I was born a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. My parents were converts, and the first in their families to be married in the temple. I was baptized at the age of eight and had a typical beginning to what some would call a “Mormon upbringing.”
Then my father died and my mother re-married. The tragedy of it all sent my family into a spiritual nose-dive and tail spin. That story isn’t mine to tell, but in that very long story turned short, I spent most of my youth church hopping.
Perhaps the most vivid memories I have of that time were the summers of my youth spent visiting New Vrindaban, a Hare Krishna community in the hills of West Virginia. We’d stay in the temple, chant the mantras, and dance with the devotees. I’d wear colorful sarees, help cook in the kitchens, feed peacocks, and walk through the Palace of Gold with a sense of awe and reverence.
One particular summer I sat on the floor (there were no tables or chairs) in the prasadam hall, where meals were served. Munching on a banana and fresh bread with my family, I noticed an old man approaching me. He was a devotee with whisps of white hair, a slow gait, and an outfit of traditional orange robes. In his hands was a beautiful flower garland. I recognized it immediately. I’d seen the women of the community stringing them together, surrounded in a sea of color. It was a garland for a deity, made daily to place around the necks of their Gods.
The devotee came up to me, placed the garland around my neck, and said, “I heard there was a goddess in here.” Without another word he promptly walked away. While you may be thinking this experience could be labeled as creepy or strange, the sweet, gentle spirit this man possessed was so full of light that I can only look back and see this exchange as special and humbling.
I still don’t know what prompted him to give me the garland, but I kept it for years. It hung on a nook in our dining room, then across a mirror in our living room until I graduated from college. It dried out, wrinkled, but remained a constant reminder of how I felt when the devotee gave it to me and what it made me wonder.
Was I important? Was I worth something? When nothing could save me from the abuse that would come in the following years that would forever alter my ability to trust and love, I’d look at the garland and think that maybe it was possible that someone could find worth in me someday. It helped me believe I was worth something.
My family’s religious journey came full circle and brought us back to the Church. The garland itself is long gone. But I thought of it recently. In a culture and society that seems to be ripping itself apart with contention, with gleeful calls for blood for the slightest misstep or unappreciated Facebook post, I questioned my ability to love as Christ loved. How can I foster the types of relationships I want, that are not only fulfilling, but peaceful? How can I have charity and make a difference?
The answer came in that little garland. In the moment that garland was placed around my neck, and each time I looked at it for years, I was reminded of my eternal potential. In a world that constantly seeks to undermine our divine nature, Heavenly Father would have us embrace who we really are and then strive to help others do the same. Consider the story from President Thomas S. Monson about a very successful missionary who found all of his baptisms by tracting. When asked how that was possible, he responded he pictured everyone he met as if they were dressed in baptismal white.
“When I look at someone that way, I have the capacity to bear my testimony to him in a way that can touch his heart,” he said.
The garland has taught me about how to treat others. In every interaction I have with people, it is now my hope that I can act in such a way that they feel capable of reaching their infinite potential. Whether it’s on Facebook or across the dinner table, I try to help them feel loved. And that’s hard. Really, really hard sometimes. But I believe it’s what Christ would have us do.
If I could, I’d place a beautiful flower garland around your neck right now and tell you how much you matter. How proud I am that you claw with your hands and nails in the dirt to do good, be good. How excited I am to see you shine with the belief that you are glorious. How everything I feel is dwarfed in comparison by what Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ feel.
If that is hard for your to feel or believe, it is my prayer that you can have a “garland moment” just when you need it.