Converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are valued members with diverse backgrounds, and they have much to offer in their church service.
Even in a pandemic, the Church saw 125,930 convert baptisms in 2020 according to a statistical report from the First Presidency.
But who are the people joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
Tony Mortezazadeh had no intention of being baptized when he moved from Iran to the United States in 1979.
Mortezazadeh was a proud Muslim at the time, and he planned to keep it that way. But in 1978, revolution broke out in Iran, and 16-year-old Mortezazadeh started getting more involved in the fight than his parents were comfortable with.
“I would skip school, and I would go with my friends and we would make bombs in a bottle and throw them at the soldiers. And of course, the soldiers would be shooting back, and I witnessed some people that I was with getting shot and getting killed, and I was just lucky,” Mortezazadeh said.
Out of fear for their son’s safety, Mortezazadeh’s parents suggested that he go live in the United States, despite his desires to stay in Iran.
Mortezazadeh finished high school and attended college where he befriended two sisters, Nancy and Denise, who were members of the Church. His interest was piqued after learning about their values, which were very similar to the values that he was raised with as a Muslim.
Mortezazadeh decided to move to Utah to stay close to these sisters as they attended BYU. It was in Salt Lake City that he was introduced to the missionaries.
“I met a guy named Osman, and Osman was originally from Turkey,” Mortezazadeh said. “He had joined the Church, and he actually served a mission, and he was disowned by his family, and was adopted by a family in Price. One day we are talking and I’m telling him about these Mormon girls, Nancy and Denise. He said, ‘Well, you know, I’m a Mormon myself.’”
Osman introduced Mortezazadeh to the missionaries, but Mortezazadeh had his own plan in mind.
“I had seen some of the missionaries around. I knew they were younger guys and probably less experienced and knowledgeable, and so I thought that was a good opportunity for me to maybe teach them why they were wrong and I was right,” Mortezazadeh said.
Mortezazadeh believed that Muhammad was the last prophet, and struggled with the things the elders taught him. The elders that taught him did not know much about Islam and it was difficult for Mortezazadeh to accept the idea of another prophet after Muhammad.
“Once in a while, I would think about what that young missionary had told me to do. One day I was just thinking about Joseph and I thought, ‘This man was either a total lunatic, or he really believed in what he said because he was willing to die for what he believed to be true,’” Mortezazadeh said.
After some time had passed and he had met with a couple sets of missionaries, Mortezazadeh thought back on the words of the first missionary who taught him and challenged him to pray for an answer. He took that challenge one Friday night as he waited for his friends to get off work.
“As I was praying, I just had a really overwhelming feeling come over me, and I started sobbing and crying. I stopped for a second and I thought, ‘Why are you crying? What’s wrong with you?”
Mortezazadeh realized in that moment that this was a sign from God. He said after that experience, he knew without a shadow of doubt that the story of Joseph was true and the Book of Mormon was true.
Mortezazadeh was baptized in 1984, and a few years later, he met his wife Kristy, who grew up in Mona, Utah.
But being a convert from Islam posed its own challenges.
“Since I was from a very small town, for me to even consider marrying someone, ‘from where?’ I think people were very surprised about that,” Kristy Mortezazadeh said. “When they find out he’s from Iran, they do get kind of a ‘Huh, wonder what kind of guy he is.’ So, you have to get to know him. And then if you do, then you know he’s a great person and good guy.”
Mortezazadeh is now a husband, father, translator for General Conference and high councilman for the Provo Married Student 23rd Ward, and his background gives him a unique perspective as a member of the Church.
He said one of the things that interested him in the Church to begin with was how the two sisters in California had beliefs so close to what he had been taught as a Muslim — no drinking, no smoking, no premarital sex. ”All of those things that were important to me as a Muslim, and here was somebody else in America believing in the same things.”
This background helped Mortezazadeh understand and develop his testimony of Jesus Christ and grow in the gospel. He said he hopes members of the Church will realize that “we have a heck of a lot more in common with Muslims” rather than the differences in beliefs.
Converts to the Church come from all types of backgrounds, with many of them blending in perfectly with the students at BYU.
Texas native and BYU student Zoe Nackos grew up attending a Baptist church as a kid, but she started attending The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with her dad when she was 12 years old. Her dad was a member of the Church; her mom was not. Because of this, her mom required that she wait until she was 18 to get baptized.
“As a 12-year-old, that’s pretty hard to hear because I just want to do this good thing,” Nackos said. She remembers having to wait to get baptized only got harder the older she got.
“As I got older it became more and more frustrating. I couldn’t go on temple trips, I couldn’t hold a calling. It was really hard to watch all my friends sometimes take that for granted when (that was all I wanted),” she said.
Nackos attended high school all the while looking forward to her 18th birthday, which was the date set for her baptism. After much thought and consideration, Nackos approached her mom about attending BYU after high school.
Her mom told her that if she wanted to go to BYU, she might as well get baptized and get member tuition. “That was definitely not what I was expecting her to say. I still figured I had to wait until my birthday. Instead, it was like five months before, and she also let me and my two younger sisters get baptized as well at the same time. That was a huge miracle,” Nackos said.
With the support of her home ward and her mom’s blessing, Nackos and two of her sisters were baptized on Nov. 5, 2016.
Nackos started attending BYU the next fall, and decided to serve a full-time mission. She was called to serve in the visitors’ center in Independence, Missouri, the same place where she decided she wanted to serve a mission while on a youth conference trip before she was even baptized.
Nackos’ mission helped her strengthen her faith in Christ and understand how to learn about Church history faithfully.
“If you don’t have the Spirit with you, (anti-material) is going to affect your testimony and it’s going to make you question everything that you know… It really doesn’t affect the covenants (you) make in the temple (or) affect your testimony of Jesus Christ unless you let it become that stumbling block.”
Texas-native David Jones, a BYU student studying neuroscience, shares a very similar experience with Nackos.
“I grew up Christian, but we were just nondenominational, nothing specific… My parents divorced when I was two, so I was primarily raised by my mom,” Jones said.
Jones grew in his relationship with God early in his childhood. But without a father figure in the home, Jones also looked to God in times of trials where others would look to a parent, thus developing his faith in prayer from an early age.
This relationship with God followed Jones into high school, where he was exposed to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by a few of his classmates. One friend, Courtney, eventually invited him to church and to Sunday dinners with her family.
After attending church several times over the course of about a year, Jones faced the question of whether Joseph Smith was a prophet. In an attempt to prove a point and disprove the members of the Church, he decided to read the Book of Mormon.
On a Sunday approximately one year later, Jones had finished reading the Book of Mormon and prayed to ask if it was true.
“I prayed that morning, and I didn’t get an answer…So I went to church, and I was sitting in the chair with my arms crossed. Then about halfway through that meeting, I felt something start from the top of my head, and it washed down through me, and all the anxious feeling I had was just washed away. And then I heard a voice come into my head that said, ‘it is true.’”
Jones had to wait until he was 18 to get baptized because his mom did not approve of his decision. He was baptized on Dec. 31, 2016, and went to school at Texas A&M before serving a full-time mission in Cusco, Peru and Kennewick, Washington.
Jones said he is grateful for his background as a convert to the Church because of the added confidence that he has in his own personal testimony. When people tell him that he is brainwashed and naive in his faith, Jones can easily combat that claim because of his conversion at a later age.
“I definitely enjoy the perspective having been raised in a different culture. I love the Church’s doctrine. I love the Church completely. I’ve had so many things happen to say that it’s true, I can never deny that,” he said.
Ashley Rivera, a BYU computer science major and Florida-native, met the missionaries after they knocked on her door at the beginning of her senior year in high school.
“I was raised by my mom to be a nondenominational Christian. I prayed every night and all these things I was familiar with, but I wouldn’t go to a specific church,” Rivera said.
Rivera’s mom was resistant to having the missionaries over when they first knocked on their door, but she allowed them to come back to help her daughter strengthen her relationship with God.
“One day I just, I was honestly put on my knees by God and I was just like, ‘Alright, my situation kind of sucks right now’, and I had actually stopped praying for a bit when the missionaries showed up because I was going through some stuff,” Rivera said.
She said she opened up the Book of Mormon and read the introduction, which talks about gaining a testimony through prayer. “And then I got this reply that was like ‘it’s time to be baptized.’”
Rivera did not have to wait until her 18th birthday to be baptized, as her mom was supportive of her decision to pursue her faith. She was baptized on Oct. 12, 2019, and her mom was baptized five months later on Feb. 15, 2020.
“I didn’t anticipate ever getting baptized or becoming a member because I didn’t know about the Church,” she said. “I was like, ‘How do I balance that now? How am I Ashley that goes to school and Ashley that goes to work and Ashley that goes to church?’”
Rivera said she decided to come to BYU because she wanted to surround herself with people who had similar values and learn more as a new convert to the Church.
“It’s so much fun (here) because everybody else grew up in the Church, everybody else served missions, and I’m just that odd man out, but I never feel like an odd man out because they’re just so welcoming,” Rivera said.