I don’t think I realized that they were real people. Mrs. Smith, the sweet old Pentecostal lady who spoke in tongues and was on fire for Jesus. Megan, who blessed her child with the laying on of hands. Kidane, who had moved to America to escape civil war in Eritrea. Mike, a kind man, full of biblical and historical wisdom, who after a life of searching had joined Jehovah’s Witnesses. Ryan, a teen who had left that same organization, and who had been kicked out of his home for doing so. Ellen, the Baptist woman who prayed with us and for us on the side of the road. Wanda, who had visions from God. Suleman, home and wheelchair bound, who tried to convert me to Islam, and his old doctor friend Mamin, who gave him company and medical care without asking for payment.
It seems so distant in my mind now, like it was another life.
These people, and so many more, welcomed me into their homes and allowed me to talk with them about the deepest parts of human experience. We discussed God, the meaning and purpose of life, the source of and reason for religious belief, revelation, sin, regret, and forgiveness.
And we butted heads. Their beliefs challenged mine. I prayed that God would soften their hearts and lead them to change. I cared deeply about the people I met- I was trying to save them. Each time I faced a rejection, I was devastated, and I feared for their souls. I wondered if I had done something wrong to prevent them from feeling the Spirit and being converted. I felt that I was on a mission from God. I had the one true path, and it was my duty to share it. Because I so urgently needed to share my own beliefs, I don’t think I really, deeply listened to the people I met. I only saw the surface of their lives, experiences, and perspectives.
I wish I could go back. It seems to me now that I missed an incredible opportunity. As a 19 year old Mormon missionary, I was surrounded by people who were so different than me, most of whom had much more life experience than I did. They had reasons for their beliefs that, to them, were absolutely as compelling as mine were to me. Their beliefs were formed in crucibles that were far different from my own. It could have been a chance for me to listen and learn from an incredible diversity of minds and hearts.
I did learn from them, but I was not fully open. I realize now, in a way I didn’t understand at the time, that these people have entire, real, rich, full lives. They had lived, loved, prayed, struggled, converted, de-converted, triumphed, failed, joyed, despaired, and made many sacrifices in ways I, as a young man, could not have known. That sounds obvious now- but at the time, I saw them only in the context of my own beliefs. They were semi-lost souls, good people, who had only part of the truth, and who needed my message, if only they were ready to listen. I feel now like my memories of them are simplified shadows of real people. I got to know them only as their beliefs collided with mine.
If I could go back and do it over again, I would do it so differently. I would have a more open ear, and I would not worry so much about converting others. I would not assume that my way was the only correct and valid way. I would listen to understand instead of to build my arguments, and I would listen without judgment. If I could go door to door and talk with people of every religious background, I would ask them:
How did you come to believe what you believe? Why is it important? What about your beliefs means the most to you?
Are you happy? Do you feel fulfilled? What gives you hope and joy?
What do your beliefs make you feel?
What experiences have solidified your beliefs? Have you seen miracles? Will you tell me about your spiritual experiences?
What do you feel the most important things in life are? Why are we here?
How do your beliefs motivate you?
What has challenged your beliefs? Have you ever changed your beliefs?
What is it like to be immersed in your community of believers and way of life? How is it different from mine? How is it the same? How do you view people like me?
Of course, this is a fantasy. I’m not going to go door to door asking people to tell me about their religious beliefs. My mission really was a unique opportunity. I did my best, and I tried to do what I felt to be right at the time. I don’t think there is anything I could do now that could replicate such an experience, and even if there was, my life has become so full of other things that I wouldn’t dedicate the time and effort. Still, I wish I could have done it differently.
If I could ask the people of Missouri these questions, would I agree with everything they shared with me? Not likely. But I would honor their perspectives. I would consider their experiences to be valuable, real, human experiences, just as valid as mine. I would admit my own perspective is limited, and in hearing their experiences, my views would be enriched. I would acknowledge that I could learn from them, even if I disagreed on many points. I would want to know what they thought and felt, and why. And I would more fully KNOW them.
Instead, I just remember them, and wonder about it all.