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Spreading the Faith

Harvard Mormons Take Time off to Recruit

By Deborah K. Holmes

Long before he ever dreamt of attending Harvard. Eric Carter '84 had his sights set on being a missionary. Raised as a devout Mormon. Carter was guided by his father's example, not in his choice of colleges, but rather in his decision to drop everything and go out converting souls.

"I had grown up in the church, studying the teachings since I was a little kid," Carter recalls. "My father had been a missionary in Norway, and I used to love to hear his stories, so I had always expected to go on a mission."

To those not brought in the fold, the word "missionary" evokes a peculiar response. Some people conjure up images of civilized, altruistic Christians devoting their lives to instructing ignorant tribesmen in the rudiments of modern medicine. Others think in terms of the colonial exploitation of an economically dependent Third World. But negative stereotypes do not daunt the Church of Latter-Day Saints, popularly known as the Mormon Church, which currently boasts a missionary population of 32,000-35,000 youths.

Dr. Alan Parrish of the Harvard Institute of Religion explains that the church uses missions as a means of spreading the gospel and as an invaluable learning experience for missionaries. Young Mormon men are strongly urged--but, contrary to common belief, are not required--to fulfill a mission when they are between the ages of 19 and 26. Nearly all of them do, and Harvard undergraduates are no exception. Of the 50 to 60 active Mormons in the College, virtually every male spends two years as a missionary after his freshman or sophomore year.

Until several months ago, the Church was conspicuously mute on the issue of female missionaries. This silence sheds light on a fundamental tenet of Mormon gospel. Marriage and child-rearing are extolled both as a sacred duty and as the source of great personal fulfillment, and the average age at marriage among Mormons is considerably lower than the American national average. To be female and to spend one's marriageable years as a missionary, therefore, was tacitly to admit one's lack of suitors--and, by extension, one's failure to fulfill the highest purpose of any Mormon.

Very recently, with the mean age of newlyweds rising in Mormon communities, the Church has begun to encourage its young women to undertake missions. It remains to be seen whether the policy shift will have significant effects. So far, only a very few Harvard women have served as missionaries.

The application process for would-be missionaries is complex. When they return home for Christmas vacation, students are interviewed by their bishop (the Mormon counterpart of the Catholic priest or the Jewish rabbi) and then by their state president, who presides over roughly ten congregations. Approximately one-third of all such students reach the second stage: sending written applications--along with the results of a general language exam--to the Missionary Committee, based in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Committee then matches student applications with requests for missionaries filed by 180 missions located throughout the world, in every country which permits their establishment. Youths who score poorly on the language exam are sent to countries with relatively simple languages. Harvard students tend to acquit themselves very well and often receive missions in the Far East. Once accepted, prospective missionaries spend two months at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, where returned missionaries teach them the language of their assigned country.

The costs of missions are underwritten primarily by the missionaries and their families, although the Church does finance round-trip transportation out of a till to which every missionary contributes just $100. Because the burden of supporting a child for two years, usually in a foreign country, has proved too great for many families, in April 1982 the Church shortened the duration of all missions from two years to 18 months.

ALTHOUGH THEY SYMPATHIZE with the Church's concern for family finances, the four returned Harvard missionaries interviewed regret the abbreviation of the mission. Every one stressed the difficulty of learning a new language in just a few months. "We don't get very much in two months. I'm afraid. You get a basic grasp on the grammar, and some vocabulary," says John Finlayson '84, who fulfilled his mission in Tokyo. John Beck '83, who was located in Kyushu, Japan, adds, "I was there for two months before I could understand the Japanese when they spoke."

The Harvard Mormons agree on more than just the issue of shorter missions. Their experiences as missionaries appear remarkably similar. In part, their community of experience reflects the fact that Mormon missionaries throughout the world adhere to identical schedules and perform nearly identical activities. Six days a week they awaken at 4:30 a.m. and then spend three hours studying the Bible, proselytizing skills and the language of their mission country. From 9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. they engage in teaching the gospel to anyone who is interested. Teaching continues until 9:00 p.m., when the missionaries eat dinner; by 10:30 p.m. they must be in bed, preferably asleep.

Teaching takes place in missionaries' apartments, in Mormon churches, and--most frequently--in "students" homes. Missionaries find students by using the-old-fashioned door-to-door method, although Parrish says "it's going out of style," by setting up informational bulletin boards in public places, by approaching people in parks and universities, and by relying upon a snowball effect through which each student interests a few of his friends in attending teaching sessions. Students in Oriental countries are primarily the young: older people are too bound to traditional morals and religions to embrace a new faith.

The similarities among different missionaries' experiences also reflect the depth of a belief which prompted them to dedicate two years of their lives to sharing their convictions with other people. Finlayson explains that he wanted to give something to other people and thought that being a missionary was the best way to accomplish that aim.

For Beck, who grew up in Provo, Utah, the decision to undertake a mission was more complex. "Mormonism is a social thing in Utah: I went through the motions in high school, but it wasn't until I got to Harvard that I began to have real faith. I started to see a lot of logic in things that I had ben doing without knowing why, like resting on Sundays and not smoking or drinking. In a way, I started proselytizing to my roommates before I decided to do a mission."

Beck's analysis of his increased commitment to the Church during freshman year provides a rare glimpse into one possible aspect of missions: that of implicit coercion. "My family had expected me to go on a mission since birth, and of course that was one of the reasons I started thinking about it." Beck says. "It's hard to say, but I think even if I hadn't gotten more deeply involved I would have done a mission." Peer and parental presure in favor of missions are great among Mormon communities.

However, reports from Harvard undergraduates indicate that missions are, in the words of Finlayson, "very positive, strengthening experiences." Carter agrees, saying that after his mission he felt "more secure" about himself and about Harvard. These four reached highly similar conclusions in their definition of a successful mission. Carter, who fulfilled his mission in Bangkok and Campang, explains. "I would define a mission as successful if the missionary's understanding and appreciation of other people grew and if he changed some lives for the better."

Before his mission in southern Italy and Sicily. Cameron Carson '84 thought that success could be measured in numbers of converts; after several months he realized that personal growth was a more likely yardstick. Finlayson concurs: "Even if I hadn't taught anyone who converted, it would have been a success just in terms of the broadening of my own horizons." Reported conversion rates are impressive in any case: they range from 20 (Carter) to 50 (Beck).

All the missionaries describe a deepening of their own faith because of the missions. As Carson puts it, "During those two years you don't have to concern yourself with a lot of other things, so all your efforts go in a religious direction. Before, a lot of people don't realize the depth and significance of the Church." Beck agrees: "If you spend two years trying to tell people why a church structure is important, and you see people changing their lives to adjust to that structure, you can't help but come to believe in it very deeply."

As Dr. Parrish explains, "If you're involved intimately in teaching people about your faith eight or ten hours a day, that is going to become an intensely spiritual experience." One letter he received from a missionary in the field expressed the conviction that it would be worthwhile to die for the gospel.

DIFFERENCES AMONG the returned missionaries' sentiments surfaced primarily in their attitudes toward Harvard. Finlayson, who grew up in a California town in which his was the only Mormon family, reports little difficulty in adjusting to Harvard life as a freshman. Beck, on the other hand, was shocked and disconcerted by his introduction to the college: on his first night in Cambridge he saw man lying in the street "with blood spurting from both arms," and on his second night he chanced upon two male students kissing on the first floor of Weld. Carson, who grew up in Boise, Idaho, a city with a 20 to 25 percent Mormon population, also reports that he had difficulty learning to live in close proximity with people whose values and attitudes diverged so radically from his own.

As the missionaries differ in their initial reactions to Harvard, so do they report disparate experiences of their return to school after completing their missions. Finlayson found readjustment very difficult: His friends from freshman year had become seniors during his absence, and the need to concentrate on exclusively personal goals clashed with the missionary emphasis on outward-reaching aims. "Sometimes I find myself questioning the value of what I'm doing here," he admits. Carter agrees: "The problems with getting used to Harvard again were partly cultural and partly not being a missionary anymore." Beck alone reports a smooth transition from missionary to student life. His roommates all took a year off, and be enjoys advanced standing while they do not, so he and his friends will graduate together.

Academic as well as personal reactions to the interplay between Harvard and the missionary experience vary. By chance, Finlayson had taken Historical Studies A-14. "Tradition and Transformation in East Asian Civilization: Japan," with Edwm O. Reischauer during his freshman year, so when he learned that he was to fulfill his mission in Japan, he was enthusiastic. Before the mission he planned to concentrate in the physical sciences; now he is an East Asian Studies major, specializing in Japan. Beck too changed his concentration--from Sociology to Sociology and East Asian studies--as a result of his missionary experience. Carter's interest in Asia did not predate his mission: he was "surprised and shocked--and happy" when he received his assignment. Unlike the other two, though, he has taken no courses in Far Eastern studies because none deals with Thailand, the country where he fulfilled his mission.

For all the missionaries interviewed, the Harvard Mormon community is an important resource. The Institute of Religion holds twice-weekly study sessions, at which religious questions and issues are raised and discussed. Although these sessions are held at 8:00 a.m., they are attended by nearly every Mormon who participates in church services at least once monthly.

Finlayson chose to attend Harvard in part because its Mormon population is larger than those of the other Ivy League universities to which he applied. Beck reports that "the Harvard Mormons mean more and more to me all the time." His appreciation of the warmth and solace provided by his religion was heightened during this past summer, when he arrived in Tokyo, utterly without personal contacts, and the Japanese Mormon community found him an apartment and helped him to settle in.

Carter praises the Harvard Mormons, claiming that "they have big dreams and they're working to make them into something. "Carson is in a unique position among the undergraduates interviewed: After completing his mission and then his sophomore year at Harvard, he married a Mormon from his hometown. In addition to his wife, his closest friends are Mormons.

Despite the differences in their attitudes toward Harvard, despite the disparities among their chosen fields of study, despite dissimilarities in their personalities which are manifest even in interviews, the returned Mormon missionaries display one vital characteristic in common: their faith. John Beck summarized the situation neatly when he stated, "The most important thing, if you're going to do a mission, is to believe in it." And they do.

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