by Jenna Carson
The Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem becomes progressively dark. Walking down halls with slanted walls coming toward me, I weave slowly through room after room in a maze of death. The death of 11 million people—6 million of them Jews—feels close to me. I consider the death of people whose homes I’ve never seen, whose cultures I haven’t lived, whose religions I do not claim, whose stories I do not know, whose names I have not heard. I want to know their names.
At 21 years old, I became a Mormon missionary. My teacher in the Missionary Training Center spoke to his students in slow, accentuated Spanish. With each new sentence, his blue eyes got a little bigger, his smile, a little wider—gestures of encouragement for eight new missionaries who tried to speak bits of a language we didn’t know but would be preaching in for the next two years of our lives.
“Okay, here we go!” said our teacher. “Repeat after me! Dios—es—nuestro—Padre— Celestial.”
“Dios—es—nuestro—Padre—Celestial,” he repeated, holding out his hands and lifting them in the air, beckoning us to follow.
“Di—os—es—nu—es—tro—Pa—dre—Ce—les—tial,” we stammered, trying to stay in unison, breaking up each syllable as we went.
“Good!” said our teacher. “Next one: Jesucristo—es—nuestro—Salvador.”
“Je—su—cri—sto—es—nu—es—tro—Sal—va—dor,” we chanted. He gave us thumbs-up, widened his eyes and mouth even more, rocked forward onto his toes in preparation for the next phrase, the big finale: “Somos—hijos—de—Dios.”
“So—mos—hi—jos—de—Di—os,” we replied.
God is our Heavenly Father. Jesus Christ is our Savior. We are children of God.
Long before I became a Mormon missionary, I lived my childhood in Brandenburg, Kentucky—a small town with a population of less than 3,000.
My two younger sisters and I were the only Mormon kids in Brandenburg; the other kids
in the congregation lived on the Fort Knox military base, a thirty-minute drive from our
town. Most of my friends at school were Baptist, Catholic, and Methodist. I remember
summer days attending Bible Camp with my Methodist friends, not for any other reason except for the fact that I liked my friends and I liked going to church—any church. We colored pictures of Jesus, listened to Biblical stories, and memorized scriptures with catchy songs.
At the end of the week-long Bible Camp, we filed into the chapel and performed our
scripture songs for a most dutiful audience—our parents, who clapped for us enthusiastically—and then camp was over until next year, and that was that.
In 2nd grade, while playing after school one day with my friend, Amy, she told me she learned weird stuff about Mormons. “What did you learn?” I asked her. “Well—” she started, hesitating to tell me. I looked up from Harvey, her pet hamster, who I held carefully in my hands. “Well,” she continued, “I heard—I heard that the Mormons have more than one wife.”
I sighed in relief. “Amy,” I said gravely, “I promise you that is not true. My family is Mormon—and my dad only has one wife.”
“Oh,” said Amy quietly. “Well that’s good!”
“I don’t know why people would say things like that about us,” I said, kneeling to put Harvey in his hamster wheel.
“I’m glad it’s not true!” I said, laughing.
“Yeah!” she said. She looked at me, giggling. “Do you want two husbands?” she asked, eyes squinting in laughter.
“No way, José!” I said, and we giggled so hard we rolled on the floor hysterically until our stomachs hurt from laughing so much.
After, I went home and told my mom and dad what Amy had learned in school. They told me, for the first time, about polygamy—which was, in fact, an important part of Mormon history.
I don’t remember whether or not I told Amy.
All 4th graders at Brandenburg Elementary School took a Western Civilization class. I remember the day my teacher—a pretty, redheaded woman—taught our class about Christianity.
After writing Trinity on the whiteboard in bold, blue print, she turned to face us. “Who can tell me what the Trinity is?” she asked. A girl in the class raised her hand to answer: “The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost.”
“That’s right!” said Ms. Stevens. “The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost,” she
explained, “make up the Trinity.”
I fidgeted excitedly in my chair. I know this! I thought.
“The Trinity,” she continued, “means that The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost are
One. For Christians, The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost are the same Being.”
The same? This was not what I had learned in church. Confused, I raised my hand.
“Ms. Stevens,” I asked, “Can’t a person be a Christian and believe that God, Jesus and
the Holy Ghost are three separate Beings?”
“No,” she replied. “Christian means belief in the Trinity, which means belief in One
“Oh,” I nodded, looking down and slumping in my seat.
A lumpy sensation welled up in my throat. I put my hands in my lap and tried to make
myself small in my chair, unnoticeable. Ms. Stevens went on teaching.
After class, she pulled me aside. “I hope what I said didn’t upset you,” she told me. “If I
ever say anything that bothers you, just let me know, okay?” she added.
Embarrassed by my own emotion, I couldn’t look my teacher in the eyes. “It’s just,” I
said, “I believe God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost are three different people. And—I’m a
“I see,” said Ms. Stevens.
When I was nine or ten, I attended a weeknight youth worship service at First Baptist Church—one of the eleven Baptist chapels in our tiny hometown in Kentucky—with my friend, Clarissa. Accustomed by then to all sorts of religious services, I did what I always did: I followed along and enjoyed the service. We sang, listened to a sermon, and ended standing in a circle, holding hands, praying together.
On the way home, Clarissa’s mom drove, and Clarissa’s little brother, Jacob, sat in the front seat. A few minutes into the drive, Jacob said—as many eight-year-olds tend to do—exactly what was on his mind.
“Hey Jenna,” he said. “You’re Mormon, right?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Mormons are freaks.”
“Jacob!” exclaimed Clarissa’s mom. “Jacob!” she said again, as if in shock. “Jacob,
that’s not nice!”
“Well, it’s true!”
“You don’t say things like that,” she said, shooting him an I’m-disappointed-in-you and we’ll-talk-later look.
Jacob turned around, sneering, to face me in the back seat. “You worship Joseph Smith, don’t you?” he asked.
My throat felt swollen; my eyes burned. “Don’t you?” he repeated.
“No,” I whispered. I looked down. Don’t cry, please don’t cry, I told myself.
“Jacob, you’re such a jerk,” Clarissa said, shoving him from the back seat.
“I’m so sorry, Jenna,” added Clarissa’s mom. “I’m so sorry.”
She looked at Jacob. “One more word and you’re grounded.”
I lived in Jerusalem for a semester of college. Mount Scopus, where I stayed, overlooks the Mount of Olives and the walled city. I loved looking over the city from that place, watching the setting sun over the Dome of the Rock, blue and golden hues outlined in the sky.
Five times a day, intercoms from mosques in the city sound the Muslim Call to Prayer throughout the city, loud enough for everyone to hear. By everyone, I mean everyone. Everyone within Jerusalem hears the Call to Prayer five times a day, each day of the year.
The first call sounds at dawn. “You’ll be woken up early when you hear the Call to Prayer for the first week,” one professor told us, “but you’ll get used to it. Soon you’ll be able to sleep through it just fine.”
Sure enough, around 5:00 a.m. the first morning, I woke up to Arabic chanting projected throughout the entire city. I lay in bed, stretched out comfortably with my head propped up on my hands, and—with a sleepy smile on my face—thought to myself: So this is the Holy Land.
I liked the Call to Prayer so much that I wanted to wake up to it every day.
But just as my professor said, I got used to it. Soon the call became normal. I was sleeping in after dawn just a few weeks later.
Hearing the Call to Prayer regularly throughout the day became part of my life. Sometimes now—three years later—I go to Google and type Muslim Call to Prayer so I can hear that part of my life again.
When I visited the Western Wall for the first time and watched Jews write prayers on paper, roll them up, and place them into cracks in the face of the wall, I decided to do the same. The next time I visited the Wall, I brought a tiny piece of paper, wrote a prayer on it, rolled it up, and searched for a crevice to place it in among the thousands of prayers already lodged into the Wall’s surface.
I wondered how the prayers wear with time, if the rain every spring washes pieces of them away, making room for new prayers.
I touched the wall’s smooth face, ran my fingers along the cracks between huge stones, put my ear up to the surface—listening, as if hundreds of years of history and people could speak or sing or whisper back to me. I pressed my forehead against the cool stones. After I saw a woman beside me put her lips to the wall, I kissed the wall, too.
Of all the places in Jerusalem, I favor the Western Wall. I don’t know why I don’t prefer Gethsemane, where Jesus paid for my sins, or the Garden Tomb, where His body lay three days before the Resurrection. I love those places, too. But my intuition favored the Western Wall from the beginning.
Even now, when I think of Jerusalem, I see in my mind—first, before anything else— people standing before the Wall, worshipping Jehovah, writing prayers, reading the Torah, swaying on a cool November night, holding hands, singing, dancing, celebrating, sending hymns heavenward. I close my eyes and feel their energy.
I used to think there were two sides to the war in Israel: Palestinian (which I erroneously thought meant Muslim) and Israeli (which I erroneously thought meant Jew). I was wrong. There is no black-and-white. Humanity cannot be divided into two categories.
People sometimes ask me things like, “After living in the Holy Land, who do you think Israel really belongs to?” or, “Who’s right?”
I shrug. “I don’t know,” I say. “I think they’re both right and they’re both wrong.”
When I visited the underground Holocaust Museum, film projections on the walls showed bodies. I saw death on those walls, black and white projections of skeleton figures: half-dead, almost-dead, then dead. I wanted to reach out my fingertips and touch the bodies splayed across the ground.
I asked Why?
I heard the sounds of trains playing on speakers. I heard Hitler’s voice. I heard crowds
cheering. I heard yelling and screaming and crying. I saw maps and more maps and plans for death hanging on the wall. I saw a portrait of a man groaning beside a barbed wire fence, face halfway turned up, as if looking toward God, waiting to die.
I saw books burned, bodies burned. Burned, burned, burned. Fences.
Striped uniforms sickly yellowed, guns, men with guns, men shooting with their guns, mass graves, train tracks, bunk beds, trucks, furnaces. Burning, burning, burning.
It was the shoes. I don’t know why. When I saw a pile of shoes, I turned to a corner and cried. A friend saw me from the other side of the room, came up to me, put her arms around me.
I did not deserve to cry for people whose suffering I do not know. But I felt something for them. I wanted to touch the pictures, touch their faces, tell them: I acknowledge you.
I wanted to reach out to the blood of past generations seeped into soil, blood crying out of the dust, crying to me. I wanted to feel connected—to feel peoples’ spirits.
As I shook my head and leaned against a wall, the slowness of shock and disbelief wore off, and thoughts poured like liquid silver, quickly, poignantly into my consciousness. Maybe I thought. Maybe I can find out what it means to live. Maybe I can find out who we are—how we’re connected.
“Are you ready?” asked my friend. And we moved into the next room.
Toward the end of my work as a missionary in Florida, my missionary companion and I walked along the side of an empty road, shaded from the hot springtime sun by a canopy of big green trees lining our path.
In Wauchula—the sleepy town where we preached—time goes slower, traditions run deep, everyone knows everyone, and Mexican migrant workers come and go with the seasons. They travel with the crops, harvesting tomatoes, strawberries, watermelon, and oranges, saving money to send home to their families in Mexico.
The men work hard Monday through Saturday. On Sunday, they meet at a dusty field— more sand than field—and play soccer.
My companion and I, wearing skirts and carrying scriptures in our hands, went to the field. We noticed a young guy standing outside the fence, watching his friends, smiling. We walked up to him. “Hola,” we said, “¿Cómo está?” we asked. Hi, How are you? He broke his attention from the game, where sand, soccer ball, and brown shirtless bodies dashed around in whirls of dust.
He asked us: “Who are you?”
We told him: “We are missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
We have a message for you,” we said.
“God is our Heavenly Father. Jesus Christ is our Savior. We are children of God.”
“I think you should talk to my friends,” he said, pointing to a few guys stretched out on the grass nearby to watch the game.
“We’ve got a message for you!” we called out to his friends, smiles growing on our faces.
Their eyes moved from the game to us. We held the book of scriptures up in our hands. “This book teaches about Jesus Christ,” we said. “This book teaches that we are God’s children, that we are brothers and sisters, and that He loves us,” we told them.
Dust began to settle and the field became quieter. More people came over to join, to listen. Before we realized what was happening, fourteen people had gathered and sat in a circle around us. The soccer game had stopped.
We saw their faces looking down, afraid to show emotion; we saw their faces looking at us, nodding; we saw their hands reaching out for copies of the scriptures we carried.
Somos hijos de Dios. We are children of God.