Late on a Tuesday afternoon, the doorbell rings. Through the peephole are two college-aged men dressed in slacks, short-sleeve white button down shirts and ties. Each clutches a book in his left hand. Enough noise has been made that they must know that someone is home, so I open the door. The taller, skinnier, more awkward looking one introduces himself as Elder Johnson*. His friend, he says, is Elder Stewart. Elder Stewart, who is slightly short with all-American good looks, stands at the bottom of the porch; Elder Johnson does all the talking. "Hi, how are you today?" "Did we wake you up?" "It's a beautiful day today, isn't it?" "So what are you studying?" "Do you know about the Book of Mormon?" I try to be polite with their questions, but I'm late for a meeting and I know, without any consideration, that I am not interested in what they have to say. "I really need to get going, sorry," I say as I slowly step back from the door and begin to close it. "OK, we understand, we know Penn kids are busy. Here, why don't you take our number." Elder Johnson pulls out a small sheet of paper that says: What is the purpose of life? What is the true nature of God? Can families be together forever? Where do we go after this life? Answers to these and other eternally significant questions can be found by visiting www.mormon.org We'd love to have you visit us. On the flyer, he writes down their number, even though I tell them I do not want it. They are persistent, but not pushy. After I shut the door, I look down at the piece of paper and realize that, though I am not interested in converting, I need to know more.
The room is bare. There is a clock. A set of four vents lines each side. There are no icons, no images. A removable fake wood wall separates the chapel from the basketball court behind us. There are seven rows of pews and a podium. "Do you think we're weird?" Elder Stewart asks. I don't want to answer the question, so I turn it back to them. "We're different. Yeah, we're definitely different. That's why we go tracting, you know, going door to door, 'cause people see us as different -- we are different. People don't understand us, they don't see who we are, they can just tell that we're not like them. But we like to focus on our similarities, rather than our differences," Stewart tells me. Elder Stewart and Elder Johnson are currently giving two years of their lives to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Well, they have given their whole lives to the church. But for two years, they have removed themselves from the world in which they grew up. They speak with their families only twice a year. They do not read the papers, watch TV or listen to music. They have a library of five books, all picked by and written about the church. The one constant in their lives is the Church. Elder Johnson and Elder Stewart say they are happy that they have chosen to go on a mission. Though they admit that a mission is not without its sacrifice. Johnson lowers his eyes and stares at his shoes and adds, "but it's all worth it. Sometimes you feel like you're missing out, but this experience is worth it." Elder Stewart agrees. "It's a sacrifice in a lot of ways, but you get a lot of blessings in return, being away from family, the people you love. It's more than a mission. It's a grander thing. It's obedience to the principles of the Gospel. Living a Christlike life. It's hard. But the better you do at that, the happier you can become."
Elder Stewart's first assignment was in West Philadelphia. "The only other white person I saw there for my whole six months was my companion. When you first go out to a situation like that, you think to yourself, 'Sure, I'm better than these people.' But then you realize, they're the same as you are." "When I was in Delaware," Johnson remembers, "I met this woman, she used everything. Caffeine, alcohol and every other kind of drug. Anything you can imagine. She wanted to change. She felt it in her heart. She had the spiritual confirmation. She believed in the principles. There's really nothing that stops them." "Sometimes it's a whole new person. They have that change of heart. Their desires change. It affects everything -- how they live, make choices, speak. It's not us. We're there to help. It's God and the spirits that give people the strength." "Another belief we have is that Christ is the one who helps us fulfill the plan of God. So we're Christians. We want to leave you with these ideas tonight, so you can think about them." Elder Johnson stares into my eyes, with piercing focus. "We want to help you." I arrive at Marsha's room, but Elder Stewart and Elder Johnson are not yet there. Marsha, a Penn freshman, was raised Catholic, but believes that there is something better out there for her. She has made the decision to learn more about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints after meeting the Elders at a booth on Locust Walk. As she waits for Elder Johnson and Elder Stewart to arrive, she makes her bed, pulling the corners tight. Pictures of celebrities plaster the space above her desk. Library books make her desk surface invisible. The phone rings. Marsha picks it up before the first ring ends. "It's them. I'll be right back." Marsha leads Elder Stewart and Elder Johnson into her room and they begin the lesson. The lesson, number three of six, opens with a prayer. They are thankful that everyone is here. The Elders review Marsha's homework from the Book of Mormon. Elder Johnson assigned Marsha three sections to read, but two of them were optional. "I read all three." "I told you, she's an overachiever," Elder Johnson says. She smiles. As the lesson progresses, the Elders go through various sections of the Book of Mormon. "You see, you must believe in order to understand, not understand in order to believe," Elder Johnson says. As Elder Stewart and Elder Johnson lead a discussion about belief and faith, it quickly turns to baptism. "Marsha, we came here to ask you if you would be baptized." Elder Johnson says calmly. After a short discussion and seemingly little thought, Marsha says she will be baptized. Elder Stewart's jaw tightens and he nods his head, noting his satisfaction with her decision. Elder Johnson is less restrained. Blood rushes to his face, coloring his cheeks. His face is marked with a giant smile.
A dreary Friday seems typical, but this one is special for the Mormons of the Philadelphia region and the few who traveled from different corners of the country to be at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. The spiritual leader of the Church, President Hinckley, is in town. There are 4,500 people in the room waiting for him to speak. 1,500 more are being sent to an overflow room where they will watch on a giant screen. Missionaries in their whites are spread throughout. The usually distinguishable dress of Elder Johnson and Elder Stewart blends into this sea. A choir sings. The room quiets. A group of fifteen or so people enters the stage and sits. Most are old. After opening with all 4,500 people singing "How Firm A Foundation," President Hinckley rises and moves his short 93 year-old body to the podium with the help of a cane. "It's good to be here with all of you. It's wonderful to look into the faces of you good people, you Latter-Day Saints, who share a sacred bond with our eternal covenant." Elder Johnson nods his head. To my right, someone cries. It sounds like Elder Stewart. I do not look. I cannot be sure. "You pray. You pray. I pray that you will pray. And I pray that you will pay your tithes. I pray. Please pay your tithes. That becomes a barometer of your faith." No one seems surprised by this message. In fact, heads nod in agreement. The people agree, money represents faith. President Johnson takes a moment, with no transition, to give the men and women their own messages, though everyone, regardless of their gender, is interested in each message. "You men who are here, you men. I hope you are good to your neighbors, that you are outreaching to others. I believe in all my heart that sin and unrighteousness can't be part of the priesthood. Be good. "And women. Be good women. Be good mothers. Be kind and generous. Teach your children the faith. Bless your husbands with your love and encouragement. If they aren't members of the Church, do it anyway. They'll come around. They'll join the Church eventually." President Johnson's speech is short, but the people are satisfied. There are no new revelations. But they like that. People did not come expecting something new.
At 4:30 p.m. on a Sunday, Marsha's baptism begins. After a prayer, two hymns and some remarks by churchgoers, the group is led into the church gymnasium. Three rows of folding chairs face two industrial doors at the end of the court. Minutes later, two members of the church, dressed in khakis and striped ties, swing the doors open. The baptismal font, a rectangular tub filled with water, sits before the onlookers. Elder Johnson and Marsha are dressed in all white. The transparent pool of blessed water draws a line across their torsos. Elder Johnson and Marsha both are relaxed. Elder Johnson leans down and whispers something in her ear. She nods her head. He raises her right arm and places it, palm to palm, with his. The crowd's eyes are fixed on the scene. No one moves. Elder Johnson asks Marsha if she accepts Jesus Christ and the Church of Latter-Day Saints. "I do." She holds her nose and falls backward as he pushes her head underwater. She raises her head with her eyes locked shut. She works to wipe the water away from her eyes, then her nose and mouth, then onto her hair, as Elder Johnson explains to her that she has been cleansed of her sins. He stands in the font, smiling. The two men close the doors. About ten minutes later, with Elder Johnson and Marsha still absent, Elder Stewart expresses the importance of Marsha's baptism. "That was really great to see. I know that meant a lot to all of you, and to Marsha to, but I can't tell you how meaningful that was for me." He is earnest and proud. "I'm sure it means a lot for Marsha too. But it is so great for me to see this. As a missionary, we work hard to teach new people. Seeing someone see the light, and someone so passionate like Marsha, makes me feel so good, like I'm really accomplishing something out here. I hope you will welcome her into the church and show her what it means to be an LDS."
Emily is a fragile-faced Penn sophomore and a staff member of the Daily Pennsylvanian. Her long, wavy blond hair frames her face. Her big blue eyes reflect and magnify the somber lighting where she sits. Like many other sophomores, she worries about deciding on a major, though she has narrowed her options down to history or comparative literature. But what makes Emily different is that she is an active follower of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. In fact, after graduating, Emily hopes to go on her own mission, carrying on the work of Elder Stewart and Elder Johnson -- two of her friends -- wherever she is assigned. "I do want to go on a mission after I graduate. Guys go when they're nineteen, but girls go when they're twenty-one. You can go whenever you want, but you have to be twenty-one. I turn twenty-one at the end of my junior year, but it just makes more sense to me to finish college first, then do my mission." The women and men of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are treated differently, though as Emily and others will tell you, they are also equals. In fact, the rule that forces Emily to wait two extra years to go on her mission, despite a submerged desire to go now, does not really bother her. Emily supports the church. She believes in what it does and how it does it. But, in a moment of absolute honesty, Emily bows her head and speaks. "I guess for a while I had a problem with it. I'm independent. I like to take charge of things. But it doesn't bother me that the church is organized the way it is. It's organized this way for a reason. It's not a supremacy thing, it's about equals. Just because they hold the priesthood as the highest, guys don't think they're better than us. I don't really see that happening." Emily looks up and smiles, asking for validation. Her argument does not make complete sense -- she does not elaborate on the church's organization and it's reasoning. Next, in one swift move, Emily jerks her head, flipping her hair back, and slides her hands into the pockets of her navy "Utah State" hooded sweatshirt. Emily is from Salt Lake City, the Mormon capital of the world. Growing up, she was surrounded by Mormons, but now at Penn, she is part of a small minority. "Since I grew up in Salt Lake City, it was normal to be Mormon. A lot of people here don't understand anything, but I don't blame them cause I don't understand a lot about other religions. I only know about my own. But I get so many questions. A lot of things are hard to explain, like the Elders. It's such a normal thing, but for a lot of people they're like 'Whoa, they try to convert people?' Because of that, I try to be open-minded when missionaries from other religions come to me." "People just have such weird views of who Mormons are -- this white American thing. It's just not true." And, in a moment of pride, Emily says what Elder Johnson and Elder Stewart have already stated on a few occasions: "You know, there are actually more Mormons outside of the U.S. than inside the country." "It has been weird because I've been totally defined by my religion, but there's so much more to me than that. But I'm the Mormon girl -- people see me as the Mormon girl. And, I can sort of understand it. There are lots of things that set us apart, especially in college, like the drinking thing."
Elder Johnson recommends that I read Three Nephi from The Book of Mormon. It opens with: Christ's doctrine is that men should believe and be baptized and receive the Holy Ghost. I recognize these words from one of their lessons with Marsha. Just before asking her if she would be baptized, they had her read this section. I begin to wonder if, despite their assurances that they are not trying to convert me, that is in fact their motive. My memory flashes back to that one point I cannot forget. Elder Johnson sits before me, his eyes directed into mine. His fixed gaze possesses a command that I can only fight by looking away. "We want to help you." *all names have been changed except for President Hinckley