Leer en español: Buscad y hallaréis: Arriesgando todo para descubrir la verdad
LIBERTY, Mo. — The threat of execution, never seeing his family again and being barred from his home country weighed heavily on Saeed Al-Awlaqi’s mind as he pondered whether or not to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Saeed is originally from Yemen but has spent most of his life in Saudi Arabia, where Islamic law dictates that converting to another religion is punishable by death.
“It’s scary, not having freedom to choose whatever you want or whatever you believe,” he said. “This is a very big decision, it’s not an easy thing.”
For months Saeed pondered if he should renounce the Sunni Islam religion that he had known all his life for the Christian faith he had discovered less than a year earlier. Like Joseph Smith, Saeed’s mind was “called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness” (JSH 1:8).
“It made me think a lot. If I convert, what will happen to me in the future?” Saeed said. “I was praying and asking Heavenly Father to guide me.”
Saeed’s journey of discovering the Church was also very similar to Joseph’s experience of asking which church he should join. Both men’s journeys started with a mix of curiosity and turning to the Bible.
Shortly after moving to the U.S. to pursue an MBA in 2017, Saeed was invited to a Christmas party where he was shown the Bible.
“I think this was the beginning,” he said. “It was the first time I touched the Bible because the Bible is prohibited in Suadi Arabia.”
He then attended various Muslim mosques and Christian churches in an attempt to quench his desire to know which one was true.
“We don’t have churches back home,” Saeed said. “I wanted to discover what is happening in the churches. What do they have? What do they believe? The whole concept.”
When Saeed’s brother, who lives in Ireland and had already joined the Church, heard that Saeed was attending different churches, he encouraged him to go to a meeting of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I had never heard of this church before; it was something new to me,” Saeed said. “He (my brother) told me, ‘Just go and you will see how friendly they are, how nice they are.’”
Figuring he had nothing to lose from visiting another church, Saeed went to a Sunday meeting in July 2018. The first thing he noticed when he walked through the doors was that all the men were wearing suits.
“That was amazing to me because usually people wear suits when they are going to a place which is important to them,” he said.
Not entirely sure where to go or what to do in this strange new environment, Saeed stopped someone in the hallway, told him it was his first time there and asked him for help.
“What he (my brother) said was right,” Saeed said. The man he met in the hallway took him to Sunday School, where Saeed said everyone was warm and welcoming. When he told them about his Muslim background, “everyone was surprised and wanted to know more about me.”
Saeed eventually started taking lessons with the sister missionaries while also investigating the other churches he had been attending. Lost among a “tumult of opinions” (JSH 1:10), Saeed used every resource available to him to try to find the truth.
“I asked all types of questions, maybe some you’ve never imagined,” he said. “I was asking everybody.”
One thing that he particularly struggled with was accepting the idea of Christianity. He met with sister missionaries once or twice a week for months in an attempt to understand it better.
“Because of what I had been taught, it was so, so difficult for me,” he said. “I just wanted to get the idea.”
It was also difficult for him to adjust to reading the Book of Mormon. Instead of sticking with a single physical book, he prefers reading from a large variety of sources online.
“But I read the Book of Mormon a lot, which is something unusual for me,” he said.
Despite these initial difficulties, there was also a lot about the gospel that was easy for Saeed to accept, such as the Word of Wisdom. He found many similarities between the Church and Isalm, too.
The first time he heard about Joseph Smith from the missionaries, Saeed immediately saw connections between Joseph’s story and that of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Saeed says both men came during a time of apostasy to restore God’s word and both received guidance directly from God.
Saeed also saw similarities between Joseph and himself. “Joseph Smith was asking Heavenly Father if he was on the right track. I was in a similar situation because I was asking Heavenly Father if I was in the right place or not.”
The answer to Saeed’s prayer didn’t come as a grandiose vision like Joseph’s but instead as a feeling of calm and peace, and in April 2019, he told the missionaries he wanted to get baptized.
“I decided to accept Christianity and accept Jesus Christ as my savior,” he remembers. “It is one of the best decisions I have ever taken in my life and I’m so happy that I took this big step.”
His conversion hit a huge roadblock, however, when he was told that he would not be able to get baptized because of his Muslim background and the persecution he would inevitably face when his visa expired and he would be forced to return to his country.
The Church’s general policy is to prohibit missionaries from teaching Muslims who may return to a Muslim country without first talking with the mission president.
Rodney Ames, Saeed’s bishop in the young single adult ward he attends, pulled him aside after Saeed came to church a few times to explain this to him.
“If someone is Muslim and from a practicing Muslim country, it’s very dangerous for them to convert to Christianity and it can also be very dangerous for that’s person’s family at home,” Ames said.
The only way around the Church’s policy would be a letter from the First Presidency, the top governing body of the Church.
Saeed worked with Bishop Ames to prepare a letter to the First Presidency asking for an exception.
“I was touched by Saeed’s genuine search and his integrity of soul about the decision he was making to accept Christ and to be baptized,” Ames said. “It was extremely touching and inspiring to me. It strengthened my faith watching him make that decision. I’m very proud of Saeed.”
They waited two weeks for a response. During this time Saeed prayed daily, asking Heavenly Father for help.
“I was praying to Heavenly Father every day that if I convert, things will be okay,” he said. “I believe that my prayers were answered because I got the approval letter to be baptized.”
He added that the way everything fell into place for him to find and eventually join the Church is evidence of God’s hand in his life. “All the things in the past led me to be here in the Church,” he said. “If this was the wrong place, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be in a different place, in a different church in a different area.”
Since joining the Church, Saeed said he has seen changes in his own life, specifically an increase in self-confidence and happiness. The change is so strong, he said others around him have seen it, too.
“Before I became a member, I was having a hard time, especially with happiness, but I found that here in the gospel,” he said. “One of my friends told me, ‘Saeed, I see that you are happy…I can see there are some differences in your life and your personality.’”
Even with the happiness the gospel has brought him, Saeed still struggles at times with the weight of the possible repercussions of his decision to be baptized.
“It’s very difficult when I think about it,” he said. “It means there is a possibility that I will not see my family anymore. It’s a very big decision, a very big step.”
Despite this, he says he has never considered renouncing his faith. Examples of the early Saints and Joseph Smith give Saeed strength. “I believe somehow they had similar experiences to what I’m having. They faced death and all kinds of bad things, but still they were traveling and went from place to place because they had faith,” he said.
Like Joseph Smith, Saeed had found the truth for himself and “all the persecution under heaven could not make it otherwise” (JSH 1:24).
“If I have the good things now, why would I return to the bad things?” Saeed said. “I took this step and became a member even though there were risks, including the biggest risk of facing execution … But I just put this away and was like ‘things will work out, I am in the right place.’”
Though he doesn’t know what the future may hold, Saeed is continuing to progress in the gospel. He is currently serving as a ward mission leader and recently received his patriarchal blessing and the Melchizedek priesthood. He plans to receive his endowment, a sacred ordinance (ceremony) designed to prepare members of the Church for the afterlife, in May.
Saeed’s advice for others who may be struggling with difficult decisions is to not give up and to turn to others for help.
“Sometimes we might face a difficult time when we’re asking Heavenly Father something and haven’t received an answer, so I think we should keep asking and reading the Book of Mormon,” he said. “In time we will receive something, we just need to be patient.”