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January 30, 2016
African Voice
My Pathway to the Restored Gospel
by Imo Eshiet

It was as a fourth grader I first read about Joseph Smith and The Book of Mormon the boy prophet translated.

Awestruck, I rushed with the story to the uncle I lived with at the time. Shockingly, he dismissed the story and asked me to put it out of my mind as it was the imagination of “some crazy Americans who think they can see God.”

Although he loved me as a son, yet he was stern, so I dared not argue with him though I was bursting with curiosity to know more about Joseph, his vision, and his book. Perhaps if he hadn’t reacted offhandedly, I wouldn’t have been so fired up about what I had read.

It wasn’t quite like him not to show interest in my reading, for he actively encouraged the habit by subscribing to magazines like Readers Digest and planting these for my attention. He even registered me as a patron of the local library and introduced me to its children's section. We lived in a tenement yard with so many other families, but he would rather I spent time at the library than mix with “rambunctious children in the yard.”

Though I missed frolicking with my mates, yet I couldn’t risk his disapproval. To prevent me from pranks behind his back, he supervised my reading and had me share the information with him. Sometimes after work, he stretched out on a recliner and had me read and explain a book to him. He corrected my pronunciations, helped me deal with difficult words and their meanings, or roared with laughter when I thought he was sleeping and jumped whole paragraphs or words I couldn’t handle. Then he would suddenly stir and have me go over what I had skipped. No matter how tired he was, he always found time to review my reading.

So I was naturally stumped when he was so short fused over a story I assumed would thrill him, too. Not knowing why he was so unusually irritated but unwilling to risk his anger, I approached my teacher the next day with the story. To my consternation, my amiable teacher, who like my uncle inspired me to love reading, in turn failed to share my enthusiasm. Rather she was mad the moment Joseph Smith dropped from my lips and warned me to stick to the Bible or risk going to hell. Painting a fiery picture of hell she asked how I would love going there. Of course, I vigorously rejected the suggestion of such a punishing place.

Soon, I lost my excitement or so I thought. At the time my country was rocked by crisis and chaos, so the year with my uncle suddenly came to an end as I had to reunite with my parents when my uncle moved to another city. With spirally instability, the country soon descended into a three year civil war that tore families and the nation apart. Even when the war ended, its disruptive gale of unrest continued blighting our hopes for healing and finding new meanings to restore our fractured lives.

Despite the incredible hardship of the post war period, I weathered the storm and continued in school. It was in the course of my research later as a graduate student that The Book of Mormon fell into my hands. As a teacher of African American and Caribbean literature, I was curious about the ancient inhabitants of America before Columbus. One day a colleague who had just returned from the US shared his experience of that country and emphasized it was so different from ours it even had its own bible which dealt with matters concerning my interest.

At the mention of the book, memories long forgotten burped with such force from my mind I clearly recalled what I had read over three decades earlier. I immediately borrowed his copy and devoured it voraciously, but because the sectarian rifts and deceptions in my society and the bloody events of my childhood had jaded my religious sensibility, its sacred nature failed to impress me with the same poignancy it did in the past.

I read it as a literature text and loved its poetry. I was intrigued by the dysfunction in the house of Lehi and was stunned by the home of such “goodly parents” as the narrator describes his parents should be so unruly. The honesty and sincerity of Nephi impressed me for I too came from a close-knit family, and we did have nasty fights even though our parents, like Nephi’s, were good. The consistency of the narrative jumped at me especially the way Nephi made and kept his promise to show the reader “the tender mercies of the Lord.” This he demonstrated in his life as in the vicissitudes of his fellow migrants as they kept or foundered on their covenants.

The narrative got even more interesting as the secret combinations of the Gadianton robbers uncannily mirrored the chaos in my country. Their bloodletting and deceptions just as the failings in my society repulsed me. The symmetry of its composition apart, (the book begins and ends with a promise) I found the contrasts and dramatic tensions of the narrative quite riveting.

Nephi, King Benjamin, Moroni, and other unfailing leaders in the story memorably stuck in my mind for their quality of leadership so uncommon in my society. The convictions of Alma (and his catchy aphorism “Wickedness never was happiness”) as well as the stripling warriors of Heleman and their mothers’ force of character equally captivated me. The tenacity of Joseph Smith’s faith as Abinadi before him commanded my respect. I was outraged by the brutality of King Noah more so because his type was as common in my world as was Korihor.

However, the misgivings planted in my childhood and intellectual background blocked me from readily going beyond its literary merits to acting on Moroni’s challenge.

It was missionaries, who years later, pushed the ball behind the goal line. With their guidance, I re-read and I realized The Book of Mormon is an extraordinary gift from the past to the present. Though I grappled with pride initially as I listened to missionaries who were not as educationally exposed as I was, I went through the discussions bearing in mind Aristotle who taught that, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Thankfully that openness helped guide me to the truth I had been seeking all along.

The restored gospel answered questions that had been prevailing in my entire life. Though I had learned before now everyone was a child of God, there was no clarity about pre-mortality, the purpose of mortality and what to expect after that.

Looking back, it seems my childhood encounter was prescient.

It felt good knowing God’s plan of salvation is comprehensive and I could help redeem ancestors who had no opportunity to receive the gospel before death. Before now the belief was they all stood condemned but the restored gospel dispelled that falsehood and replaced it with the hope of an inclusive plan of happiness. Also, unlike previous teachings which divorced me from my culture, it enriched my appreciation for the beauty of my cultural traditions and added more light to the fund of my knowledge.

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