The Returning Missionary: Only a Dream?–Part II

Continued from Part I

There was more

More than the singing voices

More than the upturned faces

More than the shining eyes


But it’s more than the shining eyes

More than the steaming breeze

More than the hidden hills

More than the concrete Christ  


My flight home left at 11:00 P.M. Carlos and Juan took me to the airport. We had more than an hour to spare, and I knew it was now or never. All week, they had told me about their experiences and beliefs. Their generosity of spirit had deeply humbled me, and I wanted to reciprocate. I had sidestepped any discussions about my own life, but now it was time to ante up.

“I’m not in the Church,” I said. “I left some time ago. For many years, I was angry about what the Church was not—how it failed to live up to its promise, both doctrinally and in practice.”

I had difficulty explaining these subtleties in my rusty Spanish, but I pressed on. “Although I was ashamed, even on my mission, at how we manipulated and pressured people into joining the Church, I was even more upset by the bigotry I saw in Church doctrine.”

I went on to tell my friends about a seminal experience I had early in my mission, where I sat in the home of a wonderful black man. We had just finished telling him that he would not be able to hold the priesthood because of his lineage. With tears in his eyes, he said, “I don’t know what I did to offend God, but if you will let me join the Church, I promise I will repent for the rest of my life.”

After the discussion ended and we were walking home, I turned to my companion. “Elder,” I said bitterly, “this is wrong. That man is more righteous than the two of us put together, and yet now he thinks God is angry at him.”

“It’s a true principle,” said my companion.

“No,” I barked. “It’s a policy. And it’s wrong.”

Six months after my mission, they changed the “principle,” but not before I was required to teach this lie to hundreds of people. It made me ill. Many years later, Spencer Kimball’s son revealed that his father admitted even then that it was a policy and that it was wrong.[53]

I looked at my two friends in the airport. “Over time, I saw many examples of bigotry in the Church. The way we treated females. The poor. The uneducated. Those not American. Everyone, it seemed, was a suspect class, except people like me: rich, white, educated, American men. We ran the Church and would likely run it for the foreseeable future. It was a boys’ club.”

My friends listened, but they were confused. I spoke frankly about the tepid progress the Church had made in battling bigotry. There were no Latino apostles, even though Latinos made up more than half of the membership of the Church. I do not believe in affirmative action, but the complete lack of Latino leadership in the Church at the general level meant great numbers of members would have to trust that their “gringo brothers” (Carlos’s words) would care for them. It was condescending. The apostles these men were such good friends with, I pointed out, considered them underlings. I reminded Juan of his experiences as a regional representative and told Carlos that it was unlikely he would ever be called as a Seventy, as I knew he desired.

“They’re not overtly racist,” I said, seeing the hurt in both men’s eyes. “But they were raised in an isolated culture. Many of the Church leaders cannot count a single person of color as a friend growing up, and so they are simply uncomfortable with the differences and prefer instead to deal with what and who they know. You’re their little brown brothers,” I said. “They will not willingly allow you into the highest echelons of Church leadership. And that is a total violation of 2 Nephi 26:33,” which I then quoted from memory:

[A]nd he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.

I told them how angry bigotry made me—how the Church accepted their service and tithes, but excluded them from its leadership councils. I did not see progress—I saw retrenchment.

My friends were shocked. They knew little of white culture or its odd subset, Utah LDS culture. “I was one of those angry guys on the back row of Gospel Doctrine class,” I said. “Well, you don’t see them here. If they’re angry here, they stay home. But tradition is hard to break. After all, where does one go after Mormonism? How can you leave the Church that taught you who you are? So I stayed semi-active for many years, frustrated, and spiritually dying.”

“But your spirit is whole,” said Carlos. “I saw how you were touched in Church on Sunday.”

“Yes, the Spirit touched me,” I replied. “It often does. But it also warns me of error, and I see much of that in the Church. But when I pointed out such errors, I was shunned. Mormons don’t want to hear how they are failing; they want to be congratulated on their successes. So I finally stopped going.”

I then told my two brothers how I’d discovered some interesting truths about the spirit world, where we spend our time between our lives on earth—yes, about reincarnation, wisdom that had richly resonated in my soul and released me from the hurt I felt about the betrayal of the promise of Mormonism. I came to realize that my native religion is a step on a stairway, not a destination. Yet it is such a large step that it sometimes seems like a destination. It is not, and if you explore it completely, it will reveal its boundaries.

“I think I have found the next step,” I said. “That’s why I came back—to share it with you.”

Their defenses immediately shot up. Instead of hearing out my belief that the plan of salvation was still largely true, they keyed in on the doctrines I had discarded as unbelievable and faith-demoting. I used Noah’s Ark as an example. I maintained that it was a metaphor for the principle of obedience. They said it was an actual boat, and Noah indeed placed two of every kind of animal in it. I scoffed. They were offended. What about the Garden of Eden? they asked. “Metaphor,” I replied. “Unless you deny the fossil record.”

“And Jesus Christ?” asked Carlos indignantly, eyes narrowed.

“Complex,” I said. “An unexcelled teacher who was likely a bodhisattva sent to guide the world to the next spiritual plane. Did he die for my sins? Why should he? How could he? Am I not suffering for my sins? And if I repent, isn’t it the person I’ve offended who is empowered to give me absolution, the way I hope you’ll forgive me for offending you tonight?” I smiled, trying to alleviate some of the tension of the last few minutes.

“If you repent,” said Carlos with a trace of a smile.

“But you must repent,” said Juan sternly.

“I have,” I said. “I repented of being Mormon.”

They looked at me with sadness in their eyes.


My flight left soon thereafter, and we parted with the customary abrazo, but my heart was heavy. I had failed to share my beliefs in a way my friends could understand. I had focused too much on doctrine and too little on the joy my new beliefs had given me. I had failed to help them see that I knew I was going in the right direction when the Spirit took my anger from me, a sure sign that I had not so much left the Church, but was heading toward greater light and knowledge.

I had asked them to read a couple of books, which they flatly refused to do. I had challenged them to study all of Church history, not just the homogenized version found in its manuals. They had declined, saying the Church had counseled against heeding “discordant voices.” I had begged them to consider whether God, being perfect, would condemn even one of his children to an eternity without his presence (D&C 76:112). They shrugged. “But if they reject God . . .”

“But forever?” I said.

“God loves His obedient children more than those who disobey Him,” said Carlos flatly.

Thirty-four years ago, these two men had opened their hearts to truth. Why not now?

Because they are not looking for truth anymore—they have found it, and their search is over.

But the greater truth was that my Latin friends were still muy católico, as we missionaries described hide-bound investigators who would not budge from tradition. Indeed, the very term “Catholic” connotes a comprehensive, unwavering belief system.

Mormonism has also become muy católico, a sort of Rubik’s Cube with its own enticing internal logic which resolves many traditional Christian doctrinal failings: child baptism, the Trinity, heaven and hell.

But while Mormonism improves on its older siblings in a myriad of ways, it still finds itself in the same doctrinal cul-de-sac: The Fall of Man, the Hebrews’ chosen status, the atonement of Christ, the final judgment, the same rutted sin-punishment road. The same limited God.

I had made a mistake. When my friends told me about their spiritual travails, I thought they might be open to questioning the core doctrines that had set them up for such difficulties. A parent-child relationship will remain intact unless the child grows up. So long as we see other mortals as our parents/leaders, we will remain children/followers.

Except that was not what Jesus had in mind. At the Last Supper, he calmed his disciples’ fears about his imminent demise by promising them the Holy Ghost, which would teach them “all things” (John 14:26). With God himself whispering in your ear, what need have you of mortal guides?

The truth was that even though my friends were graying at the temples, they were still children, still followers, Mormons who treated Thomas Monson with the same kind of adulation early Mormons felt for Joseph Smith. Those who have not fully realized that they can rely on the guidance of the Holy Ghost look to mortal leaders instead, and I cannot help but believe this grieves God.

Obedience, whether it is to a spiritual leader holding the keys to the Kingdom, or to the soldier with the gun, is ostensibly the same: an act of self-preservation and a shortcut to peace, though not to peace of mind. “You want religion, do you?” asks Satan in the temple endowment. “I shall have ministers here shortly.”


On my midnight flight home, as my mind wound down toward sleep, perspective slowly returned. I mentally thumbed through the memory snapshots of the last week: the much-improved standard of living, the generosity of spirit my long-lost friends had shown me, and the love they daily showed each other.

Were they still seeking greater light and truth? Of course. No one can be active in the Church without realizing the imperative of self-improvement. Were they on the right path? Of course they were—they were on the exact path God had designed for them, precisely where they were supposed to be; and they would remain on that path until the time was right for change.

We grow where we’re planted.

I certainly had. Born in mid-twentieth century America, I was gifted with a sense of spiritual possibility, which begged the question: What are my responsibilities?

To learn, then to share. Thirty-four years ago, I shared what I had learned with people in a country thousands of miles from my own. Many of them heard something in my words that encouraged them to ask questions and then change their lives according to the answers they received. What a miracle, that young missionaries, so alien in background from their listeners, could effect such changes! I was filled with emotion at the inarguable evidence that God had used us to deliver further light and truth to His children.

So what if it wasn’t ultimate truth? It was next-level truth, designed to draw each of us closer to the next step on our journey. So what if the changes I saw then—and still see—were incremental? So what if change takes longer than we want it to? Didn’t I say that God was patient?

So I thank God for patiently waiting for us to accept the changes he presents us with. For the pagan world, the change was the monotheism of Abraham. For the Jews in Jesus’ time, it was his astonishing Logos. For the confused Catholics I baptized, it was Mormonism.

For Mormons, it is . . .


More than a distant land

Over a shining sea

More than a hungry child

More like another time

Born of a million years

More than a million years



[51] All lyrics from “Only a Dream” in Rio by James Taylor © 1985 Country Road Music.

[52] Mission Presidents’ Seminar, June 1975, quoted in Ezra Taft Benson, “President Kimball’s Vision of Missionary Work,” Ensign, July 1985, 6.

[53] Edward L. Kimball, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” BYU Studies 47, no. 2 (2008), 4–78.