Our stake president has challenged all members of our stake to have a “missionary moment” this year. I never served a mission and I don’t like doing overtly missionary-type activities. But his challenge did bring to mind one of the most important missionary experiences I have ever had.
It was more than a decade ago. I was a young housewife living in one of the graduate and family student housing complexes at UCSD while my husband was doing his graduate work. I had a toddler and I was expecting our second baby. One day a couple of strangers knocked on our door. One man had a well-worn Bible, and both were carrying copies of the Watchtower.
“Do you believe in the Bible?” he asked. “Have you read it?”
I had a hard time answering. It had been a long time since I abandoned a literal belief in the Bible, which seemed to be the only way he would conceive of believing, and like many Mormons, I felt justified in this view by the 8th Article of Faith that indicates that at least in some ways, the Bible is not translated correctly.
“I’ve read a good portion of it, but not all. I believe there is truth in it.” The answer seemed good enough for him.
“Well then you know that a lot of churches that claim to believe in the Bible don’t really. They don’t teach what it says in the Bible. Do you go to church?”
“I’m a latter-day saint,” I answered. “A Mormon.”
“Well, why are you a Mormon?” he asked. “It’s probably because your parents were Mormon, because that’s how you were raised, am I right? Do you actually believe what your church teaches?”
Honestly, he couldn’t have asked me a better question. “Why am I a Mormon?” Initially, it was just as he had said, because that was the way I was raised. I never saw him again, but because of that question, I re-examined my relationship to the church and my testimony. I was startled to find that much of what I believed fell into the category of unexamined assumptions. What I actually knew for myself was a very short list, and not one that necessarily made me a Mormon. I had tried as a youth to get a testimony experience, to force a witness from heaven about the validity of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s vision and prophetic calling. When I didn’t have the satisfying experience I’d been taught to expect, I naturally assumed it was because I was deficient: I must not have tried hard enough, believed enough. I must be too sinful to be worthy to received such comforting revelation. I reconciled my disappointment by assuming that I didn’t need to have visions and voices because I must surely have known that these things were true all along. My testimony was won through years of trial and lived experiences, seeing the fruits of living according to the gospel standards in my life; not through a moment of stunning revelation.
But this witness’s question raised all of those issues for me again. Would I have converted to the Church if I had encountered it as an adult? Wasn’t my struggle to know the truth of the gospel motivated by the fact that I had been raised in the gospel? And given how little I could say that “I know to be true with every fiber of my being,” why should I stay in the Church? Was it just habit, the comfortableness of familiarity? And given my doubts, could I honestly remain a member of the Church?
Those were not the most pleasant internal conversations I’ve ever had. The thought of leaving my church made me so sad I began to despair of believing anything. So I made a conscious decision: I will stay in this church. I will live the gospel. I will hope to believe, and act as though I do. I would be Jacob, wrestling the angel, holding onto God in a struggle to earn my blessing. And each day that I have doubt, I choose consciously to remain in the church. I am not just a Mormon because I was raised to be a Mormon; I am a Mormon because I choose to be a Mormon every single day.
And certainly my upbringing plays a part in why I am a Mormon. The Book of Mormon has indelibly imprinted itself on my worldview; those stories and sermons shape the way I experience everything in my life. Even if I left the church, it would remain inside of me. And I would much rather live a positive life, building and working toward something than one always defined by a negative rebellion against parts of myself. Being Mormon is part of my self-identity. I am a daughter of pioneers. I was the only Mormon in my high school class. Mormoness is as much as part of me as being a white American woman. Why should I reject myself? I will not cut off my nose to spite my face.
So that is my great missionary experience. I’m sure it felt unsuccessful from the witness’s point of view. But it resulted in honest soul searching and a greater commitment to living a life of faith and embracing the truth as I know it. Isn’t that the result we all should want from missionary work?