Elder Larson was going home soon. I couldn’t believe his mission was almost over. I met a Seventy at the Conference—in the modern LDS Church a regional authority under the Twelve Apostles. The Mission President introduced me to him as “a pillar of the Church in his ward.” Was I?
I cried again when I got home. Then I prayed. Praying always eased my pain.
“You know that internship in America that I want to find? Everyone says it won’t work out. But the Spirit manifested to me that I will,” I had said to Shawn before we said farewell. I would see him and Elder Larson again. Nevermind my heart not being into their doing Snow Angels. The summer of ’97 would change the course of my life forever. I just knew it. I kept my Scriptures in my hands and I left the light on to fall asleep.
¹ Some names have been changed when authorisation was not or could not be granted.
A new series of posts about the summer that changed everything will be starting on May 23.