My Faith

I was born in 1974 in the back of a car, a green Ford Pinto, in front of an Italian restaurant in Sunland-Tujunga, California.   In what would be a repeating theme in my life, things worked out okay that morning, but definitely hadn’t gone according to plan.  The back story is that my dad is a heavy drinker, and when my mom told him that she was giving birth, he argued with her about it until she finally persuaded him to get in the car.  Unfortunately, they didn’t make it all the way, and my dad delivered me in the car. 

Some of my earliest memories of growing up in Tujunga involved climbing the tree next to the house (at around 2 years old) and walking around on the roof.  My first memory involving a form of faith was my dad telling me to jump off the roof and he would catch me.  For some reason, climbing the tree seemed a lot safer than jumping off a roof into outstretched hands  Fortunately, he caught me.

Dad was a construction worker and Vietnam war vet, and my mom was a loyal supporter of our home.  My dad had become socially distant from his own father, who was a Pentecostal minister, and my father was either atheist or agnostic.  Suffice to say I can’t recall ever seeing him in a church, but it is possible that I was too young to remember.  I also don’t recall my mom talking about God in my earliest years, but she may have. 

After living in Tujunga for a few years, we moved to Newhall, CA.  One of my earliest experiences with a church was at a community church near our home.  I vaguely recall that my family sat in the pews once or twice but stopped going.  After that initial experience, I later recall walking down to the church on Sundays by myself, dressed in a classic 70s-style powder blue suit.  I must have been between 7-10 years old.  I didn’t go because I wanted to find God, I went because they had cookies.  While members of the congregation passed the wine and filled the donation plate in in the chapel, I was in the kitchen with a couple people and a tray of cookies.

The first time I became aware of my relationship with God, or lack thereof, was one day when I was probably in 1st or 2nd grade and got in trouble at a neighbor’s house.  I think I had broken a toy, and my friend Scott had threatened to get me in trouble.  I remember hiding behind my dad’s recliner and pouring out my soul to God, begging for mercy.  While in the act of praying, I suddenly had this moment of self-awareness that I did this a lot.  Specifically, I realized that I only spoke to God when I was in trouble.  I wondered if God would like to hear from me on other occasions.  Deep thoughts for a little kid.

In around the 3rd grade, my mom and dad divorced.  My mom took my younger sister to another part of town to live with her, and I stayed with my dad.  For a couple of years, I enjoyed tremendous freedom.  My dad didn’t get home from his construction jobs until later in the day, and so directly after elementary school got out I traveled the neighborhood and played with my friends without having to report to anyone.  A couple years later, my dad got remarried and my stepmom put an end to me travelling around to anywhere I wanted without asking permission first.

One of the benefits of traveling around the neighborhood was getting the chance to form great friendships.  The most significant one was my best friend, Scott Travis, who lived two houses up the street.  He was a couple years older than me, but he loved to do sports, and I was often his best available option to play against.  When I say best available, I don’t mean with regards to talent.  I tended to be more interested in video games and things that are done indoors, like watching television.  I remember once when we were playing pickle with a baseball, that my mind wandered and I caught a baseball square in the mouth.  After having my mouth fill with blood, I never truly liked baseball again.  In later years, it wasn’t uncommon for me to catch a basketball in the face either (again, while my mind wandered). 

As far as being the best available person for Scott to play against, it was more about me having time available to play.  I tended to be lazy, but Scott was relentless until he got me outside.  I probably owe my good health to him now that I’m an adult.  Scott and I shared a lot of good and bad experiences together.  On the bad side, his parents got divorced about the same time as mine.  On the other side, we got into plenty of trouble together too.  Oh, it was so fun.  Once we were playing baseball in his house with hard candies as the baseballs and the bat slipped from his hands and went through the sliding glass door.  We both thought his parents were going to kill him, but he conjured enough remorseful tears that they spared him and even laughed about, saying “At least you didn’t break my favorite lamp, then you would be been in big trouble.”

On another occasion, we loaded up on ripe olives from a tree in his front yard and hid behind the fence in his back yard and pelted cars for days on end.  For people that don’t know, a ripe, black olive is purple inside and it explodes as readily as a cherry tomato with staining purple juice.  Unfortunately, we got caught a few times and that ended the fun.  The first time we got caught, the public bus line driver (who later became a good friend of mine) parked his bus around the corner after getting pelted.  While Scott and I refilled our arsenal in the front yard, a man in a uniform walked into the yard and confronted us, telling us it wasn’t okay. 

On yet another occasion, while it was dark outside, we pelted some redneck’s souped up truck.  You know the kind I’m talking about: shiny yellow paint, neon lights, polished rims, knobby 4×4 tires.  Well, after getting hit, that guy hit the brakes and was literally shredding asphalt and smoking his tires as he put his truck into reverse.  My friend hid behind a giant power box near the sidewalk, I dove into the nearest trash can.  Back then trash cans were made out of metal barrels.  I’m pretty sure I had a black bruise on the underside of one leg for weeks, but at least I didn’t get caught.  On the other hand, I was lucky enough to be able to hear the redneck chew out my buddy.

Sadly, however, I didn’t completely escape punishment.  It was after the redneck drove off that we went around the corner to my friend’s house and a different adult was in the driveway, heatedly discussing something with Scott’s dad.  As Scott and I appeared around the corner, the adult suddenly points at me and says “That’s him!”  The adult then started threatening to sue me because of the ‘damage’ done to his window.  Scott’s dad calmly went into the house, returned with a bottle of glass cleaner, sprayed one squirt on the guy’s window, and promptly removed the smudge.  Defeated, the adult went home.  Scott’s dad was my hero that day, and would be on many other occasions as well.

During my 5th grade year, I moved to a nearby town called Canyon Country.  While there, my friend Scott and his dad back in Newhall began going to a new church called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  This resulted in my friend Scott ditching caffeinated drinks and receiving (and actually wanting) expensive leather-bound scriptures.  Another thing that happened during my 6th grade year is that Scott and I began to grow a bit distant.  He was ahead of me in school, and in middle school by this time.  At the same time, I had adopted the bad habit of swearing.  I swore so much it probably would have made a construction worker blush.  That being said, my father never knew because, he being a strict disciplinarian, who also ironically swore like a construction worker, he would have given me the whipping of my life if he heard me talk that way.  At any rate, I think that my level of vulgarity sort of created a distance between Scott and myself.

Another thing that happened as I finished elementary school was that I attended graduation.  There was an award for the student most likely to succeed in life.  I held out enthusiastic hope that I would be chosen.  When I wasn’t, my heart sunk.  In fact, I became introspective about the situation. I thought back on recent years when a teacher had broken down in tears (a male teacher no less) because I had finally gotten a haircut and he felt so bad for me.  Due to alcoholism at home and the associated money mismanagement, we had lost our house and that is why we had moved to rental housing the year before.  I was aware that I was wearing hand me down clothing from other families that I didn’t like.  We were poor, and I wasn’t that smart.  I wasn’t most likely to succeed, I was probably the most unlikely to succeed.  That realization stung.

My 7th grade year was spent at the same middle school as Scott.  I was grateful to have a friend to hang out with.  I didn’t have any money, but he always had enough to help get me a snack during class breaks and it meant the world to me.  At Sierra Vista elementary school, our morning break options included a near frisbee-sized soft chocolate chip cookie and a chocolate milk.  It was so good.  Given how California is these days, I wouldn’t be surprised if the cookies have now been replaced with kale chips and the chocolate milk with tap water.

At any rate, that year flew by, and around that time Scott moved away because his dad had remarried.  Also around that time, my father went to prison.  He didn’t do anything terribly bad, he simply had been convicted of drunk driving too many times and that won him a 1-year stay in jail. My stepmom, whom I lived with, had a baby just before he left, and I was at home with her and the baby.  It was hard times.  I don’t know if I truly understood the financial pressure we were under, or how difficult it was on us.  I do remember on one occasion that I was in a life skills class and a teacher asked how I was doing, and in the process of explaining things, I broke down into tears in front of the entire class and the teacher had me stay after to talk.  I hadn’t remembered being upset before the question was asked, but I guess my life was like a damn of emotions that was ready to burst.

In 8th grade, God was going to make his reintroduction into my life in a strange way.  I was in a yearbook class and I met a 7th grader in that class that I came to like.  I was pretty good at traveling around town by bus (having made good friends with the bus driver whose bus I had once gleefully pelted with olives), so I determined to ask a particular girl to go to the movies with me.  I told some friends of my intention, and I think word got out.  Several times I tried to approach her at school to ask her out, but she was always surrounded by at least a half dozen other girls that all made eye contact with me whenever I got close, and the pressure was just too great.  On one occasion, one even ran up to me and said “Are you Degan?” I said yes, and she ran back to the crowd, giggling the entire way.

I’ll spoil the story right now and say that this was not a future romance in the making, but this experience did have an important role in my spiritual journey.  It was about that time that someone at school approached me and said “Hey, I understand you want to ask that girl out, but she won’t say yes.  She’s a Mormon, and they don’t date until they are 16.”  I was genuinely shocked by this assertion, but I was also curious.  I asked “What is a Mormon, and what else don’t they do?”  The person answered: “They also don’t smoke or drink.”  More might have been said in that conversation, but what was said was already enough to make it a milestone moment in my life.  I was left to ponder how my own life might be different if those rules existed in my family.  At that specific moment, I was living in hard circumstances.  My parents were divorced, my father was in prison, and we were poor.  Having a different set of standards would mean an entire world of difference in my life.

Still, this was not yet a religious experience.  As was typical at that time in my life, I spent every other weekend at my mom’s house which was in Saugus, a neighboring city to Canyon Country.

I had a neighbor friend there who was a year older than me.  I remember clearly how excited I was to tell my neighbor Ryan about this alien faith I’d learned about that week.  I told him: “This girl is a Mormon, and they don’t date until they are 16 and don’t smoke and drink and stuff like that.  Isn’t that weird?” His response was basically along these lines: “Not really, I’m a Mormon too.”  I couldn’t have been more surprised if he had told me he was also secretly in the FBI.  I asked him why he had never told me, and it didn’t seem like it was a big deal to him.

Shortly after that time is when I began to develop a personal witness that God did in fact live.  One of the first experiences I had with God was simply being in Ryan’s home.  If you’ve ever jumped into a warm pool, you know that the feeling is different than being in the open air.  You feel it everywhere.  In the same sense, whenever I walked into Ryan’s home, I felt something and it didn’t matter if Ryan’s parents were there or even if Ryan was there.  There was something palpable, and it was amazing.  It was like nothing else I had ever felt in my life.  It felt like love, and peace, and warmth.  I had never felt this anywhere on earth before.  Once I spoke with Ryan’s mom about that feeling, and she explained it was the Spirit of God and that others had felt it in their home as well and had commented on it.  I didn’t know a lot about God or doctrine at that point, but I felt a resolve in my heart that “whatever it takes to have this feeling in a home and in a family, I want it.”

In retrospect, it is interesting to consider how things played out after that.  Ryan, I think, was probably comfortable and complacent with his faith, while I was like a baby eating ice cream for the first time and finding it absolutely AMAZING.  I remember Ryan’s mom essentially saying “Hey Ryan, you should invite Degan to Wednesday night mutual.”  Which, by the way, was amazing.  I learned about camping and that you called toilet paper ‘mountain money’ when you are camping because you can sell it to other kids who run out for 25 cents a square.  Mini candy bars can also make you rich, too.  On another occasion, she encouraged Ryan to invite me to church.  I accepted, and it was also amazing.  I just absolutely loved it.  It was like I was discovering a truth that I already knew and was just remembering it.  They invited me to receive the missionary discussions, and I took formal lessons about the gospel and began reading the scriptures on my own.

Life was not about to get easy, however.  If you are familiar with the story of the Hero’s Journey, popularized by Joseph Campbell, it tells of the recurring theme in hero stories in which a super power is gained, the hero then encounters a great trial and is trapped in the belly of a beast, and then with the support of a mentor, the hero learns how to emerge from darkness and defeat the beast.  I still had my own hero’s journey to live through.

Although I spent every other weekend at my mom’s house, I spent the bulk of the time at my dad’s house.  During my freshman year in high school, I decided to attend seminary, which is a church class that occurs before school starts in the morning.  I liked being around members of the Church of Jesus Christ so much, that I would willingly get up before school in the morning, walk however many miles it was to the church, attend an hour of seminary, and then walk to school well before 8 am.  Needless to say, this enthusiasm was a little unique.  I suspect that many teenagers my age had to be coaxed into attending seminary, and were driven there by their parents.

My dad and stepmom were not happy about my interest in the “Mormon” faith.  I experienced a lot of resistance. One of them actively called it a cult, even though they had no first-hand experience with the faith.  Still, I had an overwhelming feeling that I was doing the right thing and that this faith was probably true, although I wasn’t certain yet.  I had a hope, but not a personal witness.  Not only was I seeing great changes in my life–happiness, confidence, understanding–but I began to see miracles outside of myself as well.  As a way to keep me from going to seminary and to church, my stepmother would look for excuses to ground me.  At that age, I most often got in trouble for forgetting to feed the dogs in a timely manner.  Once, while I was grounded from seminary, my stepmother had her car break down in a bad area in Los Angeles.  She decided to test God.  She said a prayer.  She said “God, if you want Degan to go to seminary, send me a sign and make this car start.”  It did, and she was so astounded that she came home and dutifully reported about her experience with God that day and said that I could go to seminary again.

Another challenge I experienced involved my neighbors.  My neighbors were active members of another faith.  The father was particularly passionate in his antagonism of the LDS faith.  One day my dad/stepmom told me that my neighbors were going to give me a ride home from my summer job. Instead of taking me home, they took me at least an hour’s drive in the other direction.  This had been agreed upon by my dad/stepmom.  During the entire drive the father was throwing doctrine at me, asserting to me that I was on the wrong path.  To be honest, I felt like a fragile young man and it was terrifying to have an adult who was so much more knowledgeable about the world taking me to task.  We ended up having dinner with his family, and a comical outcome followed.  The host family offered me Coca Cola, and I politely declined.  When they asked why, I explained that I didn’t drink caffeinated drinks.  The hosts were intrigued and asked why.  I explained that avoiding caffeine was part of the faith I was investigating.  The family was intrigued, and peppered me with sincere questions, saying that they had never heard of this church.  They asked for guidance in finding a local chapel.  I offered to help them find it in the local phone book and even explained that missionaries would be happy to talk to them about their questions.  The father that brought me was mortified and couldn’t wait to get me out of there before I found the address in a phone book.

The trip home was similar to the preceding trip, the father threw more doctrine at me than I could respond to because I hadn’t studied the gospel for the sake of challenging others about their beliefs, I studied the gospel to build my own faith in Christ.  When I got home, I thought about one of the scriptures that he had quoted to me that had confused me.  I randomly opened my scriptures, and it opened directly to a page that answered the question I had.  It was an answer from God.  I broke down in tears.  I wasn’t used to having adults come at me with such intensity and it was a hard thing to experience.  But there was a silver lining in that God was with me the whole time, and I saw His hand clearly.

Over the course of approximately one year I had associated with missionaries, high school students who were members of the church, and general members of the church, but I had not crossed the threshold of actually asking God if this church was true.  I completed my reading of the Book of Mormon, and was left with the promise found in Moroni 10:3-5.  It states: “by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.”

In a singular moment in my life, I remember being alone in my bedroom, kneeling by my bed.  I felt the weight of the question I was about to ask.  If I did not receive an answer, then perhaps everything I had learned was just wishful thinking.  I had to have faith in that moment, just like when I was 2 and standing on a roof and my father asked me to jump. With incredible anticipation, I asked God my question.  Then, in a moment that is incomparable in my life, both before and since, the Spirit of God bore witness to me in answer to my question with a burning like fire that started in my chest and expanded to every part of my body.  I had received my answer, God lives, Christ lives, The Book of Mormon is true scripture, and God’s church is restored on this earth today.

Despite this answer, a difficult road was still ahead of me.  I asked to be baptized, but my father said that I could not be baptized into a faith he did not agree with.  He said I would have to wait until I was 18 and a legal adult.  That would be over 3 years from then, and the weight I felt inside was overwhelming.  I loved my dad and stepmom dearly, and we got along well enough, but our home environment was difficult to live in because of the things going on in their lives.

One bright memory during this time was having Scott come into town on a random visit one Sunday.  He had no idea that I had started attending the same church that he had joined.  When he saw me, he was gobsmacked.  I looked different, I was dressed in church clothes, even my hair was different.  It was amazing that my own spiritual journey was not a result of or related to his journey, but here we were, brothers or at least neighbors at first and now brothers in the gospel at last.  What an amazing outcome.  [Years later, when I went on a mission, his dad, Dave, took me through the temple.  Now, his daughter eats in our home while attending BYU.  There are many stories in between that I don’t have time to tell here.]

I turned to God to ask Him to help me with the situation I was in.  I wanted to be baptized. My prayer was answered in a surprising way.  My father got in trouble for drunk driving again, and would be in prison for another year.  At the same time, an aunt called and said “you can come live with me if you would like, and by the way, I was baptized as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

While living with my aunt, I took more missionary discussions, and as my guardian, she allowed me to be baptized. It was an incredibly spiritual event.  We sang one of my favorite hymns, ‘Because I Have Been Given Much’.  Friends from my new school attended.  Ryan from Saugus baptized me. There was an earthquake aftershock during the service (we were near San Francisco), and Ryan’s mom said “that is the Lord letting you know He is pleased” and I think we all felt that way inside.

In the years that followed, through to this day, I have continued to grow in my faith and testimony of God and his gospel.  If someone were to ask me what am I most grateful for in my entire life, I would say that it is my knowledge that God lives and that his gospel is restored to the earth today.  Every blessing I enjoy in my life–family, friends, my job, my health—every one is a result of knowing that God lives and of me being true to that knowledge.