“Okay, elders, here’s the thing. I want to learn all about your church.”
Elder Shoney and I looked at each other with excitement, wondering if we had perhaps found a ‘golden investigator’, or someone who was easily converted to Mormonism, at a time in their life when they were searching for truth. An easy tally on our list of baptized souls, one more saved soul showing us that our work was paying off.
Ed continued. “But I have no interest in joining your church. I’m Catholic. I was raised Catholic, as was my mother and father and those before them. I’m not seeking to change that. But I do want to learn about your church.”
Shoney and I broke eye contact, suddenly confused. “If you aren’t looking for truth, or for a religion to join, then why would you want to learn about it?”
Ed was matter-of-fact. We sat in the backyard of his beautiful home, just down the block from our apartment. He had thick, bushy grey hair, and a lean muscular frame. He was in his early sixties and wore a blue button-down shirt with a red bowtie, purple suspenders, and black slacks. He leaned back in his chair, sipping his iced tea.
“Well, that’s simple, actually. I’m worried about the Catholic Church. I’m very involved in my local congregation, and I’ve come to realize that we are having difficulty retaining members. People aren’t coming like they used to. But when I read reports, I see that the Mormon numbers are growing consistently, and I want to know why.” He took another long sip, and then kept talking. “Obviously, you have this entire missionary program. The guys in white shirts and ties going out to teach the world about the church, drawing in converts, and thus money and numbers. I want to know how you do it. Now, you are welcome to try and convert me, but I won’t end up being converted. Still, I would love to learn from you if you like to teach me.”
We stepped off to the side to consult, and figured the Lord could guide our actions. What would be the harm in teaching someone who wanted to learn? The Lord could work miracles, and we loved teaching. (It definitely beat knocking doors all day, and it made our numbers at the end of week report look more successful and fruitful).
We returned to Ed, and agreed. We would teach him a series of six lessons. He grew visibly excited, and said he wanted to take two lessons per week, but he wanted permission to tape record them, so he could reference them later. We considered again, wondering if we needed to get special permission to be recorded, but we decided there was no risk and went ahead.
Ed was a delightful man who had drinks and snacks ready for us whenever we came over. He shared his love for his religion, and for religious history, and engaged in long discussions about Biblical stories and our interpretation of them. He loved our views on God, on family, on faith and repentance and baptism, and on the holy spirit. But the day we taught him about the Apostasy and Restoration, things grew slightly heated.
For this lesson, I brought a can of Pringles that I had filled with plastic cups, each labeled with a taped on sheet of paper. I laid out the cups carefully as I taught, building a small pyramid on the table in front of us in an elaborate lesson about Christ and his church. We discussed how with the birth of Christ, the prophecies of the Old Testament were fulfilled, and a new truth had to be established on the Earth. Christ taught among the Jews, Scribes, Sadducees, and Pharisees, teaching his new doctrines and setting up a brand new church. He called 12 apostles and gave them the power, or Priesthood, to administer in his name. He built his church on basic truths like baptism, faith, the Holy Ghost, and others, carefully laid out in the Bible. But then, Christ had been killed and resurrected, leaving the Earth. And then the 12 apostles were all killed or they disappeared. And with the apostles gone, the Church of Christ was left behind to be interpreted by men, who tried hard to follow the teachings in the following centuries but they ultimately corrupted the truths, split and divided into many different religions, thousands of them. Men were left without the truth of God, and without anyone who had the Priesthood to lead them. This was called the Apostasy.
Ed watched carefully as we explained. We began pulling out cups on the bottom row of the pyramid, and soon it all came crumbling down, showing that without the leadership of Christ’s church or authority, the belief systems came crashing down. Man couldn’t salvage the wreckage, not without the authority to do so from God. And then we told of the Restoration, how God and Jesus visited Joseph Smith in the 1830s to get him to set up the new Church, bringing their authority back, and letting him call 12 new apostles.
Ed took copious notes, even though he was recording the lesson. He muttered words like ‘fascinating’ and ‘wow’ and ‘unbelievable’ as we chatted. When we finally reached a stopping point, he turned toward us, instructing quietly.
“See, this is where our religions differ. After Christ and the apostles started dying, we believe the Priesthood, as you call it, passed on from Peter to others. Eventually the Pope took over and formed official positions within the church. The Catholic Church is centuries old, where as yours is a baby. But we both claim to have that truth or authority. The rest of religion is basically just driftwood, variations or amendments on the existing truth. In the end, it’s just us versus you,” he said, laughingly.
At the end of the lesson, we had lemonade and cookies and chatted about our families back home. Ed talked about his daughter, about the books he had written, and the stories he liked to tell. He was somewhat of a celebrity in certain circles. He shared some of his works with us, giving us copies to take home. As he walked us out that day, setting up a time to take us to dinner later in the week, he smiled and shook our hands.
“You know, growing up, I was given a pamphlet, teaching me about how dangerous Mormons were, about how they were a cult that would try and take your children. You guys aren’t so scary.”
Elder Shoney, who made me laugh regularly, quipped back. “And we were taught that your church is the great whore of all the Earth and the corrupter of all truth. And you definitely are that scary.”
We had a good laugh. Over the next two weeks, we saw Ed four more times, teaching him each time. And then the discussions were done. We went to his church once, he went to ours once, and then we bid him farewell. He shook our hands, thanked us for an enlightening experience, and said he had learned a lot.
“But you didn’t convert me. I still believe in the pope over the prophets. But only one of us can be right. Unless we are both wrong.”
He gave his characteristic grin, and then I never saw him again.