Sunday, November 23, 2014

I am Jacqueline Swainston and I am a Mormon

The truth: choosing to be a member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints is not, nor ever will be, easy. At least not for me. Many people are blessed with perfect faith. My faith, my testimony, and my membership in this church are something that I have fought for. Something I will always be fighting for. I want to tell my story for those who are struggling with their search for truth. This is a little about my journey.

I was born into a Latter-Day Saint family. But I was not born a Latter-Day Saint. No matter how young you were introduced to the Mormon faith, you have to choose to be a member. To me being a member is more than the physical act of being baptized (although this is an important step), it is about deciding that you will dedicate your heart, your talents, and your soul to your Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. This is a daily decision. It wasn't until high school when I really started to question the "why" behind the way I acted: going to church, reading the scriptures, etc. I vividly remember reading the Book of Mormon and the moment when I first thought "what if this is not true?". That doubt, like all doubt I have experienced after, made me physically sick. After long prayers and many tears, I felt the Spirit strongly testify to me that this was good, pure, light. I remember going to church programs like Girls Camp and Education Week where we would spend so much time studying the Savior and His plan for our lives. I honestly experienced pure joy. I cannot explain how powerful those spiritual experiences have been in shaping my life. I hungered for more. Reading the scriptures, listening to church music, and praying connected with my soul in a way that no earthly thing had ever done before. It spoke to my spirit.

Then I went to college. I met more and more people from different faiths. I heard more and more intellectual arguments against not only Mormonism but God in general. The sparkle and the glamour tempted me both intellectually and emotionally.  We hear that wickedness is never happiness. But to a young girl, they look almost the same. I had many dark hours of doubt. On one hand, I knew that the gospel of Jesus Christ had always brought me happiness. On the other, I really questioned the psychology of "why" I believed the way I did.

The reason the say that the world is "loud" and the Spirit of God is a whisper is because it is literally true. We are constantly attacked with rhetoric that goes against revealed doctrine. It is literally a battlefield every day for our souls. Everything seems to be controversial these days. People seem to disagree on almost everything. For goodness sakes, it is hard to know if eggs are good for your health or not with all the "science" out there. I have learned that there is only ONE way to learn spiritual truths. It  is through the Spirit of God testifying of truth to your soul. That is the one thing that has saved me from dark periods of doubt.

To this day, there are things that I do not understand. There is doctrine that is hard for me to accept. My faith is imperfect. My testimony still growing. However, despite all my imperfections, I know that my Heavenly Father still loves me. I know that the Book of Mormon is literally the word of God. I know that the temple is the House of God. I know that if I continue to pray, continue to search the work of God, and keep the commandments that I will be blessed with more light and knowledge. In short, my soul and heart know that this is the church of God, even if my mind sometimes struggles.
I believe in Jesus Christ.

An American in London

      Upon entering the UK we were greeted by warm, smiling English-speaking people. To be honest, I was a little culture-shocked. Russian people often get a bad street rep for being "cold" and "unfriendly." I wouldn't agree with this statement; however, Russian people on a metro? That's a different story. If someone talks to you on a metro, one of two things are happening: 1-they want you to move so they have a better position for exiting or 2-they are drunk. Being on the Tube, we were bombarded with "please", "excuse me", and all sorts of pleasantries. And to make things even more strange: people actually lined up in straight, neat lines and boarded the metro in an orderly fashion. It was awkward. Additionally, the city seemed so...clean. As I was walking around pointing out the lack of graffiti and litter, I told Drew, "AND the sidewalks are so well-kept." Mid-way through this sentence, I tripped over a big pot-hole, #irony.
      The hardest thing about being an American in London is fighting the urge to speak with a British accent. I don't know what it is about their fancy word choice and pronunciation that I find so seductive, but I quickly gave into the urge. Isn't imitation is the surest form of flattery? Let's just hope any eves-droppers thought so.
      I am resisting turning this post into a detailed travel itinerary and bore everyone. I will  instead mention the highlights. We were lucky enough to attend the London Temple which was a special experience for us. Due to the lack of temple in Moscow, it has been awhile since we were able to attend the House of the Lord. In Utah, we are so blessed with temples so close to us that it is easy to not truly appreciate this blessing. This is something I have really come to appreciate. While in London, we went to Wicked and Mamma Mia. There are only three times I can remember crying because I was so happy. Two of those times happened on West End: Les Mis and Wicked. Also, I finished the Harry Potter series while riding the Tube--this felt like the best way to celebrate being in London.
      I have always been slightly off-putted by England and I have no idea where this started. Maybe I have some Boston Tea Party genes in my DNA. Upon further examination, I have narrowed down to the "royal" aspect of the UK. It just rubs the American in me the wrong way to hear about a Queen or people being knighted, A British man argued that the traditions of coronation and royalty are a symbol of how consistent the country has been through out the ages. This simple statement changed the way I viewing this nation.  London is actually a stunning balance of the old and the modern. From the castles to the iconic Piccadilly Square, the buildings are unique and timeless. Additionally,  I realized that England has given me some of my very favorite things: Harry Potter, Sherlock, America, and the Beatles. I quickly got over any faint ill feelings that I previous held and fell head over heels with London. It actually is now a place that Drew and I are seriously considering moving to.

Back to the U.S.S.R.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Penza: AKA Real Russia

Countless times I have been informed that Moscow and St Petersburg are not "real Russia." I would think to myself: Not real Russia?! Everyone is speaking Russian. I see Kvass, Red Square, and Soviet-style buildings everywhere. How is this not 'real Russia'? It is the capital for goodness-sake!"

If you can't tell--It was FREEZING!
It wasn't until I traveled to Penza, Russia (approximately 640 km south-east of Moscow) did this start to make sense to me. My husband, Drew, served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Russia and he lived in Penza for almost a year. Drew really wanted to visit his friends in the city and I, naturally, wanted to see where my husband had spent half of his mission. One hot (87 degrees!) 14-hour train ride later, it seemed that we had arrived in different country; Penza is an incredibly small city of 500,000 when compared to the Moscow metropolis that contains roughly 11 million citizens. At the train station, we were greeted by one of Penza's own, Alexey. His quick humor and warm-nature kept us laughing and comfortable our entire stay, not too mention full! He and his wife gave us ample--if not too much--food during our stay. Let's just say, I left Penza a pound or two heavier than when I arrived.  We toured the city with our native friend and he told us stories of the corruption and poverty that the good people of Penza have endured. He complained about how tax money was rarely used to fix the roads or to make sidewalks nicer. "If there is one thing that Russia will never run out of, it is crappy roads and stupid people!" he exclaimed. The obvious poverty in certain areas of the city, the elderly I saw preforming hard labor, and stories of people we met touched me in such a powerful way. Real Russia, as it turns out, has a huge population and stray cats and dogs. Also, to be "real Russia" apparently it is necessary to see babushki (old Russian women) sitting around complaining about their pensions. It is true that we do not know how blessed we are in America until we see the heart-breaking effects of poverty.

We were able to meet with many church members during the days we were in Penza. Although my understanding of the Russian language is pitiful, I felt great love for these people because I understood the language of the Spirit when they spoke. One man in particular, Sasha, after only minutes of being introduced to me, asked if he could bear his testimony with me. Drew acted like a translator as this sweet man told me of the powerful experiences he has had with the Spirit and the Book of Mormon. I was touched to the point of tears. The members I met lived their lives in ways that showed me, a stranger, that their testimonies were the most precious things they owned. They willing shouted from the rooftops the glorious message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

When we entered the train station to board our departing train, we were surprised by an older woman who immediately ran to Drew and hugged him with tears flooding down her face. It was later explained to me that she was Valentine, a woman my husband had taught and baptized on his mission. Her love for him was evident. She told me how much it meant to her that he and his companion, Steven Bolt, were persistent in testifying of the restored church to her. She told me that they should up to her house every evening almost completely frozen just to teach her.

The Spirit testified to me so strongly about missionary work while I was in Penza. Drew and I were trekking through snow/ice/slush and the freezing cold one night when I realized the great sacrifice he (and thousands of others) have made by going on a mission. Missionary work is profoundly beautiful and Christ-like. My admiration of all returned missionaries grew as I contemplated the arduous nature of missionary work. The sacrifice of time, comfort, home, and many other things in the pursuit of bringing the world His truth. A more noble cause I cannot think of.

I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to hear the testimonies of people all around the world. I know that Heavenly Father loves His children and that His gospel is spreading quickly because of the blessings it brings into our lives. Jesus Christ is our Savior and the joy that comes with this knowledge is to be shared with everyone. Penza opened my eyes to both the hardships Russian people endure but also the powerful testimonies of Russian Latter-Day Saints.