Twenty years ago this month I stepped off a plane after serving a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At no time during the last two decades have I faced more questions and curiosity about my mission to Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
Call it the Mitt Romney effect.
It’s understandable. For the first time in history, a “Mormon” will be the official nominee for president of a major political party. More people than ever before are Googling or Yahooing the name of the LDS Church, well-known members and common myths.
While it’s true that I’ve met Mitt Romney and we share the same faith, I have no idea how he would characterize his own mission to France or where he would rank it among the decisions and defining events of his life. I can only speculate that it’s among the most important.
If Romney’s mission was like mine, he was taught early on to work hard by dedicated companions who ranked among the best of the best. My first companion and trainer was Elder Alves, a Brazilian who was easily the hardest working young man I’d ever known. We walked miles and miles everyday in search of the one person he believed was waiting to hear our message.
I’d never worn through soles before, but before I left Brazil, I was sticking surplus pamphlets into my shoes to protect my feet.
If Romney’s mission was like mine, he learned to face hate and rejection. Doors were closed and hearts slammed shut. In one city, several angry men chased my companion and me through an outside café. For weeks we took circuitous routes home to avoid being followed. Once we helped an abused wife hide from her drunken, enraged husband by twisting her up in the curtains dividing two rooms of the chapel. In another city, after baptizing a courageous woman in a river in her backyard, members of her family raced after us cursing and throwing rocks.
We learn failure, too, and it’s often the most tragic aspect of the work. Missionaries find, teach and build friendships with families who will eventually look them in the eye and, for a variety of reasons, ask them never to come back.
If Romney’s mission was like mine, he learned to love people who were different from him in every imaginable way. My heart found room for people so poor that having anything other than rice and beans was like a holiday feast. For some, having a chicken to kill for lunch or dinner was a miracle of Red Sea-parting proportions.
Missionaries also learn to love those of every faith and of no faith at all. We discover that many of the most honorable, faithful Christians in the world are quite happily members of other churches. And while some of our beliefs are different, our God is the same. We discover quickly that Heavenly Father loves all of his children equally, no matter what name is on the church’s sign outside.
If Romney’s mission was like mine, he made friends he continues to love and pray for many years after returning home. Through the miracle of modern technology and social networking, I am able to communicate regularly with several families I worked with from 1990-1992. I love and admire all they have accomplished on their spiritual journeys.
One of my companions near the end of my mission has since left the church. It’s heartbreaking, but I still cherish the time we worked together and the lessons he taught me. I love him just as much as the other dozen or so companions I served with.
Whether you agree with Romney's politics or not, it’s hard to argue that he hasn’t accomplished quite a bit in the years since his mission to France. He’s made millions, built businesses, rescued the Salt Lake City Olympic games from scandal and served as governor of Massachusetts.
My own accomplishments in the years since my mission are much less impressive. I’ve made a few bestseller lists, been on television, met some celebrities and spoken to audiences around the world.
But if Romney’s mission was anything like mine, it ranks well above his other accomplishments. At the time, choosing to serve a mission was easily the most important decision I’d ever made. Today, all these years and countless choices later, only one has become more important: the decision to marry my wife and start a family.
As I observe this unique presidential campaign, I am grateful for the curiosity about the LDS Church and our worldwide missionary program. I welcome the chance to share my faith and the experience of laboring a world away as a representative of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As I celebrate this 20-year mission anniversary, I wonder what career accomplishments would ever overtake it. Would selling a million more books? Would topping the New York Times list for three years straight? Would seeing one of my books finally make it to theatres? What about becoming president of the United States?
Not a chance. And if Mitt Romney’s mission was anything like mine, he’d agree.