Dear President Albright,
I know this church is solid. I know this church is strong. I know this church is true. I have been a member of the Church for only 3 years, after having been a practicing Catholic for 48 years. If you are doing the math, be forewarned that my age is classified, Top Secret. I am the only Mormon in my family, and the only Mormon that most of my family and friends in Ohio have ever met. So you might imagine I am the object of some fascination to a family of Italian Catholics for whom Utah seems like another continent.
Like most new converts, I have often been asked to tell my conversion story. Perhaps others find it interesting or faith-promoting; for me, it was certainly life-changing. But it has always struck me as somewhat peculiar to speak of conversion as a singular event, or to speak of it in the past tense – as something that occurred and is done, end of story. Certainly, my conversion had its clear turning points: the point at which I came to know the Church is true and that Joseph Smith was truly a prophet of God, or the date on which I was baptized. In reality, we know that conversion is not an event, and it is not simply part of our personal history. Instead, it is a daily process of recommitment – a process that is never finished because we are living it each day in the present and future tense. If we are truly to walk the path of Christ’s disciple, we must recommit each day to becoming converted.
Of course, four years ago, I would not have been able to debate the fine points of conversion. I would have simply said that I was a Catholic. I was born and raised by tremendous and devout Catholic parents. I attended Catholic school. I went to Mass every Sunday. I believed in God and in Jesus Christ. I understood the Ten Commandments. I had a pretty clear idea of what sin was. But I did not have what anyone would even remotely describe as a religious life. I simply believed what my parents believed. I inherited my faith the easy way, without labor pains. I never read the scriptures myself; I found I could be quite comfortably Catholic without ever reading the Bible. If you asked me what made the Catholic faith the true faith, I couldn’t have answered because I never paused to ask myself the question. And I certainly did not have the discipline to learn the answer. Given this remarkably weak spiritual foundation, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that in my adult years, I transgressed very far from the commandments of our Heavenly Father.
I have spent the last 25 years working for the CIA, and I achieved a good measure of secular success over those years. I was a very hard-driving person, and because of that, I achieved many “firsts” at CIA – I was often the first woman to be appointed to a job. I did all that I could to get there first: if it meant working 7 days a week, up to 18 hours a day, I did it. If it meant putting my professional ambitions ahead of my family, I did so. If meant trampling over others, I did so. If it meant engaging in office gossip and office politics and office-plotting, well, I did that, too. It is quite possible that I was the most relentlessly secular person you have ever met. Let me assure you that if you had observed me during a typical work day, you would never have been able to tell I was a Christian.
The rewards for my self-important ambitions were plentiful: by late 2004, I had the pinnacle job of my CIA career: Director for Support. It is a pretty big leadership job – the biggest of my life. I’m tempted to say that jobs like that can loosen your spiritual bearings. But in truth, my spiritual compass was lost well before that. While climbing the ladder to that pinnacle, I committed sins of arrogance, envy, huge ego, and vanity. To make matters worse, I rationalized that I wasn’t technically sinning, because if I searched hard enough, I could always find others doing the same. My disturbing logic might well remind you of the passage in Alma, Chapter 5, verse 37:
“O ye workers of iniquity; ye that are puffed up in the vain things of the world, ye that have professed to have known the ways of righteousness nevertheless have gone astray.”
As I was plunging full speed ahead on this path, I did not recognize that my world was starting to crack in unpredictable ways, as foundations built on shallow soil always do. In the spring of 2006, in the space of only a week, two of CIA’s senior-most officials were fired by the White House. Almost immediately after that, a new team came in, and soon enough, my tenure came to an end – with no clear path ahead. I fell apart physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Then and only did I begin to examine the wreckage of my life. Then and only then did I come to see I had not just fallen from rank, but I had fallen far from grace. Then and only then did I see that I was not simply a person who occasionally sinned, but I had become a sinful person.
Feeling broken into a million pieces, I called an LDS colleague whom I very much admired. I told him I could not go on the way I was living. His response consisted of three simple messages: first, he assured me that my Heavenly Father knows me by my name and understood my struggles and suffering; second, he assured me that Heavenly Father had a plan for my success, but not success as I had come to define it. And then he drew me a map to the Visitors Center. Soon after I went to the Washington DC Temple Visitors Center, two missionaries visited my home. When Sister McDonald and Sister Clark arrived on my doorstep, I was mortified. They were so young and innocent I had no idea how I would be able to explain my troubled and headstrong life. I figured they would never be able to relate. They began our meeting by asking me if they could sing for me. They sang “I am a Child of God.” From that moment on I was captivated. It became irrelevant whether they could relate to me. I began relating to them, and to the profoundly joyful message they shared.
That led to 6 months of intense lessons from wonderful sister missionaries and the members of the Annandale Ward. The love I felt from the Annandale Ward made me willing to temporarily suspend judgment on whether these lessons were true. But suspending judgment is far different from coming to know with certainty for yourself. For me, that moment of certainty did not come in a dramatic vision, or after days of prayer and fasting. Instead, it came quite unexpectedly, on the way to a business dinner. I arrived early, and being a committed multi-tasker, I whipped out my Book of Mormon to complete my missionary homework before the other guests arrived. I was in a hurry, of course, but I was stopped cold by a line from Amulek’s great exhortation on prayer in the 34th chapter of Alma, in particular this line:
“Ye must pour out your souls in your closets, and your secret places, and in your wilderness.
Amulek’s words pierced me to the core, because I was definitely in a wilderness, filled with many secret places. And at that moment, with that very scriptural passage, I came to remember that I was meant to TALK to my Heavenly Father. I was not supposed to simply recite prayers I memorized as a child, but literally pour my heart out. So that’s what I did. I told Heavenly Father what a mess I had made of my life, and how shallow my priorities and values were.
The rediscovery of that simple truth was a turning point for me. I fell in love with the Book of Mormon, and I had no doubt it was true. And when I came to know the Book of Mormon was true, I came to accept that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, chosen to restore the gospel in this last dispensation. How could it be any other way? Soon thereafter, I was baptized, supported by my husband, Bill, and my family, and was welcomed into the faith by a loving community of believers and practitioners.
Looking back, I still find it odd that I reached out to an LDS colleague, rather than dialing up one of my many Catholic colleagues or a priest. I have come to believe it had a lot to do with Gordon B. Hinckley. Let me digress to explain: several years earlier, during the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, I was on a night flight overseas and I couldn’t sleep. I was bored with my own reading material, and I picked up a magazine with a cover story on the Olympics and the Mormons. I decided to read it, convinced that article surely would lull me to sleep. The only thing I remember from the entire article is that the President of the church, this fellow named Gordon B. Hinckley, was asked why so many people were turning to the LDS faith after 9/11. President Hinckley said it was because they were looking for something solid, strong, and true. These 3 words made such an impression on me that I wrote them down on a scrap of paper and stuffed it into my wallet, where they remained until 2006 – when quite improbably, I came to desperately need those attributes.
It probably does not surprise you that in a time of deep personal crisis, I found the Church. That makes me quite similar to many other adult converts, who need to be jolted-usually by crisis -out of complacency. But joining the Church is different from conversion, and my conversion is still very much a miracle in progress. You see, I did not magically change after baptism. No miraculous light switched on, illuminating my life with blissful days. Unfortunately, a central irony of my life is that my post-conversion years have been the least successful chapter of my life thus far, if you judge only by secular measures. When I was leading a faithless life, I was immensely successful. But almost immediately after my conversion, I began to lose a great many friends. It may have had a little to do with my conversion – most of them simply assumed I’d lost my mind – but it had a lot to do with having lost my rank at CIA. So my social and professional calendar freed up overnight.
I now see that Heavenly Father was clearing my calendar for another kind of assignment: His work. I firmly believe that he knew how fragile my new testimony was, so He silenced some of the noise and distractions in my life so I could concentrate on His gospel. Heavenly Father knows only too well my circumstances and my weaknesses. He knows that I still live and work in a competitive world, and I still struggle mightily with ambition, pride, and ego. I can absolutely predict that every day, including this very day, I will have to fight my way through self-doubts and comfortable old habits which can still look pretty enticing.
Heavenly Father helped me recognize the danger of spiritual relapse, and fortified me to decide that I would not simply be an adult convert, but that I would aim to become a disciple of Christ. I choose the word “become” deliberately, because true conversion means growing each day in the gospel-not thinking of the baptismal font as the destination point. I had spent nearly 5 decades of my life becoming a sinful person, day after day, sin upon sin. So I have to recommit day after day, precept upon precept, to becoming a different person. I have to do the very hard work of truly changing my nature. I cannot let my guard down, or become casual. I must be committed to my conversion by daily acts of intention, of faith, of fervor, and will.
In the beginning I was completely unsure of how to proceed. The answers have come slowly, because I am feeling my way slowly on this path. One leg of this journey I needed to take on my own. That part was repentance, which is a continuing journey of course. It requires admitting that I am a sinner, that I need forgiveness and instruction, and that I live in gratitude for the miracle of the Atonement. For me, repentance has been precisely as Elder Neil Anderson describes it: There are still times when my prayers amount to pleading for forgiveness and to be restored to what the ancient psalm describes as a “clean hear and right spirit.”
I am blessed that Heavenly Father also helped me understand that conversion and discipleship require help beyond what I alone can do. I was deeply humbled, after many years of solitary and selfish achievement, to realize that discipleship is not a solitary and self-serving path. We cannot become Christ-like alone. Like you, I need the daily help of the Holy Ghost. I need the counsel obtained through deeply personal prayer to my Heavenly Father; and I so dearly need the help of other Saints.
Disciples of Christ must be full participants in the community of Christ. I recently read something that seems to me quite wise: No one comes to church each week to find God; we come to share God-to share what we know and feel of Him, to strengthen and uplift and fortify each other. True conversion requires not simply that we turn away from sin, but that we turn toward righteousness. And righteousness involves turning toward others, loving them, serving them, bearing their burdens and sharing their joys. On the path toward conversion and discipleship, I find that I must arm myself every day with prayer and scripture reading. I was 49 when I opened the Old Testament for the first time, I’m ashamed to say. Now I am a daily reader. Of course, we are so often exhorted to engage in daily scripture reading that it is easy to become complacent. To give it a fast 5 minutes, to skip a day or two, or to go on auto-pilot as we read. In the intelligence profession, we have a name for this auto-pilot condition: we call it MEGO, which is short for “My eyes glazed over.”
So I learned that I must discipline myself every single time I pick up my scriptures to actively search for the lesson Christ intends for me that very day. When I read with that focus, I am never denied wisdom. I have come to embrace the scriptures as the owner’s manual for my life.
Since the day I discovered Amulek’s great exhortation on prayer, I have never been without the Book of Mormon. I have a purse size, a briefcase size, a desk drawer size, and a luggage size. My scriptures look a lot like the children’s Velveteen Rabbit – earmarked, lined with every imaginable color, and literally frayed like something that is used and cherished and quite beloved.
Here is something else that most of you members know, and I have only recently learned. Daily commitment to conversion means never taking my testimony for granted. When I joined the church, I marveled at the apparent ease with which members shared their testimony. Only with time did I see how hard each of us must work for our testimony. And this work is not for the faint of heart. It is for the Saint who has enough spiritual fervor to ask, in the vortex of personal crisis, “Why do I believe? What causes me to know this is true? Why do I want to devote my life to this difficult path?” The answers to those questions must be rediscovered every day – on good days, on bad days, and even on snow-days. It is the core work of becoming a disciple. And that is always a present-tense process.
Over and over again, the words of Elder Dallin H. Oaks ring true for me: “To testify is to know and to declare. The gospel challenges us to be converted, which requires us to do and to become.” When you accept that your testimony must be lived in the present and future tense, it quickly becomes part of you. It’s not a 30-second elevator speech or a canned presentation. It is part of your spiritual DNA; it is how you are wired each day; it’s the top of your daily agenda.
I have to confess to you that the most challenging part of my path has been this: letting it be known each day that I am a Mormon and that I am a disciple of Christ. I lived for more than 40 years in a world where I never discussed my faith, and it was most certainly never apparent. I would never have introduced myself to a new acquaintance as a Catholic. I would have been embarrassed to speak of Jesus in a secular setting. Now, it is my joy to share Christ as the source of my strength. It is my joy to know a simple scripture well enough to quote it. By openly sharing the fact of my faith, I set a standard for myself to live, not just to speak. I do not forget I am a standard-bearer of the Mormon faith in my own family. Like you, I have discovered that it takes a large degree of valor to lead a public life of faith. So often, society gives wider embrace to every sort of affinity group than it does discipleship in Christ.
I am learning that it is imperative that I live a life of gospel activism. Not simply to know and say what I believe but to act upon it. Because I hope to walk the path of the disciple, I try never to forget our Savior’s counsel to Peter: “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” Ironically, when I accepted the need to strengthen my brethren, I became stronger. That strength is built upon small acts of service, loving those who once might have been unlovable to me, and by looking for daily opportunities to do missionary work. The truest possible thing I can share with you is that we must serve others, even in the hardest of times. For me, conversion has not simply meant turning away from things, but turning toward others.
I now consider my faith the most important thing about me. It is my credential and my calling card. After years of focusing on my professional resume, I am at long last focusing on my spiritual resume.
It is fair to say that every conversion journey is unique. But for converts like me, that journey includes a fair amount of internal turbulence. We came to the church at a point of crisis. We did not join the church because the choice was easy. It is the most important decision we will make, and many, like me, make that decision without family members joining us. Ultimately, I joined the church because I could no longer deny the truth of the restored gospel and I could no longer sustain the dead weight of my old self. I had to give birth to my new self. And with this birth, most assuredly, I have experienced profound labor pains. I find the words of Alma in Mosiah Chapter 27 to be painful and beautiful:
“I have repented of my sins, and have been redeemed of the Lord; behold I am born of the Spirit. And the Lord said unto me: Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters.”
I cannot imagine all that the long-time members know that I still need to learn. But I can tell you that through large and small daily acts of spiritual discipline I am slowly building my spiritual momentum. I know this is not a sprint; it is a walk of endurance. As Elder Holland reminds us, “It isn’t over until it’s over…and we must go forward, without fear, without vacillation.” I know that this Church is indeed solid, strong, and true. I know that conversion changes our hearts and our natures.
Sister Stephanie Smith