My landlady came into my home last week to oversee the locksmith. We live in central Virginia, where folks are very open about religion, so we know she goes to a Christian church and she knows we are LDS. While we were chatting, she noticed a photograph on my wall which my husband had taken on a trip to Wales. She said, “Oh that has to be Wales! Which castle is it?” She said that she has been to Wales many times, visiting her family’s ancestral homes. Her face lit up as she described her pilgrimage to the tiny villages and cobbled streets where her ancestors were born. She told us that she had gone to the LDS church in one town, hoping to visit their family history center and find some files, but it was closed. “And what a blessing! Because instead we walked downtown to the pub where all the elderly people gather in the afternoons, and they directed me to a very old woman who could read my Welsh documents, and had so much knowledge about the town my family came from!” They forged a fast and lasting relationship.
Hearing the way these two women of different nationalities, languages, and generations connected over a family record in a Welsh pub gave me chills. I can see the dots between them and so many forgotten women being connected—zing! zing! zing!—in permanence of heart.
Last weekend I thought of this story again when Sister Sharon Eubank spoke to us in the Women’s Session about making connections with women outside of our faith. She spoke of the powerful way in which the work will roll forward when we forge friendships with other seekers of truth. My landlady and I connected over family history with ease and real excitement. Our hearts “turned” to each other.
The LDS Church is recognized across the globe as having the most sophisticated family history resources available. But the very fact that this recognition exists points to another fact: people of every faith and no faith at all care about family history. The popularity of genetic testing through companies like 23 and Me or AncestryDNA shows that people want to know where they came from. And secular studies have shown there’s wisdom in it. A study at Emory University found that the more children know about their family history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, and the more successfully they believe their families function. Knowledge of family history turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.
Sister Eubank made it clear that this is a time to be reaching outside our sometimes insular Mormon niches, and forging real relationships with women of other faiths. Family history is one of the most obvious and powerful platforms on which to forge these friendships.
In our MWP interview with genealogy expert Leslie Huber, she said: “For me, family history is something that unites us with many other people. It’s not an LDS church phenomenon. When I would go to these conferences—especially when I lived in Massachusetts—there would be 700 people there and maybe four would be in the church. And these were all people that felt drawn to this work. To me, that is really powerful and something that I think many members of the church don’t see: this work affects so many people who also feel drawn to learn about their family and understand them. I’ve heard non-member genealogists talk about how they have dreams that lead them to particular information or they have promptings to look certain places. One man said, “I don’t chase my ancestors, they chase me.” Those kinds of experiences have always been powerful witnesses to me that this work is very far reaching and has an impact on so many others.”
My landlady told me several more stories about her ancestry hunt through Europe. She gave me chills as she described a “feeling of memory” when she walked through one French town. She was energized by light as she spoke.
As we connect with non-LDS women over family history, doors will open. That phrase always makes us think of missionary work. But I’m also interested in the doors of our own Mormon hearts, opening to an understanding that we have a great deal to gain from friendships outside our faith. I was humbled by my landlady’s experiences. We learn from her that we have no monopoly on the Spirit of Elijah: women and men of other faiths also have revelatory, goosebumpy experiences as they are led to find their ancestors. They too are turning their hearts, and we have much to offer each other in our searching.