Telling it on the Mountain When Nobody’s Listening

How a Mormon missionary failed to convert a single soul, but was saved by his new Catholic Belgian friends along the way.

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.

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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.

Craig Harline
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  • laverl09

    Craig, thank you for a humble admission that goodness comes from within more than it does from without. I was privileged to serve my mission in Brazil from 1961-1963 where converts were flocking to learn about Mormonism and yet I too had an epiphany with Catholicism. I had to have a boil lanced at a local hospital that was staffed totally by Franciscan nuns. When I went to the window to pay my bill, I was told there would be no charge. When I asked why, I was told that the mother superior had said, “He is a missionary just like we are and so there will be no charge.” Overwhelmed to tears I asked if there was anything I could do to show my gratitude. The answer was, “Yes, we would really like to possess an album of music performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.”
    Needless to say, my mission President had one sent to them direct from Salt Lake City.

  • Craig

    What a great story Laver109….

  • LakersTrent

    As a missionary, I was taught to respect and to study and try to understand other faiths- if you initially held a ‘great and abominable’ mindset toward other religions the mistake was yours (and could indeed get in the way of alot of good). I undoubtedly spend more time studying and learning about other religions as a missionary than at any other period of my life- it was encouraged. Likewise, missionary training tools (including the main manual Preach My Gospel) make it very clear that Success is not just about converting or baptizing people. Hopefully the number of missionaries who take 16 months to realize these principles is small- it sounds like it put a big damper on much of your mission. Unnecessary personal suffering isn’t a good thing, but at least it helps us realize our mistakes and internalize resolve not to repeat them as it sounds like you’ve done.

    One of the best things about missionary service (aside from the opportunity to devote all of your efforts and schedule to helping other people w/o worrying about money, education, romance, etc) is the personal growth that inevitably comes when you spend less time thinking about yourself and more time thinking about others. I would venture that nearly all Mormon missionaries return with deeper faith, respect and appreciation for the people in the region they served, a more mature understanding of humanity, and a smaller ego than they had when they left. Leading converts to baptism and changing lives is another great benefit of missionary service, but even without converts a mission can be a huge success.

  • springer

    It’s sad that you didn’t become a Christian. You sadly stayed a member of your cult. I feel sorry for you and your family.

    • rockyspoon

      No, “springer”–you demonstrate your ignorance by claiming Mormonism is a “cult”.

      In the last election, a study determined that Mitt Romney’s church taught a more literal sense of the Bible than any other.

      So please save your sorrow–your ignorance has stolen your happiness.

      • springer

        You’re ignorant about Mormonism. I suggest you study a little more about what they believe. They believe if they are good enough they will be gods of their own world — nothing could more opposite Christianity.

        God gives grace to allow us to be saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ who is true God along with God the Father, and the Holy Ghost … the Trinity … which Mormons do not believe in.

        • T W

          Mormons absolutely believe that by grace alone you are saved. We believe that without the atonement of Christ, his grace and mercy, there is no way we can be saved. We don’t believe the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are the same individual. If that’s one of the things that makes us a cult in your mind, who cares. We think your wrong, you think we are…whatever.

          I’m grateful for the knowledge that I will be able to eternally progress. I get that you don’t agree with the concept that we have the potential to become like our Heavenly Father. It’s one of the things that converted me. It makes sense that a loving Father would want his child to have all that he has. Our eternal progression only adds to His glory. Nothing could be more Christian than this. It’s too bad that you missed the point of the author’s message and have chosen to spew bigotry.

          • springer

            As you say the thing that converted you is that they promised you would become god. Sorry dude — it doesn’t work that way.

            Jesus Christ has always been God
            God the Father has always been God
            The Holy Spirit has always been God
            .. and yet there are not three God’s but One God.

            I still don’t think you know what being a Christian is.

          • S H

            springer: I don’t have to meet your standards to be a Christian. My relationship with Christ is between myself and Him. I have always found it unbelievably arrogant you and your ilk believe you have the right to determine who is a Christian. The Savior I said that He was the shepherd and He knew His sheep.

            As to your hang-up on us becoming a god; you might want do a little research. If you study the primitive church, you will find the deification of man was part of their belief.

            Also, sorry, but your belief in the Trinity is based on extra-biblical, Greek philosophies. There is absolutely nothing in the Bible that supports the Trinity. You might want to look up the meaning of Greek words in the scriptures. You will find they don’t support your beliefs.

          • springer

            Mormons are a secretive cult. There is nothing secret within the Christian Church.

            Your organization has secret stones, secret glasses, secret rituals, secret buildings, secret clothing … disclose and show all your secrets. There are no secrets in the Christian Church .. only cults and secret organizations.

            You’re right the word ‘Trinity’ is never spoken in the Bible but all three members are mentioned often and their existence and relationship is also mentioned often.

            I believe in one Bible. Your organization is much like the Masons. All secret.

            The Christ that I believe in is true God ..and has always been true God.

            I do hope that the Holy Spirit will enter your heart and the hearts of all Mormons who have been lead astray. I wish I could send you a necklace with a cross that would remind you that Christ died for you sins and all the sins of the world — his death and resurrection paid the price in full.

          • S H

            There is nothing secret. We hold certain things sacred. We don’t want you and your ilk mocking things we hold sacred. Of course, Christ would never tell people to keep things secret. He never told his disciples to tell no man He was Jesus, the Christ (Matthew 16:20). He also never told Peter, James, and John not to tell what happened on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:9). There are other examples.

            Now you’re running away from the concept of the Trinity. You agree it’s not mentioned in the Bible and all three are mentioned often. We agree there is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. We reject that there are three but they are one. Look up the Greek meanings of the word “one” in the New Testament and see what it says.

            We don’t believe in “secret stones” and “secret glasses.” We believe Joseph Smith used the Urim and Thumim to translate the Book of Mormon plates. Of course, they are secret and never mentioned in the Bible (Exodus 28:30, Leviticus 8:8, Numbers 27:21, Deuteronomy 33:8, 1 Samuel 28:6, and so on).

            The sacred garments we wear as a reminder of our covenants are hardly secret.

            There are things in our faith that are only available to faithful members. We have no secrets. What you call “secrets,” we call sacred and are open to all members.

            We believe in the Bible. If all things in our faith were secret, how would you know what to whine about?

            We believe that there is no name under heaven whereby a man can be saved in the Kingdom of Heaven, only that of Jesus Christ and no one else. We believe we are saved by atonement of Christ, which is a free gift to all mankind. Without Jesus, there is nothing.

            Please explain how you have the right to determine who is the “true Jesus.” Who gives you the right to condemn people to hell because they have the audacity to disagree with you. While I won’t claim you don’t believe in the “true Jesus,” I do have to question your beliefs in light of your arrogance and demanding attitude.

            Your claims fall apart when they face the light of truth.

          • springer

            Nice try covering up your beliefs. You don’t believe in the Trinity — I do.

            No secrets!!!! I’m not stupid. Your temples are secret, your marriage vows are secret, your magic rocks are secret, …. the whole scam is full of secret things.

            I worked with a Mormon who charged his parents to see his children — what kind of craziness is that.

            Why not wear a cross instead of magic underwear to remind you of what Jesus did for you?

            Your cult has secrets — don’t try to lie and say you don’t.

          • S H

            springer: Repeating the same things over and over again doesn’t make it so. So you knew a Mormon who’s a jerk. Do you want me to tell you about all the evangelicals I’ve seen who are down right crazy? That’s meaningless.

            You’ve lived up to my expectations, by the way. You finally got around to “magic underwear.” You should be proud.

            Why don’t I wear a cross? My Jesus is a living, dynamic being; the great I am, not the great he was. I prefer to emphasize living, loving Jesus. My Jesus, by the way, would never mock some one with the trite phrase, “magic under wear.”

            Do I think you’re stupid? You haven’t done anything but show you can parrot anti-Mormon screeds.There’s the magic word again (cult). You haven’t done anything that makes me think you’re capable of original thought. I guess, yeah, I think you’re stupid, since you asked.

            I notice you hope I won’t notice you refuse to answer my question I’ve asked twice before and a third time now. What gives you the right to determine who is a true follower of Christ. Who appointed you the arbiter of what is Christian?

            Until you answer my questions, there’s no sense in trying to talk sense to some who is full of nonsense. Grow a backbone. Answer my questions.

          • springer

            My God is the only person who judges. I cannot. However, God did give me a brain and see who follows God’s word. The Bible is very simple that the only way to the Father is through his Son. I believe that there is nothing I can do to be saved other than rely on the grace of God, through his word.

            I don’t think your god is the same as my God, nor do I believe your Jesus is the same as my Jesus. I rely on what is said in one Book for my salvation — you do not. Your leader made up a special planet where your god lives and your Jesus is a brother of Satan.

            Again, there is nothing I can do by myself to be saved. I can’t do good works, I can’t not eat or drink something, I can’t wear anything that will save me. I am a poor lost miserable sinner – lost in my sin. The only way out is faith through grace.

            Every Mormon I’ve meet is a jerk — it always ends up all about them, I’ve don’t know too many evangelicals … some of them are jerks also.

            The Bible is very simple. Salvation is very simple. No secret rituals, no secret anything.

            I have a cross in my home to remind me of what my God did for me — he suffered, died, delivered the world from sin, and rose again — a living, loving Jesus.

            My Jesus would point out that nothing I could wear or do would save me.

            From John 3 … 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

          • S H

            Please have the courtesy to answer my questions.

            “God did give me a brain and see who follows God’s word.” That’s no answer. Once again, what gives you, a mere mortal, the right to determine who is a true follower of Christ? Christ says He is the Shepherd and knows His sheep. You know more than He does? I don’t care about what you think. I want an explanation why you claim the authority to determine who is a Christian. By the way, you’re opinion isn’t enough. I want concrete proof.

            Second, I asked you why you use terms like “secret cult” when I gave you two instances where Christ told Peter and Peter, James, and John to tell no man what had occur (this means, keep it a secret). Further, Christ said “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you” (Matthew 7:6). This means don’t share sacred and holy things with the world (keep it a secret). They will mock these sacred and holy things. By your definition, a church that keeps secret is a cult. Using Christ’s words and your definition, why is Christianity not a cult? It’s Founder said to keep things secret.

            Reading your last post, all I can say is if you had an original idea, it would die of loneliness. All you have shown is that your can parrot what you’ve read.

            The fact is you know absolutely nothing about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. You don’t have a clue about what we believe or what it means. Based on what you write about what a so-called “true” Christian is, I have to agree. We don’t believe in the same Jesus. Frankly, I have no idea what it is you believe in.

            Every Mormon you know is a jerk? That says more about you than you intended. Only a mean, cruel, and hateful person would make a idiotic statement like that. Maybe you better go back to whatever bible you read and really learn what it means to be a Christian. Merely muttering a few words after being hit with indigestion is not enough to be a true Christian. “There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

            Until you respond to my two questions, I have nothing more to say. Obviously, you wouldn’t know truth if it hit you with the spirit. You’re a waste of time. Enjoy your life of hate.

          • springer

            I’m sorry you don’t accept my answers, you seem to be keyed into trying to believe what you are trying to sell me.

            Christianity is very simple, it’s not the woven complicated fabric that you as a Mormon must try to explain to yourself and others. No secrets.

            Christians accept that Christ died and rose from the dead for their sins and is the only way to salvation and Heaven. Nothing else is required.

            Christians accept and believe in the Trinity.

            You’ve shown through your answers that you don’t believe in the same Jesus as I do — for that I feel very sorry for you and wish your eyes and others would be opened.

        • S H

          Thanks for the laugh. You, an anti-Mormon, are telling an active Mormon he doesn’t understand his faith? Like 10 out of 10 for style, but minus several million for common sense.

    • S H

      You know what a cult is? Someone who has the audacity to disagree with what you believe.

  • SG88

    Good article, I appreciate someone sharing their thoughts and feelings in a non-confrontational way. This wasn’t preachy, and really illuminated that we can find good works and good thoughts in many places, and with many peoples. Regardless of our individual beliefs, we would all be better off if we united in this manner. Thank you for sharing.