The Saints Go Marching In

By Lauren Wilcox
Sunday, May 13, 2007

AS MISSIONARIES FOR THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS IN SOUTHEAST WASHINGTON, Eric Severson and Jed Nielsen have learned a lot about opening doors. On an overcast afternoon in late summer, they are standing outside an apartment complex in Anacostia trying to deliver a DVD about the Mormon church to a woman who has requested it but is not answering her buzzer. Severson pulls out his cellphone and calls the number she provided: no answer. "Try our key," Nielsen says to Severson. Severson pulls out his key ring and locates the key to the building the missionaries have been living in the past few months, a brick complex not far away, off Alabama Avenue. "Our key works in so many doors around here," he says, jiggling it in the lock.

Severson, 20, who is from Bentonville, Ark., and Nielsen, also 20, who is from Riverton, Utah, are white. Except for its missionaries, the membership of their congregation -- known as a ward -- is about 10 percent African and 90 percent African American. This is not unusual for a church serving these neighborhoods, which are predominantly African American, but it is a remarkable development for the Mormon church, which barred blacks from full membership in the church until 1978. Now the church is working in neighborhoods such as this one to try to open doors that, for most of the church's history, it had kept shut.

Assigned to the greater Washington area for the duration of their two-year stint, Severson and Nielsen are serving in Southeast Washington and part of Maryland. As neighborhoods go, the missionaries say, these are rewarding places to proselytize. "I've been in a lot of places," Severson says, "and people in this area tend to have a pretty good perspective on God's place in their lives." Compared with other D.C. and Maryland neighborhoods, they say, here they don't spend much time approaching people on the street or knocking, uninvited, on doors, generally considered the least productive use of missionary time. Instead, they can easily fill their daylight hours by responding in person to requests for informational videos titled "Finding Faith in Christ," which are advertised on local television stations, and by holding Scripture study sessions with those who are interested in joining.

Not everyone is interested, of course; the missionaries spend a lot of time talking through closed doors and showing up for missed appointments, and a day's work may include only one or two promising encounters, if any.

Severson's key doesn't work in the complex's door, but the woman they have been trying to reach finally answers her buzzer, and the missionaries climb the stairs.

"This is a DVD about the life of Jesus Christ, told through the words of someone who was close to Christ," Severson says, handing it to her. The church, which is based on the teachings of Jesus, as well as those of a man named Joseph Smith who lived in Upstate New York in the early 1800s, emphasizes its roots in Christian theology. "This is an awesome DVD."

"Okay," the woman says.

"It's 29 minutes long," Severson says.

"Okay," the woman says, and they both laugh a little awkwardly.

Nielsen pulls his Book of Mormon from his backpack. "Are you familiar with the Book of Mormon?" he asks. "No?" He reads a verse by a prophet called Moroni, in which Moroni promises readers that God will reveal the truth to them, "by the power of the Holy Ghost."

"What do you think that means?" Severson asks the woman.

"A lot comes from the Holy Ghost," she says. "He'll tell you what to believe."

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