‘The Book of Mormon’ on stage plays for laughs, but in reality being missionary is hard work

Feb. 26, 2014 @ 09:21 AM

Thousands of people went to see the hit Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon” when the tour came this month to the Durham Performing Arts Center. The comedy from the creators of “South Park” makes jokes at the expense of missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons.
Rather than take offense, six local Mormons who have been real missionaries said they’re more concerned about clearing up misunderstandings. None of them has seen the musical, but they do know what it’s like to be a missionary.
Caleb Morris, 29, saw a few clips online and said it was funny. Sarah Thomas, 32, said her sister is a missionary in Atlanta, and when “The Book of Mormon” was on tour there, stood outside the theater doors with others and handed out their cards for anyone who wanted to learn about the real Book of Mormon.
Daniel Benson, 26, said he told friends going to the show that “I’ve read the book,” and invited them to come over and talk about it if they wanted after seeing the show.
Theresa Boyd, 24, read the summary of “The Book of Mormon” when she first heard about the musical.
“I’m OK with a joke at my expense, but am worried about misunderstandings, that the church is misunderstood because of this. And it does have the exact same name as a sacred book of Scripture,” she said.
Collin Close, 26, said that “South Park” already uses LDS for humor.
“I’m sure there are people who are offended, because by definition, ‘South Park’ is offensive,” Benson said. “Everyone I talked to in the church said this is what the creators of ‘South Park’ do, and to get uptight about it is ridiculous. Our goal is: Great, if you’ve seen this, let’s resolve any confusion,” he said.
Close said it’s very clearly a comedy, not a documentary. “We’ve done a lot of work for them. When else do you have free door to door advertising?”
So here are some basics of being a LDS missionary that theater-goers may be wondering about:
Men are indeed called elders, and women are called sisters. It’s not just men – both men and women serve as missionaries, though more men do. Women serve for 18 months, and men for two years. They are assigned a mission and are paired with another missionary – called a companion – to go door to door or meet people on the street or on the bus to invite them to church. Men dress in shirts and ties, Morris said, because they believe they have an important message and they want to dress respectfully and professionally. They do wear comfortable shoes. The age for missionaries was recently lowered – 18 for men and 19 for women. Most are under 25.
Morris said the biggest challenge of going door to door is getting a reception. For his mission, he was assigned to New York City, so they contacted people on the street, said hello and asked them to church. In New York, being approached on the street is something you learn to ignore, he said. But some people do want to talk, and that has strengthened his belief in God. Morris worked in a mission to the Chinese, and was paired with companions who were from mainland China, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
There are more Mormons outside the U.S. than inside the U.S., said James Mayo, 30.
“Americans don’t see that. They only see American Mormons,” Mayo said. Overseas churches are led by local Mormons there, not missionaries.
Thomas said her mission, mostly in France, meant approaching people on buses more than door to door. It was nerve wracking.
“Missionaries are overcoming a lot of fears. As you do it day in and day out, fear changes to sometimes excitement and sometimes just total willingness,” she said. Thomas said missionaries come home very much changed.
Benson, who was a missionary in Brazil, said that their goal is helping as many people as possible to accept Jesus Christ. Boyd said companions plan out their day every night and don’t want to waste the Lord’s time.
Part of the humor in “The Book of Mormon” musical is the relationship between two elders, one focused on mission and the other focused on friendship. The theatrical production is not the first to find that relationship amusing. Mormon comedians have tackled the subject, too. There is plenty of material, Morris said. The clips from “The Book of Mormon” he watched about the relationship between elders was funny because he has experienced it, he said. Real missionaries don’t get to choose their missions or their companions. Sometimes they are paired with a new companion every six weeks.
“If the musical was not so vulgar, I’d want to see it,” Close said. “I try to stay away from material that’s vulgar and crass – that’s my problem with it. They could have accomplished entertainment without stooping so low,” he said.
Thomas said that missionary work is really hard. By the end of the 18 months or two years, you love the people, love the culture and love the work, she said.
“It’s so hard, but you love it,” Thomas said.