The missionary and the priest

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.

Comments

  1. Ardis Parshall says:

    Wow, Norbert. Thanks for this. (The historian in me hopes that you have written this up with all the names and dates, so that the full story can be available someday when privacy considerations have passed. It’s the kind of story that could be a classic, representing our generation to a future one.)

  2. Name (required) says:

    I’m sure, reading this, some will say I was a terrible missionary

    I doubt that you’ll get anyone here calling you to repentance. Why does it seem like all the really good mission stories involve breaking the rules? Maybe we should back off on the ‘obedience with exactness’ rhetoric and instead encourage missionaries to follow the example of the Savior.

    Also–I wouldn’t doubt it if that Catholic priest ends up in a better state than many of us when this life is over. He seems to have been a model disciple of Christ.

  3. Great story Norbert. I love that you stayed in touch with him. I had a similar experience with a rabbi in California who had a ttended BYU, but sadly I lost track of him after a transfer.

  4. I’ve always said anyone who said they didn’t break any rules was a liar or a terrible missionary. Knowing when to break rules is an important life lesson to learn.

    Great story.

  5. Any rules you broke (the only one that seemed obvious was going to movies, I’m not sure going to mass is breaking a rule) seem to me to pale in comparison to the good relationship you established. I was a missionary in the same place, and it always helped to be friendly with the priest, though mostly we didn’t know how to go about this, and sometimes they would initiate friendly talk with us. I was often frustrated myself there that I allowed the image of the statistical report hanging over my head to dictate what I did, when I felt inside that I should be doing more things such as you were doing. At times I did do them, and I felt better about everything when I did. I understood why the reports were there, but like so many programs they became seen as an end in themselves, rather than a means; or at least that’s how many of us took them. We often got the rhetoric that we weren’t there to make friends, and thus often we’d leave friendly people in order to pursue “serious” investigators (all 2 of them). I’d say, in areas sparsely populated with Mormons (the branch you described is so familiar), that making friends is the best thing to do, and that making the church “just another church,” rather than some frightening foreign institution, is a huge step forward.

  6. Thanks, Ardis. I have been channeling my creative writing urges into going through my journals and rewriting them in the style of memoirs (except they’re true :)). There is an unexpunged version of this in the file.

    MCQ, as I wrote this I realized the only people I still contact from my mission didn’t join the church and were friends. I also realized I have several ordained priests as friends. Hmm.

    CraigH:

    We often got the rhetoric that we weren’t there to make friends, and thus often we’d leave friendly people in order to pursue “serious” investigators (all 2 of them).

    Yeah. I really struggled with that.

  7. Peter LLC says:

    Norbert,

    If you weren’t chastising the local leadership for not doing more to prevent the priests from blessing the sacrament with black ties on (hello, funeral garb for our most holy ordinance?), you weren’t being a good missionary. I think.

    Anyway, excellent post.

  8. Norbert, having served in a similar mission this post really spoke to me. The friendships I made with ‘eternal’ investigators haunt me in many respects.

  9. I’ve also wondered Norbert, why it is that I’ve stayed in contact after 30 years with several people who never joined the church (and the kids too), but with only a couple of church members. And why other missionaries in the same mission not only had the rare fortune to baptize people but saw those people name their newborn kids after the missionaries, and then the missionaries dropped out of touch. Was it just a job, so now move on? Is it just a personality thing, neither virtuous nor blameworthy, to engage in either behavior? The same with forgetting the language; after all that struggle, I couldn’t imagine just giving up the language. At my last reunion, there were people who couldn’t remember a single word, with no apparent regrets. Been there, done that. Again, maybe just a personality thing, a behavior seems normal to a particular sort of personality. Anyway, I wanted to stay friends with certain people. And I still see them fairly often, and count it a fortunate thing. My wife baptized a great family in France (well she let the elders do it, she’s so uppity, you know, I had to ask her last week whether it was appropriate for her to walk with the sacrament tray to pass it on to the next people all the way down the row; I knew she was allowed to slide down the bench but not actually walk upright like a deacon), who haven’t been to church in 20 years. They won’t even tell their kids they were once Mormon. They remain some of our greatest friends. Sometimes I wonder whether I’m supposed to feel guilty for not urging them to activity again.

  10. Lovely. I have some similar friends from my mission and am so grateful that no everyone in my area was simply a potential convert.

  11. This is a lovely essay Norbert.

    It’s funny that my closest friends made on my mission were all people who wouldn’t/couldn’t commit to the church.

    I don’t know what that says about me.

  12. I would actually say you were a stellar missionary. I hope my boys do as well some day.

  13. Norbert,

    This was really moving. I could sense the deep admiration and friendship in your story. What a lovely experience and relationship for you to carry with you throughout your life.

    Having witnessed so many rushed, statistical baptisms as a missionary, I think true development of friendships and caring concern are in order. It is silly to think that as Christians we would minister to (and to be ministered to) only those who can somehow advance our temporal standing (ie, numbers).

    Thanks for sharing.

  14. I wish I had read more stories like this before going on a mission. I would have been a better missionary.

  15. True dat, ben o!

  16. Stephanie says:

    I’m beginning to wonder if being crazy or eccentric is a requirement for being a member of the church in continental Europe… Of course, the missionaries in my ward in France assured me that mine was the crazy ward, that they’re weren’t all like that…

    That is a wonderful story. And the reaction of your new companion to the idea of visiting a priest is so tragically typical… *SIGH*

  17. My husband had a similar experience with a couple that he taught in Finland. They have never joined the church, but they mean more to my husband than any member that he worked with in Finland…including the lone baptism that he was able to perform. It has been nearly 15 years since he has seen them, but their friendship is as strong as ever. They talk once a month on the phone and we exchange Christmas packages. We send them all varieties of Life Savers (their favorite American candy) and my husband gets Salmiaki and I get Fazer chocolates.
    Mmm…Fazer.

  18. fluffy, you’re getting the better end of that deal. Of course now Fazer makes chocolate-covered salmiaki, which is better than it sounds.

  19. mondo cool says:

    This is a great story. My take is that any increase in goodwill towards the Church cannot be counted as “terrible” missionary work. Who knows but what his children will be more favorably inclined towards the Restored Gospel when they encounter it for themselves? It’s happened before.

  20. Hmm…I will have to let my husband know about the chocolate covered salmiaki. He’ll be very excited.

  21. Antonio Parr says:

    This is a wonderful story, one that I wish that every missionary could experience: the sharing of faith, both as giver and receiver, with both being edified.

  22. Antonio Parr says:

    One of the sad limitations of the LDS missionary experience is the suggestion to missionaries that, since they belong to a Church that has a fulness of the Gospel, there is really nothing that any non-LDS believer has to offer them. Such a paternalistic approach (especially when it comes from 19 year olds boys) does not lend itself to the kinds of cross-faith missionary friendships described by Norbert.

    Thanks again for sharing your story.

  23. Antonio Parr says:

    Final thought (of the hour):

    In light of the very negative public perception of Latter-Day Saints, I would suggest that the single most important missionary work that our missionaries can undertake is the creation of good will, which is a kind of fertilization necessary before any meaningful harvest can ever occur. Beyond this focused objective, it is simply wonderful to hear accounts of people of different faiths learning to love and appreciate each other, just as Christ commanded.

  24. Stephanie says:

    Great story. Thanks.

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