Illustration by Ali Abarca
Illustration by Ali Abarca

The food’s on the table: chicken salad, tomatoes, grapes, chips, and a bowl of York Peppermint Patties. Let’s go ahead and say a blessing! A graduate student in astronomy bends his head. Our father in Heaven, we are grateful to be able to have Institute today, to discuss the problems of life and put them in the light and perspective of Scripture. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Institute is just a short name for Institutes of Religion, the program whereby the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provides for and educates those LDS students going to school outside of Brigham Young University.  I’m visiting to hear Brother Stephen Weber lead today’s lunchtime class at the New Haven Institute of Religion, which students from Yale, Quinnipiac, and other schools in the area attend in this Trumbull Street church. Yes, this is a church, but it’s an educational institute first. “We’re turning it into a greater-use building,” Brother Weber says. The fourth floor is a welcoming space because of the skylights, particularly on a nice sunny day like today, and there’s a foosball table and a ping-pong table and air hockey and billiards. If you just want to come here to relax or study, you’re of course welcome any time.

Anyone who shows up later will just have to trust that the food has been blessed. Brother Weber is serving drinks. Apple juice, grape juice, or Sprite. He admonishes a congregant to serve himself a healthful portion of chicken salad. His class today is on the Doctrine and Covenants, the revelations given through Joseph Smith during his life. Smith was the Church’s founding prophet, called by God to restore the Gospel to earth in its fullness.

Brother Weber’s assistant Valerie Ramos has just gotten off the phone with the mother of a high school senior who has a rule for her daughter that every college she applies to must have an Institute program. Valerie, wearing slacks and a smart periwinkle cardigan, has been with the Institute since her husband began the Yale School of Medicine’s Physician Associate program more than a year ago. They have no children. “Not yet,” adds a woman parking a stroller beside us. Some time after my visit, Valerie will announce she is expecting a child in the fall.

In the meantime, two women here are pregnant, so Bailey, the baby in the stroller, will soon have playmates anyway. In addition to the hundred-odd undergraduates in the congregation, there are about thirty LDS graduate students or residents at Yale, and many of them are married and have families, according to Brother Weber. In raising their children while pursuing advanced degrees, they’ve chosen a difficult path, but a sweet one as well.

Soon we are all seated and eating at the four round tables covered with wine-colored plastic tablecloths. We are discussing the story of Martin Harris. As you know, in 1828 the prophet had translated the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon, and he entrusted the work he had completed so far to Harris—after the Lord had acquiesced to this through the prophet. That portion of the Book was called the Book of Lehi, and it was lost. The pages fell into the hands of wicked men who were trying to stop the work of the Lord.

Bailey, sitting in her mother’s lap, is talking quietly to herself. She begins to cry, and her mother carries her away as we go on talking about Harris. We’re going on “a Scripture chase,” Brother Weber announces. Turn to section 111, verse eight of the Doctrine and Covenants. A husband and wife are following along on one of those fancy smartphones with a touch screen. She turns the phone sideways to make the words of Scripture easier to read:

“The place where it is my will that you should tarry, for the main, shall be signalized unto you by the peace and power of my Spirit, that shall flow unto you.” When the Book of Lehi was lost, Joseph Smith also lost his gift of being able to translate the Scripture, and he was in despair. The peace of the Lord was lost to him, explains Brother Weber.

Brother Weber is a tall man with a shaven head, a smiling face, and intense eyes. He spent most of his life out west, in San Diego and Seattle. There are far more members of the Church in that part of the country. “The culture here is not as familiar with Mormon philosophy and practice, and that’s fair,” he says later. He is a carpenter and a general contractor by trade, and for two summers his calling was to work on the rebuilding of the first temple in Nauvoo, Illinois. His hardhat and a few of his grandfather’s carpentering tools rest on a shelf in his office. Brother Weber has five sons—the sixth died in a car accident—and twelve grandchildren and counting.

He is directing our reflections to one passage from Scripture and then to another. Bailey can be heard bouncing a ping-pong ball on the floor in a corner of the room as we turn to the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians. Many people think the Church of Jesus Christ does not read the Bible, but its members indeed acknowledge the Old and New Testaments as the word of the Lord. See that painting on the far wall? The white-robed figure among other figures on the stone steps of a fountain? It depicts an episode from the Gospel of John.

Of course, other paintings in this building tell stories from the Book of Mormon. One on the first floor shows the white-robed figure among a group of people in garb resembling that of the American Indians. The man in white shows the wounds in his hands to the people surrounding him, who smile and weep. They are members of a tribe of Hebrews in North America to whom Jesus appeared after His resurrection—they had journeyed there from Canaan centuries earlier.

Unfortunately, it’s getting time for us to wrap up. The prophet lost that peace of the Lord for a time along with his gift. But his gift and his peace were restored to him, and in spite of the loss of those 116 pages, the work of the Lord could not be stopped. “The Book of Lehi is gone,” says Brother Weber. “We don’t need the Book of Lehi. That book in front of you starts with Nephi, and that’s where the Lord knew it would start.” To accept that, you really have to have faith.

All right, let’s get a closing prayer. Will someone say it for us?

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