Why I Am a Mormon, Part III (Missionary Work)

IMG_5790It is fair to ask why a religious conviction needs to be expressed and shared publicly. Why can’t it simply be a private and personal matter? Given the world’s long history of religious intolerance and violence too, it would seem to be a safer bet to stay at home and stay quiet about religious convictions. I have spent a great deal of my education learning about the pitfalls of religious intolerance, and I have been pained beyond my capacity to express by the atrocities of violence that have been done in the name of Christ and of other religions. I think it is fair and right to expect that religious people who wish to share their convictions are aware of and sensitive about that history and that they undertake the task of sharing their beliefs with appropriate humility and respect for all people. But I also think that when an individual comes to accept the universality of a religion (in my case the divine mission of Jesus Christ as the redeemer of the world and the restoration of his gospel), it is logical for that person to wish to share her convictions and it is fair, I believe, to allow her that freedom.

It makes little sense for me to claim I believe in Christ but then refuse to engage in the work of sharing his story and teachings. I do not understand a religion that believes in its own universality but that does not have an intention or even a method for sharing its message with others. That seems to risk a kind of strange narcissism, as if to say, “we are right about the world, but the rest of the world is just out of luck.” To feel that one is chosen or called by God does not give a believer the right to believe in himself as an elite club but rather it bestows a responsibility to extend God’s blessings to others. I want no truck with violent and intolerant forms of Christianity or of any other religious tradition, for that matter. I find them morally repulsive and I can scarcely believe they are pleasing to God. We are all God’s children, and so the job of a universal religion is to provide for all of them, not just for one corner or tribe. And that involves exposing oneself to exceptional risk—the risk of being wrong, the risk of discovering what you don’t know or understand, and the risk of bodily harm and loss. But that risk is also what pays the best dividends; it teaches humility, deepens conviction, increases love, and broadens one’s sense of the world. It’s a paradox that the deeper one’s convictions about what matters most brings one into an indispensable awareness of how much more there is to know and understand about the world. The experiences of young LDS people living for an extended period across the world brings great benefits to the church, as it does to those people they teach. I guess my point is that the same tolerance that should require us to respect each other should also inspire us to protect the right of others to express and share their religious views. Besides, if you don’t like the idea of religious folks engaging in missionary work, consider how strange it would be for them to privately believe they have something that might be a blessing to you but to have no desire or freedom to share it.

In everything that I do as a Christian and in every relationship, I believe I am morally obligated to try to heal, to bring joy, and to do good. This is what amounts to bringing others to Christ, to whatever extent others are willing or interested in coming to Him. Sometimes that involves sharing openly the message of Christianity and sometimes it involves simply serving others with consistency and integrity and genuine love, but in all cases, it shouldn’t be surprising that a Christian is striving to consecrate the whole of her life for the sake of all others, in every relationship, and in every circumstance. I respect and admire those who share their beliefs with others, whether those beliefs come from other religions or from secular views. I learned to admire a great many of my secular friends at Stanford and Berkeley who devote their whole lives to living for a purpose they believe in with all of their hearts and who share openly and publicly their convictions in the hope that others might join in. There are those who fight against political oppression, those who fight against poverty and illness, those who fight for human rights and for the environment and for education. They inspire me and in many ways I share those same convictions because of, not in spite of, my religious beliefs.

But I also believe there are motivations and aspirations of a spiritual nature that inform my approach to the world’s problems and that spiritual truth can provide a kind of healing that is, in many ways, even more important than the physical alleviation of suffering. Some religious people look down on secular humanitarian work, as if it were less important or motivated by short-sighted goals. I don’t share those views. Some secular people look down on the work of missionaries as meaningless or foolish because it is based on unprovable metaphysical claims. I don’t share those views either. I think any work that seeks and effectually manages to improve human life and human happiness, that alleviates suffering, and that requires deeper selflessness, is God’s work. I enjoyed missionary work so much that had my church provided a professional path to being clergy, I would have taken it. I could have happily done such work for the rest of my life. But I also began to have aching concerns for the education of people as well as for my own. I sensed that the gospel would change lives more profoundly and more sustainably if people were also empowered with greater understanding of the world and of themselves through education. I wanted more of that for myself too. This is why I am a teacher but also why I remain active as a lay member of my church, serving whenever and however I can. I am not alone. Countless other returned missionaries have felt their education about their experiences on their missions was just the beginning of a lifelong dedication to learning. I believe in secular and sacred forms of service and in secular and sacred forms of learning. I don’t believe in their separation.

n1387087958_152597_9306 - Version 2I was sometimes questioned about my decision to serve a mission in Venezuela for my church when I was 20 years old. I think that had to do with certain suspicions about the presumption and arrogance of such an enterprise. But let’s be clear: there is a difference between violence, intolerance, and manipulation and honest sharing of what one has witnessed and experienced and hopes to be of spiritual worth for others. Too often today we hear criticism of religious conviction as if it were already guilty of such sins simply by virtue of being announced. It doesn’t help that some religiously outspoken people are embarrassingly intolerant and uncharitable in their views of others, but it is also true that we don’t seem to think very clearly any more in our culture about religion. Religion is too easily dismissed and too flatly equated with intolerance. This seems especially unfair considering that there doesn’t seem to be the same standard of suspicion applied to secular convictions expressed in the public square. All beliefs and convictions must have to answer for themselves in the public and plural space of the civic sphere, but that is all the more reason to allow and respect the freedom to share belief.

People often wonder why so many young Mormons (including my oldest daughter at the moment-see photo above) feel compelled to give up everything for an extended period of time to share the gospel with others. The most common assumption is that this is due to social coercion. While such coercion does sometimes exist unfortunately, I think the reasons much more frequently have to do with what I spoke of in my earlier two posts in this series. Mormons believe in personal revelation. Mormons believe that God can communicate with us regarding the particulars of our lives. Once I experienced the reality of such a relationship, I wanted to assist others in discovering its joys on their own and in discovering the power of renewal available to all through the atonement of Christ. Full time missionary work is hard and often thankless, it requires considerable financial sacrifice, and it means putting one’s life on hold and entirely in God’s hands. Missions are the most successful when they are motivated by profound, personal spiritual witness.

And there will be many loved ones who will not understand or who will lose respect for you just for having decided to go. I was fortunate that I did not encounter too much of that. My family was especially supportive, although I suppose some of my friends might have cooled off without telling me their reasons. I cannot say enough about how remarkable it is to see as many people as I do here at BYU make this decision. And I cannot give proper account of the hundreds of testimonies I have heard over the years after their return, most of whom feel they would jump at the chance to go again, myself included. In retrospect, I might cringe at some of my youthful zeal and naiveté during that era of my life, but sometimes I almost envy my passion and willingness to sacrifice comforts and conveniences and a largely self-designed path in life, all for the sake of serving God. And I believe with all of my heart that there is no other way at such a young age that I could have gained so many opportunities to learn about and appreciate and love such a remarkably broad range of people. The greatest joy and blessing of taking the risk of being a missionary is the discovery of one’s capacity of love. As a former president of my church has put it, in missionary work our purpose is to identify all the good in the world and in the lives of others and see if there is anything we can add to it. We do not seek to judge or condemn nor do we seek to manipulate or intellectually convince others. We seek to provide individuals the chance to learn spiritual truths on their own. That is no small thing, and it is largely an exercise in self-empowerment.

Of course, not every missionary arrives on the mission prepared to do this work with the right humility, but the vast majority, sooner or later, will learn it and be the better for it. There is abundant recompense for such sacrifices and a wisdom and maturity that one gains from the attempt to carry one’s witness to others. The importance and weight of such blessings cannot be overstated. No one was more changed by my service as a missionary than I was. It would be one thing to stand on the shores of a newly discovered island, like Columbus of old, and blithely declare the land the property of a Christian sovereign, without venturing one step further inland, without learning a word of the language or a single chapter of the history of the people who live there, without venturing any risk to your own sense of the world. But to walk in the streets among all kinds of people, to eat and talk and live like they do in humility and simplicity and to learn life on their terms, to speak to them in their homes, and to work to earn their trust not because you have something to gain from them but because you only hope for their betterment, that is another thing altogether.

When I came home from my mission and returned to Stanford University, there were some students and professors who questioned my right to go to another part of the globe and announce that I had the truth and others did not. It was hard to explain myself, but I knew it wasn’t how they saw it. I was terrified when I arrived, and I doubted my purpose and presence in Venezuela many times, especially early on. The culture, the language, and the context were often overwhelming and crushing in their powers of disorientation. I remember distinctly teaching an older woman about the story of Joseph Smith in my first weeks in Venezuela. She didn’t have to let us into her home, but she did. She was bored with us and in the end our story held no interest for her. I remember feeling that the earth beneath me was shaking and it might swallow me up. What was I doing here? Why had I come all this way believing that this would matter? And suddenly my own belief in my religion seemed to collapse into nothing more than an inflated confidence in my ethnic story as a Mormon.

But I had had experiences that had convinced me it was more than my ethnic story, that the importance of my religion had less to do with me and more to do with God and with others. So I kept trying to remain focused on the universals of my religion and not merely on my personal understanding of it, and to teach with sincere love. Slowly and miraculously, I started to find people who wanted to listen, who indeed seemed hungry to hear, and who happily joined the church and changed their lives for the better. I can’t count the number of miracles that occurred in praying for and finding these people. I have told one of these stories before. I came to love so many people, so many kinds. I remember feeling almost overwhelmed by love when I would just look down a street and see the old men sitting on the patios, the children playing in the streets, the women walking together to the store, and the men hanging outside of a bodega. And even though early on I was sometimes a little too focused on wanting specific results from my efforts, I came to appreciate people in the same way whether or not they were interested in our message. The mission has been the foundation of everything I have done ever since. I continue to draw strength from those experiences, and it is the reason I share these thoughts in this format here. It makes me happy and hopeful and grateful to do so. I am less motivated to persuade others to believe as I do and more worried, quite simply, that I will die without having duly honored what I have witnessed. There is an inherent reward in learning how to honor one’s sacred experiences, and one of the best ways, I have learned, is to share.

 

 

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