Each Summer Mormon youth participate in Youth Conferences. In my day these were primarily fun events mixed with religion. Now, they tend to be heavy on the religion mixed with a little fun.
Anyway, My 14 year old son’s stake is doing “Pioneer Trek” for their Youth Conference this year. It is basically intended to be a reenactment of the Mormon pioneers’ trek west. It is intended to give the kids a hands-on idea of their legacy and hopefully instill in them the same sort of faith and commitment to Mormonism.
I was asked to write a letter that my son will read during some alone time on this trek. The instructions included for parents to share their testimonies with their youth. Obviously that’s an odd request for me. After some pondering this is what I came up with.
What do you think?:
I was asked to write you a letter for your Trek adventure and to include my testimony. It obviously puts me in an awkward position; the testimony I have is not the testimony they anticipated me sharing….but I also have no desire to rain on the fun experience you’re probably having. So I won’t. I feel somewhat trapped and limited in what I can say to you anyway (It’s funny because I started writing this the day after we had a really good talk in my bedroom that day when I told you the very same thing).
I’m not so concerned about what I say, but more about what you will actually understand.
Experience with others tells me that almost anything I say along those lines will be perceived the wrong way. I know how one-sided and black or white things appear to many within the context of how you are being raised. But my experience tells me that life is not really like that. There is instead a beautiful frontier of colors and bright shades of grey to enrich our lives.
So, by default my approach has been to love you and your sisters unconditionally and leave everything else out of it.
So if there’s one take-way from this letter that I hope will remain with you forever it’s that I love you no matter what you think, believe or do.
I firmly believe that in the end my unique testimony is firm and good so I’m still going to try to address the issue I’ve been asked to share with you in the gentlest way possible. I hope one day when you are ready you will have follow up questions for me and that we really can talk honestly, openly and lovingly.
It’s a bit ironic that you’re on a pioneer trek because the purpose of such an activity is to keep you close to the church, keep you “safe”, discourage you to stray from the gospel, and to solidify your spiritual commitment to the path of your birth. But that’s the exact opposite of what a pioneer is.
Our Mormon pioneers were actually renegades, rebels even. What they did was dangerous both physically and spiritually. Not only was the trip hard, they also left behind heartbroken spouses, devastated mothers, angry fathers, confused sisters & brothers and other family members and friends in the east as they pursued a new path, a new religion…something that they had come to believe as the truth.
Others looked on them with condemnation, judgment and derision calling their chosen lifestyle evil and immoral. They were considered foolish by their contemporaries and fallen by the family members they had to leave behind. Those family members who stayed safely behind in the east were entrenched in the religions of their birth and true to the standards they were raised with. The Mormon pioneers are the ones who turned their backs on all that tradition and teachings of their fathers.
I hope you can understand how amazing and difficult such an effort is. The church is right to memorialize true pioneering efforts such as that. Such a history is one of the very good things about the Mormon Church. Yes, it took a lot of faith, endurance and determination. It also involved a lot of tears, doubts, and loss. There were others in the east who didn’t or couldn’t make the trek west but who self-righteously looked upon the Mormon pioneers as lost, immoral souls. What made them pioneers was that they did the unthinkable anyway; they traveled the unpaved roads and turned their backs on everything that should have meant something to them according to the traditions and religious standards at the time. They put their wives and children in danger and many of them died for it.
I think I know how the pioneers felt and what drove them to do what they did because the path my life has taken also included a dangerous leap of faith. It involved a lot of judgment and derision from others who prefer to stay behind in safety and tradition, rather than try to understand. Exactly like the pioneers, I have chosen to place newfound truth about life above the safety and comfort of what was given to me at birth and expected of me thereafter. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life…and still is.
The pioneers knew one truth: that it is not about what others think or call you. It’s what you answer to, what you believe in your heart. It took me a long time to figure that out.
They knew that they believed in something powerful and they couldn’t pretend or deny it. Their lives were honorable according to what they knew at the time and I’m proud to have that in my history.
It may or may not surprise you to learn that like the pioneers I’ve had many powerful spiritual experiences in my life going back at least to when I was your age. I always felt them as warmth in my chest, a deep love for my family and a burning desire to be a better person. They are good and powerful. Sometimes I felt these at church, in youth conference settings much like the one you’re having right now, on my mission, while reading the scriptures, praying and while bearing my testimony. I also felt them at times while doing none of those things, alone in my room, in the mountains, attending a play, in a class at school, while reading a book, listening to music or talking intimately with a close friend. A few times they were incredibly powerful. They have always been special.
It also may surprise you to know that I still often feel these feelings. I say “surprised” only because I myself was surprised that I still felt them. They were taught to me to be only for the “worthy” and that they were indicators of what is true… but the context in which I have felt those very same feelings would not qualify under those conditions or standards. While I’m confident that I am a man of integrity I’m still not “worthy” by Mormon rules and the feelings I’ve felt clearly contradicted “gospel truths.”
It is apparent that they are good, special feelings – something that we should strive for but that my interpretation and understanding of them was off. I understand them differently than I did before but I still honor them. They mean that I’m experiencing love, peace, power and compassion…not that something is true in and of itself.
The spiritual feelings of love and peace that led me to choose to go on a mission at 19 are the same ones that much later in life helped me acknowledge truths about myself and about the religion that I was raised in. And it is those same feelings that led me to turn my back on the safety of what I was taught and to face the vast frontier of what I knew to be true in my heart.
THAT is the legacy of pioneers. It is the courage to leave. It is the faith to begin.
It is not giving up when everyone else thinks you are crazy or immoral or foolish.
It is knowing what to keep and what to leave behind. It is knowing when to embark.
This poem is written by a somewhat well-known Mormon poet. I heard her recite it in person once and it touched me deeply as it spoke to me of my own journey in life. I hope it helps you put your current pioneer trek into context:
Pioneersby Carol Lynn Pearson
My people were Mormon pioneers.
Is the blood still good?
Truth flew by like a dove
And dropped a feather in the west.
Where truth flies, you follow
If you are a pioneer.
I have searched the skies
And now and then
Another feather has fallen.
I have packed the handcart again
Packed it with the precious things
And thrown away the rest.
I will sing by the fires
Out there on that uncharted ground
Where I am my own captain of tens,
Where I blow the bugle,
Bring myself to morning prayer,
Map out the miles
And never know where or when
Or if at all
I will finally say, “This is the place.”
I face the plains on a good day for walking.
The sun rises and the mist clears.
I will be alright
My people were Mormon pioneers.
Son, you are a courageous young man and so I know when you discover your own vast open plain in life that you will have the bravery and faith in yourself to embark on it. No one can show it to you and no one can travel it for you. Pack all the precious things and throw away the rest when you find your own unchartered ground.
I’m certain that you will be alright.
All my love,