A MORMON MISSION: 2001-2003
In the Mormon religion (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), when a male turns 19 years old he is expected to preach the gospel for two years. This is a full time job. It does not pay anything. Missionaries are sent everywhere in the world.
In 2001, after I turned 19, I was sent to Baltimore, Maryland to fulfill my religious duty. One of the main activities of a missionary is to knock on doors and invite people to hear a message about Jesus Christ. This is a video of me and some of my fellow missionaries knocking.
Mormon missionaries knocking on doors.
In high school, I used my camera to be a voice for other groups. Now, on a mission, I was a voice for God.
Communications theorist Marshall McLuhan was famous for saying, “The medium is the message.” His theory was that the object that delivers the message has an effect on the way the message is perceived. In some cases, the deliverer can alter the message so it no longer resembles it’s original form. To prevent this, Mormonism stresses conformity. In my time as a missionary, every elder looked the same. We memorized our lessons, word-for-word. We were told not to view ourselves as individuals, but as replicas of the savior. We were an army of modern-day Jesus Christs.
For me, this was a challenge because I appreciate the differences that make me unique. In school, the people I represented valued my unique abilities. This is why they wanted me to represent them instead of representing themselves. But on a mission, representation left no room for individuality, and I found myself being stuffed into a box I was uncomfortable being in.
I felt like I was trying to be something I am not. I felt like I was doing a dis-service to God by silencing my creativity and humor. It was as this time that I began realizing the difference between being a representative and, downright, trying to steal an identity.
Furthermore, I recognized differences between the Jesus that was described in the New Testament and the Jesus advertised by the Church. For this reason, I struggled to represent someone that I have never met and it made me wonder: Who was Jesus Christ? Really? Why was he so important? If his claim to fame was his ability to do miracles, what do Mormons have to offer anyone? I can’t raise people from the dead.
"I am the good shepherd" -John 10:11
One mission rule was that an elder's tie was not suppose to call attention to the individual. Therefore, my tie, featured in this photo, was probably a breach of protocol.
Missionaries are not allowed to watch movies. I couldn't listen to the radio or read the newspaper. Also, I couldn't film. For two years, I was suppose to be free from the media. This rule is suppose to help separate us from the world and bring us closer to the voice of God.
My first month was spend in a training center in Utah. When my training was finished, I boarded a bus to go to Maryland, but when the bus stopped I had return to the training center, and I was told that the flight was canceled.
When I returned to the main building and saw people rushing in every direction. One sister missionary was crying in the middle of the hallway. She said that her father and brother had just crashed in an airplane. As more buses returned to the center, the building was overcrowding and people were panicking. One lady shouted that everyone’s missions had been canceled cause the United States had declared war. But because we did not have any media devices, no one knew what was going on.
Me answering phone calls in the Mission Training Center where people from all over the world called to receive more information about the Church.
In the chaos, I found a group of rebel missionaries who had smuggled a handheld radio into the facility. Together, we hid ourselves in an abandoned dorm and listened to the news... It was September 11th, 2001. America had just been attacked by terrorists.
Me and a group of rebel missionaries listening to 9/11 news reports on a radio that had been smuggled into the training center.
Radio recordings from 9/11. This is the kind of reporting that me and the other missionaries heard on the radio.
It was at this time that I began realizing the true power of censorship. Because the training center refused to receive outside information, our position in society was weakened, and our community was vulnerable. However, after receiving the information, I was valued among my peers because I had something that everyone wanted. My power came from my rare ability to distribute truth.
Of course, lots of other people were disseminating information, but the news that I offered was different because mine was based on actual news reports instead of rumors. However, many people refused my information because, in order to receive it, I broke the rules of the community. Those who rejected my message believed that if they had accepted it, they would have been endorsing illegal behavior.
For years I struggled with the ethics of this experience. On the one hand, I believe censorship is appropriate in some situations. Just as some foods are harmful to the body, some information is harmful to the mind and the community. On the other hand, I am a huge advocate for free speech. I believe censorship, when practice in the wrong way, will cause the collapse of a civilization. That said, the question I'm left with is: What rules govern the relationship between free speech and censorship?
The Adventures of Jonny Lekrib
After the events of 9/11 settled down I learned that the U.S. was not going to war, and my mission program would continue. Then, later that month, I arrived in Baltimore, Maryland, ready to preach the word of God.
The day I met Jesus
This is a picture from the day I met Jesus Christ. He was casually walking with his crucifix. He had a lot less teeth than I expected. He seemed quite pleasant for a man that was about to be executed.
Delivering a Book of Mormon
One of our duties was to deliver Book of Mormons to people who request them. This is a video of one of those deliveries (2001).
One mission rule states that excessive laughter is forbidden (D&C 88:69). This meant our jokes had to be mild or nonexistent. This was a struggle for me. Humor is how I deal with reality.
We taught a lot of children. Many people criticize religions for brainwashing young minds, but I don't see how anyone can make that argument without also suggesting that we should get rid of public education. Let people teach their children as they see fit.
In Salem, I was famous. In school, people formed crowds around me. In the city, people asked for my autograph. Even when I left the city to go to the beach or to Portland, strangers approached me because they knew who I was. But Baltimore was on the other side of the country. Here, I was a nobody. After a month of nonrecognition, I fell into a depression.
It was then that I realized how fame gave me a false sense of importance. Popularity had a strange power to determine my self worth. Therefore, from then on, I promised that I would ever let fame influence the value I placed on myself or other people.
Not being allowed to film was the biggest challenge I faced on a mission... Sometimes, I did it anyways.
Growing up in the church, I was taught to do service for people. Then, on a mission, I was introduced to nonprofit organizations (NPOs).
My introduction to the world of NPOs began when I volunteered for the Ronald McDonald House Charity in Baltimore. Every week I did whatever service they required, from mowing the lawn to sharing comforting words about God with sick patients. I met a lot of kids from the make-a-wish foundation. My job was to make them smile. Those are bittersweet memories.
Me mowing the lawn of the Ronald McDonald charity house.
Baltimore is a racist city. Many neighborhoods are still segregated by color. This surprised me because I was raised in a fairly color blind community. I thought racism died in the '70s. I was wrong.
The debate over the color of Jesus Christ was a common stumbling block that I encountered while teaching. According to history, Jesus was Jewish (olive skinned). According to the citizens of Baltimore (who have the lowest literacy rate in America), Jesus was black. And oso was Moses, Santa Clause, and President John F. Kennedy. At the time, I thought the color of Jesus, really, didn't matter. The people of Baltimore strongly disagree.
This is when my companion and I visited Baltimore's Black in Wax museum. I don't recommend it for anything other than pure entertainment..
This is a poster advertising a Christian summer camp created for POC.
One day, after months of slammed doors, I decided to stop telling people about my religion and ask them about theirs. At first, people thought I was trying to trick them, so I promised that after they taught me, I would leave without trying to convert them.
My purpose for this activity was, simply, to learn what other people believed. To me, Mormonism was a no-brainer, and I couldn't understand why it was so hard to convert people.
What I learned was that every religion has a unique system, and within that system, the beliefs make sense. My flaw was in trying to understand the conclusions drawn by other religions based on premises established by Mormonism.
However, when I separated foundational beliefs, I realized that, because so much of religion is based on things that cannot be proven, most religions are equally legitimate. When it comes to life and death and the truth of reality, everyone (religious and non-religious) is making a gamble.
I developed a passion for studying the scriptures. The more I studied, the more complex my studies became. Because missionaries were not allowed to use computers, my studies got messy all over the floor.
This understanding gave me a unique perspective among my religious peers. Rather than viewing non-Mormons as lost souls, I viewed everyone - Catholic, Baptist, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Born Agains, Muslims, Buddhists - as people who were on different paths trying to get to the same location: heaven. But until someone returns from the dead to show everyone which path is correct, we're all gambling on beliefs that are based on unproven theories.
Of course, at that time, I still believed that Mormonism was the correct religion. But I was left with trying to find a self-satisfying answer as to why Mormonism was right and all other religions were wrong. And that brings us to a discussion about The Book of Mormon.
The Book of Mormon
Just as the Jews believe the Bible was written by ancient prophets of God who lived in Israel, Mormons believe, additionally, that The Book of Mormon was written by ancient prophets of God who lived in Mesoamerica.
This is important because it suggests that God communicated with two different populations in two different locations at the same time during an era when communication between the two populations was otherwise impossible.
Think of this in terms of cooking. Lets say you put two bakers in two rooms with a barrier that prevents them from communicating with each other. Then you tell them to cook any meal they want. If both bakers cook the same meal, as though they were using the same recipe, it suggests that, somehow, they are communicating despite the barrier.
Likewise, Mormons believe that God communicated with two populations in a way that defies our current understanding of how time and space operates. And just as the food was proof that communication had occurred between the two bakers, the Bible and The Book of Mormon prove the existence of a higher intelligence that connected Jerusalem with Mesoamerica thousands of years ago.
Mormons believe The Book of Mormon is a testament of Jesus Christ that was written by Native Americans 2,000 years ago.
And just as God communicated with people in ancient times, he can communicate with people in modern times. All one has to do is pray and ask God if the Mormon Church is true. Then, God will give that person an answer in a way that defies our current understanding of reality.
In my opinion, this is a damn good argument. Anyone who says otherwise is not giving credit where credit is due. However, the argument only works so long as the Bible and The Book of Mormon were both authored by God. So the question becomes: How can one differentiate a story that was written by God from a story that was written by man?
Was The Book of Mormon authored by the same divine being who authored the Bible?
I mean, literally speaking, both books were written by various men. But both groups of authors claim that their ideas are dictations from God. Therefore, as readers, it's our job to separate fact from fiction. It's our job to determine what role God, actually, played in the creation of these stories. It's our job to ask what makes the Bible different from a Harry Potter Story, and to decide if The Book of Mormon is more like one or the other.
Because The Book of Mormon was written in ancient America and the Bible was written in ancient Jerusalem, the books will have notable differences. However, if they were both created by God, as Mormonism claims, they should have certain similarities as well, and their core truths should be the same. Therefore, on my mission, I spent many mornings comparing the two books.
One idea that supports the notion that the two books were created by the same author is the chiasm theory...
One of my more extensive scripture studies involved mapping all of the locations in The Book of Mormon in an attempt to match them with real places in central America. The map is awesome, but it doesn't match any known location.
The chiasm theory
A chiasm is a certain type of poem wherein words and phrases mirror themselves. For centuries these poetic structures were hidden in ancient texts, such as the Bible and The Book of Mormon, and have only been discovered in recent times. Some scholars believe that the presence of this writing structure in both books provides evidence of an underlying connection between them. However, chiasms have been found in nonreligious stories as well, and because no one knows why chiasms were used by ancient authors, no definitive conclusions can be drawn.
BIBLE chiasm: Jonah 1
BOOK OF MORMON chiasm: Mosiah 5:10-12
This is a comparison of chiasms found in the Bible and The Book of Mormon. On the surface, it appears as though the writers of each chiasm followed the same set of rules, despite the fact that these stories were written in different times and different places.. Is this evidence that the two writers were, somehow, connected?
The Bible Bash
On the last week of my mission, two street preachers invited me and my companion to have a public debate at the harbor. Although I had discussed religion with people of all different backgrounds and cultures, this was the first time I had ever met a Black Hebrew Israelite. Therefore, we agreed to the debate.
At the event, the preachers criticized Mormonism for 15 minutes. When I tried to counter their ridiculous accusations, I couldn't because they turned off my microphone. Then they kept promising that they would give us a chance to speak, but after 30 minutes it was clear that they had no intention of letting us tell our side of the story, so we left.
This was a kind of debate I had never encountered on my mission. Usually, discussions are focused on issues, and the best argument won. But the Black Hebrews Israelites realized that if they could control communication, itself, they could win every debate. In this arena, evidence and truth mean nothing. Logic is irrelevant. This is a battle over who has control of the microphone.
After the debate, I was furious. I decided that I wanted a rematch where we had control of our own microphone. So, the next day, me and a group of other missionaries obtained a video camera and set out to find the street preachers for round two.
When we found the preachers, we began arguing with them over the color of Jesus, but don't be fooled; there was no logic at this debate. It was a battle over who could yell the loudest, and as we shouted, crowds gathered and emotions grew.
Mormon missionaries argue with preachers from the Black Hebrew Israelite Church. This Bible bash was less about religion and more about freedom of speech.
That day, we argued with those preachers for 45 minutes until the police came and made us leave for disturbing the peace. That was the last (and the best) Bible bash I had on my mission.
He who controls information...
The reason I was so passionate about that last debate was because the real fight had nothing to do with religion. It was about communication, itself. It was about freedom of speech. How dare they silence my voice.
But to me, the implications of this event were frightening. I was raised to believe that everyone agreed on the right to free speech. But between this event and the time I was silenced by my assistant principle, I started realizing, not everyone believes in free speech. Some people think the world would be a better place if certain people were silenced and certain ideas were censored.
This is bad because freedom of speech is freedom to influence. Every time a person speaks, they are trying to persuade someone to do or believe something. But if only one party is given the microphone, that entity has complete control to manipulate society and determine our future. They can control what laws get passed and what laws are invalid. They can control who is elected and who is imprisoned. They can control the fate of the world unto our eternal misery and ultimate collapse.
In his book 1984, George Orwell said, "Those who control the flow of information hold the ultimate power in the society. This turns the flow of information and technology, into a tool of fear and pure control."
That said, I wondered: What power does America, actually, have to guarantee free speech among citizens? And what power do other organizations have to silence people?
At the close of 2003, my missionary obligation had come to an end. I felt that it was a worthy chapter in my story for God. I learned about modern cultures and religions. I also learned about the ancient cultures of the Bible.
For my next chapter, I wanted to go to a location that would liven my narrative. Therefore, I applied for a job at Disney World and took a trip to Florida. To read the next chapter, click here.