Merrecia James discovered her passion for running at an early age, as she navigated growing up in Jamaica. Running was an escape from poverty and from sexual assault, and provided a door to immigration and education in the United States. Merrecia always had a strong belief in God, but it wasn’t until she was introduced to yoga and the Gospel that she connected with the peace and happiness of the spirit. Since her baptism, Merrecia has found joy in sharing the simple truths of the Gospel with everyone around her. She seeks to use her gift of running to glorify God and share His love.
What was it like growing up in Jamaica?
Growing up in Jamaica was a very rewarding experience. My dad died when I was two years old, so I grew up with a single mother. She always said I should put God first in everything. She prayed a lot with me and set an example of seeking and wanting to find truth. She’s a great mother. She wasn’t there financially. She only had a primary school education. She can read and write, but not at a high level. When I was twelve, I started doing track and field. I realized I could run and I saw an avenue to making money. I would run road races and win money. Not a lot, but enough to take care of basic needs for me and my mom. I was almost like a mother and my mother was almost like a daughter to me. I wanted to be an example.
My mother was 7th Day Adventist, so she attended church on Saturdays. My track meets were also always on Saturdays. I tried to go to church with my mom, but there was something that didn’t click with me. What they were telling me in the church didn’t make sense with what they were doing outside of church. So I didn’t listen to them. I started going to Sunday church since I ran on Saturdays, but I wanted to feel the presence of the Lord. The church was right at the foot of the hill where I was living. Then, I started going to both churches just to please my mother. That didn’t work, so I stopped. Track took me away, but I would always read my Bible no matter what. I prayed every single day.
I was emotionally satisfied by the tropics, wildlife, nature, and everything around me. I was always happy and cheery. I would go to the woods and the beaches and just stay there by myself in solitude. I loved animals. I had a dog and a cat. I was very observant as a child. I would take my dog to the river. One day I saw the dog moving in the water. At the time I didn’t know how to swim. I started to follow him doing paddles, dog paddles. That’s how I learned how to swim.
What kinds of difficulties did you face when you were young?
I grew up in poverty. I didn’t have food to eat on many days and I would just drink water. It is difficult to go to school because most people can’t afford it, so there is a lot of illiteracy. A lot of girls drop out of high school, turn to men, and get pregnant. The fathers don’t stay around to take care of the girls and babies. My teachers encouraged me to put dedication first. I saw that I could drop out and do those things based on peer pressure or I could choose dedication.
I was sexually abused as a child. The first time was when I was seven years old. I was going to the river, to the beach, and this boy grabbed me and fondled me.
I used to walk from school because I didn’t have money to take the bus. One night, there was a boy riding a bike. There was a ditch in the road and he pushed me in. I fought. While he was taking off his clothes, I kicked him and got away and ran.
Another time, I was driving in a taxi. In Jamaica, it’s a common thing for taxi drivers to take kids away, abuse them, and kill them. I was suspicious when this driver kept looking back at me. I felt it. He was about to turn off on a road. I said to myself, “if he is going to turn off, I will jump out of the car.” So, I was waited for the turn because the car had to slow down. I couldn’t scream. When he turned, I opened the car door, left my bag, jumped out, and rolled. I started running nonstop. I don’t know how I got home, but I ran and I ran and I ran.
My last experience was when I was living with a family who had been helping me. I was about sixteen. The father of the lady who took me in would try to interfere with me. I was really scared. I reported it to the woman, but nothing came out of it. She felt embarrassed to talk with her dad. I spoke to her grandmother and the grandmother said it was a common thing for him with the housemaids. He had done it before, but I never let him. I always fought, but I had nowhere to go. There was this one night when no one was home, but this man and the grandmother. He came in my room and he tried to fondle me. I was fighting, fighting, fighting. I was going to run away. That night I started developing panic attacks. I was just not myself. Around this time, I got a running scholarship and ended up coming to the United States. I left Jamaica during that transition and in that trauma.
You have a strong spirit. Could you tell me about your schooling and how that led to coming to America?
I was not great in English because we spoke a dialect called Patoi—broken English. I wasn’t a reader. I didn’t know books. I had never seen a book. I had a very smart neighbor. She got into the best high schools and colleges. I decided I wanted to be like her. During my last year of high school, I told her I wanted to do the spelling bee competition. She helped me prepare. I started reading her books. She was into physics and the sciences. That’s where I got the love for science. I read her books and I liked it. She helped me along the way.
I went to a sports college before I came here. I did two years of sports college because I got a scholarship. I represented my country. The idea was to attend that college in Jamaica and then get a scholarship to the United States.
I loved the sciences. I wanted to be a nurse because nursing school was easier to get into. I did a lot of credits towards physical education and kinesiology. I got a lot of offers from many schools in the United States—Louisiana State, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Maryland Eastern Shore. I accepted all the offers. I signed the letter of intent to all the schools. I was so naïve and didn’t know what I was doing.
I planned to go to Wyoming University, but the coach from the Maryland Eastern Shore said, “You can’t do that because you signed the letter of intent here first.” He wasn’t being really honest to me. He was just intimidating me. I didn’t have a clue and I really wanted the opportunity, so I said ok. I called the coach from Wyoming University and explained the situation. The Wyoming coach said he wasn’t going to be in any fight and told me I would have to sit out a year before I could run there, so I went with Maryland Eastern Shore.
My coach told me there would be a lot of Kenyans on the team. When I came, there were only two Kenyans, me, and another 400 meter runner. He didn’t even have a team. I wasn’t happy. I went through the motions. I majored in exercise science because I already had enough credits, but it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. It was still rewarding to be in the country getting a degree. I was happy for the opportunity. I applied to physical therapy school when I was done and I got accepted to a doctorate program.
What happened after you left the University of Maryland?
I went through another trauma. I was married. It wasn’t a good marriage. He cheated on me the day of my graduation. There was a lot of trauma. I had decided to become a physical therapist because it was the closest I could get to medicine or nursing and I was already accepted. The first semester was not good. I was able to do ok. I just couldn’t concentrate. I was even driving on the wrong side of the road. That’s how bad it was.
I dropped out after that first semester. I decided to become a physician’s assistant instead because that was what I really wanted to do. Medicine had been my dream since I could recall at five years old. During that last semester I took 28 credits to complete the prerequisites for a new program, but I had to wait for one year to complete them and get 1000 hours of healthcare experience. During that year, I worked as a cardiac monitor technician.
I went to Chicago for Physician’s Assistant school because it was the cheapest for me. $10,000 compared to $90,000. I just didn’t have the money. I refused to run professionally at the time and focused on my studies because I was injured and I realized that a stable career would help me more. I knew I could resume running later.
My transition from physical education to spirituality was in Chicago. Immediately after I got there, everything started spiritually.
I got into yoga because I had bursitis in my knee and I couldn’t walk. My teacher recommended yoga or swimming to help. I had never done yoga. There was a yoga studio next to the Starbucks I went to everyday. It was called Brain Management. I went in there one day because I was fascinated with the brain and was surprised when it turned out to be yoga. It was for the body, mind, spirit, and brain. After three weeks of yoga, my bursitis was completely gone.
In 2014, the missionaries knocked at my door. It was in the Spanish community and I happened to get two Spanish elders. They asked if I knew about the church or The Book of Mormon. I told them I didn’t know anything about the Gospel. They showed me the Plan of Salvation diagram and asked me to read The Book of Mormon. They invited me to come to church. It was in Spanish and I don’t speak Spanish. They said come anyway and feel the spirit.
I was still in PA school. I was on my rotations and my days were very long, so meeting with them was inconsistent. They would text me scriptures and ask if I would like to meet. They invited the sisters to visit me because I would be more comfortable with them. I really liked having the sisters visit. They were an English-speaking companionship and there was a ward where I could go for Institute. The sisters kept telling me I should pray and read about the book. I said yes, but it was a long time before I actually did.
There was something special about these sisters. They prayed every time they came and I felt something nice, but I felt the same thing in yoga. I couldn’t understand what it was. One of the sisters was in my area for ten weeks. Normally they would leave after six weeks, but this sister said she was not giving up on me. So I read the book. They invited other people to come and I loved it. I would go with them to visit other sisters who were investigating the church. After, they told me I must read, so I read one night. After I read that night I started having visions. Then I didn’t read again. I read another night and had visions. Each time I read it I had visions. And of course Joseph Smith, he had a lot of visions. There was something special about this book. I really like it. They invited me to pray and ask if it is true. I prayed. They invited me to be baptized and asked me to pray if a specific date was the right time to get baptized. They felt it was the right date and I said no.
I was a little resistant. I said, “Sister, I really like the church, but I don’t understand how this yoga feeling and this church feeling are the same.” The sister said, “You’re only going to get more of the feeling!” They asked me to pray for myself. I promised I would. For two months no sisters came. I prayed. I wanted an answer for when I was going to get baptized. I decided if this book was really true, I would pray for a specific thing. I prayed for Heavenly Father to please send me a person in the church who practiced yoga like me and who I could train with. I didn’t know if anyone in the church practiced yoga like me.
Two weeks later, I went to a yoga retreat. I went into my room and I introduced myself to my roommate. She introduced herself and said, “By the way, I’m a Mormon.” I was surprised. I responded, “You’re a Mormon!” She said normally she doesn’t tell people she is a Mormon and she usually doesn’t have roommates because she prays and not everyone is open to prayer. She would always get a room by herself, but this time she felt like she should try a roommate. I shared that I was investigating the church and I got my answer to get baptized. I finally told the sisters I was ready to get baptized. They visited with me three times a week leading up to baptism. That’s how I got converted.
It is amazing to hear how God answered your prayer. How has your life been different since your baptism?
Since getting baptized, I’ve put everything in God’s hands. I was spiritual before baptism, since I already believed in Jesus Christ and I had yoga. The church gave me an opportunity to test my faith. I went through a lot of struggles. I’ve had more temptations than ever before, but it’s been very rewarding. I can see a shift in myself and my family. I see a connection with the younger generation. They are more open to the Gospel even though they don’t go to church. I can see how it has blessed my life with opportunities to keep seeking for truth. I can always have the comforter with me. I can tune into it all the time. It doesn’t matter what I am going through because once I tune into it, everything feels ok. The Gospel changed my life in a positive way. I’ve had opportunities to meet different people. The support I have received throughout the church and my spiritual growth has been shifted. I feel more happy and content. I had those things before, but now it’s more pure. It makes me want to keep going and share it with other people.
How do try to share that peace and pureness with other people?
I share my inspiration of how I learned about the Gospel everywhere I go. It’s just natural. People tell me everything about them. They open up to me and that brings me comfort to share. Sometimes it’s simple things. Just sharing my testimony or a song or a scripture. It doesn’t have to be big, like telling them to come to church. They feel something and I will give them a Book of Mormon. They see a shift and I see a shift. It doesn’t matter where I am. If I feel the spirit to share, then I share it. People are open to it and don’t turn to rejection. Recently, I was at work at a massage place. A young lady had been sharing some things with me. I shared The Book of Mormon song that I wrote. I asked if she would like a copy of the book and she declined. So I shared a song. She was more open to the song. I shared some more about the church. Then I looked outside and saw two elders come in. I got them and asked them to share their testimonies. They gave her the restoration pamphlet. It just happened. It was amazing. She will never forget it. She shared it with everyone. Her friends told her it was meant to be. She said she felt something different. People feel the spirit through simple things.
I love how you listen to the spirit and are willing to share the Gospel anywhere. You seem to connect the Gospel with all aspects of your life. Have you seen any parallels between the Gospel and running?
Growing up, I didn’t have anything. I didn’t have any financial support, but I had the talent. It was a way to get money. I didn’t run for the exposure. The Bible says you should develop your talents. I saw running as a path to take me through life. It’s running that got me here since I wanted to go to the Olympics. My mom said she would help support my dream.
I took a nine-year break from running after college. After I was baptized in Chicago, I didn’t know what to do with the Gospel. One night I prayed and asked what do I do now? What can I share? I saw Jesus in my dream running next to me. My interpretation was that I needed to run for Jesus and share this Gospel. I didn’t want to run to beat people, but I needed to develop a fitness where I could run to the level where I could reach many people. I thought about going to the Olympics. I was running for myself and for the Lord. I pray that I can use running to help share the Gospel. I don’t know what the future is, but I know the time will come when I can use running to share the Gospel. For most runners, everything is about competition and winning, but now it is spiritual for me.
While connecting the church and temple to life, I decided to do an experiment. I set a goal to do something for 21 days to overcome certain limits. In science and goal-setting, we understand that whatever the mind can see and believe it will achieve. If you tell your mind you can do it, you can. If you tell your mind you cannot do it, you cannot. Whatever you tell your mind you can or cannot do is going to happen. The same is true with praying with real intent. It is the same application.
My mom was taking her citizenship examination. She needed to answer ten questions correctly. I decided that while was she was taking her test, I was going to run ten times up a specific hill as a symbol, just like there is symbolism in the temple. The intention was to help uplift her since she is connected to me. My energy would go to her. I was taking action and it was really hard. The extra ten hills was a threshold I had to push past. My intention was that if I ran ten times up this hill without stopping, she would get ten questions right. I ran and I ran. I was so tired! It was no joke running because I already did my training and I was pushing myself more. I ran up and dragged down and ran up again. I told myself, “You cannot stop.” I went up the ninth hill and stopped. I started again, but it wasn’t continuous. My mom called me an hour later to tell me she passed. I asked how many questions she got right. She said nine. I replied, “You must be kidding. You know I was running those hills ten time for you. On the ninth hill I stopped and you got nine right. But I said I’m going to seal the deal.”
What a wonderful example of the symbolism of the Gospel we see in life. Are there any last thoughts you want to share?
I would say that everyone has a path for themselves, but this Gospel is really true. The Atonement comes from you knowing with your own experience. No one can share that for you because it is very unique to each person, but it is truth. You can find truth only through experience. I will share that with anyone who has resistance to the Gospel or just wants to know for themselves. It is available. They can try different things and see what works, but the Gospel, you have to experience it and find out for you. I can share that it’s real and there are many ways out there, but this is real. It is real. I’ve experimented in different ways, but the Gospel, it is unchangeable.
At A Glance
Name: Merrecia James
Marital History: Divorced, single
Occupation: Licensed massage therapist, Physician's assistant
Convert to Church?: January 31, 2015
Schools Attended: GC Foster College, Jamaica; University of Maryland Eastern Shore; Malcom X College, Illinois; St. Francis University, Pennsylvania
Favorite Hymn: Have I Done Any Good in the World Today featuring Alex Boye and Carmen Rasmussen Herbert
Interview Produced by Anne Leishman Merrell