The posting of this was inspired by Ardis’ post.
In September 1988, I was a missionary in a small city in western Belgium. There were twelve active members in the branch, and ten of them could be described as eccentric; the other two were crazy. My companion and I were were both quite relaxed and happy to find interesting things to do that we could call missionary work, but inevitably we had to spend many days tracting.
We went to a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city and went to it. We tried the ‘Can we share a scripture?’ approach, just to get in and see what happened. It was massively unsuccessful. People opened the door, saw our nametags and said, ‘I’m Catholic,’ and shooed us away. I wasn’t offended — I recognized that my response to Jehovah’s Witnesses would be similar, and Elder T and I passed our time slowly moving up and down the streets, making up a game about how much variation from the standard ‘Ik ben Katoliek, dus’ there would be. Catholicism was in the air otherwise: a large church dominated the neighborhood, with the bells ringing out and nuns going to and from the church throughout the day. We ducked into the back of the church if there was any music to be heard or just to get out of the rain, but never during masses.
And then one day it all changed. At the third house of the morning, an older woman answered the door. We asked if we could share a scripture, and she said yes, and invited us in. She asked if a neighbor could join us, and we agreed; she offered us hot chocolate, which we accepted. We read from John 3 and had a nice chat. When we started getting specific about Mormon doctrine, they clammed up and politely refused our offers of literature and other visits. We prayed with them and were on our way. Ten minutes later, we were let in again: more hot chocolate, more John 3, more polite refusals. We were let in about twice an hour that day and the next. We starting varying the Bible verses we read — Psalm 23, 1 Corinthians 13, The Sermon on the Mount — and we had our share of hot chocolate, which my companion got tired of but I never did. It wasn’t the kind of missionary work that looked great on a mission president letter statistical report, but I enjoyed it.
On the third day a young priest in a cassock came out of the church, met us on the sidewalk and introduced himself as Father Jens. He invited us to his home, and we followed him. We got acquainted and he asked us how the work was going. I told him about the friendliness of his parish, and he smiled and explained.
In the first days when we started tracting the area, he had a few women tell him about being angry that the Mormons were back and that they wished we’d go away. So that Sunday, in his sermon, he had told the congregation that if they had strong faith they had nothing to fear from the Mormons, and that as good Catholics they should show hospitality, but he warned them that we didn’t drink coffee so it would be better to offer hot chocolate. We laughed, and after staying for lunch and giving a modified first discussion, Jens became an investigator, of sorts.
We went to the rectory to see Jens about once a week, and he would meet us in the city sometimes to buy us lunch, take us to the movies or show us some of the sites. We attended a few masses on weekdays, and we talked quite a lot about books: all three of us were readers. But along with the comeraderie, we talked about religion with intensity. He wanted to tell us about his faith as much as we wanted to tell about ours. We debated some points, silently tolerated others and often felt edified by the process. Jens wasn’t much of an investigator, but he was a good friend.
Of course, our zone leaders were curious about our investigator, and even wanted to meet him on splits. We demured. After a transfer, my new companion thought it was a waste of time to hang out with a Catholic priest, so I called him and explained that a change in our assignments meant that we would only see him on some p-days. (We had been doing our laundry at the rectory, actually.)
And then, three days later, the police arrived at our door to forcibly remove me from the country of Belgium. I didn’t have a valid visa. I had time to make one phone call before they put me on a train for Lille, France, and I called Jens. He came and took the train with me, helping me call the mission office from France using a little card, and getting me back on the train for the Netherlands. I shook his hand before getting on the train, and he called after me, ‘Happy Thanksgiving.’ It was the fourth Thursday in November. I had forgotten.
I stayed in contact with Jens, through my mission and afterward. I took a few unauthorized trips to see him before I went home and we’ve stayed in each others’ homes a few times for holidays, both in Europe and in California. Jens is no longer a priest, but he is still a devout Catholic. About ten years ago, he felt that he fulfilled the purpose of his ordination and decided to get married and be a father. We now send each other emails with baby pictures and book recommendations.
I’m sure, reading this, some will say I was a terrible missionary — I admit to breaking several mission rules here, either in fact or in spirit. But it was a long time ago, and the urgency of that kind of obedience is even harder to grasp now than it was at the time. No, instead I want to recognize what elements of my mission had the greatest impact on my life: finding generosity and friendship in the place of opposition.