When Linda Vergauwen joined the Church in Belgium in 1978, neither she nor her friends and family knew anything about Mormons. Today, Linda is a pillar of the Church in Flemish Belgium and the principal of an elementary school, proving that she has earned her community’s trust despite her membership. Linda describes the challenges of raising children in a community where the Church is small and growing slowly, going to the temple with no preparation, and the joy that comes from a life of dedicated service to the Savior.
I was born in Belgium, in a city that is named Sint-Niklaas (Santa Claus). That’s funny, yes? I was raised as a Catholic. My parents were Catholic. My father really had a great faith in the Lord and he taught us how to pray. We went to church every Sunday. I was active in the youth program there. It’s called Chiro. It’s kind of like Young Women. I met my husband in 1974 and we married in 1977 in a Catholic church. I had never heard about the Mormon Church. And when we had been married one year we met the missionaries. They said that they had a very important message for us.
Was this on the street or did they come to your home?
This was on the street. We were moving from our first little apartment to a bigger one and they just stopped us in the street and said they wanted to share an important message with us. We said, “We are moving now, we have no time now, so maybe another time,” so they made an appointment with us. It took several appointments before we were actually home when they came by. We didn’t miss the appointments on purpose, but my husband, Jo , and I were saying, “If it is such an important message, they will come again.”
What was it about them that made you willing to have them even come over in the first place? Most people don’t listen when the missionaries say they have an important message. What was it about you at that point in your life or about those missionaries that got you to listen?
We weren’t searching for anything. We were happy just being newlyweds. But the missionaries were the same age we were so maybe that was the reason we listened. They were Americans and that was interesting, so maybe that is the reason why we let them in. So, the third time they just came by and knocked on the door and we said, “Yes, come in!” They shared the message of the Restoration and taught us about the timeline of prophets. We believed almost everything. I mean, we were raised as Catholic and we had the Old Testament and the New Testament, but then came the Restoration.
And that just felt right to you? You received a witness of the Spirit right then?
No, not then, but they made other appointments. The second time they showed us the Book of Mormon and told us that Jesus had appeared in America. I remembered as a girl in high school we had a lesson about that in history: the legend of Quetzalcoatl.When the Spaniards first came to the Americas they met the Indians and the Indians thought God was returning, and so I thought, “That’s interesting. I have heard that before.”
I read the Book of Mormon in two days. It was vacation time, August, so I had plenty of time to read. And I read it from morning to evening and it was like a movie in your head. You’re just caught up in the story, and it felt good to read it.
Did your husband have the same response that you did?
My husband isn’t much of a reader, so he just said to me, “If there is something strange in it, tell me.” Of course, there are many strange things in it. But the first time it was like I didn’t read the strange things; I only found nice things in it. I told him that I prayed about it and I felt comfortable with it. I had a good feeling about it.
At that time in Europe, Americans were regarded with a bit of suspicion. I thought, “Why must the gospel be restored in America and not in Palestine or Israel?” So it was strange to me and I just couldn’t accept Joseph Smith as a prophet then. But we followed the discussions with the missionaries, and my husband and I were always thinking, “If what they’re saying is true then we must change our lives.” So with that attitude we followed the discussions. We didn’t start with searching; we weren’t sad and we were good in our own religion. We were young people and the thought of changing our lives was very scary for us.
We actually told the missionaries not to come back at one point. We were believing people already. In Belgium, drinking is socially accepted,, a lot of people smoke, here, most of the people don’t honor the Sabbath Day like Church members do. It’s quite different. Jo and I were a little scared of the consequences on our social life. But I am a polite woman and we had made an appointment, so when the missionaries rang the bell I told them, “Come in, but this is the last time you can come because we don’t want the discussions anymore.” And that missionary just gave his testimony and that changed everything.
It was so powerful. My husband at that moment felt the Spirit so strongly. You asked before why we let the missionaries come back and it was because of the Spirit. They had something with them that we didn’t. We always said when they left our home, “What is that feeling that they have?” It was a good feeling, so that’s why we let them come back. But during the last discussion they gave their testimonies so powerfully that it changed us.
So how did your life change? How did the gospel become an integral part of your life after you made that decision? I assume it was a really big change for you.
It really was a big change. We had a lot of troubles with the family. Our parents felt sad. They were mad. Those first years were terrible for us. They’re really good people but they couldn’t understand us following another religion. It was like betraying them because it changed our life completely. We never drank alcohol after our baptism. My husband smoked a lot but after being baptized he never smoked again. Sundays were different. You asked how the gospel became a part of our lives. I think that the gospel is our life. It gradually becomes your life. You must grow and there were things that we didn’t understand in the beginning. Do you want to hear a funny story?
I would love to hear it!
As a Catholic you are taught that a priest in your community is a priest forever. So when we became members of the Church, there was a branch president over our branch here in Belgium and we accepted him and thought he would always be our branch president. He was a very kind man. One day we were called to come to the mission president’s office and he called my husband, Jo, as the new branch president. And Jo said to him, “I think you’re making a mistake—we already have a branch president!” That’s when we learned that callings are only for a few years.
Tell me a little bit about your children. What is it like to raise four children in the Church in Belgium and how did you teach the gospel to them?
I have four children, three boys and one girl. They’re all married now. My first boy, Dagmar is his name. He was born before we were sealed in the temple because you have to be a member for a year before you can go to the temple. The closest temple was in Switzerland, and we had to travel there during our vacation time because that week was a Flemish week at the temple. (We speak Flemish where I live. In Belgium you speak two languages, French and Flemish. Flemish is a kind of Dutch.) So he went to Switzerland with us to be sealed.
How old was he when you did that?
He was about nine months. But when we went to the temple we had had no preparation for it. It almost made us go inactive. The preparation for the temple has changed a lot now and I think that is wonderful. We had our temple interviews with the branch president and the district president and the mission president, but we hadn’t even seen the garments before. We went to the temple because we thought, “Okay, we want to be sealed forever.” That was the purpose for us because we loved each other so much. That was also a big reason for joining the Church, because the missionaries told us that we could be together forever.
But you didn’t know that you had to go through all these other ordinances?
No! It was a wonderful feeling in the church buildings because there is almost nothing ceremonial, only the sacrament. We liked not having ceremonies after being Catholic. But then in the temple everything is ceremonial. It wasn’t comfortable at all.
The Lord helped us to stay through the ordinance. The initiatories are very beautiful. That was wonderful to experience. But we couldn’t understand any of the endowment. But then when the temple rituals were over we were sealed and there was a very strong spirit there as we were sealed forever, and our little boy to us. The people there were very nice to us!
But when we came out of the temple my husband said, “I need to be alone. Don’t worry, I will come back, but I need to be alone.” I felt that the temple ordinances were true but I didn’t understand them. It was difficult. When my husband didn’t come back after more than an hour, I was worried, but then he came back and he had a smile on his face. And he said, “We are staying.” We had come to the temple for a whole week, so the next day we went back for another session. I gradually learned to love to go to the temple.
I think it’s wonderful that you share that because so many people have a similar experience. I think there is a lot more attention to preparation now than there was 30 years ago, but it’s still startling for a lot of people. But I think if you can share stories like yours and talk about how you were startled at first but then came to a feeling of peace about the temple and decided to stay, that is a wonderful example.
Yes! When the missionaries taught us the lessons, they said to us, “Always go to church because of your testimony, because of Christ. Never go because of the members.” I tell you my feelings, because when I became a member I thought that everybody in the Church was perfect. Because the missionaries taught you the gospel perfectly. And you were thinking that all those nice people that you met are perfect. But they aren’t. I am so grateful that that missionary, more than 30 years ago, told us to not expect that people are perfect and it’s okay. We are all trying to go in the same direction and that’s the most important thing.
How have you seen the Church change in Belgium over the last 30 years?
We are not growing fast. We are a stake now; the Flemish stake takes in Belgium and part of the Netherlands. So in order to have enough members they took members from two countries to make one stake. My husband was the first stake president here in Flemish Belgium, president of the Antwerp Stake.
When we first joined the Church, almost nobody had heard about the Church here in Flemish Belgium. We hadn’t heard a thing about the Mormons. Now, more than 30 years later, the Church still isn’t recognized as a church in Belgium but we are not categorized under the sects anymore. They don’t know where they want to put us. We are not a sect but we are not a legal church in Belgium. One of the reasons is that every church in Belgium that is recognized gets subsidies from the country; with our taxes we pay for every religion that is recognized.
So tax money would go to the Church if it became an official religion? Is Catholicism that state religion?
We have several recognized religions. Every religion that is recognized is official. The Catholic Church and Protestant churches are recognized, and Islam, etc, but not Mormonism or Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Tell me about your experience as an educator. Where did you first realize that you were interested in teaching and how did you get into this job?
Well, I am the principal of a school. You must know that in Belgium there are three kinds of schools. There are religious schools like Catholic schools. The Jewish and Protestant people have their own schools in Belgium. Then there are the official schools. In those official schools you have two kinds. You have the schools that are governed by the country’s government and then you have schools that are governed by the local government.
I liked teaching when I was a little girl, like lots of little girls playing school. I like to talk. I like to explain things. I was a good student, and my first choice was to become a surgeon. But that was before I met my husband. I met my husband when I was 16 years old; he is three years older than me. Then I said, “Oh no, I don’t want to study that long.” In Belgium it’s tradition that you study before you marry, and I couldn’t see myself studying for seven, eight, nine years before I married him. So then I was thinking, “Okay what do I like also?” Then I thought I would like to become a teacher. And I really love it. It was probably my first choice and my best choice.
Did you teach when your children were young and at home or is this something that you got into when you were older?
No, I taught before they were born, but once I started having children I stayed home. I was a temporary teacher, like a substitute, so it would have been hard for me to keep teaching.
When I was at home, I read a lot. But I was still a teacher at church, although not ever in Primary. It’s strange, but it was always Sunday School, Young Women’s, Relief Society, and young adults; it was never Primary. So I was still a teacher at church. At church, I taught the teachers’ development course. I didn’t practice teaching outside of the Church but I stayed in my heart a teacher. When my children went to school, their school asked me to be a substitute teacher, so I did that for a lot of years when someone was sick. They called me and I went and I liked it.
What a great way to keep up your skills!
I stayed about 10 years that way! Then, in 2000, I got a call to become a teacher in the school where I am now the principal. I taught 12-year-olds, the last year of elementary school. I worked my way up to now being principal of the school.
That’s amazing! Do you like being an administrator now or do you still get to go in the classroom sometimes?
Only when we don’t find a substitute! Administration is quite a different job. It’s amazing because when we first joined the Church, no one would have ever asked me to be a principal. But over the years, people at the school got to know me for who I am and they liked how I taught the children, and that the parents and children all liked me. When my children married in the temple, I put the invitation on our board at school and the other teachers were invited to come to the reception. When my sons went on missions, I invited them all to come to sacrament meeting and a lot of them came. So that is why they let me become the principal, I think, because they know I live my principles. But I don’t force them; I just live them. As a principal in my school I must be very neutral. Sometimes that is difficult, but I am who I am and I think that the way you live speaks louder than the way you talk.
And they trust you now. What else do you enjoy doing besides teaching and being an administrator?
I love to paint. I am illustrating my first book—a children’s book that I have written. It’s about a little dragon that comes out of a computer game and follows his adventures. I’m not putting the gospel in it, but of course you can see principles of the gospel in it. I do in my own way. I love painting, writing, and playing the harp.
And do your children live by you now?
In American ways they live nearby, yes! My oldest son lives about 20 minutes away, and for us that is far! My two other sons and daughter are in the same ward I belong, so they live close by us.
Are they all active now and raising their families in the Church?
Yes! And they all married Belgian members, yes. The three boys married Belgian member girls who are beautiful and very nice. My daughter had more difficulties. There weren’t so many boys in church. She started to chat on the Internet and became friends with a boy who was a nonmember, but he became interested in the Church. He had the missionary lessons, got baptized, and became a member of the Church, and they were sealed in the temple and had three children. He was a counselor in our ward and then one day he left her. So that is difficult, but it can happen. Being sealed in the temple doesn’t mean everything will be okay in your marriage.
Here in Belgium there are a lot of divorces. I live in a village; it’s not a town. And here almost a third of the children have divorced parents. But my daughter is still active in church.
She is taking care of the three children on her own now?
Yeah, she and her ex husband didn’t chose co-parenting. The children are always with her, except for every two weeks when they go to their father’s for the weekend. Anuschka has tried to find another man at Church, and she is still so young. Her husband left her when she was 26, so she was still in the age of the young adults, but it was very difficult to get someone to become interested in her because she had three children and had already been married. She was so frustrated. She said, “Mom, I always kept the commandments and I know it’s true but what do I have to learn more?” So she’s married to a nonmember now. It’s her choice and he is good to her. But she received a lot of priesthood blessings before she made that decision and she hopes that one day he will get interested in the Church.
Is he supportive of her activity?
Yes! She can go to church! Every year she goes to the London Temple for one week with her three children and her husband stays home. I can understand how he feels: trapped by a Mormon family where everybody is active in the Church except him. So we try to be very welcoming to him.
Tell me about the trial you have had with your son Jarno’s health.
I have Crohn’s disease, and when Jarno had trouble with his intestines almost three years ago now, the doctor sent him immediately to a specialized hospital. There the doctors found out he had Crohn’s too, not only in his intestines, but in his liver canals too. They put him on some medicine, but shortly thereafter Jarno got very sick and they told us he needed a new liver. So he was put on the European transplant list. He was on the bottom of that list, because except for his liver canals, he was a healthy young man. The challenge was that my son needed a liver from a donor, but he couldn’t get one in time. So the doctors started looking for a living donor. Jarno’s wife, Mayra, and my daughter, Anuschka volunteered to be donors. My heart went out for them and my son. Anuschka’s husband had just left her with three very young children, as I mentioned earlier. Mayra was pregnant with their third child. I pleaded with the Lord for a miracle, I pleaded for protection for their lives. Then, about two months before the transplant took place, my nephew Jonah came with a gift we will never forget. He is a few years older than Jarno. He was baptized in the Church when he was eight years old, but became inactive when he was 18 years old. He volunteered to be the living donor. The evening before the operation, Jarno and Mayra got a special priesthood blessing. Jonah was there too, and he asked for one for himself too. It was a very spiritual evening, with a lot of tears.
Jonah gave a part of his liver so that our son could live longer. The operation went well (how I prayed to Heavenly Father to protect the lives of those two precious children!). Since that day, Jonah has become an active member again. He said, “I gave Jarno his earthly life again, but he gave me my eternal life back.” Jarno’s health still has its ups and downs. We talk a lot about the gospel and the plan of salvation. He and his little family have a very positive attitude. Because of the restored gospel, I know that whatever circumstances come, we can be together forever!
Is there anything that you would like to share in summary about your experience being a member in Belgium and raising your family in the Church here?
Being a member of the Church is almost the same in every part of the world, I think. I think the point is that you keep your covenants no matter what happens in your life.
Raising your children there are ups and downs. When my children were teenagers, I sometimes wished I could put them in the refrigerator until they were 21 years old! It was a little bit scary because they were the only members of the Church in their school. So I worried that they would follow their friends in other decisions. They did for a few years and they rebelled when they were teenagers, but we always kept our covenants. We always went every Sunday to church and always did our family prayers, even if somebody wasn’t there. We went to their room and did it with the ones who were there. We did our Family Home Evening even when they thought it was boring. Not for long times, because we knew it must be short but good. But one day they had to find out for themselves if the gospel is true. Our kids told us that they knew that we knew it was true, and they wanted to know it too. So they learned for themselves that it is true and we are so grateful for that!
They are an exception in Belgium. There are a lot of members who are faithful members whose children fall away, and I don’t know why we have been blessed with children who are active in the Church. But it doesn’t matter; you must love your children. We had to learn that in those years when they weren’t active. We had to learn to love unconditionally; it is one of the hardest commandments. If you live the gospel, you have a happy life—I know it! We are a happy family! We love each other! We are not weird!
To be a member of Christ’s Church has brought me so many blessings! Now I can see the whole picture a lot better. I enjoy life. I don’t know what challenges lie in the future, but I know I always will learn something from them. I love my husband, my children, and my grandchildren. I love the gospel. I love my Savior. I love to be a member of His Church.
At A Glance
Marital status: Married to Jo Buysse
Children: Dagmar (34), Anushka (32), Jarno (30) and Kjelld (29)
Occupation: principal of an elementary school
Baptism: October 1978
Schools Attended: Atheneum Sint-Niklaas, Rijksnormaalschool Sint-Niklaas
Languages Spoken at Home: Flemish
Favorite Hymn: “How Great Thou Art”
On The Web: http://dagmar6.wix.com/lindavergauwen
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Photos used with permission.