I joined the LDS Church less than three weeks after my first encounter with two Mormon missionaries, who I initially suspected were regular salesmen. It's a story I shared in my previous column.
And now, as Paul Harvey used to say, here is “the rest of the story.”
My quick and seemingly miraculous conversion from cynical, narcissistic, partying frat guy and DJ to faithful Mormon has roots in something my maternal grandmother taught me when I was a young boy.
On one occasion, I witnessed her invite representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith into her home and then buy a "Watchtower" magazine from them. When I asked her why she had done so (we were Southern Baptists), she told me, as only “Nana” could say, “Boy, don’t you ever go refusing anybody preaching Christ!”
Although I didn’t believe anything the missionaries presented to me during our initial meeting, Nana’s words came to mind when one of them asked if they could return for another teaching session. Rather than truthfully tell them I wasn’t interested, and assuming they did not live in the area, I told them to “stop by whenever they were in the neighborhood.”
After that, they were always around. I’d return to my apartment and they would be on my doorstep with “hands-caught-in-the-cookie-jar” smiles, claiming they “just happened to be in the neighborhood.” Even though at first I didn’t feel any affinity for their message, I’d always let them in to be true to what Nana had taught me.
I believe it was during their third visit that they taught me about the eternal nature of families and the purposes of temples. Having lost my parents — in fact, by then all of my direct ancestors who were alive at my birth had died — during my youth, the discussion engendered a strong emotional response within me. I became upset that these two young men and the church they represented would use such a touching subject in an attempt to “recruit” members for their faith.
I especially chastised the lead missionary, Elder Keven Burton from Talmage, Utah, for testifying of the truthfulness of the related doctrines “in the name of Jesus Christ.” I rebuked him and said that no one on earth knew what was to happen in heaven and, without having gone there, could not know what relationships we would have there.
My remarks reflected the frustration I had felt and maintained over the years in failing to receive an adequate answer from other religious teachers and ministers to what I felt was a simple question: After the resurrection, would my mother and father recognize me as their earthly son?
As most if not all Christians, I believed in the resurrection. I also thought that no truly loving God would allow me to spend six and 14 years, respectively, in mortality with my mother and father and then have us be strangers for the eternities while we forevermore sang his praises as part of a celestial choir. Besides, God created me and definitely didn’t want me singing to him for the remainder of our eternal existences.
I will never forget how Elder Burton responded to me. His usual easy-going manner disappeared as he looked deep into my eyes and boldly proclaimed the truthfulness of the doctrine that eternal families may be achieved through the sealing ordinances performed in God’s temples.
He withstood my rebuke by testifying that he did, in fact, know that the doctrine of eternal families was true. He would always know it, whether I, or anyone else, accepted or rejected it. He ended by telling me that God had blessed me because he had sent them to teach me the truths of the gospel — and that it was now my choice to find out if what they had taught was true.
Elder Burton’s powerful witness moved me, mainly because I felt that he genuinely cared for me and sincerely desired that I gain as sure a witness of the doctrine — and the gospel as a whole — as he had.
I then asked him how I would be able to know. His quick and easy smile returned as he said, “Remember that 14-year-old boy you have problems with?” He then briefly reviewed Joseph Smith’s journey from confused lad to prophet of the Restoration and translator of the Book of Mormon. Elder Burton committed me to study, ponder and pray about the things he and his companion, Elder Michael Higley, of Fruitland, Idaho, had taught me over the past few days.
I gave them my word that I would do so that night while cautioning Elder Burton that I was going to pray to the God I knew and not the “Mormon God" — because I knew what the Mormon God would say. I was taught that Mormons believed in a God different from the Trinity in which I believed. Elder Burton smiled and told me it was the same God, our Father in heaven.
Later that night I read the pamphlets the elders had given me and the first part of the Book of Mormon, which contained Nephi’s story until he and his family reached the Promised Land.
I was impressed by Nephi’s courage and willingness to be obedient to what he believed the Lord would have him do. While at the time I didn’t recognize the nuggets of truth and gospel doctrine contained in those first 18 chapters, I did accept in my heart that Nephi was a real person who had lived on Earth and that he was earnest in the telling of his story.
Having read and given some thought about what I read, I then got on my knees to pray. With faith in God, a heart sincere in purpose and, most importantly, real intent — meaning that I was willing to accept whatever God told me in answer to my sincere prayer — I poured out my soul unto God. I told him that if he would answer my prayer I would do whatever he would ask of me regarding what the missionaries had taught me.
I told him how badly I missed my parents and how much I wanted to believe in the missionaries’ message about eternal families, but was skeptical because it was “Mormon doctrine.” I told God I just wanted to know what to do now that I had met and been taught by the two young men.
I don’t know how long I had been on my knees before I began to sense a heavenly response. It wasn’t how or what I expected, but I knew it was from God — the God I knew as my Father in heaven — and I knew his message was personal and specific to me: a reply to my heartfelt plea.
God’s message to me was short and simple, but undeniable. I had no burning in my bosom and no audible utterance was heard. But within my soul I felt this unmistakable truth from him: “Those two young elders are my true messengers. I sent them to you. Follow them.”
The feeling repeated itself over and over and over, until it became so firmly imprinted upon my being that it will never leave me. I knew what I had to do from that point forward, and during that prayer I no longer sought divine verification of Joseph Smith as a prophet, of the Book of Mormon as scripture or of the status of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints among the churches of the world.
Similar to the boy Joseph, I had received an answer to my prayer, and “I knew it, and I knew God knew it, and I could not deny it; neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by doing so I would offend God” (Joseph Smith History 1:25).
When the missionaries returned the next day (I told you they were “always in my neighborhood”), I related to them my prayer experience. I told them I didn’t receive any verification about Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, or the LDS Church as being true because I didn’t need it to move forward with them.
As any good missionaries would do upon hearing what I told them, they immediately invited me to be baptized upon completion of the full set of discussions and attending church. I accepted their invitation and my baptism was performed by Elder Burton on Sunday, Aug. 24, 1980, just more than two weeks from the day I first met them.
Unfortunately, Elder Higley was transferred before that day arrived, and Elder Bret LeSueur replaced him just in time to participate in my important ordinances.
So, that’s how a black 22-year-old partying college student, frat guy and DJ known as “Special K” became a Mormon in the South two years after the LDS Church’s 1978 revelation on priesthood.
After my baptism service was over and my well-wishers had departed, I found myself with a moment alone with Elder Burton. As we were about to part, I semi-jokingly asked him, “Well elder, what do I do now?” He smiled and replied, “You take it one step at a time, one day at a time, and you keep following on whatever path the Lord leads you.”
In my more than three decades as a Latter-day Saint, I have been instructed and counseled personally and generally by prophets, seers and revelators, and by many others who are and were some of the best men and women of this generation. Still, to this day Elder Burton’s words remain the best advice I have ever received as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
I have earnestly tried to take life as a Latter-day Saint, and especially as a black Mormon, one step and one day at a time as I follow the straight and narrow path the Lord has set for me. That path has led me to become, among other things, a full-time missionary, the first black graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School, a bishop and branch president, the first black cabinet member in Utah and, most importantly, a husband and father.75 comments on this story
Many days I have stumbled and many nights I have fumbled about in seeming darkness along the way. Yet I have always remained sure of where I was seeking to arrive and of whom I was ultimately following.
For, in reality, that summer night in which I received the answer to my prayer I was being told by Christ, through the Holy Ghost, to “come, follow Him.” And he is not leading me to a place, but to an existence. In following him, I am not going; I am becoming. I am becoming a person more like him and his Father — perfect and eternal — whereby I can dwell forevermore with them, and my loved ones.
God knew it will take me a very, very long time to get there. I am extremely grateful that he sent Elder Burton and Elder Higley to get me started on the way that blessed August day in 1980.
Attorney Keith N. Hamilton, an adjunct professor at BYU law school and former chair of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, served as an LDS bishop in San Francisco. He is author of "Last Laborer: Thoughts and Reflections of a Black Mormon."