I met two Mormon missionaries, Elders Skyler Fenn and Jacob Chapman, on a chilly spring evening when my husband and I attended the musical "The Book of Mormon." They were handing out copies of the LDS Scriptures -- aka the original Book of Mormon -- near the theatre entrance, and I couldn't resist talking with them.
I was curious about why they chose this place to market their religion, given that the folks who purchased tickets were walking into a show written by "South Park" creators that involves a liberal dose of cursing and reference to sexual body parts. At one point, a copy of the Book of Mormon gets thrust up the main character's bum, and overall, the missionaries depicted in the musical come off as well-intentioned but naïve.
None of that stopped Elders Fenn and Chapman, though, even though they admitted to me over lunch several days later that they were initially hesitant to proselytize outside of the theatre.
"We were actually really reticent about it. We were really scared." That was Elder Chapman's first response when a member of his local church, called a ward, suggested the idea. "When I heard about some of the songs that were in it, it did make me a little uncomfortable ... It says foul language, and it seems like it has some stuff that makes pretty blatant fun of what we believe, and so that hurts a little bit."
That the Church of Jesus Christ doesn't formally embrace the musical only further heightened their concern. While the Church does not boycott entertainment events, it encourages members to exercise dignity and decorum. (Perhaps it goes without saying that a musical filled with lewd language and mockery of Mormons violates that dignity and decorum in a number of ways.)
And yet, the missionaries came to the theatre anyway, ready to accept any discrimination or harsh words that came their way. What came their way, however, wasn't what they expected.
A New Way of Proselytizing
Elders Fenn and Chapman told me that they're used to standing outside, handing out copies of the Book of Mormon to strangers. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints calls the practice street contacting, and it's one of the traditional ways for missionaries to reach potential converts. Street contacting is challenging, and the Elders experienced that firsthand during the months they've served as missionaries: People ignore them or cross the street. In a couple of hours, they might hand out only a few copies of their Scriptures.
So that's what they expected to happen at the musical.
Instead, they handed out 40 copies -- an entire box -- of the Book of Mormon in under an hour. One girl ran up to them to get her picture taken once she realized that the missionaries were real Mormons and not actors. Later, a member of the cast named Kevin Mambo tweeted a photo of the three of them taken by a security guard. The missionaries forwarded it to their families.
"The response was great," said Elder Chapman, who noted that even those from outside the religion embraced what he and his partner were trying to do. He recounted that one Jewish woman even went to far as to suggest improvements, like sponsoring a forum after the show or a question and answer section in a nearby bar.
I wondered if one reason why the audience warmed to Elders Fenn and Chapman was because of the context: Their presence might seem threatening on a rush hour street corner where briefcased men and suited women in sneakers race home to boil mac and cheese for over-exhausted children. In that setting, their holy book might appear to be one more set of dogmatic rules that oppresses people who only desire freedom and space.
Standing outside the musical, though, the setting was very different: Their dark suits and combed hair hearkened to beloved characters. Theatregoers like myself discussed Mormon beliefs during intermission casually, lightly, like sports fans chat about who won the latest Red Sox game.
Elder Chapman and Fenn's presence at the musical seemed to humanize concepts like "missionary" and "Mormon" for the audience, maybe even dispelling the reputation the religion has for being sober and straight-laced. As Elder Fenn told me, "That was kind of my intent, just to go there and be like, 'Hey, we can take a joke."'
If Elders Chapman and Fenn approached the musical as a teachable moment that might allow potential newcomers to get to know them and their faith better, the institutional Church seems to be taking similar steps. Initially, the Church's only response to the musical was this: "The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people's lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ."
Two years later, though, the Church may be seeing the musical as an opportunity, just as Elders Chapman and Fenn did. My Boston Playbill featured several advertisements by the Church, each with a photo of a practitioner that violated the religion's blonde-haired, blue-eyed stereotype -- a goateed Caucasian, an Asian woman, an African-American man. The denomination also took out billboard space on Times Square, and when the musical began playing in London's West End, they placed advertisements on the city's tube stations, train stations and buses. Elder Clifford Herbertson, an LDS Church leader, explained these choices, saying, "When people get to know a member of our faith, misperceptions and misunderstanding quickly disappear and are replaced by mutual respect and friendship; these adverts are in no way a tacit endorsement of the play but we want those who have questions to know where they can find real answers."
The emphasis on showing the diversity and humanity of followers of a faith with a reputation for having adherents who are well-behaved, well-groomed, white, and well-off seems to be something the LDS Church is striving for even outside of its relationship to the musical. Recently, it launched a new publicity campaign called "I'm a Mormon" composed of personal vignettes that can be watched on the Church's official website or on YouTube. Each video emphasizes diversity and inclusiveness -- there's one from an Irish gold-medal winning paraplegic and another from an African woman from Cameroon who now lives in Germany.
The gist: The Church wants to cultivate relationships with everyone, and all are welcome.
What the LDS Church seems to be doing in trying to reach newcomers in many ways reverses traditional conversion methods, where the emphasis is on teaching doctrine first. The idea is that if you know what a religion believes, you'll come to believe it yourself, and then become part of a community of believers. Instead, the LDS Church now seems to be embracing a different approach -- meet us, become part of our community of believers, and you'll come to believe in the faith yourself and become more familiar with the religion's dogma as a result. (For more on this shift, it's worth comparing missionaries' old handbook, called "The Uniform System for Teaching the Gospel," with the one they began using in 2004 called "Preach My Gospel." A similar shift emerges from dogma first to relationships presents itself there.)
As an Episcopal Church leader, what intrigues me about the choices the LDS Church is making is that this relational emphasis is a shift I see in my own and other Protestant denominations. Case in point: your average Protestant church stewardship campaign. If one had stepped into said average Protestant church in the 1980s during stewardship season, he or she might been point blank asked for money or handed a note that suggested a tithing percentage. Today, that same church probably runs its campaign by asking a few committed members to explain how the church enriches their lives on the assumption that parishioners will be more likely to give generously when the mission of the church is made personal and tangible for them. In other words, for a religion to be vital, it needs to show it's relevant to people. And the LDS Church seems well aware of that.
As were Elder Chapman and Elder Fenn. When I asked them to recollect on how the experience of proselytizing outside the musical affected them, Elder Chapman told me that, "It was really cool to me to see that it overcame the stigma; it made it possible for us to say, 'We're real missionaries. This is what we do. This is the real thing, and we're offering you something that may be memorabilia for you to put on your shelf, but it will change your life if you actually read it."'
And yet, when I thought about how the audience responded to these missionaries, I realized that their welcome and their enthusiasm was pretty ironic, given that the musical is intent on poking fun at Mormons, not on garnering potential converts.
So I wondered: Does it actually work? Can a musical that mocks a religion humanize and even bring people toward it?
Do people ever go to see this musical and have their life changed?
'The Book of Mormon' as a Musical Conversion Tool
Before my conversation with Elders Fenn and Chapman ended, they told me about a member of their church named Liza Morong, a musical theatre major in Boston who converted in 2011 after seeing the musical on Broadway. They gave me her phone number and two hours later, we met up and she told me her story.
Intrigued by the musical back in 2011, she found herself Googling the LDS Church. When she landed on the Church's website and clicked the link to chat online with a missionary, her initial thought was, "Yes! I can rip the missionaries to shreds." (In retrospect, she added, "I was such a little entitled brat then.")
Liza clicked on the chat function, but before she was able to bombard the missionaries on the other end with a political diatribe, she told me that something within her felt that she didn't want to hurt these strangers. So they began a conversation about faith together, and at the end, when the missionaries asked her if she wanted to learn more, she figured there'd be no harm. They continued their conversations on Facebook and Skype, and later, the missionaries sent her a Book of Mormon. Soon, she found herself dressing for church on Sunday mornings, even though the missionaries never pressured her to convert. They wanted to let her find the truth of the faith for herself.
And one day, she did. Riding her bike to class on a weekday morning, Liza said she felt overtaken by a feeling of calm as she watched the sun sparkle through the trees. "I knew it was coming from God," she said. "My heart feels full when I talk about it."
The missionaries she met online baptized her on Dec. 31, 2011.
Liza told me that the irony is not lost on her as she looks back. "I went on to mock them [the missionaries]," she said, "and now I realize, they've become like my family."
She also said that she's seen the musical after her conversion, and it still gives her goose bumps. "I start to feel the Spirit because this is where it all started," she said. "Who would have ever guessed?"
One of the things that occurred to me as Liza was talking was that maybe she wasn't exactly a traditional Mormon convert -- as a musical theatre major, the show might have been able to speak to her in a way that it wouldn't have if she was passionate about synchronized swimming or circus fleas instead.
So I asked Liza if she thought she would have become a Mormon if she'd never set foot inside that Broadway theatre. I thought it would take her awhile to answer, but she responded quickly, confidently, saying, "I believe that if the Lord wanted me to find the Gospel, I would have found it eventually. I'm really happy that it happened the way it did, because it goes to show you how well He knows me as a musical theatre major. He'd be like, 'I got her!'"
It occurred to me then that maybe the Mormon Church was doing something really smart in cultivating relationships with people who saw the musical. Yes, the musical might make fun of Mormons. Yes, the musical has a message that Mormons probably shouldn't embrace if they want to remain true to their tradition. But that doesn't preclude it from being a vehicle that God uses to speak into people's lives. After all, many people find faith after experiencing a trauma, after making bad choices or struggling with addictions to drugs or alcohol. None of these things are or should be embraced by any religion. But most religious leaders would still agree that those experiences can teach us something valuable, and that God can teach through them.
As I reflect on my conversations with Elder Fenn, Elder Chapman and Liza Morong, what I see as the thread that weaves their stories together is a desire to seek and find God in the world. They still believe that God speaks through the Bible, and they certainly believe that God speaks through the Book of Mormon. But what they seem to have discovered is that God doesn't only speak through those ancient revelations. Instead, revelation continues today, in the lives of musical theatre majors and curious "South Park" fans and young missionaries and gold-medal winning paraplegics and women rushing home in suits and sneakers to feed their children. It continues within the walls where religions are practiced and outside of them, and if God wants to find you, not even the act of pressing a holy book up a character's bum will prevent it from happening.
At the end of our interview, I asked Liza if there was a song or lyric from the musical that continues to impress her. She told me about a song called, "I Believe," that's sung by a headstrong missionary whose passion for converting Ugandans leads him to gleefully proselytize to a warlord, somewhat mindless of the gun pointed in his direction. The character says, "I believe the Lord will reveal it, and you'll know it's all true, you'll just feel it."
In the context of the musical, the song is funny, highlighting this missionary's idealism and his cluelessness. But for Liza, it has a deeper meaning. As she recounted those words, she looked straight toward me, her eyes sparkling and energized. "It's true. You do just feel it, and it's beautiful. So now whenever I hear that, I think, 'Ugh, they're right about that! Well done, 'South Park.' Well done!'"