Second Thoughts About My Mormon Mission

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.

A Civil Rights Protest in 1964

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.

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This entry was posted in absurdism, existentialism, Mormon Mission Experiences, mormonism, Personal Essays, Social Justice. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Second Thoughts About My Mormon Mission

  1. Allen says:

    Thanks for giving your views about your mission. It’s unfortunate that Mormon culture puts such a high priority on baptisms. Missionaries are called to teach, and if an Elder or a Sister does the best they can under the conditions they are in, they are successful as missionaries regardless whether they baptize anyone. Missionaries don’t decide whether a person will be baptized or not – that decision is made by the person being taught. I think it is unfair and unhealthy to hold missionaries accountable for decisions not under their control. Yes, missionaries do have an effect on persons being taught, but they have no control over the decision to be baptized.

    • rogerdhansen says:

      I not so sure I buy the idea that it doesn’t matter what you are doing, as long as you do it well. While I agree that counting baptisms as a way to gauge success is not a good idea (think swimming pool or baseball baptisms here), I can’t help but wonder if there weren’t better things out there for me to engage in during my formative years.

      I wish I would have better understood what was going on in the USA and world when I was 19. I wish the Church would have had options besides going on a tracting mission.

  2. Who you are today is not “all of a sudden” but rather the result of the process that has been your life. Today’s person who wishes he would have been registering voters in Mississippi in the mid 1960s has evolved to have such wishes based on all the experiences he’s had to date. Maybe mid-60s Roger wouldn’t have considered the untaken trek to Mississippi a missed opportunity. Who knows what alternative life path you could have traveled? 1965 was also the year U.S. combat troops were first ordered into Vietnam. The bottom line is you did something during those years the “founding principle” of which was something positive, i.e. a belief by some that they had something positive to share with their human brethren coupled with a willingness to personally sacrifice in order to share that positive thing. Be glad you did something during your formative years that, at its heart, was meant to be in service to others. Consider whether that “principle” may have played some small part in helping make you the 2012 Roger that spends time thinking about opportunities to contribute to bettering his fellows’ condition. And besides, now that you’re “formed,” thereare certainly still a lot of people in Mississippi – or Provo -that can (and probably already do) benefit from the activities of Roger. I note your comment about not obsessing over opportunities lost and I obviously agree, but maybe it wasn’t an “either/or” and no opportunity was actually lost. Maybe that proto-Francophile time reflecting on your religious beliefs is the path that brought you to being someone who thinks about ways individuals can alleviate poverty. That’s a pretty positive destination at which to have arrived.

  3. rogerdhansen says:

    I appreciate your comments. Certainly my time in Belgium and France had an influence on who I am today. I don’t regret my decision to go on a Mormon mission, but as a one-time history major, I guess I enjoy playing “What If” games. The mid-60s were an interesting time, and I seemed to have missed it all.

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