An Invitation From The Lord, RSVP
Everything started with lies.
I became an investigator on a cool, overcast Monday. Two clean-cut young men wearing suits and ties strolled into the courtyard of my apartment complex. I can’t even remember why I was outside. Had I just walked the dog? Checked the mail? What put me on the deck overlooking the scene as they approached, smiling?
The young men would undoubtedly say it was God’s will. They were Elders Blanchette and Marcom, missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Mormon missionaries are typically young men between the ages of 19 and 24. At any given time, the church says, approximately 55,000 missionaries are sharing their beliefs at their own expense for two years at a time, scattered around the globe to destinations chosen at the discretion of their church.
They live monastic lifestyles during this period, eschewing contact with their families, religiously avoiding the trappings of the secular world and adhering to strict tenets of their faith. They face scorn, ridicule and rejection.
I didn’t scorn or ridicule them, but after engaging in a few minutes of generic chit-chat, I told them I had to go to work.
I don’t work on Mondays.
They asked me my name and if they could contact me. Like an attractive woman being hit on by someone she doesn’t want to date, I gave them a bogus phone number – close enough to the actual number that I could explain away a discrepancy as being misheard – and told them my name was Bruce “Castleman.”
I felt guilty.
Half an hour later, however, curiosity took over. What must their lives be like? How did they deal with the instances such as the one we had shared, of being misled and “ditched” by callous non-believers? Maybe the “hot girl” wasn’t as hot as she thought. Was the guy she wanted to avoid Mr. Right?
I became an investigator – the term Mormon missionaries use for people who show an interest in what they’re pitching. Mormon missionaries are traveling salesmen: Jesus is the manufacturer, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the franchise, and your eternal salvation is the product.
A church for the New World
The world’s most popular religions – Christianity, with an estimated 2 billion followers, and Islam, with up to 1.8 billion adherents – have been around for more than 2,000 and 1,500 years, respectively.
They’re relative newcomers compared to Judaism, which has origins more than 4,000 years ago; or Taoism and Buddhism, with roots traced back to centuries before the time of Jesus Christ.
About a billion earthlings reject religion entirely.
But a vast majority of religious observers have hundreds or thousands of years of foundation to deepen their fervors.
Mormonism is a virtual babe in the woods among religions. Discounting new religions such as space alien Scientology or pot-smoking Rastafari, Mormon’s appearance in 1830 makes it one of the world’s youngest theologies.
Mormon founder Joseph Smith claimed divine inspiration for being given the burial place of the modern gospels of Jesus, inscribed on golden plates in upstate New York. The plates – now known as the Book of Mormon – tell of Jesus’ appearance in the New World not long after his death.
Smith and his descendants believe that their church is the true church of Jesus. They also believe that each succeeding leader is a God-picked prophet with a direct line to the big Guy.
“A lot of churches on earth today have parts of the teaching,” said Elder Lashaway, “But our church is the restoration of God’s church.”
A missionary from Portland, Ore., Lashaway is a beefy young man with close-cropped blonde hair who usually closed his eyes while he responded to questions as we sat in the Fayetteville home of former missionary Trevor McGarrah.
Blanchette concurs. “There is one gospel, one truth, one Lord, one church. The LDS has restored God’s church.”
(The missionaries don’t use their first names. They call each other “Elder.”)
McGarrah adds more context to the missionary position imparted to investigators. “We believe God loves all his children and wants all to live with him back in heaven,” he said. “But different cultures are not able to receive the fullness of the gospel. Because of his love, he doesn’t want a standard they can’t achieve.
“He is a fair God.
“He gives truth to spiritual leaders throughout the world. Even Muhammed was given inspiration to give to his people. God reveals the truth to anyone willing to listen.”
The blood of Christ
The legacy of abuses linked to various forms of religion is well-documented. The Crusades. The Inquisition.
In the last 100 years alone, crusades against religion have accounted for some of the world’s most infamous atrocities, from the Holocaust of the Jews to “ethnic cleansing” in Europe to the rise of the Taliban, Wahhabi and other extremist Muslim sects.
On a smaller but no-less horrific scale, the 1993 Branch Davidian massacre in Waco, Texas and the religion-driven mass suicides in 1978 at Jonestown, Guyana and in 1997 with the Heaven’s Gate followers indicate the carnage potential of following a “God.”
Even the Mormons – or as they refer to themselves, the Saints – have blood on their hands. Founder Smith and his followers were initially met with stern resistance and pushed westward repeatedly as they wore out their welcome across the U.S. Mormons, incidentally, are proud of this persecution, because it gives them something in common with Jesus.
“The truth is always opposed,” said Elder Blanchette. “So how could Jesus deal with it? By asking for blessings on the heads of the persecuted. He sacrificed his life and asked for atonement. Righteousness, love, charity, suffering…this message is so powerful and uplifting, there’s opposition. There will always be.”
For Smith and his brother, it didn’t take long to share martyrdom. In 1844, the small band of saints had been pushed to the western boundary of Illinois, creating a tiny settlement and naming it Nauvoo – from the Hebrew word meaning “beautiful location.” But the saints’ peculiar ways – which at that time included polygamy, since rejected by the main followers of the church although still in practice among Mormon fundamentalists – alienated neighbors. Smith, his brothers and several followers were assailed for promoting the practice of plural marriage. Jailed at Carthage, Ill., in the aftermath, an angry mob stormed the jail and shot and killed Smith and his brother.
Shortly thereafter, Brigham Young was considered the new prophet and led the upstart followers further west, to Utah. Today, more than 70 percent of that state’s population are Mormon.
More bloodshed ensued, in time. The most notorious – and an event with an Arkansas connection – is the Mountain Meadows massacre of 1857. Approximately 140 settlers headed west from Van Buren, Ark., stopped near the Mormon encampment. Paranoia about a possible attack from the U.S. Army is speculated to be a reason why the suspicious Mormons attacked and killed all but a handful of children of the pioneers.
But for Christians of all persuasions, this is par for the course. You can’t spell “allegory” without “gory.” The foundation of the entire Christian school of thought is a brutal, cruel, bloody state-sanctioned murder – the crucifixion of Jesus.
The road to redemption
The day after the missionaries first stopped by, I decided to try and learn more about their lives and their beliefs.
It wasn’t the first time that the story of the Saints had intrigued me. By accident several years ago I had stumbled upon an online account of what had happened at Mountain Meadows. Author Jon Krakauer’s 2003 book “Under The Banner Of Heaven” offered one of the most in-depth looks at the church ever written, especially focusing on some of the more lurid details associated with the fundamentalist offshoot of the Saints.
Krakauer’s book opens with a quote from one of the LDS prophets, John Taylor, who wrote in 1880: “We believe in honesty, morality, and purity; but when they enact tyrannical laws, forbidding us the free exercise of our religion, we cannot submit. God is greater than the United States, and when the Government conflicts with heaven, we will be ranged under the banner of heaven and against the Government … Polygamy is a divine institution. It has been handed down direct from God. The United States cannot abolish it. No nation on earth can prevent it, nor all the nations of the earth combined, … I defy the United States; I will obey God.”
The polygamist label has been the hardest to shake for the modern Mormons. Elder Marcom is aware of the Saints’ perception problems. “Without a doubt,” he said, “the most common thing people ask about is polygamy. ‘How many wives do you have?’” (Elder Lashaway said people also sometimes think the missionaries are Jehovah’s Witnesses.)
The Saints consider the fact that their leaders are chosen by God to give their church an advantage. “One of the things we’re proud of is we have a living prophet,” McGarrah said. “Other churches have to rely solely on scripture, something that’s 2,000 years old or more. We have an active relationship with God.”
This hotline to God has helped the Saints officially reject plural marriage in 1890; include blacks among church leadership in 1978; and combat the evils of tattoos and body piercings in recent years.
“A few years back our prophet Gordon B. Hinckley said for women, there should be no more multiple ear piercings,” McGarrah said. “And for men, no piercings whatsoever. We also have a dress code to try to not incite feelings. Another thing is tattoos, we don’t want tattoos.
“A lot of other churches have tried to become more hip. Those extra things are a distraction. Jesus Christ never tried to be among the ‘in’ crowd.”
The missionary program began in 1974, when then-church president and prophet Spencer W. Kimball said that God had ordained that missions begin to actively spread the Word. It’s estimated that missions cost about $11,000 per Saint. Elder Marcom had saved $9,600 for his.
In Fayetteville, there are two churches (which are called wards). The “family” ward – what passes for the “official” house of worship – is on Zion Road, and a student center is on Arkansas Ave. The missionaries are housed in a small apartment in west Fayetteville. While the church provides the shelter, the rent is paid by the missionaries.
The missionaries live a Spartan existence, but they do have a phone. Their phone number sounds like the first seven notes of the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas,” about a benevolent monarch who helped the poor.
The Mormons have many rules, and they are not freely trumpeted to outsiders. But a handful of the rules – taken from Joseph Smith’s “Words of Wisdom” doctrine – include:
• Alcohol, tobacco and caffeine are off-limits. So the devout have never experienced the joy of a Starbucks. Of course, they’ve also never had a hangover that would necessitate a trip to Starbucks, either.
• Sundays are holy and not to be desecrated by working, entertainment or other types of non-religious activities. Attendance at church is expected, and services last about three hours. Further, the Elders said members are expected to dress nicely. Blue jeans would be bad form. Tithes of 10 percent of a member’s income are expected.
• The “Law of Chastity” requires modest apparel and strict limitations on sexual conduct. Pre- or extramarital sex is out, homosexuality is out. Elective abortions are unacceptable.
For the missionaries, the rules are even more sharply defined. There are 17 Missionary Training Centers around the world, eight in Central or South America. All missions start at an MTC, with training that lasts from three weeks for domestic missions to two months for international, foreign-language missions. While on a mission, God’s emissaries must adhere to the following:
• Only eight hours a week are given for “free time.” The Elders said they play basketball, go bowling, do laundry or shopping. “We aren’t allowed to participate in some sporting activities because they don’t want us to get hurt and have to end the mission,” Marcom said.
• Missionaries may write weekly, but only call home twice a year, on Mother's Day and Christmas.
• Internet usage is severely restricted. The Elders don’t have computers at home, so usually use those at public libraries. They can only access a few church-controlled sites, but only once a week, and companions must be able to see each other’s screens. Only family can receive e-mail.
• Non-approved music and movies are out.
Some of the rules are extremely strict.
• The “Elbow Rule” requires Elders to always be near enough to their companion to hear him at a whisper while outside of the apartment. Within the apartment, the Elders are supposed to not be apart for lengthy periods.
• The “Rule of Three” states that when entering a home to teach or visit a member or nonmember, there must be three men or three women 16 or older present in the same room.
And perhaps the oddest rule: missionaries aren't allowed to go near large bodies of water.
Mondays are considered “preparation days.” Blanchette said the typical routine is they rise at 6:30 a.m., make their beds, pray, exercise, then eat. They then study two hours (one alone, one together), do laundry, shopping, send e-mail.
“At 6 we start proselytizing again. We have an hour for dinner and lunch. We go teach lessons, try and find people who are ready.”
Meeting People Is Easy
Soul-saving time is Tuesday through Saturday.
“We talk on the streets, knock on doors,” Marcom said. “We try to find most efficient way to share our beliefs and teach them how to share truths. During these hours there is no basketball or things like that. We focus on the work. We’re expected to be in by 9 p.m. or 9:30 at the latest.”
Elder Marcom and the missionaries are serious about this curfew. When 9 p.m. approaches, there’s little fudging: it’s time to go.
The Elders say they pray for inspiration where to meet potential converts or people interested in their message.
“We think of good places to go but ask God to help us,” Blanchette said. “He tells us where to go. There’s usually something that happens. We do whatever needs to be done.”
Marcom said the missionaries are expected to meet 140 people a week. Of those, about 20 would hear one lesson. Ten or so will hear two. Seven will hear three.
And of the last four, maybe two will be baptized.
“We don’t expect everyone to convert,” said McGarrah. “It’s mainly just to share the message that God loves you.
“Everyone is at different stages in their lives. Maybe we’re just saying hello to someone. But we’re planting small seeds. Maybe they’ll develop but it’s not up to us, it’s up to them – and God.”
The missionaries remain steadfast even when met with rejection – which they say comes frequently. When one or two in 140 represents success, a positive attitude is essential.
“I’d love to have someone knock on my door and tell me what they believe,” said Marcom. “It’d be great!
“But to see the closed-mindedness hurts the most. Not the doorslams or the snottiness. In Tulsa, we had been teaching someone a while and he was doing this extracurricular stuff, anti-Mormon stuff, trying to trip us up with things. It was very hurtful. It felt like he had taken the Lord’s time and given it away. He could have used that time in a less antagonistic way.”
Marcom’s sadness in recounting this story was palpable. He really felt this.
“It’s a test of faith,” Blanchette interjected. “If you’re shot down over and over, you’re maybe not as optimistic, but the neat thing of the gospel is it’s about hope and faith. That’s the powerful thing. Over and over you may be rejected but over time you experience the liberating power of Jesus Christ. He suffered rejection, too. It’s motivation.
“It’s not supposed to be easy. Was the Savior’s suffering easy? Trials are wonderful.”
“Part of the reason for the mission is to have humbling experiences,” he said.
“Christ’s entire ministry wasn’t to the rich, and neither is mine. People in those neighborhoods are generally hard-hearted. The more humble are more receptive to the truth, especially when sober.
“We show them the differences Jesus Christ would make in their lives.”
Marcom’s mood had shifted for a second: he seemed a little disillusioned that people had been so skeptical to embrace the joyous message he and his brethren were bringing. The ever-upbeat Blanchette had the answer.
“The best experiences,” he said, “Are when you ask God where you should go and whether someone has had a bad day or they need help you recognize that you were there for God, even if it’s just to exchange a smile. God used me to help get done what He needed to be done. If you uplift someone it brings them closer to the heavenly father.
“As a missionary you run into some strange things. So the adversary throws his hand in there sometimes.”
The last sentence lingered. The adversary? Is that what the Saints call Satan? Was Blanchette referring to Satan? It seemed for a moment like a Harry Potter novel – where the evil Lord Voldemort’s name was not spoken.
The missionaries love to share stories of their coming to the Saints. At McGarrah’s modest apartment in north Fayetteville, the different worlds of missions past, present and possibly future were on display beside the artificial Christmas tree. McGarrah brought back a bride from his Philippines mission and now has two small children. On his wall are three pictures and a painting. The pictures are of McGarrah’s children and a photo from his wedding. Above them all and larger than the others is a painting of Jesus.
Across the room sat Elders Blanchette and Lashaway in suits and ties. On another wall was a TV set with a Wii game system. McGarrah wore a Razorbacks shirt.
Marcom and McGarrah were born Mormon. But Blanchette joined the church six years ago.
Blanchette converted at age 16. His parents had split up, and his description of his mother screams “Bay Area Hippie.” A friend who is now a Marine sniper had converted and Blanchette began going to church with him. Blanchette was investigating.
“One evening I had the Book of Mormon and I began to pray,” he said. “I said ‘God, if you’re true, if you’re real, I’m going to open this book and see what it says.’ I opened it and it said ‘Repent and be baptized.’
“I knew at that time, at that exact moment what I needed to do. I wept for a long time. I recognized the things I had done that were wrong and knew what I needed to do. It was very powerful, very life-changing.”
Blanchette’s tale was moving, convincing. He believes it. You can’t help but be happy for him. He’s happy.
“Something that’s very special is the spirit of God,” he said. “His love is the most nurturing, powerful, peaceful love. Like the love of a mother when you’re sick.”
Onward, Christian Soldiers
The simplicity and focus of the missionaries’ lives make their hardships relative. Most of us can’t imagine lives without stimulants such as caffeine, movies, music.
Marcom’s crisis? Having different ties.
“You want to have nice ties,” he said. “Not have to wear the same one all the time.”
He has about 20 – one was given to him by a man who just ended a mission. The silvery blue tie was autographed.
The missionaries don’t seem to miss what they’re missing.
“The heavenly father lets you have agency,” Lashaway said. “But I felt my desires changing over time. At first you may feel like you are sacrificing things, then you realize they are not important. After a while you don’t miss it. You really focus on selflessness, not selfishness. That’s what’s so beautiful about it.”
“This is completely voluntary,” added Marcom. “Were it forced, you might not see the participation. You would not grow as much.
“This is not a church for wimps. It’s a church for the committed.”
Blanchette is committed.
“I am a disciple of Jesus Christ. I wear this tag that says Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Because it’s HIS church. It’s just a building. True salvation comes from faith.
“Being human, we have two natures – spiritual and carnal. There’s temptations – look at that, look at this. But when you can know something is TRUE, you can overcome them. The Savior’s love is far greater than anything else. This is a brief period of time for us. The rest is eternity.
“As missionaries, that’s what we’re called to do. We invite them to find out for themselves. We are authorized servants. There is a hole in everyone’s heart that will be filled by what He has.”
Blanchette’s earnestness and sincerity are riveting. Before offering an invitation to come to the family ward, he tries to close the deal.
“We offer invitations. They are from the Lord. We’re his representatives. The words we have spoken are the truth. The spirit of peace, the spirit of hope, the spirit of love, the spirit of the Lord.”
Lead us not into Temptation
On a recent Monday night, Marcom and Blanchette tapped at my door. It was an unexpected visit.
The missionaries missed me at church on Sunday, they said. I had promised I’d go, knowing almost for certain that I would stay home and catch up on football. I was a tease. A faith-tease.
With this visit, my perspective deepened. Had I been leading them on? Was my “flirtation” a sign that I wanted more?
Lead us not into temptation. As the Elders stood in my living room, the TV was on, dinner was steaming up the kitchen. I had spent the day holed up in front of a computer, working on a project. Shabbily dressed and unshaven, I offered a stark, sloth-like contrast to the young men in suits and ties.
As we spoke briefly, I noticed Elder Marcom stealing furtive glances at the TV, at least three times. Seeing his reaction to its siren song was both fascinating and sadistic, the school dork at a junior Prom.
The boys wanted a prayer, so we bowed our heads and listened. Blanchette prayed for my success in my writing projects. On that, my prayer was sincere. Afterward, we set a time to meet again. They diligently took out small plan books, both entering in the agreed-upon date and location.
Three days later, I dialed seven notes of “Good King Wenceslas” at a time when I knew the Saints would not be home. I left a “Dear John” voicemail reiterating, guiltily, that I was interested in their message and experiences but that I was not a good candidate for conversion.
I went back and looked over the words of that carol. The final four seemed to summarize my impression of these men who were so zealous:
“In his master's steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.”