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Utahn reflects on lessons learned from Buddhism, Mormonism

What converts find most compelling about a new religion, some say, is not the doctrine but the lives of those who believe it.

So it was with Norman Fukui, a Bear River City native who went not only from farm boy to bank executive but also from a Buddhist to a bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

His life has been a Mormon trek.

“Some people say they’d like to read my journal,” he said with a laugh.

Perhaps one day it will be in print. But for now, here are the highlights.

The Fukui home, for young Norm Fukui, brimmed with devotion — devotion to Japanese Buddhism. His mother kept a shrine in the house that had been passed down to her. At times the aroma of incense wafted about. In those days, young Fukui was a regular at the small Buddhist temple in Box Elder County.

“The church was our gathering place,” he recalled. “During the war, when Japanese people were being sent to internment camps and Bear River City had a curfew, the Buddhist church became the center of things.”

Once a week, a Buddhist priest made the trip north from Salt Lake City to officiate and preach in Japanese.

“I learned to be kind and caring,” Fukui said, “but beyond that, it was all very ancient and confusing. I couldn’t understand everything. It made for a long meeting.”

But if Buddhism was the hub of the Fukui home, the force that spun the wheel was Fukui’s grandmother, a woman born in Japan and steeped in “the old ways.”

“She ran the show,” Fukui said. “She was a true matriarch, a strong woman.”

At age 6, on a lark, Fukui decided to attend LDS Primary with his buddies. Today, he looks back at that day as a moment of truth. Out of the blue, he says, he was called on to say the prayer. He walked to the front, folded his arms, bowed his head and wondered, “Now what?”

“That’s when I heard a soft voice in my ear giving me words to say. It was the voice of Sister Cora Misrasi,” he said. “I will never forget her or forget that moment.”

Over time, Fukui found himself drawn to the LDS faith. He liked the idea of eternal families. He liked the sunny optimism of the people. Still, he respected his parents, and when they asked him to wait until he turned 18 to make a decision about converting, he waited. The day he informed them he was getting baptized, they understood. But, they told him, “Now you have to tell Grandma.”

It would become another moment of truth in his life.

“I had no idea how she’d react,” Fukui said. “Would she be angry? Would she be sad? I went into her room and told her my plans to become a Mormon. She looked up at me and, in Japanese, she said, ‘Buddhism is good. Mormonism is good. Pick one, and be a good one.’ ”

He took her comments to heart. Eventually, his three sisters joined the LDS Church. He met his future wife, Elaine, at a singles ward in Cache Valley. In time, he was called to be the bishop of the ward in which he grew up, where Sister Misrasi first set him on his quest.

“The people in the ward taught me as a boy,” he said. “That’s how I survived. They were happy to keep teaching me.”

Today, the Fukui family stays linked to the family’s heritage. Elaine, a meat-and-potatoes girl, has learned to cook Japanese dishes, and the family still celebrates Japanese holidays.

And today, Norm Fukui feels not only blessed but also guided.

“My parents were good people,” he said. “They sacrificed everything for their kids. So I think being raised Buddhist has been an advantage for me. It has given me empathy for people, along with the ability to see the good in others no matter who they are.”

This fall, Fukui’s son will return from his mission — a mission to Japan, the homeland dear to his grandmother’s heart. It makes for a poetic closing of the circle. His grandma may have been strong and formidable, but having a grandson return to the Old Country to serve would surely have made her smile.