Former Baptist Church Member
"Paying It Forward"
By Kerry B. Harding
On January 5, 1985, in response to a request by
his mission president, Elder Jeff Keeney of Tempe, Arizona sat down
in his apartment in the Chevy Chase Chapel to answer this question,
"Describe the most spiritual experience of your mission." Pausing a
few moments, he began to write:
“It began last December, early one morning, when
the phone rang. On the other line, we heard those wonderful words,
“Hello, I've got a hot one for you, Elder!” Elder Sackley, the head
of the Washington Temple Visitors Center, had someone who wanted to
be taught the Gospel.
Several days later, I met him for the first time.
He portrayed the image of an intelligent-looking businessman who
carried an attaché case and was sharply dressed.
Each discussion was uplifting and spiritual, but
also, an intellectual, verification of the clearness of the restored
Previous to our teaching him, he had purchased
many books about the doctrine of the Church. He knew a considerable
amount about the Church's teachings, but ran into a lot of
Often he had questions typed up ready to ask us.
After the discussions, we often felt mentally and physically
drained. Our final appointment was dinner at his apartment on
As we talked, we felt impressed by the Holy Ghost
to bear testimony of the need for him to humble himself and pray and
ask God whether or not the things we had taught him were true. He
agreed to fast and pray on the upcoming Sunday.
The next day, while on exchange with another
missionary,, I stopped in at the Visitors' Center for a moment, and
Elder Sackley asked to talk with me.
We went into a room and there was our businessman
investigator who said right out, “I want to be baptized tomorrow!” I
was speechless at first from shock, but then quickly said,
I will never forget his baptism and the keen
effect it had on my life. As he went down into the water to be
baptized, it brought tears of joy to my eyes. As I left the baptism
that night I felt as though nothing in the world around me could
bother me and I could bask in the spirit of this experience for many
months. As the scriptures say, “My joy was full.”
Jeff Keeney was not just a good missionary…he was
a GREAT missionary…and he wasn't just a great missionary; he was MY
missionary…and the investigator he wrote about...the very last
baptism of his mission, was me.
How did I go from being an anti-Mormon member of a
protestant denomination to being absolutely certain that there was
only one church with the authority to administer all the ordinances
of the Gospel and that mine wasn't it?
It began with a man named Bob Heightchew, a
supervisor who, 20 years ago, motivated me to sit down for my first
missionary discussion by his love, his example and his patience,
leading to my conversion and baptism. When I first found out he was
a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I was
He was smart, handsome, funny, athletic and
immensely well-liked by everyone around him. He just didn't fit the
stereotype of what I thought at the time was a member of a
non-Christian cult. Over the weeks ahead, I decided I would rescue
him and convert him to my faith. I asked him to attend my church. He
accepted, with the condition that, in return, I attend his.
He came to mine. The service was uneventful. The
day I attended his ward in Virginia happened to coincide with Fast
Sunday. The service was different than any I had ever seen.
Unplanned and unscripted, member after member
walked to the pulpit and talked about the importance of the Savior
in their lives. At the time, I thought to myself, "For a church
that's not supposed to be Christian, they sure are spending a lot of
time talking about Christ.
" The verse kept coming into my head, "By their
fruits, ye shall know them." If I was wrong about this aspect of the
Mormon Church, was it possible that I was wrong about other things
The chink in my "armor" was exposed. Later, my
friend's simple invitation, “I'd like you to come to a fireside at
my home next Monday,” would transform my life and change its
Before I was baptized at the age of 30, my
philosophy of life could best be described by the popular phrase,
“It's all about me.” Armed with an architecture degree and an MBA,
everyone told me I was on the fast track. Every girl I dated, every
party I attended, every friend I made was guided by one question:
“How will this help my career?”
I was materialistic, shallow and selfish. Busy
climbing the ladder of success, I couldn't be bothered with the
needs of those on the rungs below.
I was stubborn at first. I thought I could pick
and choose what doctrine to believe and what to reject like an a la
carte menu. Gradually, I realized that I needed to humble myself and
pray for God's will in my life. Getting to that point alone was the
biggest hurdle to my progress.
The missionaries and I had many intellectual
debates about the Gospel. Eventually, every major question I had had
was resolved and they asked the question, "We have taught you
everything you need to know. What you do now is up to you."
At first, I knew what I should do. The more I
thought and prayed about it, I finally knew what I had to do and, on
New Year's Eve, 1984, knelt down, alone in my apartment to pray to
know whether or not I should join this church.
My answer came immediately and the physical
sensation was exactly has it had been described it would be. The
following Monday, I asked my friend Bob what he was doing the
When he said he didn't have any plans, I asked him
how he'd like to go to a baptism. "That'd be great," he responded.
"Whose?" "Mine," I said. "Harding," he asked somewhat bewildered,
"You're getting baptized?"
It turned out that, just the day before, his wife
asked him if he thought I would ever join the church and he had been
pretty skeptical. What a difference a day makes!
After my baptism, things changed. My coworkers, in
learning of my baptism, first accused me of converting just to get
in good with the boss. However, they saw that I no longer drank
coffee at meetings or martinis at after-work happy hours. They
noticed that I was becoming less of a jerk and more concerned in
helping others succeed around the firm. I went less and less to
parties after work and more frequently to church activities… not
because I was expected to, but because it made me happier to be
around people who wanted to become better.
How did my family take my conversion? Though they
lived in Indiana, they expressed their concern that I was making a
huge mistake. Would this peculiar new faith of mine make me seem out
of place when we got together?
Would it monopolize my time so much that there
would be no room for them in my life? Gradually, they came to see
that, my joining the church made me a better person in every way
-kinder, gentler, happier, and more patient, generous and loving
toward them than I had ever been before.
Furthermore, the Church's focus on genealogy
increased my interest in and attention to my extended family and my
desire to learn about their life stories and family histories built
bridges of friendship to relatives with whom I had never had much in
Though none of my family has yet to join the
church, they have a great deal of respect and admiration for it.
A couple of years ago, my mother told me that, in
her Methodist Sunday School class, they were discussing "Mormons"
and one participant remarked, “Everyone knows they're not
Christian.” Normally one to keep quiet in situations like this, my
mother turned to this woman and said,
“You know, my son is a Mormon. I've been to his
church services many times and I think that they are probably much
better Christians than we are.”
In December 2006, I turned fifty years old - half
a century here. As I look back on all the decisions I've made along
the way, I sometimes wonder what my life and the lives of others
around me would have been like had I not knelt down that cold New
Years Eve in 1984, to pray to know for myself whether or not the
things that missionaries had taught me were true.
My life, as it is now, simply would not have
existed. My wife, my children, my career, my friends - all would be
different because they have been inextricably connected to my
decision to become a Latter-day Saint. The lives of many others
would have been different as well.
Shortly before he left Washington to go home to
Tempe, Arizona in 1985, I said to Elder Keeney, “How can I ever
thank you for what you did for me?” Jokingly he replied, “I don't
know…maybe you can name your first born son after me.
” 20 years later, our first-born son, David
returned last October after having served as a missionary for two
years in, ironically, Tempe, Arizona.
During David's time there, among the 16 people he
taught and baptized, was a prominent Arizona artist named John
Burton. A direct descendent of Mormon pioneer John Taylor, his
grandparents fell away from the Church and he was raised as a member
of another faith.
While taking a shortcut across a cotton field one
day, David stumbled on to John Burton, painting in the desert. They
struck up an unusually close friendship and later, David would teach
him the lessons that led to his baptism. This past September, he and
his wife were married for eternity in the Arizona Temple and they
now have a son.
In another example, last year, George Waskiewicz,
the leader of a white supremist gang, met my other missionary son,
John, while at a dinner appointment in the New York New York South
mission one Thursday evening.
Elder Harding clicked with George and shared a
spiritual message that resonated with him. That message led to an
appointment, which led to a series of discussions. John would later
learn that this missionary had been baptized on December 4, 2005,
and became, as I did, and were married for eternity in the
Washington, DC Temple.
The endings of both of these stories are yet to be
written. I have a lot of stories like that…that's why I love this
Gospel so much. I love being a part of the great, exciting work of
helping to spread it to “every nation, kindred, tongue and people.
” Along with that, I have gotten just a taste of
what the scripture means “And if it so be that ye should labor all
your days and bring just one soul unto me, how great shall be your
Through working with the missionaries in the
Washington DC Stake as a ward mission leader, I have had the chance
to bring not just one soul, but several. For all you missionaries
who have served, are serving and/or will serve around the world, I
want you to know that I know what you have sacrificed to be in the
mission field…and why. I love you. I respect you. I admire you. You
are my heroes.
To those of you who are currently meeting with the
missionaries right now and wondering whether or not you should join
this Church, let me tell you that I know that, if you really want to
know, and will pray to know for yourself, your Father in Heaven will
answer your prayer just as surely as he did mine.
In the two decades that I have been a member of
this Church, though I'm far from perfect, I have become a better
father, husband, brother, son, friend, and employer.
The Church has given me the perspective that
helping people is way more rewarding than having things. Knowing
where I came from, why I'm here, and where I'm going is much more
important than having power and fame. In a city where these last two
come and go with every election, my security…my rock…is knowing
that, thanks to the Temple, I can be with the people I love
I know that Joseph Smith is a prophet whom God
prepared to find, translate and publish the Book of Mormon to
testify of Jesus Christ. I didn't always know that.
But as I have studied the scriptures, historical,
archeological and scholarly works, common sense alone says that
something this complex could not have come forth through any other
means than through God.
The more I have learned, the more I have gained a
better understanding of the Apostasy and know that Joseph Smith was
guided by God to put in place all those important components of the
church of that somehow had gotten lost through the centuries.
And that the authority to act in God's name was
given to him and has continued unbroken since then to a living
prophet today named Gordon B. Hinckley. I know that I have a
Heavenly Father who knows me…who loves me…so much that he sent his
son, Jesus Christ, to be my Savior. By following him and keeping his
commandments, I can live in his presence again someday. That seems
like a pretty good deal.