How does the thirteenth child of a Chinese Buddhist mother and an Evangelical Southern Baptist father become a believing Mormon? The correct answer is “By the Grace of God.”
Memories of my childhood typically evoke visions of tobacco rows and cotton fields and working among many, many African Americans, being mesmerized by Negro spirituals and vacation Bible schools and the smells of honeysuckle and magnolia trees amidst poverty beyond imagination, beyond even the imagination of my contemporaries.
Education had no particular value in my family—most of my siblings barely made it through elementary school. There were no high school graduates. My father had no formal education, could barely write his name, and my mother was educated mostly in China. I was somehow different from my siblings, not particularly reverent in my attitudes, prone to trouble-making and rabble-rousing. When the new pastor made a call to our home, my father would humorously (I hope that it was humorous) indicate that he had twelve children and me!
I read a lot—mostly from books that I made up. I would cut words from Sears and Roebuck catalogues and make my own books. While my family slept, I would sit in a closet with my head covered with a bed sheet and, by the light of a flashlight, read until I fell asleep. I discovered the small local library when I was about six or seven years old. I would walk three miles nearly every Saturday morning and haul a load of books (and discarded newspapers and magazines, given to me by Mrs. Taylor, the librarian) home, and would rather read than eat. Books fueled my imagination, and let me travel to distant countries while being my own tour guide.
I learned to read very early—around three—but there were only a very limited number of books in our home: a Bible and a Webster’s Dictionary, both of which I claimed. My mother was a very reverent, respectful, but sad woman (sadness is a much sought-after Buddhist characteristic—it helps one to deal with the many losses in life), but was a good mother. My father, a religious man, always knelt for his personal prayer before retiring each night, and there was always grace at mealtime.
More often than not I would hear him say in times of tremendous difficulty that “God is good.” The statement was somewhat incomprehensible to me because it was made in bad times as well as good times.
Grace was introduced so early in my life that I thought Grace was an actual person—Grace made all the difference. We are saved by Grace. The Lord’s Grace will take us the last mile of the way. Let’s say Grace before we eat. Let Grace light your way. There were so many Graces in my life that, by the time I was in elementary school, I was always asking questions about Grace.
The Gospel entered my life as one of the many “kiddie baptisms.” I fully embraced the Gospel as a teenager because it offered hope—not just hope for a better life away from this small town in South Carolina and away from poverty but for the promise of a Gospel-centered life of meaning, of service and contribution.
I graduated thirteenth in my high school graduating class, which numbered just over a hundred. And, by the Grace of God and the help of a local minister, I enrolled in a little Methodist college in South Carolina. The college was a work/study school.
The first year I worked forty hours a week as a mechanic and took a full course load. I loved books, so English was a natural major—until a wonderful not-so-wonderful professor, Dr. Cecile Taylor (interestingly enough, she had the same last name as the town librarian who supplied me with books and old magazines and newspapers) entered my life and told me that I was good but not “damn good,” that I should find a profession where I could make a living, and that, if writing was really my “gift,” I could do it later. So, back to the drawing board: English (too late, I already had most of the degree done), math, psychology and French—this last option was more for entertainment and for hope that, someday, I would at least visit Paris (and I wanted to be prepared).
From the little Methodist college, I moved to BYU (by this time I had spiritually matured a bit), then to Virginia Commonwealth University and the Medical College of Virginia, Loyola University, and the University of Utah (I seemed to be killing myself by degrees). After being trained and licensed as a psychologist, I practiced for nearly thirty years, managed academic appointments, and did a bit of publishing.
I am most often asked how I managed to survive the anti-religious bent so characteristic of the mental health professions, and my usual response is: C.S. Lewis. I am confident that I could not have survived graduate school without him. In fact, some weeks after reading Sigmund Freud and Albert Ellis, I felt that a disbelief in God was a prerequisite for admission to the profession. But somehow, C.S. Lewis provided relief, perspective, and belief. The experience of Gospel truths was more sustaining for me than food. And in a profession where change is much sought after, I experienced changes in me as I observed the epiphanies in others. On more occasions than not, changes in a patient’s countenance preceded a change in a patient’s heart. How soon I learned that willpower was simply not enough (I actually authored a book by that title), and that for many people lasting change came by acknowledging that there was a force outside oneself that was able to resolve, lift, and bring peace to troubled souls. How quickly I learned that my skills could facilitate, could direct, but that only God had the power to heal. I watched that healing come through the psychology of gratitude, the psychology of forgiveness, and the psychology of sacrifice or service. And how quickly I learned that the Gospel of Jesus Christ embraces all truth, whether it comes from the scientific laboratory or the revealed Word of God.
Though I spent my earlier years treating a variety of individuals, men who struggled with gender issues were assigned to me because my colleagues preferred not to provide care for them. Later, I treated these men because I wanted to. For nearly four decades, I watched these men with gender issues make profound changes in their lives as they discovered their spiritual identities.
While maintaining my interest in the mental health profession, I felt directed toward pediatrics and children and was offered the position as the President/CEO of Thrasher Research Fund, an organization that provides grants to premier researchers all over the world to cure diseases and improve the lives of children. For more than ten years, I have traveled to many countries to observe how research supported by the Thrasher Research Fund has blessed the lives of children and their families. From the countries in Africa to those in Central and South America, to India, China, Australia, and New Zealand, and to the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United Arab Emirates, I’ve watched the faces of the children and am so often reminded of my father’s words “God is good.”
I see His Hand in the goodness throughout the world. More importantly, I see His Hand in my own life. I know that He lives. I see his goodness in my life and in the lives of those around me. I take solace, even in difficult times, to know that He is in control of all of this. Perhaps I could end this testimony of sorts with sharing with those who might come across this personal statement some of the truths that I have discovered. They include the following:
- There is no struggle for which the Atonement is not sufficient.
- We cannot sink lower than the arms of the Atonement can reach.
- God loves us just the way we are; however, He does not leave us that way. He wants us to become like His Son and He has prepared a way for us to do so.
- When storms arise in our lives, we often ask the Master to reach out His Hand to calm the trouble waters, and, sometimes, He does. Other times, He allows the storms to rage and He reaches out His Hand and calms us. Either way, we can come to know and feel His love.
And finally, His Grace will light our way—and we are more apt to follow that light if we strive to have His image in our countenance.
A. Dean Byrd, PhD, MBA, MPH, is the President and CEO of Thrasher Research Fund and is a member of the University of Utah School of Medicine Faculty, with appointments in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine and in the Department of Psychiatry. In addition, he is Adjunct Professor, Department of Family Studies, also at the University of Utah. He was trained at Spartanburg Methodist College, Brigham Young University, Virginia Commonwealth University and Medical College of Virginia, Loyola University, and the University of Utah. He has lectured in many countries throughout the world, including in Israel (Bar Ilan University, Hebrew University, and University of Tel Aviv), Poland (University of Krakow School of Medicine), Democratic Republic of the Congo (University of Kinshasa School of Medicine) and the Ivory Coast (Ivory Coast School of Public Health). He has authored six books and more than two hundred peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters, book reviews, and opinion editorials on family-related topics. He is married to Dr. Elaine Byrd, Professor of Elementary Education at Utah Valley University. They are the parents of five children.
Posted March 2010