Flooding the Book of Mormon with the Book of Mormon

In October of 1988, President Ezra Taft Benson stated:

“I have a vision of artists putting into film, drama, literature, music, and paintings great themes and great characters from the Book of Mormon.”

Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Bobby Lopez’s broadway smash hit The Book of Mormon is probably not what President Benson had in mind. But Mormons are a pragmatic people, and are known for making the best of unexpected circumstances. The Book of Mormon Musical is on its national tour, and just wrapped up three weeks here in Boston. Although it’s been two years since its opening night (Elders Price and Cunningham should have had their homecomings by now), it remains not only a hot ticket on Broadway, but the national tour tickets are selling for top-dollar as well. Latter-day saints’ opinions about the show vary a great deal, as is to be expected from a production that is foul, vulgar, and irreverent, but also celebrates the wonder of faith communities with a great deal of heart. The Church’s official response was neutral and terse, and aimed to bring attention back to the scripture itself:

“The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”

In the same spirit of the Church later buying ad space in the playbill, the Times Square billboard, and Elder Holland’s comment: “you’ve seen the show, now read the book,” the full-time missionaries of the Boston mission met theatergoers at the gates of the Boston Opera house to offer free copies of the actual Book of Mormon. I joined them on opening night of this initiative. We had a full box of Books of Mormon. We stuffed each copy with a flyer showing where the local chapels are and what times church meetings begin, with the missionaries’ phone number.

We stood outside the gates, where we met a delighted theater employee who thought it was wonderful that we were there. As things started to pick up, a tall black man passed us on the street, nodded, and said “Elders!” He then introduced himself as a cast member, and was just out to get a pre-show coffee. He asked if he could take a photo with us, and called over the austere-looking security guard (who had been standing by the theater entrance) to take the picture. As it turns out the actor was Kevin Mambo, who plays the role of the village father, Mafala. He later tweeted the encounter to his followers.

As people started flowing in, a number of interesting conversations started up. Some people mistook the elders for cast members, which in some ways facilitated the initial approach. One gentleman announced he was an English major, and admitted how ashamed he was for never having read the Book of Mormon despite claiming to be well-versed in American literature and world religions. He gladly accepted a copy. One woman told us that she had LDS co-workers whom she cared about deeply, and hoped her attending the play wouldn’t offend them; she took a copy an announced she would be bringing it to work the next day for show-and-tell. People started taking copies en masse as soon as they realized that others were doing likewise. Some refused our approaches with varying levels of politeness, but we still gave out the entire box twenty minutes before showtime. For some people, it was akin to nabbing some broadway memorabilia and getting a photo-op with Mickey Mouse at disneyland, but for others, it was a moment to awaken to the fact that there is an actual religious movement and scriptural text in the backdrop of the song-and-dance of their entertainment. As showtime began and the crowds outside the theater died down, we packed up and started to head out. One tardy group on their way wanted a last-minute photo with the Elders, and the security guard (who had been watching the whole time) said “See you tomorrow! Bring more books!”

The Boston mission is not a street-contacting mission by default. But the Zone leaders coordinated among themselves, and arranged for Elders and Sisters to be out at the theater doors every night for the entire run of the show in Boston. I returned a few nights later, and had a similar experience. One member from another ward joined in the efforts that night. She had a very unique story, as she was recently baptized as a round-about result of seeing the show in New York, and seeking out the real missionaries aftewards. She told passers-by about her unsusual experience which she has recounted on her blog. As we were contacting people, one theatergoing couple told the missionaries that they had an extra ticket (its intended recipient was unable to attend last-minute). The couple gave the ticket to the missionaries and asked them to give it to someone who could go. The missionaries couldn’t use it themselves, the throngs of people surrounding us already had tickets, and the others I was with all had commitments that evening.

I, on the other hand, didn’t have plans for afterwards, so I lucked out and got the spare ticket. I had seen the show in New York when it first came out in 2011, so I wasn’t in for any surprises, but was nonetheless excited to get a second round on the house. As I found my seat, I met the couple that had given up the extra ticket in the first place. They were pleased that it was not going to waste. They had accepted a copy of the Book of Mormon, and the woman had it in her purse. After introducing myself as one of the Mormons from outside, I flipped through their copy and pointed out a few passages that would be featured in the show, and spoke a bit about my own mission experience. I also offered some appreciation that only an insider could provide, such as the reference to the San Diego Temple architecture in the set design, the subtle inclusion of Abinadi’s line “Touch me not!”, the homages to the Hill Cumorah Pageant, and the familiar LDS stock art in the missionary living quarters. The butts of many of the show’s jokes flow from the fact that one of the protagonist missionaries (Elder Cunningham) had never actually read the Book of Mormon, and instead was desperately “making things up” (unbeknownst to the naive African investigators, who take his message as gospel truth). The irony was not lost on me as 2000+ spectators who likewise had never read the Book of Mormon laughed along. Perhaps some of those in attendance who had accepted copies would be sufficiently intrigued to open its pages and discover what awaits inside.

During the intermission, I scanned the crowd and spotted one gentleman who had accepted a copy. He opened the book and began to glance at the pages. I snapped a picture from a distance, and couldn’t help but silently replay the lyrics in my mind:

“You simply won’t believe how much this book will change your life.”

-Submitted by KC Kern