Eileen Velazquez lived in Utah as a teenager but was not a member of the Church. When her high school friends were preparing to leave for missions, she said she would pretend to be an investigator so they could practice the lessons. Less than two years later, she was teaching the discussions herself on a mission to the Dominican Republic. (Traducida al español por Alejandra Salas, Refugios Fuertes. Haz clic aquí para leer la entrevista original en español.)
Tell me a little about your childhood.
I grew up in California until I was about 11 when we moved to Lehi, Utah. That was where I first interacted with any Church member. I did know one LDS girl in California but we were kids and religion isn’t really something people talk about in elementary school. I thought “What is Lehi?” and on the way to school, kids on the bus had scriptures with them. I remember saying I didn’t know who Joseph Smith was and everyone looked at me like, “What??”
My sisters and I were invited to Young Women and that’s when we started going to church. They invited us for activities that weren’t really doctrinal or anything like that, but eventually, they invited us to everything. We didn’t understand a lot but we would still go, they were super nice and would pick us up. Then we stopped going after a while.
Was your home religious? Did your parents have another faith they participated in?
Yes, my parents are Roman Catholic. At first, they were more devout, we would go to church all the time, after a while we stopped, then went back again and I did all their ordinances. I was baptized and had First Communion and my confirmation. It kind of went up and down. They tried and they weren’t super religious, they just really wanted us to grow up and be good people. That was pretty much it.
When did you join the Church? What was the pivotal time that made a difference in having a deeper interest in it?
It was after graduating high school when all of my friends started to go on missions. Before graduation, many said, “I don’t know if I’ll go on a mission because it’s not really something I’m thinking about right now, I don’t really know if I want to do it.” Then suddenly, all of them wanted to go and they were sincerely going because they wanted to. I was surprised, why would you give up two years of your life to do that? I was going to sacrament meeting farewells every week and I started paying attention. I started to feel a difference. It wasn’t until one friend was going to serve and wanted to practice the lessons before leaving. I was trying to be funny and said, “You know, I’ll pretend to be an investigator.” But at that point, I had questions of my own. I felt like I had gotten a really big answer to one of my biggest questions about life and I just couldn’t ignore it after that.
Do you feel like that was the start of your testimony?
I had a pretty big answer with knowing what was the true church for me. I had already contemplated why were there so many churches, why was there only one Christ, and was there only one way He was trying to teach people to go. So for me, it was a really big deal because that’s one of the big pieces of my testimony to this day – what I believe is the true and only gospel.
What did your parents and sisters think during this time of investigation? Did you tell them about it at that time or did you keep it to yourself?
I kept it to myself until I decided to be baptized. My dad was really supportive and said I could do whatever and I’ll be with you and it will be good. My sisters just laughed and asked why I was worried about telling them since they expected me to do it anyway. My mom didn’t want me to do it because of other people. She was a little more wary about it. But ever since, she will remind me, “Make sure you’re reading your scriptures and going to church.”
How did you have the discussions?
It’s a funny story when I look back. I was moving into an apartment in Salt Lake with a friend but we needed another roommate because the rent was too high for just two people. I didn’t want a crazy roommate, not to sound judgmental or anything, but we wanted someone with similar values and wasn’t going to do things we weren’t okay with. Someone told me there was a room and job board at the institute building at the University of Utah, you can put an ad there and people will contact you. I went to do that on a Friday afternoon. I don’t know if this is still the same now, but usually the institute building is closed on Fridays and you can’t get in. But for some reason, it was unlocked that day and the only people in the building were two missionaries doing their weekly planning. I had never been in that building and didn’t know where the board was, I was obviously lost. I asked them for help and they eventually figured out I wasn’t a member and they gave me their number. I didn’t call them for two months. We had them over for dinner, and by then I already had the friend who taught me the lessons, like I said. And being around it for so long, I already knew what they’d cover in the missionary discussions. I knew about Joseph Smith, I knew about the Word of Wisdom, I knew about tithing, the plan of salvation; there were very few things they had to teach me. I was also going to church consistently for mission farewells. I already felt like I needed to be baptized before I contacted them, so it only took about two weeks of reviewing everything and then I got baptized.
Had you read the Book of Mormon at that point?
I hadn’t read the whole thing, I’d read parts of it. The one thing that really struck me during the lessons was they asked me to read the Introduction to the Book of Mormon. One of them asked me, “Who is God to you?” It was funny because I knew who God was to me but when they asked me that, I had to ponder and read a little bit. It really got me to know who God was to me. I thought that if the introduction was enough, then it was enough, and I just went for it. I didn’t really pray about it until after I was baptized.
So you had a confirmation of the Book of Mormon without even reading it fully. That’s amazing. How long after you were baptized did you serve a mission?
I served a mission about a year and a month and a half after I got baptized.
Earlier, you said you didn’t know how missionaries gave up the two years. When did your thinking change with that?
I never wanted to go on one, even after I was baptized. I thought I was going to find a returned missionary husband who is going to help me with the gospel for the rest of my life, and I was okay with that. I was always talking about the Church and the gospel on campus. I made a lot of good friends that were members of the Church, we were always talking about stuff. They were always asking if I was going to go on a mission: “It feels like you’re a missionary already but you’re not.” But I just said I wasn’t going to go, I had actually promised my parents that I wouldn’t. But I received a prompting that I should serve and that I needed to go. It was really strong and I couldn’t ignore it, and I ended up going.
Where did you serve?
I served in the Dominican Republic Santa Domingo East mission.
They speak Spanish and there are some Haitians who speak a little bit of Creole. When I first went to my mission, part of our area used to be known as the ABC Islands, so you could learn Papiamento. I almost got sent there but I’m really glad my mission president kept me in the Dominican Republic.
How did your family feel about you leaving the country for 18 months? Were they still supportive or was that difficult for them?
They didn’t really understand. It was harder because at that time you weren’t allowed to call every week like missionaries do now, so they said, “I can’t even call you?” We could call twice a year and could only write emails, so it was hard for them. Also just the different beliefs, they just didn’t get it. But they were supportive.
Tell me a little bit about how you met your husband. He was a missionary with you?
Yes. I always have to clarify. The rule is to “lock your heart” in the mission and we both promise to the end of our lives that we didn’t even think of each other in the mission. We weren’t friends or anything; the only interaction we had was we were both leaders at the same time. I didn’t get to know him until after the mission. I was accepted for an internship with the Church in Peru working with the self-reliance program. Before the mission, he had been a self-reliance manager in the Dominican Republic when the program first piloted. So we started talking about that and getting to know each other, and then we did long distance for a while, and then we got married and now we’re here in Canada!
Awesome. So he’s from Canada, right? Montreal?
He’s actually from the Dominican Republic but he migrated here.
So after living in Utah and the Dominican Republic and Canada, what do you notice are similarities and differences within the Church?
I think everyone is friendly in the Church wherever you go. It’s really nice when you go to a different country and you can still expect to feel at home. I’ve been lucky because I’ve been able to speak the language everywhere I’ve been, so I’ve never felt out of place. The only thing different about Church members are the societal norms of where they’re from. Latino people are very friendly and in each country everyone was super welcoming. They want to get to know you right away, give you hugs and things like that. It’s similar in Utah – people will say hi but maybe they are not as forward. Here in Canada, it’s really fun because there are people from all over the world. We have members from Nigeria, from Ukraine, from all parts of Latin America, the Philippines, China. Everyone here is friendly and I think it’s exciting because you hear all of these languages spoken at church and it’s really fun.
Especially when Church leaders are talking more about being a global Church and realizing there’s more members outside of the United States now than are in it. That’s a great opportunity. What have been some of the callings that you’ve served in? Do you have a favorite?
I’ve done a lot of things. I remember in the Young Single Adults, there were a lot of different callings I participated in. I served in the Relief Society, and with temple and family history. The callings I’ve enjoyed more have been here and I think it’s because I feel like an integral part of helping the ward. In Utah, it’s so normal that everyone’s helping, everyone’s in a calling, doing different things, sometimes you don’t notice the service. But here, you can tell it’s really inspired and the contributions people make can be really impactful to a ward. I’ve been asked to serve as Primary President and I’m currently the Stake Primary Secretary. My family also serves in the YSA branch with my husband as first counselor in the branch presidency.
We get a lot of involvement here and it’s really joyful to serve people. I think my favorite has been Primary President because I love kids. I was a little scared of Primary because I didn’t grow up going to Primary in the Church. My earliest exposure was Young Women. I remember thinking, “Don’t put me in Primary please, because I don’t know anything about Primary.” But I guess it’s the Lord’s funny way to say, “Well, you’re just going to learn.”
And to give you an opportunity to experience that after all. That’s amazing. Since your initial conversion, have you had any experiences that have really solidified your faith and confirmed to you your choice to join the Church?
There are two experiences that helped me feel this is where I need to be and where I want to be for the rest of my life. My mission was one of them. I had a really great mission president, Ahmad Corbitt, he’s currently one of the counselors in the Young Men General Presidency. He taught us key doctrines that really impacted me in the mission, and they still impact me now, like my true identity, who I am as a daughter of God. Our mission had a really big emphasis on faith in Christ, the eye of faith, keeping the end in mind, and seeing others as well as yourself with that. There were so many little moments where I felt like all the principles of the gospel were really true, and they still are. I couldn’t get that anywhere else.
In Peru, we had a really great experience with a member family up in Cuzco. That really solidified my testimony of the doctrine of the family, which is something that when I get the opportunity to share in Church, I do. I truly believe in the truth of the family and the doctrine that the Lord has put in place since the beginning. Those have been two really big moments in my life, and they have led to where I am now. I met my husband through my mission, which is one of the greatest blessings in my life. There was no other way I would have met him. So I’m grateful for that.
That’s amazing. It’s almost like you’re a modern-day pioneer in the sense of joining the Church and leaving your family’s religious beliefs. Do you have any advice if someone wants to join the Church and their family is of a different faith?
I would just say to not be afraid to follow the promptings that you have received. I think it can be really nerve-wracking. I remember I was really nervous to tell my family. There have been moments when it hasn’t been easy because they are not of the same faith. Sometimes they have higher expectations of me or they don’t understand why I will do certain things. I would say, don’t be afraid of man. Have faith in the answers you’ve received. It won’t be easy because maybe there will be trials coming your way or maybe a good-hearted member of your family will try to discourage you because they think that’s the right thing to do. The answers you’ve received are real and you don’t need to ignore them. Just have faith and go with them.
At A Glance
Name: Eileen Velasquez
Location: Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Marital History: Married
Occupation: VFX (Visual Effects) Production Coordinator
Convert to the Church: August 31, 2013
Schools Attended: Bachelor of Arts in Latin American Studies from BYU
Languages Spoken At Home: Spoken at Home: English, Spanish, and very little French
Favorite Hymn: I have so many- 129 - Where Can I Turn For Peace, 165 Abide With Me Tis Eventide, 85 How Firm a Foundation, 175 O God the Eternal Father
Website or Social Media You Would Like Featured:: http://@eileenbocanegra
Interview produced by Darcey Williams