By Jeff Reber
Last Sunday evening, as I sat in the world wide leadership training meeting and watched the video narratives about member missionary work, I thought back to a family home evening that took place many years ago when I was a 10 year old boy and my parents introduced the “set a date” program to the family. Because my dad was in the stake presidency he was one of the first to hear about the new program and he could hardly contain his excitement about it.
It is important to explain something about my parents before I continue. They are incredibly faithful people who will immediately and joyfully do whatever the leaders of the church ask. If the prophet wants every member to grow a garden, the seeds will be in the ground the next morning. Food storage for a year? Done. Read a chapter of the Book of Mormon every day as a family? Absolutely! Sacrifice a child as and offer the child as a burnt offering? The knife is already in hand.
So, when the set a date program was introduced my parents jumped at the opportunity. My dad set up the projector screen and prepared overhead slides with a calendar and quotations about missionary work and everything in between. A prayer was said, the program reviewed, and within the hour our family had prayerfully set a date by which we would have somebody in our home to hear the missionary discussions. The date was only a couple months away, in December. My parents were giddy with excitement and couldn’t wait to watch the Lord clear a path for us to find someone to hear the good news of the gospel. My personal reaction was lukewarm. Even at 10 years of age I had grown a little weary from all the programs my parents introduced to the family. I had to weed the garden, stock the food storage, and get up at 5:00 in the morning to read the Book of Mormon with my family after all!
Just a week or two after we set a date, our long-time next door neighbors, who were active church members, sold their house. My parents were certain that the new occupants of that home were the people meant to hear the missionary discussions on the date they had set. Even I, with my somewhat dubious attitude about the whole thing, though it pretty coincidental that someone new was moving in next door to us right after my parents set the date. It had a bit of the feeling of divine destiny to it. So, I paid close attention to everything going on at the house next door to see if I could catch a glimpse of these soon to be baptized new neighbors of ours.
The first activity I observed taking place at the neighbors’ house was the arrival of painters. There was nothing unusual about painting a house the colors you want, but it struck me as kind of odd to paint the whole house white with black trim, when every other house had earth tones like brown, beige, and pale yellow; but that is exactly what they did. Then, the movers brought in the furniture. There was very little of it and it was very simple and plain. They also unloaded several framed paintings of Christ, along with crucifixes and a full-sized statue of Mary that was placed near the pool in the backyard. I thought this was very promising for my parents, because the new neighbors were clearly religious, and Christian to boot! A few days later, I noticed a long black car with tinted windows pulling up to the house and out of the car stepped a Catholic Priest. I assumed he was there to bless the house for the family moving in. We had a number of devout Catholic neighbors and there was a private Catholic school nearby, so none of this struck me as being odd.
Shortly after the priest arrived, a large 12 passenger van pulled into the driveway. I wondered if this family had a bunch of children and potential new friends for me and my siblings. To my great surprise, it was not children in the van, but 5 or 6 Catholic nuns! They each got out of the van dressed in their religious habits and looked over their new lodging with obvious glee, regularly making the sign of the cross across their chests as an apparent expression of gratitude for such fine accommodations. Apparently, this was pretty fancy living for nuns.
I couldn’t help but relish the irony. My parents had set a date to have nuns in their home to hear the message of the missionaries! These are women who take a vow to be brides of Christ. They have committed their whole lives to their religion and a certain way of life, and their new Mormon neighbors were going to try and convert them? “This should be interesting,” I thought. We’ve all heard the clichéd query, “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?” Well, here was its prime manifestation. I knew that nothing could stop my parents from doing what the Lord commanded and what they felt inspired to do. And I knew that a group of nuns were not inclined to investigate another faith; let alone a faith they probably didn’t even think of as being Christian.
I ran to tell my mom what I saw so I could study the expression on her face and see how she would deal with this obvious setback. I told her 5 or 6 nuns were moving in next door and that was the reason why they painted the house white and black and put a big statue of Mary in the backyard. I could see her face look downtrodden for just a split second and then I watched that amazing unstoppable faith rise up within her, leaving all doubt behind. I knew that she was not going to give up on the goal, and when my dad heard the news and had the same faith rise up in him, I knew he wouldn’t give it up either.
We all stuck to the plan. We went over to the house with warm homemade bread and welcomed the nuns to the neighborhood. My dad and mom told them proudly that we were Mormon and that we had a wonderful message about Jesus Christ that we wanted to share with them. They politely declined. I had the assignment of going over and mowing their front lawn. My other siblings helped with their trash cans and other things. We all tried to overwhelm them with our good Christian service and my parents continued to try and get them to come over and hear our message of faith. They continued to decline the invitation.
I waited for my parents to give up on them, but it was too late to find someone else. We had invested all our efforts into these new neighbors of ours and the date was almost here. But my parents were not going to give up. The saving grace (and compromise between the unstoppable force of my parents and the immovable object of our new neighbors) came with the church’s announcement of a new television production, Mr. Krueger’s Christmas, which was scheduled to air just a day or two after the date our family had set to have someone in our home to hear the missionary discussions.
The Sunday evening before the airing of the show, we did our traditional Christmas caroling to all the neighbors on our street. When we arrived at the nuns’ home we sang our best carol and gave them a plate of goodies, and then my parents asked them if they would come to our home the following Sunday evening and watch Mr. Krueger’s Christmas with our family. We all waited with rapt attention to hear the answer. The nuns whispered to each other for a minute or so and then turned back toward us and one of them said, “We would be happy to.” It almost felt like a bigger success than having a family in our home listening to the missionary discussion and later getting baptized.
That next Sunday, as we sat in our family room with 5 nuns, all of us watching Mr. Krueger imagining himself in the manger with the baby Jesus, I could see the tears in each nun’s eyes, just as my eyes had become wet with my tears. We may have had very different perspectives on religion and, certainly, none of us were going to change our respective church memberships, but we were totally united in that moment by the one thing that we all had in common, the only thing that can ever truly unite us, our faith in the Savior, Jesus Christ. We shared a deep reverence and awe for this incredible Son of God who came to earth as a baby that was helpless and fully dependent on others, all so he could save us and all because he loved us.
We were one in the spirit that night and, although they never again came over to our house or accepted any of our other invitations, and though no video interview for the church would ever feature my parents’ Herculean efforts to convert those nuns, something truly wonderful did happen that night and something truly wonderful happened to me. I learned that people of different faiths can gather together in the name of Christ and feel the spirit bear witness of his divinity and know that he is the Son of God, and this is a beautiful and glorious thing in its own right.
Ever since that day, I stopped thinking in terms of member and nonmember. I learned that all of us are beloved children of God no matter what we believe. Like my parents, I am committed to sharing the message of my faith with others, even those who are unlikely to receive it. I invite others to read the Book of Mormon and ask God if it is true. I invite them to be baptized and receive the Holy Ghost. Like Alma the Younger, I want them to “taste of the exceeding joy of which I did taste” (Alma 36:24), but I do not consider those who accept the invitation “in” and those who do not “out.” Like those nuns from so long ago, I consider them all brothers and sisters with whom I can feel the spirit, rejoice together and be edified together (D&C 50:22) as we help each other come unto Christ and partake of his abundant love.