Long ago, when I was studying in Cairo, my new wife and I spent three of our four years there living in a duplex above the pastor of the local nondenominational English-speaking expatriate Protestant church. We got along well. He was a good man, and, though he’s now retired, he went on, after our time together, to do wonderful humanitarian things elsewhere in the Middle East and beyond — including supervision of the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem, a project of the Lutheran World Federation located not terribly far from BYU’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. My wife and I often babysat their kids, we sometimes attended their Easter and Christmas events, and we sang in the community choir that met and performed at the church. (Our two major undertakings were Vivaldi’s Gloria and Schubert’s Mass in G, pieces that I still love passionately).
We never spoke about religion, though. Which surprised me just a bit. I think perhaps that he feared jeopardizing our friendship. (It wouldn’t have.)
Finally, though, when my wife and I and our newborn son and he and his family were all about to leave Egypt, he approached me to ask whether I might be willing to come over to their place — we had moved away for that last year — and answer a few questions that he had about Mormonism. I was, of course, more than happy to do so.
It was a good conversation. I remember it going on for roughly four hours. I thought that I had satisfactorily answered all of his questions, and that everything was fine. But then, as we were about to break it off, he asked a fundamentally important question: ”Wait a minute,” he said. ”Do you really mean to say that, between the death of the apostles and Joseph Smith’s First Vision in 1820, there was nothing at all of any value in Christendom? Nothing?”
I was a bit shocked at the question. A bit disappointed, too. I had hoped that not only what I had said that night but our entire four years of experience together — including our joyous participation in those devoutly Christian works of Vivaldi and Schubert, and our attendance at his Easter sunrise services and his Christmas pageants — would already have answered that question.
Plainly, though, it hadn’t. So I answer it again now, pretty much as I answered it then:
Absolutely not! There were genuine saints during those intervening centuries, wonderful men and women who did much good. People I hope to see in heaven. (My uncertainty concerns myself, not them.) Augusta Victoria Hospital itself can stand for a very long line of Christian institutions and individuals dedicated to providing service to the poor and the suffering. There was much truth and light during those centuries, as well. The monuments of faith created during that period in music, literature, philosophy, theology, and architecture still move and inspire me. And I can add now what I could not have told him then: My youngest son bears the middle name Thomas because he was born on the anniversary of the death of St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest and most brilliant minds in history. I would not have given my son that name had I seen no value in anything between the end of the first century and the second fifth of the nineteenth.
Posted from Park City, Utah