Monday, December 15, 1975

Heart Planting: A Father's Myth for his Children

Event: Begun December 1975
Updated: October 1976

[Note: this story was begun shortly after returning the Mormon Church the previous July 1975 with my six children in mind all of whom were being raised Mormon, except for my youngest, then age 9.]

Heart Planting[1]
(A father’s myth for his children)


"...And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises to the fathers..." JS 2:39

Chapter One: The Quest
Long ago on a great red planet, there lived a prince of song and fire.  The prince was very young and very bored. “What is there for me to do?” he said to himself one day.  “And why am I not happy?”

Now, for those of us who have always admired princes and grand things and far away places, this may seem a surprising thing to say.  The prince had everything he had ever wanted and could do anything he had ever hoped.  But now he was bored, and being bored he was unhappy.

So, he began to dream.  And in his dreams he found new adventure and excitement and challenge.  Dreaming soon became his new world.  “Here I can build and learn to be who I want to be”, he mused. “Where shall I go and who shall I be and what do I want to learn?”  He pondered on this question a very long time, knowing now that he was free to have it answered just as he desired.

“I want to be a king!” he exclaimed, interrupting his dreams and boring surroundings.  “A king”, he said again, this time quietly to himself.  “How do I become a king?”  And with that he began to wonder.  No one was near to hear him and no one was near to answer.  So he drifted off to sleep to wander and search for his desire.  He had begun his Quest.

In his sleep the prince began to fall into a deep, dark and swirling mist. He became very frightened and cried out, “What is happening to me and where am I going?”  On and on he fell and spun, faster and faster, alone and terrified. “Why should my desire bring on such a terrible thing?” he wondered, continuing to plunge down and down, around and around.

After a while and with no end in sight, the prince began to hear a sound that seemed like a very quiet chuckle!  How very strange, he thought.  And as he listened more carefully, he was surprised to find it was actually coming from himself!  Nothing else was happening except falling and spinning, spinning and falling.  And so, soon he began to laugh.  On and on he went, now laughing and spinning, falling and giggling.  A foolish and absurd situation indeed, it seemed.

Before he had realized it the prince had lost his fear.  He began to look at his hands and was amazed to find that he could change how fast he spun and fell just by how he held them.  How interesting, he thought.  So he began to experiment.

Suddenly and without thinking, he straightened out his arms and legs and burst out of the swirling mist into an inner calm.  But in so doing and to his dismay, he abruptly began to drop—straight down the center of the whirlwind!  “Oh, my!” he cried again, as again he was afraid.

But soon again, though falling straight like an arrow, the prince began to laugh and returned to working with his hands.  He held his arms to his sides and extended his fingers ever so slightly.  Immediately he felt the speed of his fall begin to slow.  Out further went his hands.  Slower went his fall, until soon the prince had stopped falling altogether.  He had come to a suspended place right in the middle of the whirling mist!

There it was, just within reach, still wildly spinning.  And here he was, now hanging in the center, but floating safe.  He began to look around.  Then up.  And way off in the distance, far away beyond his clearest vision, he saw a tiny point of light.  And as he focused on the far off speck, he felt a tiny spark within himself—like gladness.

Gone were his fear and his confusion and his questions.  Now fascinated by the tiny light and gladdened by the tiny spark, he felt the spark increase to glowing and watched the light become brighter and brighter and felt its warmth.

Then he realized that he was rising up towards the light.  As it became brighter, his face warmer, and his heart happier, he found himself moving into a blinding, shining place.  It was as if he had entered the sun, itself!

The prince’s joy became unbounded and he thought his heart would burst.  He began to shout and sing and whistle and make all kinds of strange and unusual sounds.  It seemed a silly sight.

And then, he heard the Voice.  Quiet and gentle, yet voluminous and grand:

“My Son”

The Great Voice spoke, but the prince could not tell if it was in him or out of him, around him or through him.

“To be a king you must experience what kings experience.
Seek your own kingdom and search your own soul.  Do not fear
to find it, though you will be tested and challenged.  Take your
Courage in your hands and remember the tiny spark of gladness.  You will know when you need to know and will be equipped as needed.  Then will you find your rightful place and the kingdom of your heart.”

And so it was the prince found himself on top of a mountain, singing to a great white stag and to a tree and to a soaring eagle in the skies.  He was wrapped in a vision for his future.

Chapter Two: The Push-Pull
On his way down the mountain side, the prince wondered how his vision would take place.  This was a strange new land.  He knew he must now go the great sea he had seen sparkling far off in the distance.  He did not know why.  It was just that he felt he had to get there somehow.

And he wondered about the meaning of the majestic Voice he had heard.  Also, he wondered about what he had seen.  In the vision he had seen the golden eagle swoop down close and cry with the sound of a mighty trumpet: “Liberty! Liberty! The Kingdom is here!  Prepare the way for the King of kings!”

At first the prince had thought the bird was golden, but then it seemed to change to silver.  And as it faded away, a gust of wind came up smelling clean and sharp and sweeping small dark clouds before it.  The last glimpse of the great shimmering bird was gone.

Meanwhile the stag had stayed very still, watching everything.  But now he suddenly started snorting, rapidly wagging his small white tail then began bounding away in fantastic leaps, suspending himself at the top of each one as if caught in the midst of a beautiful dream.

The tree had seemed to glow with an eerie soft blue light, coming from within itself.  And the ground around it became like a pool of glass.  Looking down around its base, the prince could see that the roots of the tree went far into the mountain depths, farther than both his eyes could see. 

He wondered about these things as he came to the bottom of the mountain.  What now stretched out before him seemed like an endless flat expanse of desert…waste….

* * *

The prince wondered how far it was across the desert.  He knew that to reach the great sea he had seen from on top of the mountain, he would have a long hot way to go.  Where there had been trees and birds and animals on the mountain, he could now see nothing but dry, cracked clay.  Not even a blade of grass.  And no water.

But he began to walk anyway.  He felt somehow he was headed in the right direction, even if he had no idea how he was going to get there without water or food or something to ride in.

Then, as the prince began to walk, he felt something push him—or was it pulling him?  He could not tell.  It was like a giant magnet and it made him begin to run—and then stumble!  “Oh!” he cried.  “Where is it taking me?”

He stood up and again was almost pushed-pulled over.  But he did not fight it.  He let himself be drawn in the direction of the push-pull.  Then he remembered the dark swirling thing and how he’d once worked with his hands.  So, he held his arms to his sides (as he remembered from before) and began to extend his fingers ever so slightly.  All the time he was being pushed/pulled towards where he did not know.

As his hands tipped a little, fingers extended together, he felt himself lift off the ground!  He was flying! And very fast he discovered that how he held his hands determined how he flew.  But!  He had to be careful.  By tipping his hands too much too soon, he could go too high too fast.  Soon it became fun and the prince began flying all around.  He became totally absorbed in flying and forgot all about crossing the desert to reach the great shining sea.

And that is just when he flipped over a long, covered wire right in the middle of the sky!  And that is also when he saw the great stream of people far below.

*****

“So many, many people!” the prince exclaimed.  “Where are they all going?”  And as he looked, he realized that they were all going in the very same direction as the push-pull that had made him stumble.   They were moving inexorably in the same direction he was going towards the far side of the desert and rolling hills.  “But why are they moving so slowly?” he wondered, realizing how much he enjoyed flying and moving fast and feeling free to soar and be.  He decided to go down closer to take a better look.

“Oh, no!” the prince again exclaimed.  “They are all bent over and being pulled backwards!”  It was no wonder they were moving so slowly.  “Oh, please”, cried the prince to those below.  “Don’t fight the push-pull.  Just stand up and turn around and let it lift you up.  It is not hard at all.  Why, look how easy it is for me and how much fun it is to fly and play.”

Not one of the people looked up.  Not one of them seemed to hear.  No one seemed to notice the prince in the air above them.  “Look at me!  LOOK at me!” the prince shouted.  Still no one looked up.  No one even bothered to notice.  It was all very troubling and puzzling. 

“Why can’t they hear me?” the prince wondered.  And in asking these questions he felt a great sadness and heaviness move through his heart.  “They can’t see me because I am not where they are!”  And with that a new wave of feeling washed over him.

He felt foolish now, being up in the air if they could not hear him.  It was no longer any fun flying if he could not share his joy with someone else.  So he decided to go back down to the ground all the way.

The prince wanted to be with these people.  He wanted to get into their great life river.  But would they understand him?  Would he understand them?  He didn't know.  But he decided to try.


Chapter Three:  The Elders
“Why are you all bent over like that?”  The prince was talking to an old man who was the first person he met after getting back down to the ground.  “And why are you fighting the push-pull?”

“You should learn how to speak to your elders,” replied the old man in an affronted tone.

“Why can’t you answer my question?” responded the prince.

“You are a rude young man”, said the old man.  “And a show off!”

“A show off?”

“I heard you yelling earlier and it sounded very rude.  Very, very rude.”

“Yelling?”

“Yes, yelling.  It was all rather rude and you should know yelling is not permitted here.”

“But I was only trying to get your attention so you could see how easy it is to fly,” explained the prince, explained the prince now quite bewildered.

“Young man, you’ll only get yourself and others in trouble with your rude attitude and in saying such dangerous things,” replied the old man.  It was plain he did not want talk to the prince any further.

“What’s so dangerous about my question?” asked the prince.  But the old man was silent.  “What’s so dangerous about my question?”  the prince asked again, this time more loudly and with impatience.  Still, the old man remained silent.  Then he closed his eyes.

“Why, you’re just a silly old man!” complained the prince angrily.  He did not like to be ignored.

“Teach that boy a lesson!” someone shouted from within the barely moving crowd of crouched figures.

“But I was only…OUCH!”  The prince felt himself hit on his right leg by a large rock.  “Why are you hurting me?” he cried.

“A good member never asks such questions!” replied another voice.

“Yes!” cropped up another, “Good members do not question!”  Another rock hit the prince in the back.  And then another.  And another.  He began running.

“Get out!” someone else cried.

The prince began running in the direction of the push-pull.  He ran just on the outside of the struggling mass of people and could not understand why they had become so angry.  But, he thought to himself, perhaps he could find out if he could get to the front.  Maybe those in front would understand.

As he ran on his way to the front, along side the slowly moving bent over river of struggling people, the prince noticed a person here and there who was standing up, instead of all bent over like everyone else.  It seemed hopeful.  Maybe these standing up people would understand.  He decided to approach one who was closest to the edge.

“You aren't bent over like the others.  Aren't you afraid they will be angry with you?”

I was another old man.  But this old man laughed and said, “My boy, when you get as old as I am it doesn't matter who gets angry at you anymore.”

“When did you decide to stand up?” asked the prince, encouraged by the old man’s attitude.

“You ask brave questions, my boy”. The old man was now looking kindly at the young stranger.  “Just where have you come from?”

The prince became excited.  “I come from a big red planet with a black swirly place and a blinding light and a great mountain with a big tree and white stag and a golden-silver eagle that flies high in the sky…” answered the prince eagerly and breathlessly.  He was happy that the old man seemed interested.

“My boy, my boy”, interjected the old man.  “I don’t understand you.  You are speaking very, very strangely.  And what you say is very, very strange indeed.  I do hope you are all right and haven’t been eating the wrong things.”

“Ah!” the young prince sighed.  He had said too much.  Much too much.  Why couldn't he talk to these people plainly about where he came from and about what he could do?  He sighed again and moved back outside the struggling people river.  And again he began running towards the front.

To be continued as of 19 Oct 76.

Possible future chapters:
            Witches and webs
            Fugitive Circus Bear
            Magic Bees and the Medicine Man
            Ocean Kingdom
           










[1]  Originally begun in December 1975, for son Michael at age 9.

Wednesday, December 3, 1975

Brother Taylor at Los Angeles LDS Busnessmen's Association

Event: late November or December 1975
Updated:

Story to include visiting speaker Jeffery Holland, recently appointed Commissioner of LDS Church Education System.

Tuesday, November 18, 1975

Meeting Brother Taylor

Original Event: 17 November 1975
Updated: 21 Nov 2013

My first encounter with a black man was in spring 1953 at Fort Ord, California, where I was in basic training during the Korean War. He was a fellow new recruit and he beat me up for my intense protest to his calling me a "mother f**ker". I was afraid of him and other blacks from then on.

I had been raised in Phoenix, Arizona, which in those days was segregated. Blacks had their own schools, so there was no interaction. Furthermore, there was never occasion to associate with blacks in religious circles, since the Mormon Church did not allow black men to hold any kind of leadership position. I was unaware of any black members of the Mormon Church.

My next encounter with a black man was on my birthday, November 17, 1975, more than 22 years later, when my then-fiance Diane introduced me to a friend of hers named "Brother Taylor", a flamboyant black Pentecostal minister from South Central Los Angeles (Watts). She wanted me to sing a Negro Spiritual for him, not knowing anything about my prior experience nor my dreams of that morning.

I don't recall what spiritual I sang, but he hired me on the spot to sing on his regular Sunday morning radio broadcast. He also informed me that he was a long-time admirer of Mormons. (I later learned he had three wives!) That began a very close relationship that I will treasure as long as I live.

To be continued...


Monday, November 17, 1975

Dream about Blacks

Event: 17 November 1975


17 Nov 75 0500
I am in a car (open?) driven by Diane proceeding down a street. Passing by, going the other way in another vehicle, a Negro boy grabs my hand and holds on. I tell Diane to keep going and not get pulled off center.  Am pleased to continue without complication or difficulty.  

Later, am in a locker room with my briefcase and another small case of overnight effects.  A small Negro boy comes up and grabs my right leg.  I look down and am annoyed.  Try peeling him off, but he won't let go. I push on his head with the heel of my right hand against his face, but he is tenacious.  Then my compassion is touched as I realize all he wants is a connection, and I reach down to scoop him up in my arms and hold him. He never says a word, but seems happy now.  I leave the locker room and then realize I have left my overnight case. Return to pick it up.


It was this dream that transformed any residual prejudices about Blacks that I had growing up Mormon. Later that day I met Brother Taylor, pastor of The Greater Grace Memorial Church of God in Christ in south central Los Angeles (Watts district).

Friday, July 25, 1975

Pacific Ocean Baptism

Event: 25 July 1975;
Updated: 24 Oct 13

Laguna Beach


On the occasion of my 78th birthday (11/17/11), oldest son Nick recalls in an email when he stood with me while I was interviewed for re-baptism by the Newport Beach Stake High Council prior to being baptized in the Pacific Ocean on 25 July 1975. Nick was 17 years old at the time and a priest in the Mormon Church.

[Note: Stake president Ferren L. Christensen granted my request that Nick perform the baptism on the tenth anniversary of the event that precipitated my initial estrangement from the Mormon Church. President Christensen also granted my request that it take place at Laguna Beach in the Pacific Ocean, just beneath the beach house (811 Cliff Drive) where I had lived at the time I had first been excommunicated.]
Dear Dad, 
As my gift to you for your birthday I will rewrite my recollection of the interview I witnessed which allowed you to rejoin the LDS (Latter Day Shilom) Church round about 1974-75. 
I recall that the Church was no longer very important to me but I was your loyal & believing son and interested in backing you up. The men were polite and delicate about their questions. I had a feeling they were especially delicate because I was in the room and they didn't want to be too harsh in front of a teenager who they wanted to remain in and respect the church. They asked a variety of questions that you answered in such a manner as to resolve the issues diplomatically.
Then one guy had the balls to get down to business and ask about your sexual history & behavior.

I recall thinking you were busted, having been aware of some of your relationships and your relationship with Diane Kowalski at the time (if I am not mistaken), but instead of keeping his question short and concise he extended it to include a variety of scenarios with perhaps multiple relationships or partners to which you were able to respond truthfully, with a lie of omission ignoring the first and essential part of the question, with "I have no trouble with that," after which Stake President Ferren Christiansen made his statement to a seemingly relieved group about you having had what were apparently profound spiritual experiences that they may not understand, but about which they could not ask you to deny and about which you should not be penalized or persecuted any further. 
I didn't really pay much attention to Grandma at the desk before or after the session except I recall feeling she didn't think it was a good idea for me to attend and even tried to prevent me from going in, and I was resentful of her controlling & manipulating role in our family, as well as her being "against" you & your position. 
I recall leaving the meeting with it reinforcing my previous conclusion about the illegitimate nature of the church and how uninspired the group and how empty the "power" of their "priesthood authority" were, supporting my spiritual intuition that "God's Honest Truth" was not to be found here and if I wished to know anything legitimate I would have to look outside the church. 
So there it is as best a communications-challenged guy like me can write it.  Have a great 78!! 
Love,

Nicholas Eugene Kovalenko - the pot stirrer or the "smith that bloweth the coals..." ;)

On the evening of that July 25 baptism, I wrote a letter to my Mormon friend, the late Michael R. Harris, who had attended the baptism and had brought my (then) fiance Diane Kowalski with him.
Laguna Beach  July 25, 1975 
 To: Michael Harris
 Re: Reflections on being re-baptized in the ocean at Laguna Beach  
Dear Michael: 
 And so finally, it has happened. Thank you for coming such a long way today and at such a strange early morning hour. And for bringing Diane. 
You are a friend and a fine man. I have thought about your suggestion this morning of a new Dialogue article. [Michael was then one of the editors of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought] I find no energy or enthusiasm in me for it. But I do have energy for a letter to you. Or even for a series of letters if you are responsive to it. It feels good to me in that context--that vessel--rather than as an “exhibitionist confession” that Gene England asked for and Karl Keller helped with.  It feels good to let the exhibitionist in me be quiet for a change. 
Coming up out of the water this a.m. after my son, Nick, performed the ordinance, I felt the impulse to recite “Orpheo” to you and Bishop Rondel Hanson (what a “coincidence” that you knew each other at Stanford!). I reviewed those words near the water’s edge just underneath the cliffs where I’d written them in the beach house years ago:
I smile in wonder watching song with eyes upended knowing now a day will come when sea and me will be as one
Nice to have a sense of completion with that poem. It was written on 6 April 1966; just four days after my excommunication had taken place (unknown to me).  Those few days before, I had been in Carmel and had a profoundly disturbing dream about being thrown out of the Church. The dream came on the morning of the 3rd.  I felt like Cain fleeing. The excommunication had taken place the evening of the 2nd. I did not learn about the action until the middle of the following month (on Mother’s Day). 
 I've always liked the poem, even though I puzzled over those last lines a lot. Mostly I thought and associated those words with promises of creativity--and why not that too? One friend, an English teacher [Bill Jenks], thought it meant I was ready to commit suicide! Yet in a very real way that is what has happened: a loss of the old life for a rebirth of the new. The rebirth rite-of-passage ritual took place this morning.  I am glad to be here.  Gene Kregg had been baptized in Phoenix on December 6, 1941 (just before Pearl Harbor!). And he died the night of April 2, 1966.  Eugene Kovalenko has taken his place and is glad to be here. 
Then, after we all (my sons, my mother, Diane and you) returned to the beach house after the ordination, you asked for a song. What an appropriate request!  To fill the measure of that morning.  But it took me a while to find one that fit the occasion.  First I thought of the Lord’s Prayer.  Mother liked the idea, but it didn't fit, somehow.  Then I wondered about my favorite Russian folk song about the birch tree. That didn't fit either. But a Spiritual did.  Which one? A Russian one?  Didn't know any. A hymn?  No. A Negro Spiritual!  I thought of “Steal Away” because of the words: “The trumpet sounds within my soul . . ..”  And I thought of the time I sang that song in Church three years ago, just after having come out of an Oregon forest and back into the world at the encouragement of John Howard of Portland. I sang that song at a Newport Beach ward conference looking like a hippie. The date was May 21, 1972.  I mention this detail because of something that happened after I sang. 
I began to be nagged with a strange feeling which wouldn't let me alone until after I had looked into it.  As strange as it seemed, I went to the history books and looked up Joseph Smith’s birth and death dates, subtracted them to find his exact age at death, and added them to my own birth date [November 17, 1933]. When the date of May 21, 1972 dropped out I was shook! That had been the first time I’d set foot into a Church since my last appearance before a tribunal in September 1968 (for re-hearing). That synchronistic event made me again wonder about returning to the Church. 
 But, back to the song I finally sang: my favorite, “Deep River.” Commemorating the event of 10 years ago this morning when I had an experience of “fire” in response to an earnest request to know what lay behind the Church’s position on the Negro.  That event and how it was subsequently handled by me and the Church set into motion the institutional mechanisms that eventually led to my excommunication. 
Deep River,
My home is over Jordan.
Deep River, Lord.
I want to cross over into campground.

Deep River.
My home is over Jordan.
Deep River, Lord,
I want to cross over into campground.

Oh, don't you want to go,
To the Gospel feast;
That Promised Land,
Where all is peace?

Oh, deep River, Lord,
I want to cross over into campground. 
 . . . I sang that song in campground.  This morning.  With you all.  In the beach house.  How fine that you asked, my friend. 
 As I continue to think back over these past 10 years and the years before, I marvel at the PROCESS that has moved in mysterious ways.  So much has happened!  How could it have been calculated or foreseen?!  Last night as I meditated in preparation for this morning’s event I recalled a recent dream: 
 7/13/75.  Laguna. 0230.  Dream: On a long journey on foot. Going to higher and higher levels: climbing. Am told to trust.  I do.  Will be told what to do when time.  Warned when needed.  Meet many people on way . . ..  
And I realized that I've been on this trip of faith well over these past 10 years. And am still walking!  Climbing.  Moving.  A sense of destiny stronger and stronger in my soul.  An inner confidence of being in my own space, where I belong.  I think of Carl Jung’s last letter to Miguel Serrano where he speaks of his basic tenet.  His words register with precision and impact in my deepest levels: 
 Follow that will and that way which experience confirms to be your own, i.e., the true expression of your individuality.  As nobody can become aware of his individuality unless he is closely and responsibly related to his fellow beings, he is not withdrawing to an egoistic desert when he tries to find himself.  He can only discover himself when he is deeply and unconditionally related to some, and generally related to a great many, individuals with whom he has a chance to compare, and from whom he is able to discriminate himself . . .  
I also think of an essay/poem I wrote when I first entered the woods after my first marriage broke and a day or two before I wrote a fateful letter to SLC in October 1965.  From “As if time existed: a credo”: 
        . . . We are personalities, each distinctly unique and different from any other, caught in set of circumstances (not out side our own choosing) and undergoing experience . . . We, individually, are responsible for the choices we are free to make.  Always have been and always will be . . .   
And I think of the days not long before that in the psychiatric ward in San Diego County Hospital (a kind of “jail” experience) where the chief psychiatrist told me I’d always be in trouble because of my ideas and that I was like another man in history who wrote a book called Mein Kampf! And then he released me only to ask if I’d talk to a depressed patient he’d been unable to touch, thereafter telling me his personal problems with his wife!  Hmmmm. That little episode busted my professional credibility, so I thought. 
 What else? I think of being unable to speak the right kind of words.  Of being unable to express what I’d been going through.  I think of fear.  So much fear--and fascination.  I think of my own months of fear and terror more than 11 years ago: my own “dark night of the soul” 
 The North is silent. Uneasy lull awaits as darkness gathers . . .  
There is so much more that continues to pass in and out of my memory, like threads weaving a pattern.  Connections and loose ends are being tied up and a fabric is beginning to appear.  Dates and events are making more and more sense.  People and places and scriptures and history and anticipations merge in my consciousness with a profound sense of recognition.  My sensibilities tell me some part of me has been in a long rehearsal for all this.  It is too neat, what is unfolding.  The Weaver is grander and wiser and more terrible than I would ever have supposed.  And I only glimpse Him now and again even though I know that “called or not called” He is always present. 
 Michael, my friend, I should like us to continue this dialogue.  But I am getting tired and do not want to bore you.  There are so many, many thoughts, times, dates, events, and experiences that are trying to crowd into these last paragraphs: the inner trial, the 5/6/67 dream, the "Letter to Eugene England" [2/66 poem], the “recrystallization of the Church” dream.  And dreams and dreams and dreams.  But I fear to loose you in the deluge. 
 So, let me bring this thing to a close, again thanking you for our association and friendship and for your care and courage in wanting to get to know me.  I cannot say enough how I value your beingness and my own sense of having no defenses, as we get better and better acquainted.  
Regards and my warmest best wishes.  
Your friend, Eugene

Thursday, May 15, 1975

Colorado River Baptism

(click on image to enlarge)
Colorado River in Grand Canyon


Event: May 1975; Updated: December 2011

On June 26, 2008, in reflecting on pivotal life events, I recalled my long ago baptism by John Howard in the icy Colorado River. I telephoned John at his home in Portland to ask if he still had a photo from that trip and if he would send it for my blog. We reminisced about those eventful days and our many conversations about "the important questions". Yes, he said he had the photo and would send it.

Photo by John Howard of Eugene at the Colorado River in May 1975

That baptism is the event that Orthodoxy accepts. It happened in mid May 1975 at my request during a 12-day river raft float through the bowels of the Grand Canyon. Earlier that spring John R. Howard, then president of Lewis & Clark College, invited me to share this adventure with him, his wife Ruth and a dozen or so college-related friends. At one particularly inspired moment during those days of earnest conversation on the river (when we weren't in the rapids!) and awesome nights under the stars on the river bank in the vast quiet of the canyon, the Presence came into and over me to prompt my request. John was surprised and reluctant at first, but seeing my earnestness he joyfully accepted. It is an event I will never forget.

This event is the one that Orthodoxy would honor 33 years later when I applied for membership in the Orthodox Church in America on September 19, 2008. A legalistic Mormon baptism later that same year (by 17-year-old son Nick on July 25, 1975) didn't count with them.

When first attending St. Dimitri parish to enjoy singing the Divine Liturgy in 2007, I joined the small group fellowship discussion afterwards in the priest's office. At one point I lamented to the priest, "How many times must one be baptized?!"

"Only once!", Fr. John Hennies declared. And with that, the memory of this Grand Canyon moment flooded my mind. Ironically, it had occurred between two encounters with Mormon bishops that same year. Allow me to explain:

After the collapse of my Northwest-Soviet Liaison Corporation in June the previous year in Moscow (1974), I felt lost. John Howard had helped me launch that exciting Moscow enterprise and served as its board chairman. Having what appeared to be a promising new career again suddenly cut short, I was disoriented and confused. I had believed that the enterprise had been divinely directed, but now I was not so sure. I supposed John's invitation to join the river expedition was a kind of consolation.

It turned out to be just that.

In light of my disappointment and disorientation, I had felt the need to be re-baptized. John does not know this even today, but before his invitation for the trip, I had felt prompted to return to the Mormon Church. Because of my business experience with Soviets in Moscow and becoming aware of surprising similarities between Soviet and Mormon attitudes, organization and behavior (they even referred to their high level leaders as "the Brethren"), I began wondering if it had been my pride that had originally precipitated my excommunication years before. So, I decided to move toward reconciliation with the Mormon system.

In those days, for an excommunicated Mormon to return to Church membership, he was obliged to return through the same ecclesiastic door he had exited. For me that door was the Laguna Beach Ward. I made an appointment with the Laguna Ward bishop, who was then Stanley Kimball. Interestingly, Spencer W. Kimball was Church president at the time. (I do not know if they are related.) Without revealing the purpose of my meeting other than to get acquainted, I had formed a critical test question for him in my mind. I asked, "Bishop, if President Kimball were to order you to shoot me, would you do it?"

"Without question!" was his immediate response.

"This is not the time", I thought to myself, and ended the meeting.

It was shortly after this that John Howard invited me to join the river adventure.

In June, following the Grand Canyon trip, I still felt prompted to return to the Mormon Church because of unfinished business and was surprised to learn that the Laguna Beach Ward bishopric had just been reorganized. The new bishop was Rondel Hanson. I made another appointment and came with the same question.

"Absolutely not!" Hanson declared, aghast that I should even ask such a question. "First, he would never say such a thing. Second it isn't right. Third, I wouldn't do it."

"It's time!", I thought and applied for readmission to Mormon Church membership. A delighted Bishop Hanson made immediate arrangements with Stake President Ferren L. Christensen to present my petition before the stake high council.

That is another story.

August 3, 2009


A few days ago I asked the local Mormon stake president Russell T. Pack to review this story, because it was he who had put a fine point on the issue of baptism in an earlier statement where he had said, "The issue is not history. The issue is who has authority to baptize and have it recognized by God." Now he wrote:
“You already knew that your baptism in the Colorado River was null and void. That is why you were rebaptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after that.”
To which I replied,
On the contrary, that is an experience I treasure and can never forget. What I did know then, however, was that there was unfinished business between me and “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” The nature of that unfinished business only became clear to me 17 years later during Ventura Stake President Richard S. Bryce’s late night secret call to the stake Relief Society president on March 17, 1992 (just after my last public singing concert for the Church, which the stake RS president had asked me to present to her sisters) and his subsequent 6-hour KGB-like interrogation of me on June 6, 1992 (which is now in the public record). This unfinished business has become even clearer to me during your and my recent communications...

On June 4, 2008, John Howard wrote:
June 4, 2008 email from John R. Howard:
To whom it may concern:
I write re: Gene Kovalenko............a friend these past 35 years, a gifted singer, and a deeply committed seeker after the truths that define and guide the human condition.
In 1975, in the company of 23 other friends, Gene floated the Colorado River with my wife, Ruth, and me. 
In the enchanted confines of the Grand Canyon, it was my pleasure to baptise Gene. 
Although not a minister, I was at the time deeply involved with the Presbyterian Church, as an elder in my own church and as a delegate to the Presbyterian General Assembly. 
While I make no claims for my own Christianity, I feel confident now - as I did then - that Gene is a devout Christian.