When I received my mission call in 1973, the best advice I got came from a man I respected far more than he ever knew.
The Sunday that my call was announced in church (to audible gasps), former Holladay 10th Ward Bishop Belmont Anderson took me aside and congratulated me.
I was surprised. If anyone knew what I’d been up to before deciding to go on a mission, it was Bishop A. He wasn’t the current bishop, but he knew me well enough. There was every possibility that he might just strangle me to spare any potential embarrassment to the church.
Instead, he gave me a bit of counsel I never forgot. Not only did it apply to me, but also to everyone else I was to meet for the next two years and right up to now.
With his arm hooked around my neck in a brotherly headlock, he said, “Robert, just remember that being called by God doesn’t automatically make a person less of a dumba--.”
Bishop Anderson has long since gone to his great reward, but he’s never stopped being right about that.
A year later, I found myself locked in a debate with a zone leader over the irony of causing enormous pain to a nonmember family by converting one of their own to one of our own. Jorge’s mother, especially, was outside of her mind over her grown son becoming a Mormon.
The zone leader told me the important thing was to get Jorge dunked, that it wasn’t our job to consider the feelings of his non-Mormon family.
Me • “The hell it’s not.”
Him • “You see, Elder Kirby, in the Lord’s grand plan … whoa, did you just say ‘hell?’”
I was transferred out of the area a few days after Jorge was baptized. I never saw him again. That was 45 years ago.
Would that I had possessed the courage back then to pull Jorge aside and suggest he consider putting off his baptism until his mom had time to come to terms with it. But I didn’t.
Hey, she was his mother. Her feelings were important and shouldn’t have been so casually dismissed for the sake of another notch on somebody’s gospel gun.
All of this came back to haunt me after reading former Brigham Young University professor Wilfried Decoo’s comments on the ethics of Mormon missionary work, specifically that converting people takes more than just talking them into the water.
“If need be, they break up families to reach their goal, flippantly calling it getting wet, getting white, dunking, plunging, splashing, or putting on the Elvis suit," Decoo writes, “even if they know in their heart the candidate is not ready.”
Converting to a set of beliefs requires more than a few “discussions.” My initial inkling of the flip side of missionary work came when I transferred to an area where a “super” missionary had just surpassed every baptismal record in the mission.
For his dedication and success, Elder X was made assistant to the mission president and held up as an example the rest of us should try to emulate.
It’s a nice thought but reality wasn’t. Of the 16 people Elder X had “converted,” not a single one was still attending church when I arrived. A few were openly hostile when we followed up with them.
Trusting this proselytizing to kids whose brains haven’t even fully developed yet is problematic. What can you really know about the effect you’re having on people when you don’t even understand yourself much less the culture and mores of the people you’re “teaching.”
Thinking about my mission today is always a balancing act. Did I do more harm than good?
It wasn’t a complete disaster. I had a few genuine successes on my mission, people whose lives were improved by what I did there. One of them was me.
Robert Kirby is The Salt Lake Tribune’s humor columnist. Follow Kirby on Facebook.