One sunny autumn day in late September of 1968, in Ealing (of all places) I was sitting in the living room of a fairly pleasant downstairs apartment in a privately owned house, sitting and waiting. Waiting for something to happen. Not watching anything, nor reading anything. Just sitting and looking out of the window. I saw two tall young men of about my age, in their twenties maybe, walk up the path. They knocked on the door.
When I opened, they asked: Do you now anything about the Mormon Church?
No, I replied.
Would you like to know something about the Mormon Church?
Yes. – Would you like a cup of coffee?
No, thank you.
No, thank you.
What do you drink ?
And we all laughed.
That first time they came, they told me a strange story about a young man named Joseph Smith, who had had a vision. They read from a book. Joseph Smith had seen God, the Father and Jesus Christ. In America. In 1820. I was not convinced. It could have been any man and his son who appeared to him, couldn’t it? They persisted in their task. And they gave me a book: The Book of Mormon, and committed me to read the first fifty pages. I agreed. At this stage, there were two of us being taught, me and a neighbour. But she soon dropped out. She came to the killing of Laban in The Book, and anybody who could say that they had been commanded by the Spirit to kill… This was not for her.
True, that was a difficult one to swallow. I continued reading, not always understanding, but true to my commitment to read the fifty pages, which included the Isaiah chapters. Often as I read, I would fall asleep. The subject matter was so heavy, so deep and overwhelming, it just had to be true.
The Elders Hacking and Rasband came back at regular intervals, every week possibly or maybe more often and kept introducing me to more new principles. Once they made an appointment and I waited and waited, and they did not show up. I was deeply disappointed. Almost affronted. But they promised to come another day.
They showed me a slide show called Meet the Mormons., which was interesting enough. Still not entirely convinced but willing to listen. After all, they came to visit me, and spoke to me of important matters, not just small talk, which was not my thing, anyway.
One question they asked me: Do you believe there was a falling away, an apostacy?
Do you believe a restoration is necessary?
Yes. I am waiting for it.
They turned to each other with raised eyebrows.
Another question they asked: Do you believe we need a prophet in our time?
Yes, absolutely. If ever there was a time or a need for a prophet, it must be now!
Well, Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and he was martyred for his testimony.
At this point, the Elders felt the need to make me listen to a tape called Profile of a Prophet. Hugh B Brown gave this particular talk. By the end of the tape, I was convinced: Joseph Smith was a true Prophet of God. The work he accomplished in his short life of thirty-nine years, in the space of less than twenty years from receiving the golden plates, translating them, having the result printed and published, under dire circumstances of being persecuted and imprisoned under false pretext; the establishment of the Restoration and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, guiding the Church in its infancy; receiving revelation, traveling and preaching and much more, was a testament to me then.
Now, I was the one to ask: What is a testimony?
You have one, they said. Knowing that something is true.
Then they presented me with the Word of Wisdom.They came with a tin of Pioneer, a coffee substitute. This was my introduction to health foods. This was also an introduction to the idea of having to be clean to receive the Holy Ghost, the possibility of receiving guidance, which I desperately needed in my life. Yes, I wanted to be able receive the Spirit in my life. So no more coffee, no more tea, no more alcohol and no smoking. While they were with me, I did not indulge in any of these.
Would you like us to take your pack of cigarettes with us?
No. Leave it. I want to be able to choose…
So they left them on the table. As soon as they walked out the door, I went purposefully to the kitchen, made a whole little ritual of tea-making (which I had not done before:)); took my cup of tea with milk and sugar, picked up my packet of cigarettes and lit up. And inhaled deeply, and took one sip of the tea. And promptly felt awful. Sick to the stomach, nauseous. I poured the tea down the drain, stumped my cigarette, and vowed not to touch the stuff again. And haven’t since. I have a powerful testimony of the Word of Wisdom.
They also spoke to me of the pre-existence. I already knew about that: knowing that children come from somewhere, born with a perfect knowledge of perfect love, forbidden to talk until they have forgotten, so that we may learn to walk in faith… And learn to love. The Elders spoke to me of eternal marriage, of a life after this, of the Plan of Salvation, although I did not know that that was what it was called. This life was a place of learning, preparatory to meeting our God… All of this made sense, and was not all new to me, but a confirmation of knowledge received by intuition…
They also taught me of the divinity of Jesus Christ. This was crucial. I had always thought that Jesus was a Prophet, whose teachings were true and revolutionary. As in “Love thine enemies”, and “Thou hast committed adultery in thy heart”. As they taught me, I realized that not only were His teachings true, but I was able to accept His role as the Divine Redeemer, and the power of His Atonement for all mankind; that He had suffered and died for me and my sins; that He was and is my personal Saviour, in a way I could not quite understand then, and still have trouble quite understanding now. Except now I feel forgiven, and strengthened, and at Peace.
Then came the time for me to move forward. I asked: Would it not be possible for me to try to live the commandments for a year – without being baptized?
Wisely, Elder Hacking made me stand up and take a step over an imaginary line, which was absolutely necessary to prove my faith. A trial of my faith.
Was the Church true? I pondered and prayed and cried a lot in the following days. If it was not true, then there was no harm done: I could just leave the Church whenever I wanted. The second baptism would be invalid, too.
I had a dream: I lived in North London and had to make the journey to South London, carrying a baby in a blanket, a blue blanket. I managed to drop the baby in a kind of Roman outdoor theatre, down the steps. But I picked her up again and went into a wine shop (?) There was a commotion outside, a manifestation in the sky. I rushed out, still carrying the baby. Then I looked down at her and asked her: Have I fed you?
I realized as I spoke, I meant ‘nourished’. Spiritually. And she replied, very clearly: No.
Then I woke up.
A date was set. 23 November 1968. Before then, I had to meet with the Mission President. I had proudly told of my African ancestry. ‘My great-grandmother was black!’ I did not see how this could be a problem. But an interview was necessary. So we took a rather long drive to meet the Mission President, who then explained to me that people with African ancestry could not receive the Priesthood; that my sons would not be able to receive the Priesthood. By a huge gift of grace, I accepted that. If all the rest was true, then this must be true, too. It was not possible to pick and choose one’s commandments or principles. Was it? As I said, I cried a lot, but I was willing.
I was baptized on 23 November 1968 as planned, with six Elders present and an elderly sister from the Hayes Branch, not Ealing, but close, to help me get clothed after the immersion. Elder Rasband baptized me and Elder James L Hacking bestowed upon me the gift of tthe Holy Ghost.
‘Cherina Norah Schaer, Receive the Holy Ghost!’ Pronounced loud and clear, and penetrating every fibre of my being. ‘The Lord is pleased with your decision to enter into the fold, to be baptized.’
I was baptized but not truly converted. I enjoyed the Church, learning something new each week, at every meeting. Meeting many wonderful people, enjoying the mix of age groups amd generations. Eventually being involved, activated, called to serve in Primary (the children’s organization). Bishop Bateman took good care of me and taught me often. Being single and of black ancestry was not easy. Bishop Bateman came to my home and taught me.
‘There will come a time when the Negroes will receive the Priesthood, and you will be able to enter the Temple. Be sure to be ready for that day. It would be a pity if you were not able to because of your own unrighteousness. Live the commandments until then.’
As it was, I applied for my Patriarchal Blessing. The Patriarch was Joseph W. Darling. He told me that ‘all the blessings of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would be mine because of my heritage’ and ‘that I would enter the House of the Lord, there to receive my blessings’… My joy was immeasurable…
When was I truly converted? The story is not over. I feel like the apostles of old, when Jesus asked them: Will you also leave me? And they replied, Where should we go? Yes, indeed, where would I go?
~ Cherina Gohjerta, as written by her daughter, Joanna Bjerga. (Thanks Joanna!)