My testimony is who I am. I am the accumulation of what my parents and their parents passed down to me, and the understanding I have gained from experiences in all aspects of my life. It is not just something I say. It is not just what I do or what I think. It is part of the essence of what makes me, me.
My father was born in Provo, Utah, and went with his family to Southern California when his father was seeking work during the Depression. His mother was of Mormon handcart pioneer stock and his father was a Catholic from Wisconsin. They met when my grandfather was stationed in Provo with the US Army to guard the power plant during early World War I. Grandpa didn`t join the Church until many years later. Grandma was just a small town girl who made great pies and hugged her grandchildren a lot. As a side note, this simple country girl took up china painting when she was fifty and had one of her pieces put on permanent display in the Smithsonian before she died.
My mother was born in Houston, Texas, and was a convert to the Church before I was born. As another side note, her father learned to fly from Wilbur Wright and was one of the “early birds” whose name is engraved on the Wright Brothers Memorial at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Her parents divorced when she was young and her mother joined the Church a few years before she died. Her father was always gracious, but was not interested in the Church.
Even though my father’s mother was a believing Mormon, his family was not active in the Church. Family legend has it that her grandfather was on his way to the bishop’s storehouse to pay his tithing with a wagonload of potatoes when one of his neighbors told him there was no need to go because he had “just been excommunicated” from the Church. Family legend does not say why. My father was baptized quite late for those born in the Church (at age sixteen; the usual age is eight) and he did not set foot in the church again until he was reactivated while serving in the Navy during World War II. Apparently his mother sent word to the Church that my father was stationed in Florida and he was visited by a Church member who challenged him with an inquiry as to what he was doing “about the eternal welfare of his family?” He responded positively to the challenge, became active and converted my mother.
My early experiences
I was born a couple of years later with my father and mother both active in the Church. They took me to church and taught me right and wrong, but were not rigid, by-the-book Mormons. I suspect my mother was never fully converted because she occasionally remarked that she was still a Methodist at heart. I remember my mother once telling me that I would “never amount to anything in the Church because,” as a California Mormon, “I was not related to anybody” of importance. Balancing that statement, I also remember her saying that I was “special” because my father had promised God while my mother was pregnant that he would “dedicate me to His service” if I were a boy (I have an older sister and a younger brother). These comments stuck with me my whole life.
I always thought there was a God. I felt the presence of spiritual beings, especially while going to sleep at night. I attended church meetings with my parents and went up through the age grades in the Primary (the children’s organization). I noticed as a youth that if I sat near the front of the chapel in church meetings that I felt a special warmth that I did not feel if I sat out in the overflow area where most kids wanted to sit. I was never severely tempted to smoke or drink or be immoral. I was just a normal Mormon kid who became an Eagle Scout, studied hard in high school, and looked forward to a life of happiness and achievement. In my senior year at Burbank High School I was captain of the swim team and student body president. I felt like I was king of the school. I didn’t think of myself as a missionary, but found myself frequently involved in discussions about religion at the back of the bus on the way to swim meets and with non-LDS girls I was dating. To my surprise, three of my close high school friends joined the Church. In my senior year I decided to turn down an offer of admission to a prestigious California university and go to BYU. The principal called me into his office and pleaded with me to reconsider because he felt I was about to make a mistake I would “regret for the rest of my life.” A profound turning point for me was when I was getting on the bus for the All Night Party at Disneyland after the evening high school graduation ceremony held in the Burbank Starlight Bowl in the Verdugo Hills overlooking the San Fernando Valley. As I saw the lights stretching over the large valley I remember being struck by the thought that all the “glory” of high school and of this world was fleeting and ultimately of little value. I felt an emptiness that longed for filling.
Going off to college
My parents moved from Burbank as soon as I graduated and I lived with my sister, three years older than I am, in an apartment in a neighboring town during the summer because we both had summer jobs in the area. Those three months were the spiritual low point of my life: I was away from home for the first time and living in a lonely, anonymous environment. My sister had her own life and I felt stranded. I hardly went to church at all that summer. When it became time to head up to BYU in the fall, I looked forward to turning over a new leaf and being completely active in the Church. When I got to Provo, I was 100 percent active in my BYU student ward, and for the first time I discovered how fulfilling and meaningful church service could be. I went to BYU expecting to be surrounded by “farmers” (as a Southern California teenager, we made fun of people at the beach with “farmers’ tans”). I was admitted to the Honors Program and was quickly disabused of any feelings of superiority. I had great professors and was impressed with the quality of the students, and especially of the recently returned missionaries I met on campus. When I started at BYU, I told myself and others that I would go on a mission after completing my undergraduate education, but the enthusiasm of the former missionaries had penetrated and I applied to go as soon as I was old enough the summer following my freshman year.
I studied Japanese on a lark as a freshman and, not surprisingly, I was called to serve in Japan. I was kind of a “hot shot” at the beginning of my mission because I was one of the very few missionaries who had studied Japanese before the mission. In those days, missionaries were literally dumped into Japanese society without formal language training and were expected to be stopping people on the street and inviting them to meetings during their first week in the country. I remember the first missionary testimony meeting I attended; experienced missionaries bore what I perceived to be fervent testimonies that they “knew” the Book of Mormon and the Church were true. I recall saying something weak like, ”I hope the Church and the Book of Mormon are true.” While not satisfying to me, I did not worry about it, or go tell my mission president that I wanted to go home because I didn’t have a testimony. I just went to work with my companion doing what missionaries are supposed to do, and studied hard about the Gospel, as well as the language. At another missionary testimony meeting a couple of months later, I found myself saying, and believing it, that I “knew” the Church and the Book of Mormon were true and that Jesus Christ was my savior. I can’t put my finger on exactly when I gained this conviction. It just came, and has never wavered since then.
I had read the Book of Mormon only once before my mission and had never read the Bible cover to cover. I came to love the scriptures on my mission. I also learned that the value of a single soul is great in the sight of the Lord. I had one convert baptism to my name when I left Japan, and he went inactive in the Church shortly after joining. However, there was a college student that my companion and I contacted while he was working out with the university swim team just three weeks after I arrived in Japan. We scaled a chain-link fence to get access to the pool area. He was baptized after I was transferred to another area, and he later became one of the top church leaders in Japan who has brought dozens, if not hundreds, of people into the Church during his life. He is a living example of that old saying, “you can count the number of seeds in the apple, but you can’t count the number of apples in the seed.” Despite the paucity of baptisms, I felt a deep satisfaction when boarding the plane home that my mission had definitely been worth the two-and-a-half years I had spent on it.
As a returned missionary at BYU
After my mission in the spring of 1968, I was obliged to enroll immediately at BYU and had to stay for summer school to keep from being drafted. I really didn’t want to be there. My parents had divorced while I was on my mission and my father had remarried to a lovely lady who was not a Mormon. He met me at the Los Angeles airport while I was waiting for my flight to Salt Lake and was smoking a pipe, as if to signal me as to his activity status in the Church. He told me that, due to the change in his circumstances, he could not help me financially and I was on my own. I arrived at BYU penniless and with no idea how I would support myself.
A miracle occurred soon after arriving at BYU, when the professor who taught me Japanese as a freshman told me that I could have a room in his house for free. He had ten children and I was treated as number eleven. I ate with his family and all I had to do in return was to be what I have jokingly referred to as his “slave” (e.g. I built a fence, helped him finish his basement, baby-sat his children and served as his research assistant). This was entirely acceptable because I had time but no money.
One afternoon that summer I was studying in my room at the professor’s house and was not at all happy about life. I felt lonely and wanted to be in California with my family. Like many recently returned missionaries, I had a hard time getting back into the dating and social scene after the mission. I wondered if anyone loved me. In this state of heightened emotional sensitivity, I remember looking out the window and seeing clouds swirling around the top of nearby Mt. Timpanogos after a brief summer shower, and I had a strong feeling I should go outside into his large and private back yard (which I had fenced). The sight of the mountains, near dusk with the setting sun making them aflame with various shades of red, overwhelmed me. I began to pray vocally and asked my Heavenly Father, simply, if He loved me. At that moment I felt as if my body was being filled with a hot liquid, beginning in my toes and moving slowly upwards. When it got to my head I began to cry and spontaneously started to sing the LDS hymn “Oh, My Father,” which goes in part:
O my Father, thou that dwellest
In the high and glorious place,
When shall I regain thy presence
And again behold thy face?
In thy holy habitation,
Did my spirit once reside?
In my first primeval childhood
Was I nurtured near thy side?
I had learned to call thee Father,
Thru thy Spirit from on high,
But, until the key of knowledge
Was restored, I knew not why.
In the heav’ns are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason; truth eternal
Tells me I’ve a mother there.
When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you
In your royal courts on high?
Then, at length, when I’ve completed
All you sent me forth to do,
With your mutual approbation
Let me come and dwell with you.
I had no doubt that my Heavenly Parents loved me more than I could comprehend, and all I really wanted in life was to return to live with them someday.
After that late summer experience, the fall semester rolled around, and I was called to serve as the head of the young men’s organization in my ward. I worked with the head of the young women’s organization and we planned and executed many fun activities for our ward. Toward the end of the winter term we started to date and got engaged shortly thereafter. We were married that summer. To my surprise, I was called to serve as a counselor in the bishopric of our singles ward just ten days after our marriage. This reinforced how much I loved church service. I subsequently served in two other bishoprics at BYU before graduating. The opportunity to serve continued in graduate school, when I was called to be a member of high councils while in my PhD program at the University of Michigan and while attending Harvard Law School.
Our first couple of years in Ann Arbor were challenging, both academically and church-wise. I was actually not admitted to the Anthropology Ph.D. program at first, despite the fact that I had a full 4 year fellowship in Anthropology from the National Science Foundation. The professor with whom I wanted to study told me to come anyway and enroll in a Japan Studies M.A. program, while taking the full first year course work for the anthropology Ph.D. program and, thus, getting to know the department faculty. I later learned that I was the first applicant to the program from BYU and a student from Princeton was admitted for the only slot available. I was duly admitted the second year and was not delayed in my progress. A year later I failed the part of my doctoral exams which was read by a professor who was a former Mormon and very bitter about the Church. I told my advisor, with whom I had become very close, that this professor “hated me” (he scathingly referred to my religion as a “cargo cult” in his written critique of the exam), which my professor did not think possible because he said the other man was a “professional.” When told that he threatened me on the telephone with physical violence over an imagined slight, my advisor promptly arranged for a new committee member and I retook the exam and passed.
The ward in Ann Arbor was a real eye-opener to us. There seemed to be a sense of questioning the doctrines and folkways of the Church, especially the idea of deferring to the authority of the Brethren in Salt Lake City. I had a strange feeling that the many psychologists in the congregation were psychoanalyzing me every time I participated in the meetings. I felt like a rube from BYU. In the first couple of years more than one of my cohorts in the ward became noticeably disaffected regarding the Church. I made a conscious decision at the time to not question Church authority or aspects of the doctrine that I did not fully understand. Similar to my experience as a young missionary, I decided to “not sweat the small stuff,” get on with my life and Ph.D. program, and suspend judgment on certain matters until I could understand them later. I consciously decided that my religion was my life and that no amount of “intellectual honesty” was worth giving up or damaging my belief system. I realized that the “group” of believers really mattered to me. This reaffirmed the path that my mission firmly set me upon.
The church experience at Harvard was vastly different than that in Ann Arbor. There was a sweet spirit of testimony and even humility among the many first-rate students and faculty affiliated with Harvard, MIT, and other excellent universities in the area. We loved it in Boston. We had a particularly faith promoting experience while there. The Church needed to build a new meetinghouse for our ward and the bishop (a young professor at MIT) challenged the members, many of whom were graduate students, to contribute to the building fund in an amount that would “hurt.” He said he was reluctant to say this because, from his experience, the Saints were almost always faithful and he did not want anyone to do anything “foolish” by giving too much. The only money we had accumulated was a certain amount set aside to buy a sewing machine, which my wife had earned while babysitting. When the bishop sat down with us to find out how much we would give, we gave him a check for that amount. Surprised, he asked us where we got that kind of money. When we told him, he began to cry, saying this was the kind of sacrifice that he was worried about. At our insistence he accepted the money. A few weeks later I got a letter from the financial aid office at Harvard Law School saying there was an error made in calculating our aid amount and they needed to talk to me about it. Such a notice from that office was almost always bad news (e.g. they found out my father earned more than he said and I owed them money). I went to the office in trepidation. As I talked to them they explained, with some embarrassment, that they were teaching a new employee how to calculate need and randomly pulled my file out of a filing cabinet packed with hundreds of student aid files. They said that while going over the numbers they realized they had under-calculated my need and that they owed me additional aid amounting to over 3 times the sum we had donated. As I stood and related this experience to our ward members in the next fast and testimony meeting, the bishop sitting on the stand again began to cry. My wife got her sewing machine. This reinforced our testimony that Heavenly Father blesses us as we have the faith to sacrifice and live his commandments.
Professional life and Church service
After law school, I was recruited into the management consulting firm Bain & Company and, after three years there, two of which were in Tokyo, I was invited to return to BYU in a tenure-track position in Anthropology. The decision to leave Bain was not easy because I was going from a comfortable income to the likelihood of 1/3 of my salary at that time. I waffled back and forth about going or not, and one evening told my wife that I decided to turn down the university position. The next day I went from our home in Tokyo to Osaka on a business trip. As I ran to catch the bullet train to return to Tokyo, the doors closed in my face and the train departed. To that point, I had never missed at train or a plane. As I stood there , I heard a voice from the far end of the platform calling out “Walt Ames! Walt Ames!” It was my friend, a BYU Japanese language professor, leading a group of BYU students on a study abroad trip who had just gotten off the train I had intended to board. What were the odds of this happening in the teeming Osaka train station? What if I had been two seconds faster and gotten on that train? It immediately struck me that it was literally BYU calling me and that it was an answer to prayer. I called my wife from Osaka, told her we were going to BYU and to have the movers come the next day.
A month after joining the faculty, I was called as a counselor in a BYU student stake presidency and a year later, at age thirty-eight, I became president of the stake. I told the Apostle who called me that I had not yet been a bishop. He told me not to worry about that, to just rely on the Lord and do the job. As he was setting me apart, I felt almost an electric shock as he placed his hands on my head. Afterwards I could not restrain myself from testifying to the small group of people in the room that I knew that he was a true Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. As president of a single student stake comprised mostly of recently returned missionaries and young women interested in that demographic, I had numerous spiritual experiences working with young people as they tried to live the Gospel. To cite just one, I remember an occasion where my counselors and I were setting a young man apart to a position in an elder’s quorum presidency. With my eyes shut and my hands on his head, I saw in my mind’s eye a being dressed in white joining us in the circle with his hands on the head of the young man. After the setting apart I felt impressed to ask him about his father. He told me that he was deceased and had been a faithful member and priesthood bearer. I told him about the experience and said I felt that it was his father in the circle with us. The Apostle who had called me to be stake president (a former president of the university) later told me that he felt the real reason I had come to BYU was to serve as stake president.
After four years or so at the university, and with the blessing of the Apostle who had called me, I left BYU to set up the Tokyo operations of a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based management consulting firm. While there, at age forty-three, we received a telephone call from a member of the First Presidency of the Church calling my wife and me to preside over the Japan Nagoya Mission. Living in Japan for an extended period was not easy for a family (we had six children, the youngest aged two at the time). When asked in a pre-calling “chat” with a General Authority of the Church about how a mission would fit in our lives at that time, my wife was asked for her response first. In her typically honest and faithful manner she replied “Terrible! But if the Lord wants us to serve, we will do so.” She had borne the brunt of raising the children in a tough school, social, and medical environment in Japan. When I was asked, I saw it as a great adventure and said I would look forward to it immensely. We received the call. After being set apart by the member of the First Presidency who called us, he stopped us at the door as we were leaving his office, looked my wife in the eye, and said the things she was worrying about “would not happen.” The mission turned out to be a great blessing in the lives of our entire family. We saw countless miracles during the three years of our unpaid service.
Our life has passed, it seems, in a flash since our mission experience. I returned to BYU for another year and then became an executive recruiter with a global executive recruiting firm in their Tokyo office. I worked for fifteen years in several different global firms in this industry, mostly recruiting senior executives to work in multinational enterprises in Japan and elsewhere in Asia. Church-wise, I have had the privilege of finally being called to serve as bishop in one of the English-language wards in Tokyo. I am now retired on disability and working as an adjunct professor at Utah Valley University and at BYU. My wife shared with me an insight the other day regarding something that had been weighing on my heart. She said that the reason I had been called to prominent positions in the Church so early in age was that the Lord knew I would become disabled, and if He had waited until I was older I would not have had the chance to serve. The Spirit whispers that she is right. Throughout our married life my wife and I have prayed to be in a position to serve others and our Heavenly Father and we have had many opportunities to do so in formal Church callings and in quiet and informal ways.
My testimony is based on numerous profound spiritual experiences and miracles which I cannot deny, and the realization that life is meaningful only if we serve others. My mother was right in that I have been able to spend my life in God’s service. Of course my life is not yet over, and I hope in the end she will be proven wrong in that I will have amounted to something in the Church. Despite some weakness in my parent’s activity in the Church, I have been able (thanks largely to my wife) to raise a progeny who have founded themselves on the rock of the Gospel.
I know the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been restored to the earth and is found in its fullness in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I know the Book of Mormon is the word of God and will bring happiness to those who follow its precepts. I know the Church is led by Apostles and Prophets and I have had the blessing of sitting at their feet and hearing the word of God uttered directly from their lips. I know that God lives, that He loves me and that His gracious hand is in all things. My fondest hope is to live my life in such a way as to fill the measure of my mortal creation and to find true and everlasting joy with my family gathered around me in the presence of my Heavenly Father and Mother.
I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, AMEN.
After graduating from Brigham Young University (BYU) with a B.S. in Anthropology and Asian Studies, Walter L. Ames earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.
He has taught at various periods for BYU, and currently serves as an adjunct faculty member at both BYU and Utah Valley University.
He has also served as a managing director at Russell Reynolds Associates, a partner at Ray & Berndtson, a vice president at A. T. Kearney Executive Search (which acquired Ray & Berndtson), and a partner at Edward W. Kelley & Partners (which acquired A. T. Kearney Executive Search), and is currently a partner with Heidrick & Struggles.
He is the author of, among other things, Police and Community in Japan (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981), and a contributor to, among other things, Japanese Law in Context: Readings in Society, the Economy, and Politics (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2001).
Posted November 2011