June 7, 1998, Salt Lake City, Utah (See NOTE below the column)
“Are people angry at us because of our beliefs?” Maria inquired, guiding me toward a simple but spectacular circular room. An impressive, bright statue of Jesus Christ was centered against a backdrop of a bright blue sky painted with the stars and planets of the universe.
Pausing for a moment to face her squarely, I reached out and squeezed her arm. “Certainly not, Maria. We love you. I love you so much that it hurts to know that you are being deceived,” I said, looking to the left of Maria to include her partner, Consuelo, in my declaration.
“Sister” Maria is a 26-year old Mormon missionary from the Caribbean. Her companion, 21-year old “Sister” Consuelo, was from Puerto Rico. Both young women introduced themselves to me in Salt Lake City’s Temple Square while I was reading through literature placed in the foyer of Assembly Hall. After asking me if I was a Southern Baptist, the young women offered me a guided tour of the immaculate grounds and buildings at the home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As we walked, scores of attractive young women guided visitors into the Mormon Tabernacle and then on to the visitors center with its impressive oil paintings, piped-in scripture readings, mellowed wooden benches and plush carpet. Inside the tabernacle, Maria spoke in hushed terms about the hard working men and women of the LDS church and of the building’s impressive acoustics.
Asking me personal questions about my family, my job and where I came from, the missionaries looked surprised when I asked them about their assignment, where they were from and how they got involved in the LDS church.
Whenever I asked them a question, they took the opportunity to point to another feature of the building. After inviting me to come on Sunday to listen to the choir, they accompanied me outside into a fragrant garden near the visitors center.
“Have you ever read the Book of Mormon?” Maria began.
“I have reviewed parts of it,” I responded.
“What did you think?”
Both she and Consuelo looked at me expectantly. After a moment of hesitation, I decided to be honest. Uttering an earnest prayer within my heart, I looked directly at both women and said, “I do not believe it to be a true or historical account of anything related to God’s teachings.”
Maria nodded with a knowing smile. “Ah, you are a teacher and you need things to be proven. I believe it is true because I have faith.”
“No, don’t misunderstand me,” I said gently. “I have faith — but I also know that God gives us intelligence and discernment. He created us that way. The Book of Mormon is full of contradictions and falsifications. God’s way to salvation through Jesus Christ is simple — and it’s all in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. Nothing contradicts. Why would we need more?”
Catching the eye of a guide, Maria urged me on to the visitors center , up the stairs through a gallery of beautiful paintings depicting the life of Christ and into an observatory-like room. We talked while we walked. Maria told me she loved Jesus Christ and the heavenly Father. We discussed a handful of doctrines. Maria seemed surprised when I continued to quote Scriptures to her about God, about Jesus Christ, about the Bible and about the need to stay away from false prophets and teachings.
“Joseph Smith was a good man and a true prophet. He received visions from God,” Maria entreated.
“He did many things,” I began, looking at the hope in her eyes. Then I felt compelled to speak the truth.
“He was a false prophet,” I whispered, “and he has misled many people.”
That’s when Maria and Consuelo led me up the stairs toward the statue.
“Isn’t Jesus wonderful?” Consuelo said.
“Yes, Consuelo,” I smiled. “He is wonderful, but so simple. He doesn’t need all of this — just the simple truth contained in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.
“God gave us his Son, Jesus Christ, because we are incapable of working for our salvation,” I told her. “It’s because God loves us unconditionally and doesn’t need whatever we can do. I believe it’s only through grace that we can receive all that God offers.
“I love you and God does too,” I said, hugging both girls when Maria shoved a map of the rest of the square into my hands. “I’ll pray for you.”
Walking away, my troubled and watery eyes took in little of the elaborate surroundings or the excited and eager young faces lining the paths. As I assured Maria, I’m not angry, just hurting.
(After being invited to be on the staff of Baptist Press in the newsroom since 1995, in 1998 I was told funding was tight. I decided to purchase an airline ticket and stay at Motel 6 in order to not interrupt my momentum in reporting on the SBC since 1987. That year, with the SBC in Salt Lake City, Utah, I had especially prepared since my husband was a student at Midwestern Seminary and we both took refresher courses in interfaith witness training to Mormons which we had already been certified in years earlier through the Home Mission Board, now the North American Mission Board. Arriving in the vast state, I quickly settled into my Motel 6 and checked the chain on the door while he traveled miles away to Ogden, Utah, where he was involved in outreach during Crossover. Looking at my ministry in the newsroom as my particular contribution to missions that year, I was grateful for the first assignment Herb Hollinger, Baptist Press chief editor, gave me. He told me to just nose around the Temple, and, if I wished, write up my impressions. My first person piece is one of the rare published columns of the time. That year I was blessed immeasurably. It seems like yesterday. I met Jerry Drace, an evangelist from Tennesee who remains a good friend. My daughter, who graduated from Union University, was in his daughter’s wedding. I covered anything from children’s ministry to Hispanics. I remember meeting Gibbs Frazeur, a gifted photojournalist who now works in Atlanta, over a large vat of yellow rice. One of my favorite moments was of missing the last bus to the street of the “lesser” hotels and dashing through the rain, in a suit, with Richard Vara, a long-time religion reporter for the Houston Chronicle. We shared his umbrella and he was kind enough to give me one of his breakfast coupons so we could discuss the implications of the “Conservative Resurgence” in the SBC and how his friend and my mentor, Jim Hefley, was doing. Having found any way I could to attend the convention and cover news for the first 7 years, I was humbled at the thought I had been given the opportunity for a few years to not have to worry about funds. A friend later told me I set the pace that year for the newsroom, writing 14 pieces. Since everything related to the SBC is not archived online, I’ll have to take her word for it.)