Beyond Mormonism: An Elder's Story
LOOKING FOR A LIFELINE
Sixteen serious-looking high priests eyed me intently from the perimeter of a horseshoe formed by three long tables set in a sparsely furnished room. My wife fidgeted in the chair on my left. On my right, Bishop Addison, charged with protecting my rights, absently drummed his fingers on the wooden chair arm.
Six high priests of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sat along each leg of the horseshoe. The stake president, assisted by his two counselors and clerk, conducted the meeting. The priests appeared to me to be as hard and austere as the oak tables and chairs, and reflected the uncompromising structure of the organization that now brought me to trial. The atmosphere produced in me a bone-aching weariness.
The stake president adjusted his glasses and studied a sheaf of papers. He looked up at me, cleared his throat and began to read.
"This duly constituted court of the Yellowstone Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," he began, "is convened to investigate charges that Elder James R. Spencer is guilty of conduct in violation of the law and order of the Church."
I was on trial for apostasy, charged with abandoning the faith. Apostasy is the most serious failing for a Mormon, and doubly grave when the apostate is, as I was, an elder—a bearer of the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood. My penalty for apostasy would be excommunication—to be cut off from the Church. In a community 75 percent Mormon, excommunication means social as well as spiritual ostracism. Excommunicated Mormons become modern-day untouchables. They lose their friends, often their jobs, sometimes even their families. I looked at my wife, Margaretta. What was she thinking?
The president recounted that I had joined the Mormon Church in 1964. As an active Mormon for ten years, I had served in many responsible positions in the Church. I had been a counselor to the Sunday school superintendent, stake missionary and youth worker. And I served with zeal. For five years I taught gospel doctrine classes for the Church, conducting the largest and most popular classes in the community. Men much older than myself—former bishops and even a stake president—attended my classes. My excommunication would be a community scandal.
Excommunication is the final judgment of the Mormon Church. An excommunicant, in addition to losing all other rights in the Church, is forbidden even to speak in church. He is denied Communion. He cannot pay tithes. If he holds the Melchizedek Priesthood, and if he will not repent, he will, according to Church doctrine, be cast into outer darkness with Satan and his angels where there is "only weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth."
At the request of the stake president, Margaretta was witnessing my excommunication. I could only guess what was going through her mind. But I knew this public humiliation was painful and embarrassing for her. Everything that had occurred in recent months had torn at the fabric of our relationship and strained our marriage.
What had happened to me was unheard of. We were stalwarts in the faith, "True Believers." We were temple Mormons, privileged to the innermost secrets of the Church. And there was no question as to my character, faithfulness or religious zeal. My enthusiasm for God, study of the Bible, duty to my family—all these had actually intensified over the last two years, so that it struck me as ironic that I should be on trial for abandoning the faith.
But because of my position in the Church, I had seen some of the inner workings of Mormondom that troubled me deeply. These had triggered some philosophical and doctrinal questions that led me, after exhaustive research, to make the most difficult decision of my life.
Now, as President Jones continued to read, and as the proceedings approached the point at which I would need to make a verbal response to the charges, I reflected on what had brought me to this time and place. Had it only been ten years since I had joined the Mormon Church? My expectations had been so high. The Church had offered so much promise, so much hope for the emptiness I had known.
No one seeing me deplane from an Alaskan jet at the Los Angeles International Airport would have guessed I was a candidate for religion. I did not look like part of any establishment, civil or religious. I stepped into the smog and noise of Los Angeles with a six-month growth of beard, wearing faded blue jeans, a sweater and sports jacket. A half-pint of scotch stuck out of my jacket pocket. Pinned to my lapel was a small sign clipped from Mad Magazine that read, "I'm not a beatnik—just a bum."
In the fall of 1964 hippies were still beatniks; the flower children had not yet invaded Haight-Ashbury; John Kennedy was gone (but not Robert or Martin Luther King); the riots in Watts were a couple months away; and the Vietnam War was still little known.
Recently discharged from the Navy, I was living life to the fullest, grabbing for all the gusto I could get. That meant women, gambling and booze, in that order. I traveled where I wanted, when I wanted.
Outside, in front of the terminal, I lit a cigarette and waited for my luggage. After three months in the clean air of Alaska, the acrid afternoon air of Los Angeles made the cigarette taste strange. I was back in L.A., all right; the automobile traffic and jet noise were deafening. From a pay phone I made a date for late that night with a girl I had met two weeks before I left for Alaska. Then I grabbed a cab and headed for Gardena.
The Horseshoe Club was alive with people when I got there mid-evening. I walked over to the chalkboard and under the "$2.OO-$4.OO" category wrote X. X. Jones, the pseudonym I always used in the card houses. Then I ordered a scotch at the bar while I waited for my name to be called for a place at a table.
Overlooking the playing floor, I watched the gamblers playing "California Draw" and "Lowball." The smoke was thick and the felt gaming tables looked like little green islands with people clinging to the edges. Some of the players looked as though they had been there since morning.
I had begun to play poker seriously in the Navy and had spent thousands of hours around poker tables. Before my enlistment was over, I was winning regularly. In fact, during the last year of my enlistment I actually made more money gambling than I did from my pay as an electronics technician.
After leaving the Navy I returned to my hometown in Wyoming and worked for a summer in the oil fields. But soon I returned to L.A., got a job in the electronics industry and spent nearly every night in the card houses. For several months I had gambled professionally, spending my full time in the card houses of Gardena and occasionally driving to Cabazon, a small town near Palm Springs where gambling was also legal.
When a spot opened up for me to join in the action I killed my scotch, winked at the barmaid and left her a five-dollar tip. Seed money, I thought to myself.
The snap of the cards from the fingers of the passive-faced dealer punctuated the serious silence of the game. With seven players, the average pot on the "2-4" tables was thirty to sixty dollars.
I fingered the heavy plastic chips embossed with the gold Horseshoe Club logo. I loved the click of them. I liked the way they handled, heavy in the hand, and how they landed firm on the foam-padded green felt. And I never lost my fascination for the way the cards fanned on the surface of the table under the deft fingernail of the winner as he unveiled his hand and raked in the pot with one smooth movement.
Nobody spoke at the tables except for an occasional expletive or phrase of complaint--"Two ladies," "Aces over," "Couldn't catch a spade. . .
Angela arrived at 10:00, right on time. I talked her into having a drink alone while I played a couple more hands. At midnight, after three warnings from Angela, I took three neat stacks of chips to the cashier. One hundred eighty dollars. After an initial buy-in of fifty dollars, I had made $130 in three-and-a-half hours.
At 4:30 a.m., I stood on the balcony of Angela's sixth-floor apartment overlooking the darkened city of Glendale. The pre-dawn air was smogless and almost fresh. In the distance I heard the night sirens. From somewhere below, angry voices worked their way into the night sounds of the city. A glow in the sky marked downtown Los Angeles five miles to the south.
I was home. At least, I wanted to think so. But I remembered that I had left L.A. in the spring looking for something I hoped to find in Alaska. At first I had been overwhelmed by the quiet beauty of the green-black shores that unfolded as the S.S. Puffin plied the dark waters of the Gulf of Alaska. But I was looking for something beyond beauty and solitude, something more than a few months away from the city. I was looking for something deep inside myselfa hungry longing for something I couldn't even name.
Standing now in the pre-dawn light on Angela's balcony, peering over the dark city, I remembered the pre-dawns I had spent leaning on the lifeline of the Puffin watching the phosphorus swirls in the dark water. Watching the black line of the horizon, smoking in silence, thinking. I was looking for something, but what was it?
I recalled nights spent in Anchorage bar scenes that blended with scenes from bars in L.A. and Acapulco and Manila and Hong Kong and San Pedro and Norfolk. I had traveled over half the world, from Central America to the Orient, from Maine to California, from Mexico to Alaska. I had looked into life, but I had a nagging suspicion that I had not really glimpsed it. Though I pursued life with youthful gusto, I had to admit I did not really feel alive.
Much of my life was an act--keeping up a macho front for my friends. Outwardly I tried to appear tough and sharp and self-assured, but inside I felt disappointed and lonely. I wandered and drank and read and played my guitar. And I wrote of my feelings in poetry I never showed anyone:
Loneliness comes in the strangest of places,
In a sea of laughing, unfriendly faces;
Or with wind and rain at midnight.
During the past summer on the Gulf of Alaska I had grown restless, realizing that something was missing in my life. I was experiencing a growing weariness. Some nights, making my way in the dark along the lifelines as I headed for my bunk, I would listen to the rhythmic spray of cold water on the wooden hull of the Puffin. Staring out into the blackness I could almost feel a cold call, like some diabolical whisper from an alien world, drawing me.
That same summer I had read an editorial in Look magazine written by Erich Fromme. He said Americans were empty people trying to satisfy basic needs with chemicals and experiences. Fromme spoke of people who pumped alcohol and tobacco and drugs into their bodies and grabbed at illicit sex in a futile attempt to find satisfaction. At least for me, Fromme was right. I found myself, along with millions of other Americans, saying in the words of the rock song, "I can't get no satisfaction." For me life was becoming a meaningless trip. Everything seemed flat and pale.
As I continued to stare into the night from my perch above Glendale, I reached into the pocket of my jeans and extracted a wrinkled letter. It was from my old friend Lee. We had gone to high school together. He now lived in Palos Verdes, a peninsula sticking out into the Pacific near Los Angeles.
It was a strange letter. One line in it haunted me. "Jim," it read, "I have found the truth!" Lee said he had had a religious experience that changed his life. He wanted to talk to me about it.
Lee and I had spent many long nights trying to make sense out of our existence. We had talked of God, but reached no concrete conclusions as to how we really fit into the universe.
I had studied religion and occult phenomena all my life. I read every religious book I could get my hands on. I studied Catholicism and read Thomas á Kempis' Imitation of Christ. With a Buddhist girlfriend in Yokosuka, I studied Nichirensho-shu Buddhism (Soka-gakkai), chanting the "namu Myoho renge-kyo." I read all of D. T. Suzuki's works on Zen Buddhism. I was into hypnotism and ESP. I had been a serious student of hypnosis since the age of twelve. I had developed occult expertise to the point of being able to recognize colors with my fingertips.
But learning did not fill my emptiness. Spiritual knowledge did not satisfy my inner longings. Something was missing. I was growing discouraged with the prospect of ever finding meaning for my life. I was beginning to believe that the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre was right—that man was alone. That he had no past and no future. That religion was simply an attempt to escape the responsibility of living with the truth: When all was said and done, man is absolutely and finally alone.
Lee had always been important to me. He was the brightest, toughest guy I knew. If I would listen to anything anyone had to say, it would be Lee.
On the other hand, I was skeptical. What Lee was telling me seemed incredible—all the more so since I was familiar with the religious group Lee had joined. In fact, when I first got his letter I thought he had gone off the deep end, become a religious fanatic. My old buddy, my highly respected intellectual friend, had joined the Mormon Church!
Lee and I had grown up in Wyoming-Mormon country. Although I had never looked closely at Mormonism, I was sure that if any religion held the answer to my problems, Mormonism was not it. But his letter sounded so different—so sure, so sincere. Lee told me he had found "the truth." His search had come to an end. And he invited me to come listen to him.
So now, standing on the balcony overlooking Glendale, I had mixed emotions about visiting Lee the next day. Yet I had known from the moment I got the letter that I would listen to what Lee had to say. I would even give him a fair hearing. I was desperate. Something had to happen in my life, sooner than later.
Stuffing the letter back into my jeans, I crushed my cigarette on the metal railing and returned to bed.