A mighty change of heart

Guest post by Haley Romney

The Church's missionary program is one of its most recognized characteristics. Mormon missionaries can be seen on the streets of hundreds of major cities in the world as well as in thousands of smaller communities.
The Church’s missionary program is one of its most recognized characteristics. Mormon missionaries can be seen on the streets of hundreds of major cities in the world as well as in thousands of smaller communities.

Todd Brazington is a quietly confident 22-year-old. He served a mission in Costa Rica from 2009 to 2011 and looks back on those years often.

“Its hard not to look back on it. Almost every day I think about it. It makes me miss my mission a lot,” he said.

Daphne LeBaron, an energetic 25-year-old, served in the Brazil, Campinas mission from 2010 to 2012.

“My life would be completely different if I wasn’t called to be a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” she said.

These two returned missionaries have been so effected by the years away from their families and their country, they would both go back and do it again.

What is it about LDS missions that have such a lasting effect on young adults?

First, perhaps we should look at what these individuals looked like before their missions.

When I asked Brazington’s father, Robert, about Brazington’s personality before his mission, all he could say was, “very, very shy.”

“Something as simple as going out to lunch and ordering food; that would have been something he would not have wanted to do,” said Robert.

Brazington had contemplated not serving a mission, because of the discomfort he imagined.

“Well it’s something I knew I should do, and I thought about it. I thought it would be worse not to serve a mission,” he said.

So Brazington took the leap and turned in his mission work. He was called to serve in the Costa Rica, San Jose mission. He reported to the MTC on November 18, 2009.

As Brazington wrote home and sent pictures of all the things he was doing in the MTC, Robert saw a change come over his son that warmed his heart.

“I could see that he was smiling and he was happy, and so I glad he was doing that. And then as he started to write letters and email more, he was describing experiences and I could see that he was still shy, I know, but I knew that he was doing the Lord’s work and that he knew that and he had that backing behind him and it was making him a stronger person,” Robert said.

One of the hardest things for Brazington was being in Costa Rica.

“It was really weird. I felt lost. I had no idea what was going on. What we were doing. Why were doing it.”

The second hardest thing for Brazington was leaving Costa Rica. He recalls being on the airplane home and wondering “What do I do now?”

Brazington’s change was apparent when he got home. Robert said, “He was confident, he was smiling, he was happy, and … in the weeks immediately after, I noticed Todd was more helpful around the home, he [didn’t] have to be told to do something, he was able to do things on his own without being asked like doing dishes, taking out the garbages.”

LeBaron had a similar experience. She described herself as a quiet girl in high school, not likely to speak up in a group. After her 18 months in Brazil, she made a complete turn around. Today, she loves to talk to everyone and get to know people. She is less judgmental and has a hard time thinking of herself.

So again, I beg the question: What are these missions doing to the young people who serve them?

LeBaron had some insight into this topic.

She described the life of a missionary as one of talking to people nonstop, and thinking about other people and how to serve them even more. “As a missionary, that’s what you do,” she said.

Additionally, they live with the same person for a minimum of six weeks and are with them for a literal 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week. LeBaron said this taught her a few lesson in patience, and “what it means to love people.”

Missionaries lead a life devoted to service. When someone spends all their time trying to help other people, it is hard not to be changed.

Not only do these missionaries learn to think of others, they spend time being self sufficient

Missionaries pay for their own groceries and are responsible for managing their own time. They do have a budget, and they do have a schedule, but they are responsible for keeping to both.

Missionaries also are living in another place of the world. They could be 500 miles away or 5,000 miles away. This promotes learning of another culture, which often results in viewing the world differently.

Perhaps, though, the best way to sum up why missionaries serve and why they are so effected can be said by Joseph Smith, the man who restored the Church and Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saint, and its first prophet.

“After all that has been said, our greatest and most important duty is to preach the Gospel.”

Romney is blogger and a journalism student at Eastern Washington University and is preparing to go on a mission. 

About Tracy Simmons

Tracy Simmons is an award winning journalist specializing in religion reporting, digital entrepreneurship and social journalism. In her 15 years on the religion beat, Simmons has tucked a notepad in her pocket and found some of her favorite stories aboard cargo ships in New Jersey, on a police chase in Albuquerque, in dusty Texas church bell towers, on the streets of New York and in tent cities in Haiti.
Simmons has worked as a multimedia journalist for newspapers across New Mexico, Texas and Connecticut. Currently she serves as the executive director of SpokaneFAVS.com, a digital journalism start-up covering religion news and commentary in Spokane, Wash. She is also a Scholarly Assistant Professor at Washington State University.

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  1. I found reading this post to be disturbing, and I want to talk about why.

    Human beings are creatures of bias. We form social groups, hierarchies and institutions based upon our biases, and for the most part these biases serve us pretty well. Our beliefs tend to be functional at least as often as they tend to be true.

    To put a macabre spin on this idea, look at the Aztec (Mayan?) practice of cutting people’s still beating hearts out of their chests in order to make the sun rise. Here is a belief and practice that while untrue, it still served to contribute to the social order of that civilization. That society eventually collapsed, but it worked for a while at least.

    What I want to take away from this example is that beliefs can be functional whether or not they are true, and humans are not particularly good at telling the difference between untrue beliefs that serve us, and “objective truth.”

    So here is what I find disturbing about this article: Here we have a practice of prosthelatizing, and clearly it serves the social institution of Mormonism (it spread the beliefs, membership and political influence of the religion), but what it doesn’t do is self-reflect. What this practice amounts to is that a large number of young, idealistic and unworldly kids go door to door and trying to sell people on their system of beliefs. Who is converted? Well, most people who have late stage conversion experiences do so during periods of stress, trauma and social isolation. So in other words, vulnerable, isolated people.

    There is an ethical concern here. I believe we all have a responsibility to personally and publicly question our beliefs. We have a responsibility to doubt, and to demand evidence to support our ideas, and to call out the fact that some of our ideas are immune to reality testing in the first place. This is an ethical concern because if we don’t, we might do something horrible and think it good, like the Aztecs and the 9/11 hijackers.

    The Aztecs dared not fail to kill a man each morning lest the sun fail to rise and (not coincidentally) lest their social order collapse. The cost of failure was too high. This is a psychological phenomena called motivated reasoning. But notice that a part of this motivated reasoning is that belief actually motivates belief. In other words, belief that the cost of failing to kill a man was loss of the sun, meant that questioning this was too dangerous to consider.

    I think that there are lots of similar ideas in Christianity, including Mormonism. “If you believe what we believe you get to go to heaven, if you don’t you go to hell” This kind of thinking constrains thought because it means that you dare not question your own belief, lest you fall into the eternal abyss. This whole idea is un-testable. There is no way to prove it or disprove it, so there is no logical reason to believe it. What there is, is a HUGE social reason to believe it. After all, you get to belong. You get to have people who you share commonality with. You get to be a member of a tribe.

    Now I know that not all Christians or even all Mormons believe this, but a great many do. The problem is we have an ethical responsibility to question our beliefs. We have a responsibility to question and to doubt, especially beliefs that are un-testable. But because you have to believe to be “one of us,” certain ideas are held to be above reproach. Belief is a badge of membership, and what’s the best kind of membership ever: Membership in “club eternal paradise!”

    This is why I believe that faith is an ethical failing. Faith is a triumph of social norms over values.

    So when you go door to door, and you come out of your shell, and you learn to talk to people, and you see the world, we see the effect that social structure has on personality development. This is not caused by the belief, this is caused by the behavior that is rationalized and motivated by the belief. But is the faith true? How would you know if it’s not? What exactly are you selling?

    I know that these are the usual atheist gripes, but the fact is I think you are caught in a psychological trap, and that you are inviting other, vulnerable people to join you in that trap. It’s not a good thing.

  2. Paul,

    I fail to see how Mormons, Christians or any faith group fall into a ‘psychological trap’ any more than an atheist, agnostic, humanist, or any other groups. Everyone believes according to the experiences they have. I also fail to understand what you mean by ‘objectified truth.’ If you mean ‘unbiased’ then I agree, because there is no such thing (at least in regards to human beings) as unbiased truth, or unbiased ANYthing, for that matter. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it probably should be acknowledged.

    I suggest pondering the article found here (http://www.realclearreligion.org/articles/2013/06/01/time_for_some_mormon_myth_busting.html) to fully understand what it is like for young men and women to serve missions. I served one on the streets of L.A. over 10 years ago and it did more to open up my worldview than anything else in my life, including college and extensive travel (which is at least as much, if not more than, your typical adult in the U.S.) Missionaries do far more learning than preaching by necessity by living with someone else they didn’t choose for 24/7, walking into people’s homes and lives and all the problems each face, dealing with a different geography and culture, and yes, through preaching. However, missionaries don’t look at themselves as the catalyst to conversion but rather as a facilitator. They answer questions, encourage people to read and pray about what they’ve shown them. Then they hope and pray these people receive the same joy they themselves received through the same practices.

    Basically, we know a way of happiness and peace that is lasting, stable, useful, and more powerful than anything else in this world. We just want to give others the best possible chance to discover it for themselves 🙂

  3. Paul,
    Thanks for your comment! Even if we don’t see eye to eye, I’m glad someone is reading my article.
    I encourage you to read Esquilax’s link if you wish to get a better look at the changes a Latter-day saint missionary experiences. It is an excellent article. I also have links to blogs of missionaries’ letters home, as posted by their mothers, if you are interested. These are first hand experiences of these missionaries growing in a more personal way. Most of the letters are about personal growth more than teaching other people.
    I appreciate that you are sharing your ideas in such a civil way. It is through this way that the market place of ideas is shared and our world view is broadened.

  4. “I fail to see how Mormons, Christians or any faith group fall into a ‘psychological trap’ any more than an atheist, agnostic, humanist, or any other groups. Everyone believes according to the experiences they have.”

    That’s what the world looks like from the point of view of the psychological trap. It’s not as simple as that is it? You are aware that belief SHAPES our experience, and that this process is not entirely in our conscious control. This is one of the things that religion is FOR: It provides us community, narratives and values that we use to shape our experience of ourselves and our world. That’s why we do rituals. I consider belief in heaven and hell to be a psychological trap, precisely because you do NOT have experience of the afterlife, but you use your belief in the afterlife to shape your experience.

    Let me tell you a story:
    When I was a kid, my father read the bible to me, and he taught me about heaven and hell. As I got older, and learned critical thinking skills, and I realized that these beliefs held no merit. A friend offered me Pascal’s Wager when I was 15, and I immediately realized that no deity who would be taken in by my false belief would be worth worshiping. I recognized the power of my uncertainty then and there, and I have used doubt as my guiding principle ever since.

    As fruitful as this encounter was, the idea of an afterlife stayed with me. I would find myself doing good deeds and imagining some cosmic score-card keeping track of my actions. I also noticed that I still feared hell. My father had taught me to fear eternal fire, and that image was burned deeply into my psychology. Then, one day, shortly after reading the God Delusion, I thought about these ideas again. I wondered why they had stuck with me so, even though I did not identify with them, and did not consider myself as a believer.

    Earlier in life, I had learned a Buddhist meditation technique called “touch and go.” In this practice, one notices the content of one’s mind, and simply let’s it be there. You “touch” into those thoughts, and let it go. Don’t force it to stay, don’t force it to go, just sit with it. This simple (but difficult) practice served me well. I sat with my fear of hell. First I noticed that that fear was something I usually pushed away or ignored. Fear is painful, and I had been avoiding it. Once I got past my resistance, I let the fear come, and come it did. I closed my eyes, and the image of hellfire I had been taught as a kid danced around me. I was terrified. I was literally trembling with fear, but I stayed with it and I noticed something: It was all in my head! The thing I was most afraid of was my own thoughts. In that moment, the fear of hell left me.

    I was free.

    I do not fear hell any more, nor do I crave heaven. These are ideas created by the minds of men to constrain our thought and enforce social norms. I have plenty of other reasons to be a good person: The people I love, my community, my hope for the future. I don’t need carrots or sticks any more. And that’s all these ideas are: Imaginary carrots and sticks used by religion to drive behavior. They are installed in the unconscious mind of the faithful during childhood, and they are a source of tyranny and suffering in the minds of many. What I had done in my “touch and go” practice, was I successfully re-programmed my unconscious mind.

    When you decided to go on a mission, did you question your beliefs before you went? If you did was it anything like what I described above? Reading the article you linked to, I do not see self-reflection. What I see is the experience of un-reflective zeal coming face-to-face with the reality of the human experience. That this is life-changing is no wonder, but how exactly do challenges to your ideology confirm your ideology? The fact that you stuck with it shows that you are loyal to your beliefs, not that your beliefs are true.

  5. Good points Paul! We should always be the first to challenge our own beliefs on anything that we hold too dear. Anything less is a form of denial, not faith. If God is really God, then I think he’s big enough to handle the challenge.

  6. “Anything less is a form of denial, not faith. If God is really God, then I think he’s big enough to handle the challenge.”

    There is something about this that rubs me the wrong way, and I’m trying to figure out why. I’m going to try to figure this out publicly, just to see how it goes.

    First off, I don’t believe in God, and my reason for not believing is intellectual honesty: I don’t know if God exists, so I refrain from deciding that he does. I’m an agnostic atheist. So this is where some sand gets in my shorts as it were. If God is really God, he sure looks non-existent as far as I can tell! Granted lots of people have the experience of God, but I have a neurological explanation for that, so subjective personal revelation isn’t good enough evidence as far as I’m concerned.

    In the context of this discussion, I guess my real beef is that it misses the point. I wrote my description of my experience of hell to illustrate the fact that I had been psychologically blinkered and deluded by my cultural programming. I think that God is a part of that cultural program. Or to be more accurate, I think that BELIEF in God is a part of that cultural program. Indulging in this belief (and I do consider it an indulgence) runs counter to my value of intellectual honesty.

    So I guess I want to say thanks for your positive feedback on my post, and human belief is a slippery topic of conversation!

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