Today’s post is excerpted from Scott Miller’s memoir The Book of a Mormon: The Real Life and Strange Times of an LDS Missionary.
In it, Miller (with co-author Mark Hubble) chronicles the ups and downs of his Mormon mission to Sweden in the 1970s, during which he came to question many of the beliefs he’d grown up with. Short version: These were not “the best two years,” even though they were, in the end, a catalyst to growth and change.
As one reviewer put it on Amazon, the book “captures the authentic experience in all its agony and goodness.” It’s not aiming to discredit Mormonism, but it does challenge many of the assumptions that Miller once held dear — in particular, that obedience for its own sake is a spiritual good. — JKR
by Scott D. Miller and Mark A. Hubble
LDS Church members refer to missionary service as “the best two years” of a young person’s life. As soon as kids are out of diapers, they learn the Sunday school song “I Hope they Call Me on a Mission” (“When I have grown a foot or two/ I hope by then I will be ready/ To teach and preach and work as missionaries do . . .”). Think otherwise and you are unworthy in the sight of God.
The experience irrevocably changed me. One weekend, I was surfing the sunny shores of southern California. The next, I was marching lockstep in service to an organization I quickly discovered I knew very little about and which, to my complete dismay, cared nothing about me, the other young men with whom I served, or the people I’d been sent to save.
Boots on the ground, going door to door—known as “tracting”—was how we spent most of our time. Each week we were also expected to stop one hundred people on the street and secure a commitment to visit with them in their homes.
I understood the urgency. These were the “latter days.” Everyone that could be saved must be saved now.
Within a month of trolling the dark, snow-strewn streets of Sweden, I noticed people were avoiding us. When they saw us coming, they quickly crossed the street or darted into a shop—anything to get away from us. Doors slammed. Some people raised their fists and swore. Most, glimpsing us through the peepholes of their apartment doors, refused to answer.
Over and over I wondered if this could be what God intended. When I asked church leaders about the wisdom of what we were doing, I was told, “Don’t ask!” The program was inspired of God. It was to be followed without question. Period.
A little over six months into my mission, I found my answer. I was riding a bus. It was one of those rare times I was alone, traveling to my next assignment. At a stop along the way, a man boarded the bus and sat next to me. I learned he was a Lutheran minister who worked with street kids in the southern part of the country.
He asked about my experience as a missionary, including my signature attire. In addition to the regulation blue suit, we were forced to wear a black felt fedora more befitting a Prohibition-era gangster than a messenger of Christ.
Just as he inquired, the bus driver stepped on the brakes, bringing us to an abrupt halt. Overhead, a voice crackled on the speakers, “I’m sorry, it looks like there’s been an accident.”
A large truck and two small sedans were involved. One car was wedged under the truck, the top peeled back like a sardine can. The other was smashed into the back of the first. Clouds of smoke and steam billowed up from its engine.
That’s when my fellow traveler stood up. “I’m going to help,” he said, then paused and looked at me expectantly.
Seeing my reluctance, he reached over and, with his free hand, patted me lightly on the shoulder. “I must go. Goodbye, Scott.” Up the aisle he ran and was gone.
Shortly, the bus began inching forward. Along with the rest of the passengers, I watched out the window. People were milling about, obviously dazed. A woman sat by the side of the road, holding a baby and crying, her face and hands streaked with blood. Next to her was the minister. He was coatless—his dark, down parka now wrapped around her shoulders. He was leaning in close, speaking to her.
As we passed by the accident, I turned away from the window and looked ahead. I had never felt more ashamed in all my life. I struck both legs with my fists, hard. I would never have acted like this before becoming a missionary. Of the two of us, my new acquaintance was the true Christian, the real servant of the Messiah.
From that moment on, everything became clear to me. Yes, we Mormons were on a mission. But what was the mission? To emulate the example of Jesus? To do unto others as he would have us do, on Earth, now? Apparently not. Our job was to be obedient, wear a funny hat, knock on doors, annoy people on the streets, and follow the script.
No more, I decided. My mission would be to serve rather than be servile, consequences be damned.
Scott Miller, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist and the founder and director of the International Center for Clinical Excellence. He is married with two sons.