I was all in. The Mormon Church was true and I needed to declare it. I came to believe that the only reason that people were kept from the truth is that they knew not where to find it.
Like many of the other 50,000+ Mormon missionaries at the time, I was afraid, but I resolved early in my mission to not let fear stand in my way of declaring the truth of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. There was too much at stake. I believed that many people in the California Ventura Mission were ready to come closer to God, and in my view the only thing that stood between them and eternal happiness was my willingness to invite them to change. If they were sincerely willing to follow God, I could reach them.
But since my mission, I’ve spent more time thinking about some of the people that didn’t change than those who did. One individual that I met in the spring of 1997 stands out.
In Camarillo, California most people work all day, so meetings in the day were hard to come by, and that meant that we spent a lot of time during the day knocking on doors, something I hated to do. But I believed if we worked hard, the Lord would provide some pure-in-heart people for us to teach. One day we knocked on the door of Mathew [his name has been changed to respect his privacy] and we asked him if we could teach him. He was curious about us. He seemed to want to discover what made us so zealous and committed to our mission, to our faith.
After 20 to 30 minutes of discussion on his doorstep, he revealed that he was one of the most senior leaders at the St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo for the Catholic Church. I knew it only as a beautiful group of buildings visible from a distance in the middle of rolling orange groves. To him it was more than that, and he wanted to share a glimpse into his way of life with us, perhaps because he saw similarities between us. Looking back on it, I realize that while he saw similarities, I focused on differences.
Despite our different paradigms, Mathew had an idea to bring us together. He asked if we would like to come to the Seminary for lunch and a discussion. He suggested that we meet with him, several members of the leadership team, and several aspiring priests. We’d talk about God’s work and simply have an open discussion as we broke bread.
It was a great idea, but I pushed to go one step further by asking, “Can we also share with you some of our central beliefs in a brief presentation?” He agreed with some ambivalence, but for me this was a critical point. He was clearly a very good, very moral person. In the hour or so that we spoke that evening I concluded that he was clearly a man of God. I thought to myself, “he’s just the kind we were looking for.”
As the scheduled day got closer, I played out in my head what might happen. Like a boxer getting ready for a fight, I was thinking of potential objections to our claims of the apostasy and restoration. I reminded myself that all honest seekers of Christ would accept our message if presented with love and the Spirit.
The day came. And we arrived five minutes before our eleven o’clock appointment. I felt out of place as we gave our names to a security guard at the front gate. Our names were on the list and our mission-issued, gold-colored, 1995 Toyota Corolla was granted access to drive up the beautiful winding road to the seminary grounds.
Mathew greeted us graciously. He guided us on a tour of the amazingly peaceful and beautiful grounds, which felt like a cross between a Buddhist monastery, our temple grounds, and a small college. The slow walk was a serene experience. I loved it.
We then had lunch with the group and compared notes about the lifestyles we’d chosen. They marveled at our work hours, the fact we didn’t call home but twice a year, and our complete TV abstinence, although everything about our sacrifices was underwhelmingly caveated with “it’s only for two years, though.” Comparatively, we marveled at their lifetime committed to their version of priesthood (especially given it was a false priesthood) and a lifetime of real abstinence. Our conversation avoided conflict and was devoid of any doctrinal substance, but I secretly viewed all of this as merely part of the process of establishing a relationship of trust.
After lunch, Mathew invited us back to his office. It was amazing. The fine rugs and spacious office made me again consider how senior this guy was in the Catholic organization. Escaping those thoughts, I asked if we could share our message. He seemed reluctant, but agreed.
I got into gear. This was the main event. We took out our scriptures and flipchart. We only had about 25 minutes left, so we skipped right to the apostasy, the first vision, and the Book of Mormon. I did most of the talking since my companion seem more reluctant than I was, given the circumstances, to ask our host to join the one true Church of Jesus Christ.
Even though it’s been more than fifteen years, I have a clear memory of the last few moments of this discussion–ok, mostly lecture. It created an indelible impression on my soul. I’ve replayed it in my mind over the years.
As we talked, I silently prayed for guidance as I declared, “I know that this book, The Book of Mormon, is true; and if you will read it you too can know of its truthfulness. Will you read it?”
He agreed to read the Book of Mormon and sincerely thanked us for sharing something so sacred to us with him.
He was being gracious, but I was just getting started.
I continued with my commitment-laden questions, “Will you pray to know if it is inspired of God?” He replied that he would.
Now was my moment! “When you learn from the Spirit of God that this book is true, will you be baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?”
He was stunned. He didn’t know how to respond, but I didn’t mind the silence. It gave the Spirit room to speak to him.
I thought we might have won. He seemed to be considering my words.
“That’s kind of hard to consider given my position here,” he said, finally, as he gestured around his big and beautiful office.
I had anticipated his response. With a prayer in my heart I said, “But isn’t it worth it? If this book is true, if Joseph really saw two beings in the grove of trees, shouldn’t you join this church? If it is true, you should act, right?” I paused and then continued, “I’m only asking you to inquire of God. If you’re willing to act and be open, God will speak to you. I know this is true.”
When I finished, he responded by clearly and forcefully expressing a personal conviction equal to my own. The fact that his tone and demeanor were more peaceful and calm than mine gave his comments more weight and power. He was moving in for a knockout punch, and I didn’t see it coming.
He declared slowly and calmly, “I know that I am in the place God wants me. This is my calling. This is where I can do the most amount of good. God has guided me here. God has called me to this role. Here. Now.”
Trying to respond, I looked into my heart, into my soul. All that I felt was that he was right. God had called him to be here. God had confirmed his words to me.
Other than formalities, our conversation was over. I was disappointed.
Part of my disappointment was due to the fact that I was at the top of my game, the top of my zeal, and it wasn’t good enough to change him. I felt I had counseled with the Lord in all my doings. Yet I felt I had been guided into a proselyting dead-end. I didn’t doubt my convictions, but I didn’t doubt his either. The rejection wasn’t that big of a deal. After all, I was an audacious Mormon missionary, so I was used to it. I was proud to have lived through an amazing experience and that I had had the courage to testify.
The real and lasting disappointment for me was in the realization that God calls people to be Catholic. Or stated more plainly, I realized in a profound way at that moment that God doesn’t want everyone to be Mormon.
More than fifteen years later, I still can’t square the concept of one true church with the feelings I had that day.
I’ve had to learn to accept a new reality: God is much bigger than Mormonism.
[Last guest post: Teaching Sex: On Labels]