Unlike the relentlessly peppy fellows of the Broadway musical, I felt like a failure for most of my two years as a Mormon missionary.
Ever since I was a kid dreaming of going on a mission, I knew what a missionary was supposed to do: make converts. When I left on my own mission at age 19, I even had a feeling — which I took to be from God — that I’d make 84 of them, all gratefully uttering my name in reverential tones to their equally grateful descendants.
But after about 16 months in Belgium, I still hadn’t made a single one. I hadn’t even come close. Instead, I had something like 10,000 rejections, most of them involving sentences I never got to finish and doors that closed faster than their quality of hinge usually allowed.
Oh, I’d always known it wouldn’t be easy. That was part of the Missionary (and American) Ideal. But the “not easy” part was supposed to be a warm-up for the big finale, which was that if you believed enough and worked hard enough and were worthy of divine help enough, then you could do impossible things, like make converts in Belgium, a place full of great and abominable Catholics.
Ah, there was the catch — I obviously wasn’t doing the “enough” part.
There wasn’t the tiniest thought that maybe things outside of my control were playing a teeny role here too, like social relationships, which studies had already shown were the single biggest visible reason people convert to, leave, or stay in a religion. No. I was sure that the problem lay with me, myself, and I, and that the solution was just to fix myself even more than I had already, dozens of times before.
Luckily we had a 113-point checklist to help us out. Was I making my missionary companion my best friend? (Well, not always.) Was I thinking too much about girls or home? (No doubt.) Was I getting out the door on time in the morning and after meals? (Most of the time, but why not always?) Did I talk to people whenever I had the chance? (Almost always, but I was still missing a few).
Now there’s nothing wrong with taking a look inside and trying to get better, or even going about it somewhat systematically, to help you keep all that fixing straight. It beats being arrogant, and usually you discover strengths you didn’t even know you had. My mistake was in thinking that if I could check everything off that list, I’d be fixed — or maybe it was simply in thinking that I could totally fix myself at all.
Like my fellow missionary Paul said throughout the New Testament, there’s always something wrong inside, especially (he implied) the sorts of things that are hard to measure and check off, say mercy and justice and patience. The Mormon hero Benjamin said the same thing. But I ignored them and kept fixing until I had almost everything checked off, except maybe those hard-to-measure things not easily fixed and checked off. Still no converts.
And then I reached a bona fide desperation point, with very few choices left. I could keep on digging inside and find even more to feel depressed about and unable to fix. Or I could lose faith in the Ideal or even lose faith altogether and just check out. Or I could take the drastic step of adjusting the Ideal instead of just myself.
That sort of Ideal-adjusting is part of maturing, for anyone, not just Mormon missionaries. Even the great heroes in the great stories have to do it. Even people who seem to be the walking incarnation of an Ideal have to do it — a fine example being when a reporter gushed to Cary Grant, “What’s it like to be Cary Grant?” and the heartthrob practically floored him by saying, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant; even I want to be Cary Grant.”
But even if it’s common, adjusting your Ideal is one of the hardest things in the world to do — maybe especially for a Mormon missionary. Any altering to the Ideal feels like you’re giving up on it altogether, even betraying it, like you’re saying it’s not possible, so you’re settling, or compromising, or just not believing enough. You’re failing. Which is why you only adjust the Ideal if you’re feeling pretty desperate.
Thinking the whole mission business was up to me also had the unhappy effect of making it almost wholly about me.
Like I was. I didn’t have a master plan, but during those last few months I stopped focusing so much on every single little (and big) flaw– thinking the whole mission business was up to me also had the unhappy effect of making it almost wholly about me. Like I was supposed to be there, as the Jesuits say, for the greater glory of God, but was really there for the greater glory of me.
Every evangelist faces that, starting with the first missionaries in the Ancient World, through the Benedictines and Franciscans in the Middle Ages, on through the Jesuits of the Counter-Reformation and into the widespread missionaries of today. The Book of Mormon musical doesn’t get everything right, but it gets one thing really right, with the song “It’s About You and Me (but Mostly Me).” That certainly summed me up for a long time, and maybe a lot of other missionaries over the centuries too.
Taking the focus off of me had the happy effect of making me want to get to know people, to understand them, and even just become friends with them. It was no longer solely about converting them. I even started talking about what they wanted to talk about — their kids, interests, and their own beliefs — instead of always dictating the conversation, as I was wont to do.
And there I was, learning from a Catholic priest (of all people!) as he explained how he used to have little patience for people’s suffering — he would just tell them to buck up — until he became a POW during the Second World War where he was crushed emotionally and spiritually by his suffering. You could tell that changed everything for him and made him the kind man he was now.
Lo, and behold! Things changed for me, too. No, I didn’t start converting people, but I felt calmer and more connected than I had before. I even had to admit that I was learning more from these Catholic Belgians than they probably ever had from me. Most of the time it didn’t happen through any high theological discussion, but from just being in their orbit for a while — like with Yvonne and Raymond, a perfectly ordinary-looking retired couple who never became Mormon, who I never even tried to convert, but had more goodness in them than I’d ever known before. This goodness was not so much in the bushel full of good things they did (which would appear on just about any standard checklist of “good deeds”), but in how they carried them out.
Yvonne expressed her goodness not just through her uncommonly good cooking, but also in the immeasurable depth of her genuine interest in your well-being. Raymond expressed his by doling out his homegrown potatoes and tomatoes, inviting people to sit alongside him to watch his beloved Tour de France, but most of all through the ungraspable kindness and delight with which he did such things. Of course, none of this truly captures the extent of goodness in them or in the numerous other locals who were so hospitable even though they didn’t want to hear any more talk about converting–goodness so great that it became my unarticulated standard of goodness ever after, rather than my old 113-point or any other checklist.
I would have bet my life that I was there enlightening and saving them, but here they were enlightening and saving me instead.
I was shocked to find that level of goodness among strange people in a strange land who spoke a strange language and belonged to a strange (not to mention great and abominable) religion. It finally hit me that plenty of their goodness came from that religion. I would have bet my life that I was there enlightening and saving them, but here they were enlightening and saving me instead. Maybe I was even going a little native — in more ways than my newfound preference for Belgian food, gothic interiors, and the mostly gray Belgian weather. I was taking a deep interest in the people and forging unbreakable bonds.
But there is good precedent for going native in Christianity — hadn’t Jesus gone native just by becoming human? It didn’t make him any less Jesus; it just helped him understand the locals better. I wasn’t giving up faith (or the Ideal) as much as altering it to include big doses of Belgianism (and anyone who thinks he or she doesn’t do any altering of faith and ideals but merely preserves them hasn’t studied much religious history).
I wasn’t quite at the level of my daughter, who 30 years later had a happier mission than I did in nearby just-as-difficult France, mostly because she was 22 when she started and had a degree in religion and believed from the start that having a good conversation with someone was in and of itself a good thing and not just a means to a conversion. She approached the whole business like she was a sort of Religion Clearinghouse, sharing her Mormonism with people she thought would be happier as Mormons, but recognizing that other people were happy where they were.
I also wasn’t at the level of Ammon, who’s most remembered among Mormons for all the converts he made. But, usually forgotten is that he was ready to spend his 14-year mission simply being helpful, serving as a literal shepherd. I think I would have been happier doing something like that. Helping to help — not just as a backdoor to making converts, but a no-strings-attached sort of helping.
Thirty-seven years later, I’m still in touch with a lot of those people I met during those last happy months of my mission — happy even though none of my new friends became Mormon. I’ve tried to make up for some of my arm-twisting and non-listening, more with my actions than my words, but mostly I want to tell them that a great deal of whatever good I have in me came from them, the unusually big-hearted people of Belgium. They shaped me without even trying, more than I shaped them while actually trying.
Lead image courtesy of Paul Kelly.