My parents miraculously instilled a love of the Savior, the Bible, and attending church while I was young. This was miraculous because their deteriorating marriage spiraled uncontrollably downward and by the time I was 5 abuse was the ruler of our home and regular beatings harnessed my actions. Finally, my parents separated and my three siblings and I started staying at other people’s homes to help alleviate some of the overwhelming chaos in my mom’s life. Originally we were farmed out to families in our Presbyterian church because it guaranteed that my siblings and I could see each other and our mom on Sundays. Those families knew service and Christ-like love.
My mom struggled with her mental illness and occasionally became a patient of the psychiatric ward at the hospital. I would go up to the hospital to visit and we would sit in her room, play games, sing silly songs, and color in coloring books. I thought nothing of the stitches on her forearms and the white woven cloths that bound them, in some ways they were comforting and familiar. But over the years their comfort diminished and visit-by-visit I realized that I was different from other kids.
I was different for so many reasons. I was being shuttled from one home to another waiting for my mom to get better. The four of us would all move home, then move out, then two of us would go home, then three, then all out again and it continued in this way for a few years. My mom thought that she could master her mental illness and ultimately become the mother that she had always wanted to be. Shortly after my ninth birthday my siblings and I were all living at home. Things were going well but the unrest of the impending tumble haunted our house. We played quietly and carefully watched what we said. None of us wanted to move again and we thought if we were good enough we wouldn’t need to. But, one February afternoon we got off the school bus to find my mom with tear stained cheeks sitting on the couch. That sunny afternoon would plague my nightmares for years to come.
My parents were now divorced and my dad was now a convicted felon who’d officially lost his custody rights, leaving my mom to tell us that we couldn’t live at home anymore and it would be better for us to permanently live with other families. I used to think that my mom didn’t love me enough to try; I used to think that she was taking the easy way out. But maturity, experience, and the Spirit transformed that thought. I realize how defeated and dejected my mom must have felt when forced to accept that she could not give us what we needed. The church supported generosity of caring for four children eventually dwindled and we ended up wards of a private foster family organization.
At that point the roller coaster of life continued. Foster care didn’t magically fix my life; the emotional and physical abuse that I suffered didn’t cease upon entering the foster care system. Every time I moved my earthly possessions lessened, and sometimes the only possession I had to take with me from place to place was my story and my experiences. The more often I told the story the less real it became. More than a dozen families heard my story over the eleven years before I aged out.
From my eleven years in foster care I learned lessons that take some a lifetime to understand. In fact, the further removed I find myself from my childhood the more blessings I can recognize in hindsight. Living with various families was just reality for me – but it also meant exposure to customs, traditions, parenting styles, schools, churches, and doctrine. All these moves and families were preparing me to recognize the great truth when it would come. And come it finally did.
On Saturday, February 10, 1996 I found myself moving in with another family. I was registered for my third Catholic school and would start that school Monday. I stood in a new living room with my case worker being introduced to new “parents” and “siblings”. They helped me get settled and left me to spend the evening getting settled in my room by myself. The new “mother” mentioned that we were leaving for church at 8:40 the next morning and asked if I had a skirt or dress to wear.
That next morning I readied myself for another church – more new people – and more confusion. I barely knew the people with whom I was travelling and we made uncomfortable small talk on the 10 minute drive over to the church. Their other children barreled out of the car and crossed the parking lot and I found myself quietly walking behind. I stepped into the church building and was overcome by what I now know to be the Spirit. I felt at home. To feel that feeling was unheard of for me– nothing had felt like home in years. I can’t describe – nor do words adequately express – the feeling of belonging. I knew nothing of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, temples, or the Restoration. I knew nothing of eternal families – and honestly that doctrine did not bring comfort or peace for years to come. Simply setting foot into that LDS church building was enough for me and I recognized the truth easily and swiftly.
Saturday brought a new family, Sunday the Restored Church, and Monday a new school. Only one thing would remain in my life – the Gospel. At the time I was required to have written permission from my biological parents to be baptized. More miracles unfolded and I was baptized on April 27th of that year. Looking back, I envision the conversations between Elder Lightsy, Elder Smith and their leaders. I’m sure they struggled to know if they should baptize a transient 13-year old foster child and more than anything I wish I could get in touch with them now an express my greatest appreciation.
Foster care did not stomp on my spirit or smash my drive in life. I now consider foster care to be the greatest and most challenging blessing of my life – it brought the gospel into my life. That time I spent family-hopping meant “serious reflection and great uneasiness” and I will never know if I would have found the gospel another way or had I not passed through the trials of my childhood (JSH 1:8). I did not remain living with the LDS family that introduced me to the church and I wasn’t able to actively participate in the church in all of my other home placements, but I maintained my witness and felt as Paul, Joseph Smith, and I’m sure countless others and could always say “I knew it, and I knew that God knew it” (JSH 1:25). Questioning my testimony is not a trial I have had to endure, the two greatest spiritual gifts I’ve been given are the gift of my testimony and the gift of forgiveness. I have learned that forgiveness and second chances are a crucial part of this life. Despite all the hardships, I reestablished a healthy relationship with my dad before his death. Similarly, my mom and siblings still play a positive role in my life. Little by little I am uniting my family beyond the grave as well.
Joining myself to the Savior through baptism did not end my trials, bring an end to the abuse, or fill my days with ponies and rainbows. But it filled me with courage, hope, and enabled me to continue wading my way through the muck until I could make more choices for myself. I finally aged out of the foster care system, put myself through college, served a mission, obtained a Masters degree and was sealed in the temple to a loving man that is complimentary to and meant for me in every way. My success in spite of adversity is a gift from God. The peace I feel towards my parents and countless others that wronged me is a gift from God. My genuine happiness in a gift from God. The gospel enables me daily to end the cycle of abuse it has taught me that helping others ultimately helps you. I have learned that life has disappointment but is worth living. I have found peace and comfort from relying on the Savior. I have the power to choose the legacy I will leave. I marvel that I was chosen to receive this gift in my life – and though I didn’t come by the gospel along a usual path, finding the gospel – regardless the age or circumstance – is the greatest honor and privilege in the world.
My greatest current privilege is to raise our children in the gospel. Our young family (4, 2, and 11 months) brings great happiness. Through the chaos of these years I find myself sitting while we are reading our scriptures together or wrestling our way through weekly Family Home Evening and feeling that same feeling that I felt 19 years ago – I feel at home.