In 1963, I graduated from East Lansing High School (Michigan), a white-bread community far removed from reality. I then attended Michigan State University for a year. After completing my first year of college, I signed up for a Mormon mission and received a call to the Franco-Belgian Mission. At the time, I didn’t have a testimony and during my 2-1/2 years in Europe, I never really developed one.
But I have always had a very positive feeling about my missionary experience. In the 1960s, the LDS Church in France and Belgium was in disarray for several reasons including European indifference to religion, a fundamentalist scandal in the French Mission, swimming-pool baptisms, and missionary ineptitude Many missionaries returned home without baptizing anyone.
I loved living in France and Belgium. And I took the opportunity to learn about French history, literature, culture, etc. I enjoyed the small local museums and did a little unauthorized traveling. In other words, I was not a proto-typical “good” missionary who obeyed all the rules. But I always considered my time well spent, until this last weekend.
At work, I’m required to get 4 hours of diversity training every year. This year, we can get 2 hours of credit if we attend “This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement” now showing (May 2012) at the Leonardo Museum in downtown SLC. So last Saturday I made a pilgrimage to the Leonardo and “witnessed” what was transpiring in the southeastern USA while I was in Europe.
The exhibit contains numerous black-and-white photographs and brief explanations of what transpired in the mid-60s related to the civil rights movement. Many of the photographs are much more emotionally stirring than I had anticipated. They gave me an opportunity to reflect on my time as a missionary.
While I was futilely tracting in Belgium and France, blacks in America were fighting for their basic rights, and things were sometimes ugly:
- 1963–In August, more than 200,000 people march on Washington D.C., the largest civil rights demonstration ever, and Martin Luther King Jr., gives his “I Have a Dream” speech.
- 1964–SNCC, CORE and the NAACP organize a massive African American voter registration drive in Mississippi known as “Freedom Summer.” At the start of the summer, three CORE civil rights workers are murdered. In the five years following Freedom Summer, black voter registration in MS rises from 7 to 67 percent.
- 1965–When SNCC voter registration efforts falter in Selma, Dr. King organizes a protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, for African American voting rights. In the wake of the march, the Voting Rights Act is passed, outlawing practices used in the South to disenfranchise African-American voters.
- 1966–Stokely Carmichael, chairman of SNCC, calls for “black power”in a speech, ushering in a more militant civil rights stance.
There were more important places for me to be spending 2-1/2 of my formative years than on a Mormon mission. For example, I could have been registering voters in Mississippi. Or, at least, helping to alleviate some of the black poverty in the South. I started to have second thoughts about my mission. Particularly since the LDS Church at the time still had a discriminatory policy toward blacks.
My time in Belgium and France turned me into a francophile. Not all together a bad thing. And during my missionary sojourn, I did get a chance to reflect on my own religious beliefs. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), France converted me, I didn’t convert France. For example, I came to appreciate the writing of Albert Camus, a french existentialist, or should I say absurdist.
Did I enjoy my mission, Yes. Could I have been more productive doing something else, Sure. But I’ve never been one to obsess over opportunities lost.
PS. I wish the LDS Church had chosen to be a sponsor of the Leonardo civil rights exhibit. It would have been an excellent opportunity to demonstrate that things have changed in the Church.