I'm not a big fan of bumper stickers. They remind me of people who yell on the phone then quickly hang up. But last week at the Quaker General Conference in Tacoma, I saw one I had to have. It read: "I love my country — but I think we should start seeing other people."

One reason I attended the gathering of "Friends" was, over the years, I have felt like Quaker writers read my mail. Their gentle humor, comfortable silences and natural good will charmed me. In fact, while in Tacoma, I mused about what it would be like to become a Quaker.

But I also thought how difficult — even traumatic — it would be for me.

I pictured myself, at age 57, having to learn a new history, a new code — in short, a new way of seeing the world. Just the thought made me weary to my bones. Learning when to talk, when to keep silent, when to wave instead of applaud would take an old dog like me forever to master.

It made me feel a gush of admiration for people who do have the courage to change religions in midlife.

But it also gave me an understanding and compassion for those who can never bring themselves to make such a leap.

I have friends who have leapt, of course. One of them became a Hindu and found that the Hindus have more gods than some churches have members. Another became a Jew in later life and found himself not only trying to learn about all the sacred days, texts and traditions, but working to make them become second nature in his life.

And freshly minted Mormons aren't out of the woods, either. Think of showing up at church and realizing that everyone there, except you, knows the subtle distinctions between Joseph Smith Sr., Joseph Smith Jr., Joseph F. Smith and Joseph Fielding Smith.

As I said, I admire those who have the gumption to take on a new faith.

But I've come to understand, as well, those who don't.

Not long ago I was visiting a woman from Mexico who had been praying about joining my own church, the LDS Church. She said the Virgin Mary came to her in a dream and told her she should remain a Catholic.

My first thought was God must have seen that it was me shepherding her along a spiritual path and decided he had a better chance of getting religion into her life through the Virgin Mary.

My second thought was I had to respect her spiritual experience.

Those who believe in the spiritual realm, I think, must not only trust their own spiritual experiences — whatever they may be — but they must also trust and respect the spiritual experiences of others. If you don't do that, you become an ugly oxymoron, you become "spiritually superior."

I told the woman she should trust her heart. Given her family ties, personal history, her commitments and temperament, God knew best what was best for her.

Some, of course, will say I turned my back on her.

But that's not how it felt to me.

It felt, in a way, a lot like that bumper sticker I picked up from the Quakers.

It felt like I loved my church — loved it dearly — but at that moment, it was more important that I "see other people."


E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com