Mormon Missionaries in the New York Times
The Book of Mormon (musical) which was a Broadway hit has been another instrumental catalyst in bringing the discussion of the Mormon faith (appropriately and officially called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) to the forefront of the media. When two respected members of the Republican party (who also happen to belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) announced their intention to work for the Republican nomination for president, what has now been dubbed the “Mormon moment” received even more fuel.
“Mormon” has become a buzz-word in the media, and will likely remain under discussion and debate for some time. There have been people on both sides of the issue of whether being a Mormon is likely to play a large role in Mitt Romney’s success or failure in his run for election in the presidential race.
The New York Times published a piece by Josh Kron on April 13, 2012, taking a deeper look into what Mormon missionaries’ lives are really like in Uganda (the setting of The Book of Mormon [musical]). (Read full article here.) Kron discovered a much more meaningful existence than is portrayed in the play (which should really come as a surprise to no one, since the creators of the play are comedians and more often went for punch lines than doctrine.
First of all, it is important to clarify what the Book of Mormon is. Many Christians unfamiliar with Mormonism believe that it is the Mormon Bible and that Latter-day Saints (as “Mormons” prefer to be called) do not believe in the Bible. This is false. In fact, Latter-day Saints do believe the Bible to be the word of God, and it is included in their canon. However, Mormon doctrine states that many plain and precious truths were lost from the Bible. Some things were lost due to the wickedness of men, others were simply lost in translation and in the transmission of the text. The Book of Mormon is considered by Latter-day Saints to be another testament of Jesus Christ. It is a sacred and ancient record of some of the inhabitants of the ancient Americas, and records Jesus Christ’s dealings with them. Thus, the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ is meant to be a complementary book of scripture to the Bible, not a replacement for it.
Mormon missionaries serve all over the world. Young men between the ages of 19 and 25 may choose to serve for a period of two years; single women may serve from the age of 21 and older for a period of 18 months; senior couples may choose to serve for a variety of lengths of time. Missionaries usually finance their own missions. It is a huge sacrifice of time and money, and missionaries dedicated their entire lives, for this period of time, to serving the Lord. They can be called to serve anywhere in the world. They may be required to learn a new language, and they serve the people in the areas where they work.
Kron spent a good deal of time with Mormon missionaries in Uganda, trying to capture an accurate picture of what their lives are like there and how they interact with Ugandans. It was not long before Kron discovered how serious the missionaries there were about their calling. They gave up girlfriends or boyfriends, school, possibly careers, marriage, etc., putting everything off while they chose to serve the Lord.
A church spokesman, Eric Hawkins, explained to Kron that a mission is “something we hope all Mormon young men will want to do—a time of meaningful personal sacrifice, service, testing and growth.”
Kron learned for himself what a sacrifice a mission truly is. Missionaries are expected to adhere to an “intensive airtight and sometimes lonely schedule of prayer, Scripture study and door-to-door proselytizing six days a week, 52 weeks a year. They are to abstain from virtually every earthly pleasure — not just the usual temptations prohibited under Mormonism, like premarital sex, alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea, but also magazines, television and music not sanctioned by the church. They can call home two days a year, on Christmas and Mother’s Day.” Depending on the mission, some missionaries are permitted to email, but only one day a week. Amazingly, the vast majority of all missionaries who serve follow these strict rules quite willingly, taking very seriously their commitment to serve the Lord wholeheartedly.
Due to the ages at which most missionaries depart on their missions, many leave in middle of their schooling. Some colleges will allow them to pick back up right where they left off, but not all colleges are so lenient. Even when colleges are lenient, it can be difficult to get back into such a different schedule and way of life. On the bright side, many missionaries who are required to learn a foreign language can take proficiency tests upon their return to gain significant college credit for the skills they have picked up.
Mormon missionaries learn much more than a foreign language, if they serve with their whole hearts. “Their personal values sharpen, and they begin to understand whom they want to be when they return to college,” says Kron. Some of the missionaries he met with had decided to focus on special-needs social work because of experiences he had had with a family he taught who was headed by an alcoholic father struggling to overcome his addiction. Another missionary, who had planned on pursuing international business as a career, has now starting thinking about a different career that will allow him to spend more time with his family.
Elder Lee (all male missionaries carry the title “Elder”) said of his missionary experiences, “I have learned more about myself in the last 20 months than I could if I was back home. You begin to understand what really matters in your life.”
Missionaries shared with Kron some of their struggles. “Between six months and 18 months everyone forgets you,” Elder Lee says. “All your friends back home, they stop writing you. That’s when the umbilical cord is cut, that’s when you start realizing a lot of different things.”
Missionaries try to impress on the people they teach that they have no wish to take away one’s current faith, only to share what they believe and invite others to accept more truth. “We don’t expect anyone just to take our word for it; we ask them to pray for it, to ask God if it’s true or not,” Elder Lee says. “Everyone knows that God is not a God of lies. We’re not trying to convert you to us; we’re trying to convert you.”
Missionaries are expected to serve the people in their communities. They never ask for money and they are not pushy. They often volunteer to help local citizens digging ditches, hauling bricks, or whatever else they may need help with.
Says one Ugandan convert, Mr. Kagodo, “I found what I wanted. It is the way of life. I’ve met many other Christians who would be very comfortable just saying they are born-again or what, but their character does not depict it. . . . For me, the fact that nobody pushes you, but asks you, and read the Scriptures, and just keep the gospel, that matters a lot.”
Kron noticed that Mormon missionaries also spend some time correcting people’s misperceptions about the religion. Polygamy is no longer practiced, for one, and has not been since 1890. The Bible is accepted as scripture, not replaced by the Book of Mormon. Most importantly, Latter-day Saints worship Jesus Christ as their Savior, something many people still do not realize.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had nearly 400,000 new members join in 2010. Nearly 70 percent of these new members were converted by college-age missionaries like Elder Lee.
Mormon News: Mormon Missionaries