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“You have to be wary of other religions,” Mrs. Ebel explained. It was not hard for any of us fourth graders to come up with the imaginative moniker “Mrs. Evil”. “Believers of Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam don’t believe in Christ as their savior and will not be saved. In fact, does anybody know any Mormons?”
Already somewhat overwhelmed, I sheepishly raised my hand, knowing full well that half of my family was Mormon. With a penetrating glare, my teacher continued. “Well, Nicholas, you must be especially careful. Mormonism can be very appealing, but it is actually a cult.” A strong note of disapproval rang in her voice. “They will try to brainwash you. You can’t believe them.” Slowly I lowered my eyes. Feeling confused and somehow shamed, I looked to my classmates for support. All I could see around me, though, were faces filled with pity and concern.
Going home that night, my ten-year-old mind whirred with doubt. Mom? Omi and Papa? Lindsey, Whitney, Jonny, Joe, and Critter? All part of a “brainwashing cult” out to get me? I tried to understand why my teacher would say such a thing, but I could not accept what she had told me.
Five years later, I found myself in the passenger seat of a squeaking pickup truck with Papa, my LDS grandfather, driving along a dusty road deep in rural Utah. I was visiting him and Omi, my grandmother, for a long summer vacation. Hoping that I, too, would embrace the Mormon faith, they had always taken me to their church services, despite the polite objections of my devout Lutheran father.
Papa and I sat quietly. Wind whistled through barely-cracked windows while the road hummed beneath worn tires. Bored, I rested my cheek in my hand. Then, rounding a hilltop, a view of the valley my grandparents lived in overtook me. Large green, rolling hills tumbled in a circle around quaint houses gathered in the valley’s center. At that moment I thought back to the words of Mrs. Evil and thought to myself: could this picturesque place really be a valley of the damned? Seeking answers, I asked Papa about the Mormon faith.
“Papa, how are Mormonism and Christianity different?”
What he told me echoed everything I had heard before. He told me that he believed that God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus are three separate beings; how he would not consume any mind-altering substance; how a man could be a god of his own world someday if he lived a pure enough life; how Mormon girls could not date until they were sixteen (perhaps the concept I had the most difficulty with at the time).
One thing I noticed for the very first time, however, was the sincerity and conviction in my grandpa’s eyes as he explained his beliefs to me – the very same qualities that I had seen in my father’s eyes when he praised Christianity. At that moment, I realized something tremendous: if uncompromising belief in one’s religion is all that defines it as true, then how could there possibly be any “right” or “wrong” religion? I decided that it would be wrong to discriminate against any one religion by belonging to one myself, and decided to explore and consider the principles of all the religions that I had previously been told were forbidden. To Berkeley, therefore, I will bring not merely my tolerance of different religions, but a genuine appreciation for what each one can teach me.
As he finished his speech, my grandfather said one thing that will always stick with me: “Even if it turns out there is no God and all this is for nothing, I will still have been a better man for living my life this way.”
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