Mormon missionaries go door-to-door in the inner city

THE BALTIMORE SUN

While walking the streets of West Baltimore recently, young Brigham Colton, a Mormon missionary, found himself standing between two men who were completing a sidewalk drug deal.

L Then he had the feeling he wasn't in Salt Lake City anymore.

"I often think," says the cherubic-looking 19-year-old, "how different it is here."

As dismaying as the sight was, Elder Colton did not dwell on the spectacle. Just as his missionary partner, Shane Campbell, did not long ponder the body he happened on one day in Pimlico. They simply moved along to knock on the next doors. Whatever else was going on in Baltimore, it was God's work they were sent to do here.

No one could look more out of place than these two -- white, Bible-toting young men with short haircuts, white shirts and somber suits and ties. Together, the well-scrubbed disciples of Joseph Smith are soldiering their way through the most desolate reaches of the city, telling those who answer their knocks, "We want to share a message of salvation with you" or "We've come to talk to you about the plan of our heavenly father and the purpose of life."

Surprisingly, they are enjoying some measure of success.

This may seem unlikely terrain for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To many, the Mormons still are familiar only through the Osmonds, a determinedly saccharine family of musicians popular in the '70s. Racially exclusive for most of its 165-year history, the church to this day remains overwhelmingly white and middle-class. But through the efforts of Mr. Colton, Mr. Campbell and about 48,000 other Mormon missionaries worldwide, that may be changing.

More times than not, Mr. Colton and Mr. Campbell, 20, are brushed off, told off or written off. But, despite the church's past discrimination, the two not only manage to get themselves beyond many a front door, but also reel inner-city African-Americans into the Mormon Church.

Dr. Bruce Ballard, the retired California orthopedic surgeon who heads the Maryland mission, estimates that at least half of the 750 Mormons in Baltimore City are black.

"We do best of all in Frederick and in Baltimore City," he said.

Blacks represent only a fraction of the global membership of the Mormon Church. But while scholars estimate that no more than 125,000 of the church's 9 million members are black (the church says it does not collect racial data about members), their numbers almost certainly are rising. The American-born church, one of the world's fastest growing, is making strides in areas with large black populations, particularly in South America and Africa.

It was to reach those populations, rather than African-Americans, scholars say, that the church in 1978 lifted its ban against blacks joining the lay ministry, which was otherwise open to every male over the age of 11.

"All the political pressure which various civil rights and liberal groups exerted on the Mormons in the 1960s had no effect," said Armand Mauss, a professor of sociology and religion at Washington State University. It was only the Mormon desire to expand elsewhere that prompted the change in policy, he said.

That 1978 reform, though directed toward the Third World, had the effect of ending the Mormon church's religious redlining at home, too. Mormon missionaries began flocking into the inner city. Today, 36 of the 136 missionaries working under Dr. Ballard are assigned to Baltimore, including Elders Campbell and Colton. (first names are never used while on a mission, even when no one else is present).

Their regimen, like that of all missionaries, is strenuous. They rise at 6:30 a.m. and read Scriptures until 9:30 a.m. Then they are on the streets for 12 hours a day, six days a week (plus three hours on Sundays).

They will be at it for two years during which they will not date, watch television, go to the movies, listen to music or read any book other than the Bible or the Book of Mormon. They will be permitted two telephone calls a year to their families. There will be no vacations, no weekends off, no fun -- at least by conventional standards.

Mr. Colton has been a missionary for six months; Mr. Campbell, who is from Boise, Idaho, a year and a half. Both say they grew up expecting that they would be missionaries. Like all prospective missionaries, they applied to the central mission headquarters in Salt Lake City. They could have been sent anywhere in the world. They were sent here.

"I wanted to go to South Africa," said Mr. Colton, a handsome, square-shouldered blond man from a Salt Lake City suburb. "I saw pictures of the zebras and lions and thought that would be neat."

But he took the Maryland assignment without complaint. "I was excited. As soon as I found out, people told me to go see the harbor and this and that," he said.

"They didn't tell me to see things," said Mr. Campbell, who is shorter and darker with a freckled face. "They just said to make sure I had a bulletproof vest."

It was advice Mr. Campbell thought about one night in Pimlico when he walked out of a house into a group of police officers who were examining a taxi, whose driver had been shot to death. An officer, who identified himself as a Mormon, told the young man to leave the area. It wasn't safe.

Dr. Ballard said that many Mormons have had bikes stolen in Baltimore. Several have been mugged and a few have been struck.

"I would never go into these areas without my [Mormon] badge on," said Mr. Campbell. "But I really believe we are protected. I believe the Lord will watch over us if we're true."

Mr. Campbell and Mr. Colton come from large families, a norm in the Mormon Church and one reason it is growing so fast. Their families are middle-class and they grew up in overwhelmingly white states.

"I didn't really know what to expect, but when I came here I found people weren't that different," said Mr. Colton. "After I got here, I came to really enjoy black people. They aren't that different from the way we are. People are people."

If Mr. Colton and Mr. Campbell seem naive, it doesn't hinder their missionary work. They are, as an athlete might say, focused. They are also as persistent as any salesman. If you say you're busy, they ask when you won't be busy. If you say come back another time, they ask what day and what time.

One recent afternoon found them knocking on doors in a housing project in Penn North. While waiting for answers, Mr. Campbell memorized Scripture from index cards. Not more than 10 yards away, a man was doing a brisk drug business.

Mr. Colton rapped on a door. "Who is it?" came a man's voice from inside. "It's Elder Colton and Elder Campbell," Mr. Colton replied.

"Who?"

"Elder Colton and Elder Campbell."

"I don't know them."

"That's us."

When the man did not answer again, they moved on.

Sometimes, Mr. Campbell said, he will mention the name of San Francisco 49er quarterback Steve Young or Philadelphia 76er Shawn Bradley, both of them famous Mormons.

A young man bolted from a door. "Who are you?" he asked.

"We're from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," said Mr. Campbell. "Ever hear of us?"

"I know who you are," the man said dryly and rushed by. "I've got an appointment."

Finally, an imposing young man let them in. His name was Tony Campbell and he said he was an out-of-work veteran of the Persian Gulf War. As he smoked a cigarette -- a no-no for Mormons -- he told them that they'd never win him over but he was happy to listen to them.

"You know why people have a problem with you?" he said. "Number one, they think you're the Jehovah Witnesses. Number two, they're wondering why white people are coming here in our area."

Not everyone does have a problem with them, though. Earlier in the day, the elders made return visits to several people, including some who already had come to church services and even scheduled their baptisms into the Mormon Church.

"I just felt like I belonged there," said Patricia Pittman, a 30-year-old single mother of three whose baptism will be held March 26.

At these visits, the elders go through lessons introducing the precepts of the Mormon Church. To help with the theology, Mr. Campbell uses paper dolls and other cut-outs to represent God, Mormon prophets and various stages of existence, including the "pre-life," the "spirit world" and "celestial glory."

The Mormon church regards itself as the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ, thanks to the appearance of modern-day prophets, most significantly, Joseph Smith, the church's founding father. Central to the church's theology is an elaborate view of the afterlife that is earned through behavior on earth.

In conveying this complicated theology, Mr. Campbell and Mr. Colton are pedagogic in their approach, peppering their prospective converts with leading questions: Do you remember who Joseph Smith was? Do you believe God really spoke to him? If God really spoke to him, wouldn't that mean this is the true church?

Calvin Chase, a 30-year-old man scheduled to be baptized in early April, said it was the personal attention of the elders that attracted him. A construction worker living with his sister's family in Sandtown-Winchester, Mr. Chase said he was fascinated by the Mormons' pantheon of prophets. He already had sworn off alcohol, coffee and tea to prepare himself for his life as a Mormon. A bachelor, he will have to practice abstinence in one other area as well.

"My biggest problem is female," he said, "but I can overcome that."

The reason blacks might be attracted to the Mormon Church was the subject of an oral history project at Brigham Young University. Jessie Embry, director of the project, said African-Americans were especially attracted by the church's emphasis on the family, which is seen as existing into eternity, and by its strict code of moral conduct.

Dr. Jan Shipps, a leading authority on Mormonism, said that she is surprised by the church's success with African-Americans, but understands its appeal.

"The middle-class values represented in the program have an appeal to inner-city blacks," said Dr. Shipps, professor emeritus of Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. "Their literature shows a picture of a Donna Reed-type life, a '50s togetherness with a loving mother in the home and a responsible father."

The Mormon theology is not equivocal. "To have answers to your most basic questions is sometimes very important," said Dr. Shipps. "The program itself offers an alternative to the chaos of the community."

That chaos is exactly what Mr. Colton and Mr. Campbell are traveling through every day. On a typical day, they meet types of people they never encountered before -- single mothers on welfare, drug addicts, and children who have lived in a succession of foster homes.

Asked how he could presume to have answers for all those people, Mr. Colton thought for a moment before answering. "We can't fully relate to them, but we believe the message we have can help every single person in the city," he said.

"That's what's sad," Mr. Campbell added. "Some people don't recognize how important our message is and how it can turn their lives around."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
34°