Julia Klebingat grew up in Riga, Latvia, which was then part of the Soviet Union. Introduced to the Church when Brigham Young University’s Legacy Dixieland Band performed in her hometown, she married at 19 and attended Ricks College. Julia recounts the culture shock she experienced getting married, joining the Church and moving to the United States in such a short time, and the blessings that have come into her life since that time. She is preparing to move from Frankfurt, Germany, to Kiev, Ukraine, to serve alongside her husband, who will preside in the Ukraine, Kiev mission.
Some families in the Soviet Union retained peripheral spirituality amidst institutional atheism. Was your family religious at all growing up?
No. No, not at all. It was a typical upbringing for that time in the Soviet Union. We were taught from day one that there was no God. Religion was just for old people, so it was something that was dying off.
When did you start to think about God?
It’s hard to say. There were questions that I asked myself throughout my growing-up years. But there weren’t any sources to look to, at least not where I was. Nobody was religious in my family. Nobody in my family, even now, is really at that point where they are interested in the gospel. It is still very much that old atheist mentality. Not my parents, not my grandparents. There were no answers.
When did that start to change for you?
I was thirteen in 1985 when Mikhail Gorbachev took office. At the time of glasnost and perestroika changes began to take place. Suddenly it was okay to look around and search. For awhile religion became something popular, or at least searching for the answers to spiritual questions was in vogue. There was a big influx of western churches; people flooded toward them. They were so hungry for something. But then it died down; many of the answers they found were not spiritually satisfying.
When I was a teenager, I also started looking for answers in other religions: in Buddhism, in eastern religions, in the Russian Orthodox Church. At one point I went to a nearby church and asked what it would take to be baptized. I thought that maybe something like that would be a cool thing to do. I would belong to some religion and that would be kind of nice. But they demanded an amount of money for the baptism that I did not have as a student. I thought it was an outrageous amount of money, so I never did get baptized. That ended my search for a while. I thought, “I don’t think it matters what religion you belong to; as long as there is something inside, some spiritual beginning.”
How did you find out about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
Brigham Young University’s Legacy Dixieland Band played one year at an international jazz festival, held every summer in my hometown Riga. My mother was one of the organizers of that event. Then, in 1990, the BYU Young Ambassadors came and toured the former Soviet Union. When they performed in Latvia, my mother was in charge of finding families for them to stay with in Riga. I also got involved in finding them host families. In return for our hospitality, they invited Russian and Latvian jazz musicians to tour the United States and also visit BYU and Ricks College. I was majoring in English at the University, so I went to the United States with them as an interpreter.
Did that introduction to members of the Church encourage you to find out more about the gospel?
When the music groups from BYU came to Latvia, I didn’t know what they believed or anything about their religion. When I visited BYU and Ricks it was a chance to see firsthand the Mormon people, who they were, and what kind of religion they practiced. We had only half a day at Ricks; we had one concert there. It was the first year that the Russian program had been introduced at Ricks. The Russian teacher said to his students, “There is a group of Russian speaking musicians coming to campus. Before the concert we’ll have a little get together and you’ll be able ask them a few questions for extra credit.” Jorg, my future husband, was in one of the Russian classes and in really bad need of extra credit. We met at that get together. Specifically through him I got to know more about the Church. He was the first member of the Church I had close contact with. He was the first one that talked to me about his religion.
What do you remember him telling you about the Church? Did you have a lot of questions?
I didn’t have any questions. At that time I was pretty much decided that it didn’t matter which religion you belonged to. I remember the first day he told me that his religion made him happy. I thought, “Fine, good for you. I’m happy, too.” At that point I was done searching. I had looked in different places and didn’t find any particularly good answers anywhere. He had an impression that even though I wasn’t a member and even though I wasn’t really religiously inclined that he needed (and wanted) to pursue our friendship. We left the next day for BYU and he followed us. When we went to New York City, he kind of forgot his studies for awhile and sold his car to buy a plane ticket. He flew to New York City to see me for a couple of days, and he proposed to me. We really only knew each other for about two weeks or so. That’s how it all started.
In the course of time, he talked a little more about his faith. He always initiated those conversations. He told me more and more about what he believed and different aspects of the gospel. I don’t think back then it mattered so much to me personally. I just accepted it as part of who he was.
My mother was on the tour with us because she was one of the organizers. I was impressed, and my mother was impressed, because he wasn’t smoking and drinking. That was a positive thing. After a few days in NYC, he had to go back and finish the semester, and I had to go back to Latvia. We talked on the phone and wrote to each other. Eventually he came to meet my family. We went to Germany to get married and then quickly went to the United States to start a new semester together at Ricks College.
Right before the wedding in Germany, Jorg invited a couple of Elders to have some discussions with me. That first attempt wasn’t successful. Jorg said he believed his church was the only true religion on the face of the earth and that bothered me. I decided I would think up some really hard questions for the Elders so they couldn’t answer them. I didn’t have an open mind or good attitude at the time.
What kind of questions did you think of that were really hard?
I think I got them with the story of Nephi cutting off Laban’s head. They couldn’t answer too well. I told the missionaries, “It doesn’t make sense for you to come and talk with me. I don’t have any questions for you anymore.” They stopped coming after two discussions.
Had you been reading the Book of Mormon?
I hadn’t been reading on my own, not of my own free will so to speak. I read whatever was suggested for me to read. That wasn’t the time for me to listen to the missionaries because I wasn’t in an open frame of mind. Maybe I never would have become open to it. I think it was through the prayers and desires of other people that I became ready. My husband’s friends and everyone around us were very concerned about him marrying someone who wasn’t a member of the Church. I think there were a lot of prayers said on my behalf.
Jorg invited another set of missionaries over when we got to Idaho, but this time they were Sister missionaries. I thought, ok, I’m just going to listen to this course of discussions to be polite and so I know what my husband believes in, and so I know about his religion. Before the discussions with the missionaries, Jorg told me quite a bit about his full-time mission in Colorado. He showed me pictures and told me the order of discussions. I knew the second discussion was frequently the time to make the baptismal invitation. So before the second discussion I thought, “Hmm. What if they asked me? What would I say? How would I say no?” My English was kind of shaky back then so I had to think of an answer–think it out in my head so I could say it fluently without stumbling over my own words. I prepared mentally. I knew exactly how I would say I didn’t think it was a good idea to be baptized. I don’t remember what my reasons were now.
The Sisters started by reading the story of Christ’s baptism from the Bible. I had heard it before, I knew that story, but for some reason that time it moved me to tears. Suddenly I was sitting there crying! It was kind of embarrassing; I was planning to act quite differently. I had to leave the room and fix myself up because I was a complete mess. When I came back in, they asked, “Well, do you think you would like to follow the example of Christ and be baptized?” I opened my mouth to say what I had prepared and instead said, “Yes, of course I would.” It’s quite funny to think back. I definitely felt the spirit very strongly. The spirit took over at that discussion, but when the missionaries left, the spirit left, or at least that strong feeling of the spirit. I was kind of back to myself and thought, “What just happened? That wasn’t me!”
Jorg was excited that I had agreed to be baptized. I said, “I was only crying because I felt sorry for myself! Everyone has been pushing me to join this church!”
“Really?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m not really planning on getting baptized.”
And then he said, “Well, then you should go and tell the missionaries yourself.”
“Fine. I’ll go tell them!” I said. I knew they were meeting at the cafeteria at a certain time so I marched there, determined to say I changed my mind. But when I got there I opened my mouth and asked, “Can we move my baptism date up?” That’s all I could say. After that I told myself there was no point in trying to resist baptism. It wasn’t working. I decided it meant something to me and just let go. It was a nice feeling because the spirit can work with you when you let go of your pride and insecurities. Every discussion was a nice experience. The missionaries answered many questions that I had. My husband baptized me two months after we were married.
When you started going to church and living as a member of the Church, was it a difficult adjustment? Or did it feel natural?
It was a difficult time in my life all together; there were three major changes in my life. I changed the country I was living in; it was a different culture. I was on my own, I left my family and friends, and I was only nineteen! I came from a big city of almost a million people and moved to Rexburg, Idaho, which is very small and rural. I had a new language; everything was different! On top of that I got married to a guy I didn’t know that well because we hadn’t spent a lot of time with each other. Then suddenly I embraced a new religion! It was a little bit crazy. It was a difficult adjustment.
Can you think of any moments that were particularly difficult?
It was just a bit of a culture shock, but it wasn’t because of religion. What was difficult for me was to get used to the initial friendliness that people show you, but frequently there’s nothing behind it. A lot of it is superficial. You realize after a while that’s just a cultural thing, that’s how they’re taught to act toward everyone. In Slavic culture if people are friendly, they really mean it. If they say, “We should get together sometime,” you can expect a phone call and an invitation. That cultural difference was a hard thing to understand at first. It took me awhile to grow into the American culture and the church culture, and Idaho and Utah have their own culture.
Did you have any questions or doubts as a new member? What was helpful to you after you joined the Church?
I can’t think of a time when I had really had doubts. After I was baptized, in my mind and in my heart I felt this was it. Once I made up my mind to join the Church, it was a steady slow process of my testimony growing. Something that really strengthened my testimony was when I began reading my scriptures regularly. You grow into things slowly. You hear things taught and you just don’t think it applies to you. As a young convert it took me a couple of years to realize that scriptures were important. I heard about them, and I read from them once in awhile during lessons, but never made it a personal study project. But once I began studying them regularly, I could tell what a difference it made. I felt like I came out onto a new level of spirituality through personal scripture study.
Our travels have given us a chance to see how the Church functions and works in many different countries as we’ve attended wards and branches all over the world. The amazing thing to see is that the gospel is the same everywhere. Wherever you are, you walk into church and you have an instant family. Especially for us as we’ve moved many times, that has been such a crucial thing. We leave our friends behind, and go to a new place where we don’t know anybody, but then walk into a branch or a ward and right away people come up to us and make us feel welcome. It’s the same spirit and the same gospel that unifies us. Right away you have the same foundation that you are able to build on. It’s such an amazing thing. It’s been such a blessing.
You raised your children speaking German, Russian and English. How did you come to that decision for your family? How did you do it?
I minored in Family Science and took some psychology classes. That’s where I learned how to work it out when you have several languages in the family, what systems and what approaches there are to teaching different languages. It’s important to keep the languages separate either between parents, or different times, or something like that so the children can separate the languages from each other. We used to be quite strict about it, we had a system. Originally when we were living in the United States, I only spoke Russian with my children and Jorg only spoke German. English came from everywhere else. When we moved to Europe we decided we wanted our kids to keep up their English. So we added an English week to our routine. We had a German/Russian week as always, and then a week where we only spoke English. Now our children are fluent in all three.
How has the gospel influenced you as a mother?
It’s influenced everything! Every once-in-awhile I think, “What would I even be doing without the gospel?” The Church provides everything you need to know if you listen carefully. It offers so many programs, so many guidelines. There are so many ways to get help. So much is done by the Church through its programs and teachings to provide us with a well-rounded education about life and to prepare young people for life. I feel like the gospel from day one has become my life. I’ve measured everything against it and by it. My parenting and my relationship with my husband have been based on the principles that I have learned in the gospel.
My husband married me when I was still a non-member, but he wouldn’t recommend that course of action to young people. He did it because he was acting under very strong promptings from the spirit. But that’s rare. Usually those are exceptions. As a rule you should stick to marrying someone of your faith. I think the emphasis should be on teaching the young people at home the value of temple marriage: what a blessing that is, what a necessity it is in the eternal perspective, how everything including your salvation hinges upon it. If you cannot go to the temple with your husband, it puts a damper on the eternal family thing. That’s been a key in our family; we’ve always emphasized the importance of temple marriage. So far none of our children are married yet. Katya, our 17-year-old, is slowly getting to that age. We’ve talked about it a number of times. Our two oldest children are the only members in their school. Our daughter is surrounded my non-member boys who want to date her. We talk openly about the values that she has, and discuss with her how important to her it is that eventually, the boy that she will feel serious about will have the same values and beliefs that she does. I think it boils down to teaching the gospel in the home. That’s the key, the opportunity for young people to feel the spirit. If it’s burning inside them, they are intrinsically motivated.
You travel and move a lot because of your husband’s job. This coming move to Kiev will be your nineteenth, has it been hard for your kids?
I think they survived these many moves because of the strength of our family. It has always been one constant in their lives: the family is something they can always fall back on and draw comfort from. Of course, it hasn’t always been easy. With this move, our daughter is being yanked out of school in her senior year. It’s a difficult thing. I can understand that. I’m glad that she has a level of spirituality where we can talk to her about blessings and she understands what we mean: the blessings that serving a mission will bring, that being part of it will be a blessing to her in life. I believe she’ll look back and see blessings Heavenly Father is giving her. It’s important to have a strong family structure to prepare for whatever issues come up; it’s important that there’s love and ongoing communication.
You’re in the middle of a Master’s program in Education with an emphasis in Social Work at the J.W.Goethe University in Frankfurt. What drew you to that profession? Has the gospel influenced your work?
The gospel really influences every aspect of my life. For example, right now I’m doing an internship at a school as a social work and a counselor. Every time kids come and say they had a fight, right away I think in terms of the gospel, what’s the best way to solve a conflict? I draw on my extensive experience in Primary and in Young Women presidencies, where I’ve frequently dealt with youth with similar problems. In a class with lots of behavioral problems, where there is not a good atmosphere, I draw on my experience working with youth in the church and the projects we did that helped strengthen them.
Young people are the future. If we have strong young people, we’ll live in a better world. They’re still at a time in their lives where one could help them turn many things around, really set them on a certain path and make a difference in their lives; whereas the older they get, the harder it is. You become so set in certain ways of thinking. When they’re young, everything’s open. That’s a crucial time. Right now in the school I’m working in there are so many tragic cases from broken families. The kids that especially need a social worker’s help are the youth that come from broken homes, experience abuse, neglect, injustice or mobbing. It’s painful to watch. If I can give them something positive when they’ve only experienced negativity everywhere else, that’s a satisfying experience.
At A Glance
Location: Frankfurt, Germany
Marital status: Married since 1991 to Jörg Klebingat
Children: 3 (17, 15, 10)
Occupation: Student, social worker/school counselor
Schools Attended: Latvia State University, Ricks College, BYU,
Languages Spoken at Home: German, English, Russian
Favorite Hymn: “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief”
Interview by Marintha Miles. Photos used with permission.