Friday, 11 May 2007

Entry 4 - The fireside and Grant Howard returns

I had been looking forward to Monday morning. Ordinarily, this was never the case, but I was excited to tell people about my Sunday. And tell them I did! My friends were the first to hear all about it, and I still did not know what they made of it all. There was a part of me that thought I'd make them jealous, as silly as it sounds now. The fact that I was doing something that none of them would dare to, or be allowed to for that matter. My small group of friends came from pretty strict backgrounds, one coming from a devout Catholic family. That is not to say that my Mum and Dad could not be strict. When they needed to, they were more than capable of putting the old foot down, but as I have said before, they allowed me the freedom of expression and the freedom to learn things for myself. I may not have been then, but today I am grateful. My Mum once said that she always tried to give me room to express opinions, but that I always took more room than they had intended. Probably true!

Nonetheless, I was enjoying my first day back at school after my day with the Mormons. I made a point of discussing it in front of Mike, my not so pally classmate. It really bothered him, which although I could see, I couldn't understand why? I also told people that I was no longer drinking coffee, which wasn't technically true at the time as my Mum had still to go shopping for some chicory, but the intention was there. However, I decided that at this stage, it may be " clever " to drop a hint in my Religious Instruction class that I may not have to attend shortly due to my new "religious beliefs". I didn't get very far with that suggestion though, but it was enough for the R.I teacher to add his words on the subject. Something along the lines of being careful and not to rush into anything. It was a fair comment.

The following day was to be yet another visit from Crane and Finchley. As usual, I was well prepared and my Mum resided to the fact that they were here for at least an hour. My Dad was out, probably bowling at the local club. My Mum had clearly lost her interest after Sunday. I knew it wouldn't be long or more importantly, wouldn't take much, for her to stop the whole thing in it's tracks. She had gone though and bought some chicory Monday afternoon, and to her credit, was drinking it herself. I liked it, my Mum was more take it or leave it. But she agreed to give it a try and when the elders arrived that evening, she offered them , for the first time, a cup of chicory, which they accepted.

The visit was very different to the previous ones. I think they may have been aware of my Mums declining interest. Because of this, much of the visit was spent reading from the Book of Mormon and Bible in a way that seemed to be justifying a lot of the Mormon beliefs. Scriptures re-enforcing their laws on not drinking coffee and tea etc. My Mum, unbeknown to me, had spent a little time reading some of the recommended verses in the Book of Mormon, but this had done little to answer her underlying feelings. I think she , like me , didn't believe or disbelieve it, and that was where Finchley and Crane were missing the point totally. So Mum spelt it out for them. She explained that she didn't feel comfortable trying to live as a Mormon, she felt that she could never rise to the level that they appeared to be at, and in truth, didn't want to. She did though raise an interesting question relating to heaven which she had picked up from the Book of Mormon. It seemed that according to Mormon belief, there was not one heaven, but three, and that only Mormons would ever live in heaven number 1 and be amongst God. This only added to her earlier comment of this image of "almost perfect" that the Mormons have and that she believed other good and clean living individuals should also surely have an opportunity to be in heaven with God too. Elder Crane explained that they believed in the three levels of heaven and that God resided in Level 3, the highest one. This is where law abiding Mormons would go. But the other two levels had some worthiness about them, but on a lesser level. Level 2 for example, Jesus Christ would visit from time to time, and people who perhaps did not have opportunity to hear the word would go. Level 1 was where sinners and those who chose to ignore the word would go. He went onto to explain about Perdition too, adding that Mormons do not believe in the "hell" commonly perceived by many. It did little to convince my Mum. I remember asking about missions again. Would it be that if I didn't go on a mission, I would not get to level 3? "No" was the reply from Finchley, a mission was something that you were called to, not forced upon you, as I had heard before . That was good enough for me
"Baptisms for the dead " was another topic sitting uncomfortably with my Mum, for those unaware, it is the practice of baptising dead people who did not have or rejected the opportunity to receive baptism in this life, so that they may move on in the spiritual world, without a baptism, they would be unable to start this journey. My Mum felt this was interfering with things best left, I could see her point, but I also understood the elders explanation, which was pretty much as I have explained above. It was a gift according to the elders. It was at this visit I realised that although I knew fairly little about the doctrine in the Mormon religion, what I did know seemed very plausible. Just as plausible as what I was taught in Catholic school from age 5 to 11.

The visit ended in prayer and Elder Crane telling us that tomorrows' fireside was going to be at Brother and Sister Sternburgs' house and not with Sister Meiring. Nothing serious, just a change of plan, the elders would fetch us just before 7 o'clock tomorrow evening. We were told it would last about an hour or a little after that. Crane explained that tomorrow would be informal, a short lesson and reading and then a general discussion amongst family and friends. They reminded me that Paul Meiring would be there, so I had someone my age to talk to.
"Whoopee! ", I thought. Paul was a nice kid, but a good year younger than me, nevertheless, we were going.

The elders left and my Mum and I had a chat. Peter, my brother, joined us and starting asking a lot of questions, all innocent, but at this stage he still found it all amusing. My Mum was slowly getting to the point when it would be over for her, so I decided to put the question to her that I had been thinking about in the back of my mind for a couple of days.
"If you stopped going to the church, can I still go if I want to?"
She was hesitant, but her answer surprised me at the time. She said she wouldn't stop me from seeing the elders or going to church if that's what I wanted, she didn't believe they lived bad lives, that they were good people, just too good for her. She felt the elders in particular were good men, that they believed in what they believed and were true to it. She wasn't sure if my Dad would feel the same. She asked me if I would be O.K going to church on my own if she decided to stop. I said I was fine with it, I would like it if she went with but I felt comfortable with the elders, like they were friends, and after my first visit I had met so many decent people, I was sure I would have a lot more friends too. I asked her afain if she was going to go on Sunday, she didn't know.

It was the evening of the fireside, and we were on our way to the Sternburgs. We had seen them on Sunday as Crane had pointed them out to us, but we didn't actually talk to one another. It was a short journey, 5 minutes if that. The first thing I remember pulling up outside their house was what a mess it looked like from the outside. All sorts of building material lying everywhere, Finchley explained they were having building work done. Robert Sternburg had his own business, I don't remember what it was, but wife Carol worked with him too. They had a son, Sammy who was about my brothers age and he was a junior BMX racer. They had not been members that long, a year or so possibly, I tell you this because it had been said to us that the Sternburgs were a really great family. Family, as had been said, was so important to the Mormon religion, so I was curious to see this one in their home.

Upon entering we spotted the Meirings, mother and son together. Rachel Gorman was there too with her little boy. Elder Finchley went and sat next to Rachel, and I sat next to him. My Mum sat with Crane and the Meirings and the Sternburgs were scattered around the room on single chairs. The inside of the house was equally as messy as the outside, but understandable with the building work going on. I was still wondering why this fireside had moved location though.

The religious aspect of the meeting consisted of Crane giving a little talk, we prayed and that was that really. Nothing heavy. We had a drink of chicory (some had rooibos tea) and we chatted. My Mum seemed to be quite fine chatting to Sister Meiring and Crane on the long sofa, sipping her chicory very slowly - so I was chatting to Elder Finchley and Rachel. It was more than apparent that Finchley and Rachel were good friends. I wasn't sure what to make of that, I classed Finchley as a friend too, he had that sort of personality about him. Rachel had known him a few months longer than me, so it seemed OK to me that they should be close, but it was something about Rachels' face. I may have only been 14, but even I could tell when a girl had a thing for a guy, and she did. It was the way she looked at him, they would hold hands occasionally, Finchley doing it in a comforting way not a dating scenario, but I was convinced she felt something more for Finchley.

Then in the middle of all this chat, something quite bizarre happened. Carol Sternburg was sat on the floor in front of an empty single chair and Finchley had got up to grab something to eat from the side table, on his way back, Carol invited him to sit down with her on the empty chair which she was sat leaning against, he did, and Carol remained sat on the floor with her head between Finchleys legs . It was a little astonishing to say the least. Finchley sat with his legs slightly apart on this chair, and the married Mrs Sternburg was almost wrapped in his legs, leaning back. The oddest thing about the whole thing, was only 1 other person looked as stunned as I felt, my Mum . To everyone else, this seemed perfectly natural. Rachel seemed less stunned as unhappy. Finchley had a very coy smile on his face as Carol and he chatted .I could not make head nor tale of this.

Meanwhile, Robert Sternburg had began chatting to my Mum, about his business etc and how he considered becoming baptised into the church one of the best things he ever did ,the church had always been there for him and his family. Paul Meiring and young Sternburg were playing about and I had a chat with Elder Crane.

We left about half past 8. Before being dropped off, the elders wanted to confirm if they would be picking us up on Sunday. My Mum said she wasn't certain. She struggled with her reasons but the upshot was she had tried, but it wasn't for her. There was a brief exchange between Crane and my Mum, to which end, my Mum said she would see how she feels later in the week. "Would Marko still be going?", asked Elder Finchley.
"Yes, I want to go", I replied.
My Mum was getting out the car and I followed after saying my goodbyes.

Inside the house, the conversation quickly turned to tonight's events. My Mum was more than amused,almost gobsmacked at what had gone on between Carol and Finchley. She had said it was "weird". I sort of played it down, I figured this was not the time to be making a meal out of something that could affect me going to church on Sunday. My Mum also now saw that " thing" I thought I could see with Rachel and Finchley, again I downplayed it by suggesting that maybe Rachel enjoys Fichleys' company, she was a single mum after all. My Mum did not like all this familiarity though. Looking it at the whole Finchley/Carol Sternburg thing for what it was,
it could be said it was just friendly interaction between two adults! That though, in my mind, was too friendly. Especially as he was a missionary and she a married woman of 30 something with a 10 year old kid. I wish I could have taken a picture, it would have explained it more than any words I could use to describe it. Perhaps, this was the way the Mormons behaved around one another, perhaps it was normal to them? No one died, so in the great scheme of things , it was unimportant, but nonetheless, telling!
We talked a while about things, my Mum was not certain if she was going back on Sunday. She told my Dad about the evening and he reminded us that Mormon men were big womanisers , they had more than 1 wife for years and wouldn't be surprised if they still did.
He suggested maybe it was time to put a stop to it, that we had give it a try and that it wasn't for us. I said that I still wanted to go irregardless. I don't think he was best pleased. He went on to say that he was getting tired of having to go out or disappear just because the Mormons were coming round. I suppose I understood this, but I suggested he sit in and listen. He wasn't interested. He explained that he a has cousin in England who was a Mormon, and that he knew all he needed to know about them. Fair point! By the end of the evening thought, my Mum had come to the decision that she was not going to carry on going and that maybe I needed to think about everything too and decide if this was what I really wanted. I wanted to stop up a little while and carry on talking, but it was fast approaching ten o'clock at night, and tomorrow was a school day. Generally speaking, this was my time to head for bed, but I felt like I hadn't said all I wanted to say, so I carried on. I wanted them to see and understand, it was too soon to be saying "Goodbye". I enjoyed myself on Sunday and wanted to go back again. I knew what I was doing. I reminded my Mum that she had said the elders were good people . Surely, if I was with good people as she put it, what harm could it cause?
In the end, I was going on Sunday and my Mum, it would appear, was not. Dad was still not happy.

The rest of the week went by pretty unspectacular. At school, Mike had decided to bring another pamphlet in about Mormons. This seemed to concentrate on " things you didn't know about Mormons". I think I read as far as that and handed it back, saying that I wasn't interested and I didn't appreciate it. I told him to go away, not quite in those words, but I was starting to get annoyed. The attention it seemed to create in the beginning was now turning to ridicule from others. Other lads in the class had decided to have a laugh at my expense over this, that Mormons were weirdo's , part of a cult etc... My mind was made up though , I was going to carry on with it. Admittedly, by Thursday I was suffering from headaches, my Mum put it down to not drinking coffee, it was my system. I was, by then, into my third full day of not drinking coffee, I was really getting used to chicory and did not miss coffee one bit. My Mum was back on the coffee, she was seriously missing it and felt there was no point in carrying on with chicory. "How can drinking coffee be wrong?", I can remember her asking.

I was fully expecting my first second visit to the church to be on my own, as in, no Mum. I wasn't that pleased in truth, I would have preferred my Mum being there, although I felt like they were people who made me welcome and created such a fuss over me I wouldn't really be on my own anyway, but it was still new and 2 of us would have been better.
However, we received a surprise visit late Saturday from the elders. Both looking very casual and relaxed, without the usual suit and tie. My Mum let them in and called me from outside where I was messing about on my bike. My Dad was out bowling and Peter was out playing with some friends. They apologised for popping round unannounced, but wanted to see if my Mum was going tomorrow . She had intended to tell them in the morning that she was not going. They were eager to remind my Mum that tomorrows service would be different from the last weeks as it was the first Sunday of the month, which meant a change to the normal service. It was testimony hour(or words to that effect). they were both keen for her to be there, but would respect whatever decision she made. They also told her that she not wish to go, they would still take good care of me and make sure I had a lift to and from church. My Mum opened up. She explaned that she thought they were good people and she appreciated all their time and that she would allow me to carry on going as that was what I wanted, but she felt she would be wasting their time if she carried on. She felt like she could not be what they were. She also said that she had a husband who she wanted to spend time with on a Sunday too. That seemed it.
But far from it. Elder Crane, who my Mum always felt was her "favourite"gave a really heartfelt sort of speech. And, in all honesty, after hearing it, I understood why my Mum felt Crane was a " genuine person". In short, he told my Mum how impressed he was with her , her ability to listen and understand, her willingness to come along last Sunday and on Wednesday to the fireside, the fact that it was not a " family " thing with my Dad not being present must have put her in an awkward position and he understood it, but he felt she had come so far and he would be sad if she didn't carry for a little while longer, she was not a failure for having these feelings and that she was a good person (which is accurate). He said that she did not have to be what they were, she was herself and an individual, he went on to say that he was not perfect and often slipped up and made mistakes, this was part of life, and my Mum should not feel inadequate.
Whatever the words, whatever the reasoning, it worked. My Mum had a change of heart and was now going tomorrow. I think in truth it was part Crane, part my soft Mum, part me hoping she would go.
Crane added that Brother Howard would be pleased as he was looking forward to seeing my Mum again. I smiled to myself! Finchley then spent a few minutes talking to me. He knew I was keen to go, so he didn't need to convince me, it was more a "how are you and how are things going" chat. I told him about the stick I had been getting at school in the last few days, he said that many people my age had that problem, but not to let it get in the way of my beliefs. It wasn't my beliefs that were under attack though, it was my pride. My stubborn pride. I hadn't really gained any beliefs yet, but that was best kept to myself.

Sunday arrived, we were well on our way to church with the Elders. My Dad was" disappointed" to say the least that my mum had changed her mind. But so is life. She knew what she was doing and I think he felt better about her being there with me, than me on my own.
I took my Book of Mormon with me for the first time, I had wrote my name in the front page and dated it. Marko Adam Slade - March 1987 it read.

We arrived at the church and it was only on my second visit did I learn that in fact there were 2 services. One set of members held their service from 9 - 12, the second 10 - 1. As we were going into the chapel for the main service, the early group would be starting their second hour of Sunday School, this amazed me that there were so many members. Apparently those who lived in a certain close proximity to the church had their service early, allowing those who had a little further to travel to attend at 10. Something like that anyway. Again, we were greeted by an army of people as we approached the main entrance. Brother Howard made a lightening bolt approach to my Mum, calling her Sister Slade (it sounded like a rock group when he said it ). It tickled me. Jamie Farraday and Harvey McKinley came over to say hello, as did Paul Meiring and his mum. We spotted Rachel pushing a pram into the church and waved to her. It was a very welconing feeling. I felt like people were genuinely pleased to see me and it was a good feeling. Sarah Howard , Brother Howards' daughter came over to me too. We had a really nice chat, she told me that she was on a mission in England two years ago, she knew we were originally from England, but wasn't sure what part. I told her all about my hometown, she said she loved England and especially missed a lot of the music.

We slowly walked into the chapel and again it was filling up with people. I spotted Craig Hindley on the backrow with Shane and Carla Robertson I tried to see how many people I still recognised and how many of their names I could remember. We took our seats with the Elders. Up on the front podium was Bishop Robertson and sitting behind him Elder Jackson, the American missionary. 15 minutes into the hour, having had a brief talk from the Bishop and Elder Jackson, members were invited to come up and bear their testimonies. It was a mad rush. Half of the chruch stood up and made their way to the front podium area, by the time they had sat down, the benches up at the front were full. A few familar faces had gone up. Brother Sternburg was there, Brother Howard, Sister Meiring and one man in full army uniform!
I then remembered who this would be. Grant Howard, His Dad had told us he was coming home this week and we would meet him on Sunday. Also making his way to the front was Elder Crane. I was curious to hear what he had to say. This was all new to both my Mum and I. We realised how new it was when Sister Ida McKinley got up first. I will never forget it. This was Harvey and Gretchen McKinleys' mum. She had the sort of face that looked permanently " hard done to". As she got nearer the podium, she began to cry. I wondered what this was going to be about. She began. So did the tears. She had a Scottish accent. She beagn to thank God for helping get over an extremely difficult week in her life. The difficulties turned out to be something like a leaking washing machine and arguement with her husband. I kid you not. She went on to say that it took all her faith and strength to carry on, and she thanked God over and over again. Was this what testimony hour was all about it? As it turned out, not. She was a one off. As the other members got up and spoke, I realised there was some seriousness about the practise. I actually found it fascinating. Listening to people bear there inner most thoughts and beliefs. However, the person I was most impressed with was Grant Howard. When he got up to speak, an even quieter silence broke out. He was only a short man, but the manner in which he spoke and what he had to say was impressive. Confidant, but not arrogant, pleasant, but not false. Clear and to the point. As he walked back down to his seat after speaking ,my eyes followed him back to his seat. He sat with his family and I could tell already that this was a good group of people.
The first hour flew by,as we got up to walk out, Brother Charles and Grant Howard came over to my Mum and I. He introduced himself and shook our hands. I knew instantly that this was someone I was going to like. He walked with us outside to have a chat. I asked him about his uniform, he told me he was seving his national service, if I remeber correctly, he wore it to church as today was his pass out, he was not staying for the remaining 2 hours as he had to leave to attend this. His fiance Caryl was going with him. She was a member too, very quiet girl, but sweet. I asked him about the army and he told me a little about it, he told me about his mission which he had done before doing national service. He said he would be involved a lot with the youth as from now, he had been elected as some sort of youth leader within the church, so he would be happy to see me at some of the events he would be organising. Crazy golf was mentioned (called put-put in South Africa) - which I loved. I enjoyed talking to Grant and we shook hands before he left. I was looking forward to seeing him again next week and already thinking about going to some of the youth meetings during the week.
Up till this point, everyone I had met within the church I found welcoming and kind, well, Craig Hindley apart. This to me was great. Today however, I had met someone who was not only all of that, but someone who was going to have a huge influence over me, more than I could have imagined on that Sunday, when I first met Grant Howard.

NEXT TIME: New friends and old habits