I have experienced profound passion and love. During those times I have had an overwhelming desire to sacrifice everything for those passions.
When I was 25 I had the opportunity to teach religion to college students. At the time I had been a high school teacher in Utah.
I had to work to get the appointment. There were a couple of administrators who didn’t think I was prepared enough to do it. But I kept digging.
Then it came. I was to be an instructor at the Institute of Religion serving the LDS students attending El Camino College in Southern California.
My dream had been to teach religion to college students in Southern California. My dream had come true.
After my first year I did not miss one day of work. I never missed a day of teaching.
I felt my mission in life was to teach religion to college students. The subject had to be religion and the group had to be college students. I had no desire to teach any other subject than religion.
Religion had become my passion. It was what I loved, and what I was willing to make great sacrifices for. I was an earnest disciple of religion.
The combination of college students and religion was an even deeper burning passion for me. Not only was I willing to sacrifice my all for that, I was sure I could motivate students to accomplish great things as they internalized religion.
I wanted college students to have the same experience with religion that I did when I was a college student. Religion took me in when I was struggling, was patient with me as I asked all the hard questions, and gave me a focus to release my energy.
Everything in my life had been fulfilled.
I loved religion. I loved college students. I loved Southern California.
Love and passion were at a high, and my willingness to sacrifice everything I was and had were front and center.
It was the IDEA of religion that was compelling to me. Not necessarily Jesus, or Joseph Smith (first prophet of my religion), but the idea of something bold and powerful. The idea that I could talk to God and he would answer me on anything I asked him. The idea that the world could and had been changed by religion. All of that was worthy of all my time and all my attention.
I never looked at religion as a medium for confessing my sins and being forgiven. For me religion was about hope, of being lifted up and enhanced, about visions of a world to be fashioned by young and enthusiastic minds. And most importantly, it was about me being tended to by God. It was about me being an important part of an unfolding future. It was about feeling special.
For this I was willing to sacrifice everything. If I had to die for my religion, I was ready, willing, and able. If I had to compromise on things the church fell short on, I was willing to do that. (As time passed, the only regrets I had were the compromises, but more on that later.)
I was all in.
I wasn’t interested in following; I was interested in stepping forward and leading out. I was willing to carve out my own relationship with God, and go out and build and motivate young college students. I was intensely focused on preparing young people from Southern California in going out and doing great things, of receiving an education, of being aggressive, of being in the world doing good, of being non- judgmental. “In doing good by doing well.” In putting their fears behind them, in building bridges of cooperation and understanding with people of different religions, races, cultures, and philosophical dispositions. In approaching life with joy and not taking on “easy battles for great victories.” Of not whining or complaining, of being cheerful for the privilege and honor of being alive. Of not minimizing the suffering people endure, but of patching them up with meaning and vision and inviting them to join us in any way they chose to.
I was full of passion for the mission I was undertaking.
And in eight years of doing this, I did it as well as it has ever been done in that area, at that particular time of deep change historically. It was a wild and raucous time in history. Anti-Vietnam War protests, civil rights tensions and violence, drug and sexual revolution, the Equal Rights Amendment. With all that going on, I believed I was in the right place at the right time. In one way or another, I had to confront all those tidal waves washing over the shores of traditional religion, and at the same time challenge and focus young college students to achieve their goals, while doing it with a knowledge of how powerful religion could be in their lives.
I loved active religion. I thought the passage of scripture in James was extraordinary: faith without works is dead. That was an imperative to me. Go forward, act, be confident, love life even when life is hard.
I loved the morning ocean air. It is hard to beat the beauty and feel of early mornings along the Southern California coastline.I didn’t see the world as corrupt, but as a world ready to be formed and fashioned. I saw in every college student a mirror of myself. I was born and grew up in Southern California. I lived in coastal cities the vast majority of my formative years and adult life.
I was more interested in being a college teacher than becoming a bible scholar. My gifts were in motivating students to push higher for self improvement and success in life, and of using the principles of religion to achieve that. It was so simple to me.
I was an adequate intellectual, an average scholar, a good teacher, a very good public speaker, and a tenacious builder. That was my gift, building strong student organizations that in time formed confident cultures that looked outward with anticipation to participate in the world as a religious Mormon.
My first year we signed up hundreds of students to take our classes and participate in our student organizations. I think something like 50 college students joined the church that year. I was on fire with determination to surpass that.
The next year, I became the Director of the Institute of Religion that served the students at Los Angeles Harbor College. There was no building to meet in, only a garage close to campus. So a house was purchased, and the students knocked out walls and created a classroom, offices, and a meeting place for social activities. Soon a building was built. We enrolled hundreds of students each year for four years. We participated in student body elections and community activities. Our girls entered a local beauty pageant one year, and won four out of the final five places. That seems artificial to me now, but back then I took anything that came our way. Why not? Our girls were attractive. They needed to step forward, compete confidently in the outside world. They needed to continue on and finish their education, and have a vision of themselves as individuals. It was a rare time because we also had an inordinate number of young men, a number of whom were very accomplished in athletics.
The city of Wilmington, where Harbor College was located, was full of racial tension, as was most of the country. We developed particularly good relations with the Samoan community. We developed a strong relationship with our local Mormon congregations. If we weren’t teaching at the institute, we were invited to teach classes at the local churches.
After four years, I was asked to be the Director of the Institute of Religion serving the students at the University of Southern California. Wow. What a trip. We started out with one faculty member, me, and ended up with four full time faculty members. We ended up enrolling a thousand students each semester. We taught religion over the radio. We did outreach programs. It was a gold mine. When I got there, we had about 137 students who enrolled for a class each semester. When I left, it was up to 1100.
My passion helped me overcome challenges. When you’re building things you are thrown challenges that can threaten you if you let them. During this period, I would have periodic setbacks. For example the University of Southern California charged the church with racial discrimination, and required us to give up our on campus building and move off campus. Tensions ran high and a group within the LDS community blamed me for not fighting the university hard enough. The criticism bothered me, but I never considered it to be overwhelming. Although I loathed being a part of a church that in fact did discriminate against blacks, I started the work of finding a new location. We did. We built a new institute building and went on with our work. I never considered the setback to be permanent. When passion is high, confidence follows, and with confidence you don’t notice challenges as something you can’t overcome. “It comes with the territory.” Deep passion breeds fearlessness. It’s powerful.
The Mormon Church has an impressive way of rewarding its male members. They ladle out power.
From USC I was rewarded with administrative (management) appointments. At first it was exciting. I had been rewarded. But within a couple of years the days became long. I felt like I was walking through mud.
I wasn’t comfortable as an administrator. I liked the recognition, but not the sacrifice it would take for me to feel good about my life for next 35 years. I wasn’t willing to make that sacrifice. There was no burning passion to do that. As a consequence my talent for the job never flowered (in my opinion.)
In a frank discussion with myself I declared, “this phase of my life is over.”
I could hardly believe it.
It was like going into a bad dream. Not having a bad dream, but going into one.
What’s more I didn’t want to go back to teaching. I had done my thing. I had to go forward to something new, something more challenging. Something more worldly ! !
Wouldn’t you know it, as I began my preparation to leave, I was told that “top management” was interested in bringing me to the central headquarters of the worldwide Church Educational System in Salt Lake City. I was told I would be working with a person who was later to become the most celebrated novelist in Mormonism. I was told he made the request to have me work with him. How literally true this was, I’m not sure. But it was serious enough to send the top leader out to get a better feel for me.
However, I was not swayed.
I was leaving.
A new passion was emerging inside of me. One that would prove to be more than I could possibly have imagined.
To be continued…