The following interview with Peka Holmes was first published by the Mormon Women Project in August 2013.
As a wife and mother in a part-member family, Peka draws on the inspiration of her mother — who was also a “single parent in the gospel” — to support her husband as he learns about the Church and teach her daughter what she believes. Issues of race have proven challenging for her non-white family, and Peka discusses how much she appreciates member friends who embrace her husband for who he is and not for what they want him to be.
You’ve said you think of your mom as being a “single parent in the gospel”. Why do you say that?
My parents were both converts to the church as young adults and they actually met on their missions. They were called from California, but they were both called to go back home, which is Samoa, to serve. They served along each other for a long time. But they didn’t date or look at each other like that. My mom always emphasizes that they didn’t date on their mission! Six years after they served my mom was writing Christmas cards to her family and to the people that she served her mission with and one of them was my dad. At the time my dad had already joined the military. He was in the army. When he received her letter he said, “Hey, I’m away on assignment but I will be home for my R&R and when I come home I want to take you out.” So that’s how they started dating and eventually they got married.
They got married in American Samoa and there is no temple there so they just had a civil marriage. The temple is in Apia Samoa, Western Samoa so they weren’t able to afford that so they just got a civil marriage. Shortly after they got married they were stationed in Fort Knox, Kentucky and that’s where I was born. But while my dad was in the military he fell away from the gospel, he fell away from the church. He started drinking and smoking, cussing. You know, the military life just brings that out in some people so he fell away. So growing up I never knew my dad to be a member. I knew he used to be a missionary but I never saw that side of him. All I saw was the inactive side so I basically grew up without my dad going to church. My mom was constantly faithful and took us to church. We sat in sacrament meeting. I always think back at Merrie Miss activities, when it used to be called Merrie Miss and when they would have daddy daughter days. I wished that my dad was there. There was one time we were sitting in sacrament meeting and we were kind of early. My mom looked at me and my sisters and said, “Wouldn’t it be so great if your dad was sitting up on the pulpit in the bishopric?” And I just kind of looked at her and laughed. There was no way. I still remember that because, even though my dad had struggled with the Word of Wisdom and his way of life was the way it was, she still had that faith that one day maybe her husband, our dad, would be up there. That he would come back.
Did you feel like church attendance was a source of tension in their marriage? Was she disappointed and frustrated that he didn’t live up to what she thought he was?
Yeah, definitely, because she knew what he was before. When he served his mission he was so strong, and so active, and so when she saw that he fell away and fell so far away it disappointed her because that was not the man that she married.
But she still stuck with it.
Yes. She said, “This is too hard and too important of a thing to give up on.” She never gave up.
When my youngest sister was nine years old, we were sitting in a Family Home Evening. We would always have Family Home Evening and my dad would sometimes be in the room or sometimes be present but not participating. But my mom held it faithfully. Well, my little sister was nine but she wasn’t baptized yet. And she looked at my dad and said, “Dad, I am nine years old, I am your last daughter, I am your last chance to basically get yourself together and baptize me. Baptize at least one of us.” My other sisters and I were baptized either by home teachers or missionaries because my dad couldn’t do it. I think when she said that, it triggered something within him. My mom had been working on him for years, but it was different coming from one of his children.
After that, I started to see the payoffs to my mom’s faithfulness: everything she had done to keep faithful and have faith in him that we would be together forever one day. He got himself together. He got a calling. He was able to take the sacrament again. He baptized my sister, which was amazing! And then not too long after that my dad took my mom to the temple and married her. And then us children were all sealed to them. We were sealed on August 11th, 2001, right before I left for college.
A year or two ago, my mom had to write a church talk on marriage and she asked me for my help. I was like, “Mom, you have been married 32 years, why do you need my help? I’ve only been married 7 years!” But my mom she didn’t graduate high school, so sometimes she feels a little insecure when it comes to things like speaking in front of people or having to teach a lesson. I told her I felt really strongly that she should talk about her own marriage. I felt that there were ladies out there who might be in the same situation and could learn from what she and dad went through. As I was helping her, I said, “Mom, thank you!” And she looked up at me kind of puzzled and said, “For what? You’re the one helping me.” And I thanked her for the example she was to me, because by watching the way she loved and had patience with my dad, I know now that I can do that with my husband Matt, who is not a member of the Church. I told her, “I think you had your experiences for me, because now I have somebody that I can look up to who didn’t give up. I can see you as someone to encourage me. Marriage was something that was so important to you, you didn’t give up on even when he seemed so far away.” That’s kind of where I’m at now.
When I was Relief Society teacher, I tried to always share something personal about my own part-member marriage, because I didn’t realize it at the time but there are so many sisters in my ward who are in the same boat. I don’t have a husband who is a member so I feel like a single parent when it comes to the gospel sometimes.
How do you talk about that with the other women in your ward? I know growing up with an inactive dad myself, people made a lot of faux pas with my mom. She was forgiving and understanding enough to sort of brush them off, but are there any suggestions that you have for people to be more understanding and inclusive of women in your position? Is there a way of treating your husband that doesn’t always make him feel like he is a service project?
Yeah, a lot of times he does feel like a service project. The first thing you do when you meet somebody is say, “So, how long have you been a member?” or we always bring up something from the church because that is our commonality. We have some friends who, when I told them that my husband was a non-member, they didn’t look at me like, Oh poor you! They were like, That’s okay, we’ll have him come over, we’ll have dinner, we’ll talk, we’ll get to know each other! They connected on something more than just the church. They connected on music and that’s what my husband does. He teaches music and he is a musician.
So they made an effort to really find something outside of church experience to connect with him?
Right! Which I totally loved! And usually Matt, my husband, is hesitant when I say there’s a church couple that wants to get together because he feels like he is a service project or they are going to question him about the church and that makes him feel so uncomfortable. He just wants to go and relax and enjoy and talk to people. But these friends totally make him feel comfortable. They get to know him for him and I think that’s wonderful because when he does bring up the questions about the church they don’t judge him or give him the missionary or the handbook answers. They give him something that’s personal and exactly how they feel and not something that will make him say, “Oh I think this is a great church! Maybe I will join it!”
What have you two done, if you are willing to share, in the raising of your daughter? Was there an agreement before you got married or before you had children of the way that they would be raised spiritually?
Yeah, well my husband was raised non-denominational, and he has a real problem with religion but he definitely has a relationship with Heavenly Father. He even prays all the time. Whenever I say prayers with our daughter he doesn’t reject it. He is open to that. He definitely believes that there is a God. So when we discussed having kids I said I wanted to take them to church. He said that was fine because usually when there are different religions in the couple, the kids usually go with the mom. There are certain aspects of the church that he absolutely loves. Like he loves the fact that the core unit is the family. He loves the standards that the youth has. But there are things that he doesn’t understand. My husband is black. I am Samoan and he is black. So one of the biggest issues he has is the black men not being able to have the priesthood until 1978. He really has a hard time with that and doesn’t feel like there is a real answer for him. I’m trying to give him my point of view. I told him there really isn’t an answer. That frustrates him.
We were talking not too long ago about how I was teaching my daughter the gospel. He said, “It’s fine, but when she grows up, I’m going to tell her the truth.” I was taken back by that. So I said, “What do you mean tell her the truth?” And he said, “I’m going to tell her that Mormonism is racist.” I felt like we stepped back several steps. I tried to not overwhelm myself with that because it will take my goal out of focus. What I am grateful for is that he doesn’t argue with the principles. He doesn’t argue with what’s important about the gospel. What I feel like he is arguing with is what men, human men, back in the day didn’t understand or didn’t do. So that gives me hope that maybe one day I will be able to do what my mom did and take my family to the temple.
Matt really struggles with the race issue and hasn’t really found somebody that he is comfortable talking with about it. There was a sister companionship a couple of years ago and they really got to know Matt. We felt really comfortable with them. The sister missionary looked at Matt at one point in our discussions and said, “Hey Matt, you look like you have a question. Is there anything that I can help you with?” He was hesitant but then he said, “Alright, before I ask this question,” he says, “I’m a black man from Texas and you’re a white girl from Utah so I have no idea how you can relate to me with what I’m about to ask you.” He asked about why black men didn’t get the priesthood for so long. She was really sweet. She was like, “I totally understand. I also have a problem with it but it’s something that we don’t understand or haven’t been given any understanding of why it happened. You need to get over it.”
And how did he respond to that?
It wasn’t until several months later that I found out how he really felt. We were driving home from my parent’s house and we were talking about religion and the temple and he brought that up. He said, “When that sister said we just needed to trust and move on, I wanted to get up and tell her to get the heck out of my house. Because for her to sit there to tell me to just move on….” Since then he hasn’t really said anything. He does a lot of research online. I’m so glad that he is interested enough that he would want to do research but then I get nervous of where he’s going online to get information. I’ve encouraged him to ask that couple I was talking about earlier, who really like him for himself and not because he could join the Church. It would be good for him to get somebody else’s point of view instead of just mine. And they would be honest with him. He said, “I do want to ask so terribly but I love these guys and if I ask them I don’t want to look at them differently because of their response.”
You as a Samoan woman must have had some thoughts or struggle with the race issue growing up yourself? How have you come to terms with it? Is it just through the power of the spirit that you have been able to come to peace with it? Or is there something that has really helped you intellectually?
Well, I wasn’t aware of the Church’s history with race until Matt and I started dating. We dated when we were in high school. So I was 17 and he was 18. When we started dating he told me about that and I said what? What are you talking about? I looked it up.
Oh you didn’t know?
I had no idea! No, I didn’t know until he told me. Actually, when he found out that I was Mormon he went online and researched about it because he didn’t want to do anything to offend me, which I thought was really sweet. But he told me about the priesthood ban. Once he did tell me I did look it up and I started thinking, well I’m not necessarily white but I’m not black either, but being with Matt and now being married to him I am more aware of this whole thing. I’ve gone on mormon.org just to kind of see what other people have said and it was basically the same thing. I think it may be a personal thing Matt has to work through, but the answers we have don’t satisfy him. And it’s especially hard to help him understand what I don’t really understand myself. And now that we have Lenna, I am trying to figure out what I say or do. Because I don’t even know what to say to my husband. This is definitely, I believe, one of the trials that I have in my life.
My mom always encouraged us to go on missions because she said it was the best time of her life ever. I just never really had the desire to go and I didn’t want to go in half-heartedly. So when Matt asked me to marry him I felt really strongly that yeah this will be ok, and that he is the right man for me. This is my mission. My family is who I am supposed to be teaching.
Just recently a black man and a white woman couple just moved into our ward and when I saw them I did a double take because they are somebody that I can go and talk to and just kind of get ideas, and maybe somebody that Matt will be able to relate to. But really I don’t know. It’s such a touchy subject that I was even afraid to go up to this couple and say, “Hey, I know you just got here but I have this thing…”
It’s so wonderful that you had that example of faith from your mother because it sounds like you are carrying on that heritage. Your goal is to have your husband joined to you in an eternal family one day. Are you okay if it never happens?
It is my goal for my family to be together forever and that is through the temple. If it doesn’t happen in this life then I am still okay with it. As long as I do what I am supposed to do here to teach my husband, to teach my children and to be the example, I know that they will learn through my example no matter what. I am grateful to know that the Lord is merciful and still gives us a chance on the other side. I am not saying that I am counting on that. I would definitely love for it to happen here. I want to take advantage of the time and the opportunity that we have to do it here. But if it doesn’t happen then I will be okay because I know the Lord knows what I am going through. He knows that my family is important to me and that he will take care of us.
I think that if I had married somebody that was in the church that I wouldn’t take my testimony so seriously. But I think the Lord knew what he was doing when he put us together. And my testimony something that I needed to work on and I wouldn’t have been able to work on my own commitment to the gospel if I had it the “easy route”.
As I said earlier, my family was sealed right before I left for college but as soon as I got to college I felt freedom like I never felt it before. I’m the oldest, so my mom always said, “Peka, you need to be an example to these girls, you’re the president of your Young Women’s class. You need to set a good example.” I just got tired of being the good girl. I wanted to have fun too. It wasn’t until college that I realized that I didn’t have a testimony; I was leaning on my family. I was definitely leaning on the girls that I went to Young Women’s with and so when I went away I had nobody to lean on. When we got married, I was going to church every now and then but I wasn’t so active. I knew it was what I needed to do because it’s what I was raised to do, but it wasn’t until Matt and I started talking about having children that I kind of stepped back and evaluated my life and said, “Am I living the kind of life that Heavenly Father would bless me with a child?” Because, like I said, my husband is a musician so we were at the bars, the clubs, and his gigs and there is nothing but craziness that goes on there. Drinking and smoking… It wasn’t until that moment I wanted a child so badly that I just stopped and I made a commitment that I was going back to church. That whole journey of coming back was amazing. I had gone without taking the sacrament for such a long time that once I was able to take it again I didn’t ever want to go without it.
That is a wonderful part of your story. So was that all self-motivated or was there somebody who really encouraged you to get back on the horse? Or was it just the motivation of wanting to have a child?
It was the motivation of having a child and having a family. And asking myself questions: how am I going to raise my family? Am I living a life that sets an example to children of ours? And I was definitely not. So I turned back to what I knew was good and it wasn’t until I started going back to church that I gained my own testimony of the gospel. I am so grateful for that experience because I don’t take the gospel for granted anymore. I absolutely love it. I engulf myself in it.
It took me a couple of months to get pregnant. In my head, two months was way too long and I thought it was because of what I had done in the past. My drinking, my smoking, I was partying, I was being crazy… I thought that Heavenly Father was punishing me for what I had done in the past and not instantly granting us a child.
So you felt guilt?
Yeah oh my gosh! Totally! Totally felt guilty!
How did you overcome that?
So I have to go back a little bit to explain this. When I decided that I was going to come back to the church, I was living in Austin but my parents lived an hour away. And I hated going to church by myself. I just felt so alone. I’m Samoan and I am in a predominantly white congregation. I’m not married to a white man, I’m married to a black man and on top of that he is not a member. I just felt alone in the ward that I was assigned to. So when I decided to go back to church, when I made that commitment, I drove an hour every Sunday to my parents’ ward. I did that for eight months. And at the time my dad was in the bishopric, and he told me the bishop wanted to meet with me. I wasn’t in his ward; I hoped he wasn’t giving me a calling! So I go into the bishop’s office and he sits me down and he says, “Peka, how are you doing? I noticed that you weren’t taking the sacrament. Is there anything that I can help you with?” And I just started bawling. And told him what was going on with my guilt and trying to get pregnant, and he said to me, “The Lord has already forgiven you. You’ve already done everything you’re supposed to do in the repentance process and the Lord has already forgiven you. You need to forgive yourself.” That was so eye opening to me because it might have just been a drink here and there but because of what I had been taught and how I had been raised, they felt like such huge sins that I totally thought there was no way I could come back.
That’s the hardest thing, isn’t it? Forgiving yourself?
The bishop said, “That’s the adversary holding you back, getting you to think that you aren’t worthy when you totally are. The Lord has forgiven you, His arms are open.”
While we were trying to get pregnant, I was working on going to the temple. The day of my endowment, that was something that I took with me to the celestial room: talking to Heavenly Father about starting a family and if this was right and if it was the right time and if I could forgive myself. Well, a few weeks later… little did I know…
Oh what a happy story!
I was pregnant!
The Lord is so merciful and forgiving. I know my family will be okay. Things will happen on the Lord’s time, but the thing I know is that my family will be okay.