By Eric Johnson
“Get the Fire”—a one-hour documentary that observed several Mormon missionaries during their two years of church service—was aired during Christmastime 2003 on many PBS stations. Although the response from a number of Mormon viewers was negative, the film is truly an honest and objective portrayal of the hopes and fears that a typical LDS missionary experiences.
Following 19-year-old males Jake Erekson, Matt Higbee, and Brady Flamm, the viewer gets to see missionary life from its conception (the young men receive the letters from LDS Church headquarters telling them they would serve in Germany) until the mission’s conclusion and earning the right to the noble title of “returned missionary.” Producer Nancy du Plessis (who hails from New York, although she now lives in Europe) somehow was able to get permission from LDS Church authorities to follow and film these missionaries for many countless hours during their two years in the field.
Beginning with their time at the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah, the missionaries are required to dedicate themselves to their God and leaders. We see the three missionaries assembled in a general chapel session with approximately 200 others. They are instructed by a female speaker to obtain “their own testimony” of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. (I am left to wonder how many missionaries truly don’t have a testimony before this stage of the missionary game!)
They are also told to commit themselves to many exhaustive rules. Indeed, one elderly male speaker announces that the missionaries will have to become “obedient to every single instruction in the missionary handbook.” He added that any violation of these rules “can cost you either your place in the Kingdom or, in some places, your life.” In other words, the mission field is not the place to play childish games and risk losing eternal salvation! It appears that the leaders intend for each crop of missionaries to take their responsibilities most seriously.
There are currently around 60,000 LDS missionaries around the world, most of these are young men and women (Retired couples are also included in this number). The MTC provides them the basic structure of missionary life, including the skills to teach basic lessons to the potential converts. In fact, the majority of these young men and women learn new languages during their brief stay at the MTC. In addition, they have to prepare themselves mentally for the job ahead. For instance, they are allowed no television, movies, or music because they must concentrate on the task at hand for six days a week, sometimes for 16 hours a day. There is a cutting of all ties with home, friends, and even old girlfriends. Calling home is limited to just Mother’s Day and Christmas.
Although the missionaries appear to exhibit a sense of toughness on the outside, it is apparent that many of these missionaries too closely resemble the proverbial deer in the headlights. At the beginning of the video, Brady Flamm innocently admits that he will miss some things while serving his two years, including “snow skiing, skateboarding, and dating girls.” The film does a good job showing the get-go toughness that many missionaries acquire over the course of their missions. I enjoyed how one of the missionaries on the field gave a pep talk to his fellow workers, encouraging them to “go out and knock some eternal life into (the prospective converts).”
As mentioned earlier, the missionaries we follow are sent to Germany. One awkward scene takes place on a train where one missionary struggles in a conversation in German that he has with one female passenger. He finally gives up, apologizing for his poor communication skills. However, the woman commends him for his efforts, saying that he knew more German than she knew English and encouraging him to not give up. Such a compliment must have been quite powerful to this young man. Those of us who have tried to use a foreign language outside of an academic class setting can certainly appreciate his frustration.
The times of frustration can get even the best of missionaries discouraged. “You get tired physically, mentally, spiritually,” Flamm said after an apparently tough day on the field. “Sometimes it seems like you can’t take it anymore, but you don’t want to go home, so you just deal with it.”
Besides following the missionaries in their duties, du Plessis mixed in conversations with several returned missionaries, all of whom make it appear that they had positive missionary experiences despite having later problems with the Mormon Church. For instance, Andy McGuire—who served in the Pennsylvania mission from 1981-1983—said that he was told to teach the American Indians as having originated in Israel. “I’m embarrassed about that,” he said, insinuating that he now knew it wasn’t true. “Many missionaries have the same feeling.”
Another returned missionary said his mission caused many doubts in his life. “I just didn’t know any more what I believed,” he said. “Lots of people ask us questions, and some of them are really, really good questions. Kind of brings up a little doubt in you. That happened to me almost every day.”
Time and resources were factors why more people were not able to see the inconsistencies between Mormonism and the truth of the Bible. “Most of the people whom I taught and who joined were people who did not have time,” said Dmitri Yatsenko. “They were hard-working, not very wealthy people who did not have time to check out the facts, who did not have the time to browse the Internet and find out the other side of the story.”
Because the film was interspersed with short clips from these returned missionaries, a number of Mormons have expressed their dissatisfaction with du Pressis and her production. For instance, Scott Taylor of Chandler, Arizona was critical in his comments that he posted on the PBS web site: “If the Ex-Missionaries didn’t want to go, then they had the choice not to. It’s pretty sad that they don’t have enough character not to go, if they didn’t believe it, then don’t go. As for me the Mission experience was a very rewarding thing for myself and family. I found this film to be skewed. I can’t believe PBS aired it.” (12/24/03)
Meanwhile, Cheryl from Oklahoma wrote in part,
“I am so sad to see such an awful show on PBS. Obviously the person who produced this trash doesn’t understand or really know how it is to be a (church) member….I’m curious why this person who produced this show didn’t interview former missionaries who had enjoyed their mission, or would that have been too close to the truth for her?” (12/24/03)
Unfortunately, such criticism is typical with too many Mormons today. Any portrayal of the Mormon Church, no matter how objective, is condemned unless it paints Mormonism in only a positive light. The film is meant to be neither faith promoting to the Mormon masses nor an “anti-Mormon” propaganda hit piece. There is no doubt that the producer was attempting to give a perspective from both sides of the issue, especially since each of the three missionaries had positive mission experiences. This fact alone would have to make the LDS public relations department blush. At the same time, the returned missionaries were interviewed to show that some returned missionaries struggled with their faith. However, as mentioned earlier, not one of these returned missionaries spoke badly about his mission experience, and at least one of the returned missionaries still called himself “Mormon.”
From a sociological viewpoint, du Plessis has done a brilliant job probing into the lives of Mormon missionaries. We are given a chance to see what the average missionary has to endure. By the end, we are able to see how the missionary experience could be “faith promoting” and help a person become more steadfast in his or her faith. This is a fair film and has no “winners” or “losers.” Instead, the viewer is given the window to discover the sometimes not-so-obvious fact that the LDS missionaries are real people with heartfelt needs and desires. They are extremely sincere in their attempt to promote the Mormon gospel. If nothing else, identifying with the missionaries in this personal way is the greatest success of this film.