The first time Alan Cherry met a Mormon, it was in an unlikely place. He and another serviceman became acquainted while at a confinement facility on an Air Force base in Texas in 1968.
The young Mormon had been jailed for drunk and disorderly conduct. Cherry, 22, was confined for disobeying a superior officer's orders. Despite their circumstances, the Latter-day Saint played a supportive role in Cherry's life, aiding him in the quest for truth that had initially landed him in the detention facility.
Now 40 years after that first meeting, which he regards as an answer to a prayer, Cherry lives in Provo with his wife, Janice, and three children. He played the role of a freed slave in the film "Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration," served as a stake high councilor and has found a freedom in his faith that is starkly different from the restricting environment where he first obtained it.
Born and raised in New York City, Cherry attended Protestant churches in his childhood but discovered he knew little truth when he enlisted in the Air Force at the height of the Vietnam War.
"I didn't quite know what to make of the world around me. There seemed to be great confusions ironies, clashes of values, things that didn't make sense," Cherry said. "In the service I began to be concerned with my well-being." Although Cherry had had moral, uptanding friends in New York, he experienced a "terrible tailspin with morality" after he graduated from high school that left him feeling spiritually destitute.
"Although there's an excitement with sin, it's like an elevator. There's the up thrill, but there's (also) the unavoidable down thrill. It's like going up in an elevator and then coming down with one where the cables are cut, and you're in some kind of free fall."
Drawing on his experiences with Christianity, Cherry could see that so much of what was going on around him was contrary to the basic tenets of godliness. And his search for goodness, rightness and truth began.
Every spare minute he had in the military he spent studying, meditating and pondering truth. He searched the writings of philosophers and turned to the New Testament, where he accepted Jesus Christ as truth.
"(The philosophers) were forever telling you about the truth without ever giving you an impression that they've been there. All they could do was tell you about their ideas of truth, but they could never tell you the street address of heaven. The thing that Jesus portrayed to me was that not only did Jesus know the truth, he was the truth."
This devotion to knowledge led Cherry to refuse to attend to his duties one day so he could study instead, which led to his confinement and subsequent first encounter with a Mormon. "He was the only person who endorsed my truth-seeking, who celebrated it, who encouraged it," Cherry said.
The friend contacted his aunt, who contacted the missionaries, who gave Cherry the Book of Mormon which he read in two weeks.
"I would have read it in two days, but I could only read after lights out," he said. "I have never been as excited by literature ... It was as if I had come off of a desert ... I was just consuming all that could be given to me."
Cherry was baptized about a week after he was released from confinement. That was 40 years ago this month.
From the first time Cherry felt impressed to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the seeming racial issues within the church that others were concerned about were not obstacles for him.
"I encountered (prejudiced people), but it was no big deal to me. I had grown up in New York City."
Having attended the march on Washington in 1963, Cherry said he never saw Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of black and white people connecting on a deeper level realized, as blacks and whites only interacted in tightly controlled environments, places like work and school.
"There was never a time when our souls, our characters could become acquainted with each other."
It wasn't until Cherry joined the church that he was able to connect closely with white people.
"As a Latter-day Saint, I've been in their homes. I've been in their hearts. I've seen them in moments of stress, weakness, vulnerability. I've been roommates, friends, confidants, loved ones ... For the most part I've encountered people (in the church) who along with me have shared in a deeper interaction with each other than I ever had growing up."
Having joined the church 10 years before the 1978 priesthood revelation, Cherry said the seeming inequalities concerning the priesthood were essentially non-issues for him.
"From the very beginning my impression that came from heaven was I was not to worry about priesthood restriction," Cherry said. "If you are focused on 'what good I can be and what good I can do,' where you serve becomes less important than how you serve.
"(Having the priesthood) wasn't about power, pride, prominence, rank and station, having something else other people didn't have," he said. "It is my better means to serve." Cherry said that instead of looking for the inequalities or seeming injustices around them, men and women need to take a godly approach and be happy for their brothers and sisters in the gospel.
"Every time there is an expansion of the gospel into a greater portion of God's family, instead of finding all of the barnacles of discontent that humans can come up with ... we find out that there is a great new chapter of tender love opening up."
Cherry turned in his mission papers soon after the priesthood revelation. He was initially counseled to pursue career and marriage opportunities, as he was well over the age limit for full-time single missionaries. His forms were somehow resubmitted, though, and to this day he doesn't know who made that happen.
Cherry left for the California Oakland mission in 1980 when he was 34 years old. "I may have been the oldest single male missionary in modern times," he said with a grin.
Meanwhile, in Gulfport, Miss., a young woman named Janice had recently been baptized.
"After the first discussion, I knew," Janice said. "When (the missionaries) started talking about the plan of salvation, it was like music to my ears. It was like the spirit said 'This is it. This is the truth."'
A sister missionary in Cherry's mission knew Janice and recommended they meet. Seven years later, Cherry and Janice met while he was interviewing black Latter-day Saints in the South, and they were married on Nov. 13, 1987.
Moving to Provo brought its own challenges for Janice."It was hard ... I was like, 'What am I doing here? How am I going to teach my kids their culture? How is this going to work?' But the Lord just kept working with me, and it all worked out."
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