I had an interesting experience last Wednesday that I wanted to share. I went and sat with Sister Marsha Johnson’s mom, Lucille, while she went out to do RS stuff. I sat with her a couple of hours and chatted with her or listened to her stories the entire time. She told me her conversion story, which I’m certain you’ve heard, but she also told me lots of things I didn’t know.
Sister Lucille was born in Oklahoma, but when her mother died when she was nine, her father moved the family to Arkansas which was where he was from originally. Then, when her father died, her grandmother kept the boys but sent herself and her sister back to Oklahoma to live in an orphanage. When she was fifteen, she ran away to find her sister who was living independently. From there, she went to live with her uncle and worked on his farm, which she finally felt was home. She is 84 years old, so it was at the height of the Great Depression when all this was going on, and she in the heart of the Dust Bowl.
As so many people did, she ended up married and in California. Her marriage didn’t last, as to use her words, ‘he was too handy with his fists’, and she refused to put up with it. As a single young mother, she got a job as a police officer and worked at La Jolla guarding submarines. Her brother had taught her to shoot when she was a child, as it was their job to go out hunting and bring home meat for the table. She told me she loved guns, (there were times she wanted to turn one on her abusive husband), and was the best sharp-shooter on the whole base, except for her instructor. She could light a match at twenty paces, which Brother Ricker refused to believe was possible until he went out to prove it to himself. She smiled when she recalled how hard they tried to do it because they were not going to allow this tiny old lady to best them. She thought that maybe, perhaps they had finally done it.
She worked at the submarine base for about five years, and then decided to go back to her family in Arkansas. She traveled all across the country by herself, with her three children in tow. Then, she met her second husband, they married and moved to Houston. I think her oldest children were pretty much grown by the time Marsha and her brother, Randy, came along.
Anyway, when Marsha was a young child, the family was living in Houma, Louisiana, where she worked as the chief bookkeeper for a chain of five grocery stores. Niggling questions about the Bible continued to vex her. When she asked her pastor questions, first he said, ‘we must have faith’, then came ‘I don’t know’, until finally he said, “You know, Mrs. Johnson, you really are becoming a problem.”
That was when she started investigating other religions, but none of the pamphlets or other information her friends had to offer gave her any satisfaction. One day, she mentioned this to one of her friends who happened to be a less active Mormon (I’m certain because of her isolation) and happened to have a Joseph Smith pamphlet in her car. Sister Lucille took it to be polite and after her friend left, went to the trash can to throw it away. That was the last thing she recalled until she found herself sitting at her kitchen table reading the pamphlet, the hair standing up on her head, it so electrified her. She knew that moment it was true and told her friend as much. She begged her for more reading material, but her friend told her, “No. You’re ready for the missionaries.”
That went as you would expect, but when it came time to the family to be baptized, they told her they must drive 35 miles to Shreveport. Her friend acted her guide and escort. When they got there, they went to a specific house and into a back room which had a huge wooden box in it. It had originally been a crate in which they shipped oil field machinery, but they had painted it, I assume water-proofed it, and built ladders ‘coming and going’, as Sister Lucille put it. If they wanted a ‘real’ baptismal fount, they were told they must drive to New Orleans (on the opposite end of the state). In that crate she was baptized, as was her husband, and he baptized their daughter, Marsha. They were the first members of the Church ever in Homer, Louisiana. The rest is history, but it’s that history I want to tell you about.
As it happened, Sister Lucille was, as I said, the head bookkeeper for five supermarkets. As she required them, she would choose the sharpest and best cashiers from those stores and ask them if they wished to learn bookkeeping. Of course, they all jumped at the chance, she trained them herself, and soon Sister Lucille had a whole pool of bookkeepers working under her. One could say she was a woman of some influence.
After she joined the Church, as she put it, she ‘couldn’t keep it to myself’. She preached the Gospel to anyone who would listen, and every single one of ‘her girls’ joined the Church, as did their families. Before long, they had a branch up and running which filled her entire living room and burst out of it because neither could her friends keep the good news to themselves. As she said, she did the preaching and her husband did the baptizing.
In those days, the Church didn’t just build a chapel because it was needed. They couldn't afford it, and the saints had to share the burden and come up with a big chunk of the money. In the 1960's $1000 was a hefty amount. However, that is how much the Johnsons ultimately contributed to the building fund for their ward house. They quite literally built the Kingdom in Homer. They lived in there some years. It’s where she and Marsha ultimately call home. They eventually moved away to follow the work, but when they left Homer, their branch was well on its way to full ward status and the meeting house was eventually built. She told me that whenever they drive through, they have to see that chapel because they feel so much a part of it.
Needless to say, Sister Lucille takes great pleasure in relating this story and in contemplating just how many people she brought into the gospel. Of course, there is absolutely no way of telling just how far her testimony reached, for every single one of her girls remained steadfast in the Gospel and raised their families to do the same. When one considers how many missionaries must have been sent out into the world and how many children raised their own in the gospel as a result of their parents’ conversion, the influence of Sister Lucille and her husband staggers the mind.
And all this because one sister whose hardship and distance prevented her from regularly attending church meetings kept in her glove box a Joseph Smith pamphlet and was not to timid too share it. I asked Sister Lucille whatever became of her friend, if she starting coming back to church when they had established their branch, but she told me after she attended their baptism, she moved away and then died shortly thereafter. She never knew the results of her efforts.
But, how great must be her joy! When Sister Lucille finally meets her again, how they will rejoice in knowing the blessings they bestowed upon so many. Whenever I wonder if what I am doing is enough or if it is worth it, I consider that ‘less active’ sister and hope that there are more like Sister Lucille who latch onto the truth I try to communicate and cannot keep the good news to themselves. That thought makes all the effort worth it.
So, that’s my homily for today. I hope it inspires you as much as it has me. With juggernauts like Sister Lucille, the Gospel cannot help but fill the whole earth. Like that stone cut out of the mountain without hands, it is unstoppable.