Writing was always a part of me in some form. The most significant protective factor in my childhood was: my mother was a medical librarian. I learned to crawl in her library. I learned to walk in her library. I learned to love words in her library. My children’s stories were medical journals, and my teenage adventure books were textbooks from all over the world. This was the development of my love for words.
When I was young, I copied words I did not know. I looked them up, and wrote out their definitions and examples of their usage. I made flashcards of the words, and spent hours quizzing myself. I collected words like other children collected baseball cards or Barbie dolls, and I devoured books like other children devoured hot dogs.
I was hungry to know.
I loved biographies, and read about people’s lives and what made them succeed. I studied other cultures and learned about the world as my family moved often. I struggled with current fiction, but was able to enjoy the classics from ancient philosophers to the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Victor Hugo, and C.S. Lewis.
Then I discovered poetry. The classics became my heroes with whom I was enchanted: William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Lord Byron, William Blake, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, John Keats, Thomas Moore, Sir Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, William Butler Yeats, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, E.E. Cummings, Lewis Carroll, T.S. Eliot, George Eliot, Robert Frost, Rainer Maria Rilke, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Emily Dickinson.
My teachers were random and ancient. I learned from Geoffrey Chaucer how writing can help process what one is learning or knows to be true. I learned from Mawlana Jaluddin Rumi that poetry can express emotion through comparisons in efforts to help define it. Li Po taught me that sometimes succinct phrases express most powerfully. William Dunbar showed me that even fancy words can become a lilting sing-song. Francois Villon demonstrates how to be brave enough to play with repetition for emphasis. From Louise Labe, I learned how to make my phrases cycle in rhythm with the experience I am describing. Sir Walter Raleigh taught me how to describe, and then describe further, and then describe some more. Thomas Carew taught me how to tell stories. Sir Thomas Wyatt showed me how to integrate other languages and other cultures into my own words. Anne Bradstreet was an example of how my writing could communicate to those I loved. Lady Mary Chudleigh taught me to use my head as well as my heart. Anne Killigrew showed me women could be masters of the arts. From Isaac Watts, I learned poetry is song. Ann Taylor taught me that sometimes naughty children get what’s coming to them. Khalil Gibran taught me to search for meaning, while Julia Ward Howe taught me to use that meaning to fight for justice.
I knew these names like other children knew football teams or cabbage patch dolls. For me, books were people whom I hugged by smelling their well worn pages. All of them taught me words were power, that words held meaning, that words helped express what was inside of me so that I was not drowning in my experience. Words were my lifesaver, something that helped me find one more breath and then the next and then the next. Words helped transform me from being stuck in an experience to overcoming that experience, and then finding meaning from my experience. This was my love for literature as a child.
The first thing I discovered from the missionaries was what seemed an endless supply of books in a realm into which I had never before ventured. I finished Jesus the Christ and the entire set of The Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ before we finished our six discussions. By the time I was baptized, I had read through the Journal of Discourses. By the time of my endowment, I had my own copy to study. I study them every day to gain a deeper knowledge from them. But in that moment, in the beginning, I devoured them in my hunger to understand.
Words are such a gift. For so long, words were all I had. When I was young, words were where I sought comfort and nurture and guidance. In a cold world of chaos and cruelty, words were what promised me different, promised me more, promised me better. Words were where I learned about God.
My favorite poetry is still that of Emily Dickinson. In her poetry, she discovers God through nature. It is beautiful and fun and silly and romantic, like a butterfly dancing in the summer breeze. The irony is, of course, that she struggled consistently throughout her lifetime in regards to whether she should join a church by professing Christ the way her friends urged her to do. She stood by her conviction not to, and yet continued to worship in her little world that was creation itself. It was my experience with her poetry and my love for those words which brought me to my own love of nature as a way of understanding aspects of God. It was my understanding of her story of struggling with whether to join her local church or not that laid a foundation to help me later understand the story of Joseph Smith, and those moments of struggle that brought him to pray in the grove.
It was a struggle I understood for my own reasons as I grew up.
As a therapist, I understand that no relationship is ever a “done deal.” All relationships take work on both sides, and so my later understanding of the covenant relationship made sense to me from that perspective.
When I was in second grade, my grandmother gave me a little white Bible that zipped up. It was a King James version, no longer given to children in most churches these days, but for me it was the epitome of poetry. I fell in love with the words and the rhythm and the stories. I spent hours copying verses and pasting them to my walls. I worked on memorizing them while swinging and playing outside, and then marched in circles reciting aloud once I knew them. Something inside of me knew these words were alive. Except it was not enough, and I felt guilty for thinking it seemed incomplete. Later, as an adult, tears would stream down my face as I held that same Bible—now falling apart—next to my first Book of Mormon, comparing Scriptures and feeling as if someone had finally given me the rest of the story.
As a young adult many years ago, I lived for a time with a family that participated in a religion that celebrated Mass. Something in me felt there should be some formal setting where appropriate rituals were part of our work in our relationship with God. This seemed right; this seemed ancient. This had always been, and while I understood Jesus had been the ultimate sacrifice, what of those holy places for sacred moments with God? I sensed it, but could not explain it and did not have words for it. I knew the Mass was not the answer, because I could feel something was missing, but there was something formal that felt like it was on the right track. What relief and joy I felt years later, to enter the Temple for the first time and perform ordinances in the correct way with the proper authority! What tears I cried to feel the Spirit in those moments, and to see the things I saw!
These were my experiences that helped open my heart to the understanding of Joseph Smith’s struggle for which church to join, and the hunger within me to find that true church. I understood the context: I knew about the Great Awakening from my Christian high school and my seminary studies. I knew about the traveling preachers and the beautiful sermons. I collected writings of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield and Alexander Campbell, and read the account of Joseph Tracy. I had memorized the famous thunderbolt sermons, and so understood in that way the emotions of the time. Every day as an adolescent and in undergrad, I read my designated chapter from My Utmost for His Highest. I loved history, and the historical pieces of Joseph Smith’s time I understood and I enjoyed reading avidly.
All of this is how literature helped prepare me for Joseph Smith. Or, rather, how Heavenly Father used literature to help prepare me for Joseph Smith. My love of words and my enjoyment of history combined to prepare me for already having a context for the time period and cultural issues of Joseph Smith’s lifetime. His quest made sense to me as a human being, and I could see even as a therapist how his searching was a natural and appropriate response to the context of the world surrounding him.
Through studying the history of the Church, I developed an appreciation for the way these early pioneers endured through persecution. When I read the stories of the persecution, the tarring and feathering, and the trek out West, I understood this was not a church that was mighty from its riches and abuse of power, but a church that was strong from its experiences of endurance. I understood this was not a church with its leadership so far removed from its people to understand the real world, but rather a church where its leaders were servants who communicated regularly with the people. This was not a church far removed from the trenches of real life, but a church actively involved in the everyday lives of everyone. This is a church that understood what it meant to be abused, to be silenced, to be hunted down. This was a church that understood me, as a real person, and a church that had a real human person as its founder and leader. That is how I came to love Joseph Smith.
I found the Church because of a random text one day from my ballroom dance teacher, saying he was at a job fair at his church and asking did I know of any jobs for sign language interpreters. I answered the question, but also asked which church he goes to that does such an amazing thing for so many people in these difficult economic times? He replied to me in that moment, saying his church was The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
When my ballroom dance teacher texted me the name of his church, I did not even know what it meant. It seemed like an awfully long name for a church. I didn’t even yet realize that it was the same thing as “Mormon,” or that what I thought was “Mormon” wasn’t at all. So I really didn’t know yet to say “LDS” instead of “Mormon.”
I did what anyone does who doesn’t know what something is: I googled it.
I read everything I could on the mormon.org website. My initial response to the mormon.org website was just an overwhelmed excitement. Professionally, I was impressed. It was utilizing the latest technology, it had clean formats, and it was user friendly. I got the impression that it was trying to keep things simple and clear and non-distracting, so that I could understand the answers they were providing. I kept clicking. The concepts unfolded before me, as if they had been there all along. They were words for what I had always known, always sensed, but had no language for and no guidance for how to put it into words.
The most fun thing about the mormon.org website was that they had a chat program, where I could click and then type to talk to someone and ask my questions about the church. This was so Deaf friendly! I was not having to call, and I was not having to lipread or try to understand. We were both typing, and I had the freedom to ask anything I wanted and be able to read answers I could understand. I could get on most any time of day or night and connect to someone ready to help me find the answers I was looking for and needed so badly. I loved it!
This is how I played it cool, while secretly starting my research into a church with such strong social justice as to be hosting a job fair. I didn’t ask more questions of my dancing family yet, but I started watching them really closely. What I saw was that in all of their humanity, they really tried to live what they believe with an integrity I have never known from any Christian group. I was impressed.
I became friends with my ballroom dance teacher, his wife, and their family. They gave me a Book of Mormon with their testimony in it, and invited me over to dinner to meet the missionaries. They promised no pressure from the missionaries, and that it would just be a fun dinner where I could ask questions if I decided I wanted to. I agreed, and before our dinner the next week, I read through the Book of Mormon again, – this time really marking it up with questions and underlining and references to passages from the Bible I already knew.
The discussions went so well, and I had such a good time, I eagerly accepted when they invited me to come back the following week. My formal discussions began almost without me realizing it. Jon and Cassie provided such a safe environment in their home, and the missionaries working with me were gentle and kind and funny. They all began to learn some sign language, and always kept me laughing. It was that very positive experience that helped me return each week for more. I loved the little pamphlets: Gospel of Jesus Christ, Word of Wisdom, Tithing and Fasting, Chastity; my missionaries soon realized I was devouring any reading materials I could find, so they and my friends started digging up books for me to read. This is when I read through Jesus the Christ and the set of Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ and many others people could find. I loved that the church had its magazines, so we knew what the leaders were saying and teaching. When the missionaries gave me my own little book called True to the Faith, and I saw it was a dictionary-encyclopedia type book of Mormon words, then I knew I had found the best church EVER.
But with my focus on “sincere heart and real intent,” this presented a new problem for me. I could not join a church just because they had great literature. I could not join a church just because I fell in love with their families. I could not join a church just because the missionaries were cute. I had to do some serious soul-searching, praying, and studying to discover what I knew to be true.
I parked outside the simple square building, and found which door would let me inside. I avoided eye contact with these strangers, because they did not yet know I could not hear them. Inside, I walked around the circle that is the square hallway outlining the rooms until I found where everyone was for the first hour. I was so relieved to see interpreters already set up and ready for me! Jon and Cassie and their kids saved me a seat, and so I slipped in and was ready to go.
This room that was a chapel was so soft and comfortable! It was not grotesque with art that bordered on scary, and it was not so filled with riches and fancy things that I wanted to keep my money instead of handing it over. It was simple and non-distracting. I sat on the left side, in the front, with a good view of my interpreters and what was happening behind them. There were songs, some of which were even familiar to me! Then, as Cassie had explained, instead of one or two speakers, anyone could go up and speak as they felt led to do so as part of Fast Sunday. There was communion that they called Sacrament, and it was bread and water: literally. I did not participate because I did not yet feel comfortable doing so. No one had told me I couldn’t, but I wasn’t ready.
The time seemed to pass quickly, and Jon showed me the way to my second class, Gospel Principles. My interpreters were again there, ready for me when I arrived. Jon sat with me in this class, while Cassie went to teach a class. My class was a doctrine kind of class, except it was presented in a discussion format where everyone there got to ask questions and share ideas. I was glad to see this, because I have been to churches where questions are not allowed and did not think this was healthy or good. So I was relieved to see we could ask questions, and oh! The questions I had! So many questions! Our lesson talked about the veil, and the only veil I knew about was the one that tore in the temple when Jesus died on the cross. So I had to ask what that meant, and the teacher drew on the board and taught my first lesson about premortal life. I was astonished, and pondered the implications. I felt as if the more I learned, the further away my life was before discovering the church. Everything was starting to shift, as if I had discovered the meaning some part of me had known all along, as if I was somehow settling into that “home” space I had been so hungry for my entire life.
My third hour class was with Cassie and all ladies, which I later came to understand is called Relief Society. But I called it Housewife Class. Not in a derogatory sense, or to imply that they are all housewives, or to say that there is anything good or bad about housewives. But I said that because those ladies could multi-task and get their business done like nothing I have ever seen, and then relax into a serious girl-talk kind of conversation about such deep things!
And then they asked about birthdays. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Cassie raise her hand. I started to shrivel, as much as one can shrivel in her long skirt in a new place with everyone looking at her. Cassie declared it had just been my birthday, which was true. I told them I was thirty-two, and they did not believe me. Then this woman, who was this dignified and elegant lady, clearly the boss of Housewife Class, brought to me a little fancy sack of candy for my birthday! I was so excited!
And then my heart sank.
Because it was Fasting Sunday.
And so for the whole hour of my first visit to Housewife Class, I sat there starving to death with a little sack of candy in my lap.
I thought it was cruel and unusual punishment, but otherwise my first visit to church was a success. Everyone had been very kind, and they had been welcoming without being weird. No one was pushy, and the Deaf thing was not a big deal at all. In fact, many of them knew a few signs or lots of signs! It was so neat!
That is the story of how I discovered the Church. It took me nine months to get baptized, like birthing a child. I had a lot of repenting to do, and a lot of changes to make, and a lot of heart-softening to work through. But the more I let Him work in me, the more He defined my life, and explained my history. The more I learned from Him, the more I became me. The more I studied His story, the more I understood mine.
I know that Heavenly Father loves me and knows me.
I know that His Son, Jesus Christ, lives. I know He is my Savior.
I know that the Holy Spirit corrects, instructs, and guides me.
I know that the Book of Mormon is true, and that it was translated by the prophet Joseph Smith.
I know that Thomas S. Monson is our prophet today.
I know that there is power in the priesthood.
I know that the Temple is a House of Learning, and that we can go there to enter the
presence of the Lord.
I know that as we are obedient and faithful, the Lord heals us and strengthens us to endure whatever lies ahead, so that we can accomplish the work He has called us to do.
Emily Thomas was baptized in 2009, and is currently serving her thirty-month mission with the international research team of FamilySearch Worldwide Support in the Family History Department (September 2010-March 2013). She is Deaf, receiving bilateral cochlear implants in 2010, and will always love sign language. She chooses books over television, and organics over processed. Her favorite things to cook come out of the garden she greets each morning. She observes her world through photography, and shares it through blogging. She thinks nothing is as close to flying as ballroom dancing. She enjoys playing outside, running, kayaking, and cycling. She is in love with words, and writes every day no matter what. She has two ugly puppies that enjoy sunset walks around the neighborhood lake. The best thing about Emily World is that it’s always an adventure, even when (not so) grammatically precise.
Dr. Thomas earned her B.S. in Human Development, her M.S. in Professional Counseling, and her PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy. She has been in private practice since 2004, with a focus on forensic trauma, Native American, Deaf, and inner-city childhood services. She has worked the crisis unit in a psychiatric hospital, and has worked in long-term residential care with adolescent sex offenders. She began working for LDS Family Services in 2011, with a focus on adult, marriage, adoptions, and missionary services.
Dr. Thomas is a frequent guest lecturer at local schools, the local community colleges, and community organizations, and has presented for Grand Rounds in Tulsa. She has given numerous presentations, workshops, and seminars both nationally and internationally for a variety of professional organizations. She has served on the Board of Directors for the NW Arkansas Rape Crisis Center, and on the Board of Directors for TSHA (serving the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community in Oklahoma) since 2006, and on the Deaf Advisory Council for the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation in Oklahoma since 2008. She is a certified volunteer for the Language and Culture Bank disaster response team, serving after 9/11, Katrina, and, most recently, the 2011 tornado in Joplin.
She writes a monthly Mental Health article for the Deaf community in TSHA’s statewide newsletter since 2007. Several book chapters and professional research articles for peer-reviewed professional journals are in process of publication. For fun, on the side, she repeatedly submits manuscripts to Deseret Book.
Posted September 2011