Editor’s note: This piece is part two in a series, “Biking with the Mormons.” If you missed the first article, you can find it here.
There’s not much that slows Richard Christiansen’s flow once he starts on the topic of religion. He’s a natural salesman, speaking with a rapid panache and self-assurance.
“Tell me about Genesis 3:16,” he says to Sister Pearson and Sister Webb, who are leaning on their respective handlebars. “Get your Bible out.”
We’ve only just met Christiansen. Pearson had complimented his patterned, short sleeve button-up as we cycled up behind him near a stoplight not far from Covington City Hall. He immediately offered to sell the shirt and later joked that he worried the biking ladies were delinquents who planned to throw slushies at him.
With that initial confusion now quelled, it becomes clear that Christiansen is no secular slouch.
The area real estate broker quizzes the sisters about Bible scripture, Satan, Adam and Eve and God’s kingdom. He explains to the ladies, who are now each armed with mini New Testaments, that there are three things that people don’t like to talk about — the three natural things in life: politics, religion and sex.
“What you are doing is not natural,” Christiansen says. “It’s very hard for a person to go out and do missionary work. Very, very hard. Because people are afraid of the message that you have.”
I’m learning a lot from Christiansen as he talks. Not about religion itself, but about the zeal some people have for discussing spirituality with complete strangers. He says he’s spoken to with many Mormons, Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses on the topic. He relishes it. Corruption and greed are everywhere and the further you get away from God’s spirit, the worse it gets, he says.
He’s a metaphysical machine. And, I assume, very close to his own Higher Power.
“Oh no,” Christiansen says. “I’m gone… I’m greedy for money, I’m greedy for toys; I’ve got motorcycles. I want to go to Arizona, I want to retire.”
“That’s OK,” Pearson responds gently.
“Do you believe people can change?” Webb asks.
“Oh, of course people can change,” Christiansen says. “I can’t change. I’m beyond saving.”
“Think about how Jesus went fishing with people,” Christiansen continues. “He was out there walking on water and said, ‘put your net over here.’ And then, wooh, filled it up. He had a net. To get me, you’d have to have a long line. You gotta go down deep. And then, you might not find me down there.”
The conversation continues for more than 20 minutes and the three agree on only a few concepts. The main one — that Jesus and God are separate beings — inspires a high five from Pearson. Even though Christiansen may be “beyond saving” he admires the heck out of the sisters’ confidence and conviction.
“Everybody knows you are either going to be a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness because nobody else has the backbone, guts or belief to do what you are doing,” he says. “The courage you have is phenomenal. You’re out there. You’re the leader of the pack. Keep up the good work.”
My original stated goal for riding along with a pair of Mormon missionaries was to see the reaction from the community at-large.
Are the sisters heckled? Ridiculed? Met with interest?
With few exceptions, during my day as part of the bicycle train, Sister Mikayla Pearson and Sister Savannah Webb were met with general common courtesy and at least benign interest.
As we made our way northeast, person-by-person, through the center of Covington, I noticed the familiar drill of small talk with everyone they encountered: “Where are you going?” … “Where are you from?” … “Where do you work?” … “What do you like to do?”
The conversation then shifts to more pointed questions: “Are you familiar with any Bible stories?” … “If you lived in the time of Noah, would you get on the arc?”
That leads to suggestions: “… one way to find out is through prayer. Follow someone you trust — God.” … “…You should check out this super cool website, Mormon.org…”
It’s not that the sisters aren’t sincere about their questions and interest in people’s lives. To me, it just also seems they are trying to gauge the best way to integrate the teachings and importance of Jesus and the Book of Mormon into the conversation.
“We are not here to tell anyone that they are wrong,” Pearson told me. “But just to build off the faith that they already have.”
The sisters get new planners for storing phone numbers, addresses and email addresses of strangers every six weeks. Pearson said she’d collected hundreds of names and numbers since she started her mission 10 months ago, estimating five to 10 phone numbers each week. Pearson and Webb were far more successful than that with Brother Mandel taking notes in the caboose. Over a period of six hours, the pair handed out at least a dozen Mormon-related informational cards and pamphlets and jotted a combined eight new phone numbers into their contact books. Some of those people may never show interest again, but the sisters will certainly try. Even if, as Pearson told me, the number of converts isn’t the most important part of a mission.
In her mind, passing someone up, and thereby denying them the opportunity to learn about the LDS faith, is the biggest sin. It’s more about eternal life than reaching any baptism quota.
“Everyone, to us, is our brothers and our sisters and we want to help,” she said. “Talking to people, even if they don’t like us at the moment, from an eternal perspective, we’re are going to be glad we went up to them. I can’t imagine going up to live with God and then (have there) be people coming up to me (saying), like, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’”
We just finished chatting with the lady who holds the “SLOW” sign in front of a construction zone. This wasn’t their first conversation, but could be one of their last, since the roadwork is coming to a conclusion. The sisters attempted to set up a home visit with the peppy laborer, who gushed over their “beautiful smiles.” They will come by tomorrow to finalize a time.
Webb is now taking the lead in the discussion with a young guy wearing earbuds and carrying a backpack. At first, I couldn’t tell if Caleb Iness, a 23-year-old who recently moved to Covington from Olympia, was just being nice and courteous enough to talk with some friendly ladies. But his authenticity about the cause is now readily apparent.
Iness says he majored in theology and is religious. He has a strong faith in Jesus Christ and prays often.
“I had to pray for some people at my work today,” he tells the sisters. “You’re supposed to pray for your enemies, kind of thing. Love those who persecute you. It can be a little hard sometimes but it is good practice to have.”
Iness says he has a good relationship with God, though, he acknowledges that “it can always be better.” Webb sees the obvious opening and goes in for the kill. Or, salvation, I suppose. She pulls out her contact book and gets Iness’ address and phone number. They set up an appointment for 6 p.m. Friday to discuss the gospel from the Book of Mormon. Iness is open to hearing what the sisters have to say.
“It’s always a growing process,” he says.
Beyond spreading the word of Joseph Smith (who I once inadvertently referred to as John Smith), the Sisters also offer their services to help. To anyone. The overtures have led to some sometimes inappropriate and crude conversations.
“We volunteer to do service for people and they will take it down the wrong path,” Pearson said. “…So we say, ‘Kay. Bye.’”
But even the perverted and manipulative can’t bring these two down.
“Even if they are super rude to me, I’ll love them no matter what,” Webb said.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t trying moments.
Pearson still has trouble visiting one neighborhood that left her crying on a stranger’s porch, after a woman holding a crying baby followed her and her companion to another house and berated them for “selling Jesus.”
“It was so embarrassing because we were still talking to the other lady on her front porch,” Pearson said. “…You’re just not used to people talking to you that way. I’ve always been someone that — I was nice to people and people were nice to me. But, whatever.”
The hatred seems to stem from, at least partially, a fissure between the teachings of Mormonism, and whether its people should be considered Christians. Members of the LDS Church regard themselves as Christians, teaching that Jesus is the son of God and the savior. However, Mormons differ significantly from other forms of the faith, especially with their belief in a modern day prophet. They also believe the authority and pureness of Jesus’ church and his doctrine were lost, with changes being made to the original teachings during the time after the original Apostles’ deaths. Joseph Smith eventually restored the gospel of Jesus back to earth, they say.
“There’s a lot of Christian people that don’t like us,” Pearson said. “They don’t think we’re Christian. But they don’t understand, because we have the nickname Mormon. But Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is all revolved around Jesus Christ and I think that’s just a hard thing for people to understand. Christian faith uses the Bible and we don’t call them Bibles.”
Webb tries to remember that, even in rudeness, everyone is “brothers and sisters of God,” which, when thought of in those terms, makes it easier to love everyone. Still, the mission has been an emotional roller coaster, with days of homesickness and rejection intertwined with genuine happiness.
“I just didn’t think people could be so mean,” she said.
But the sisters do anything but dwell on pessimism. Where I tend to see luck or chance, they sing about miracles.
Webb recounted the biggest miracle on the mission thus far: convincing a woman who obviously didn’t want to speak with her to open up about her troubles.
Apparently, Webb and Pearson didn’t feel like biking that day, but persuaded themselves to anyway. Webb described wobbling along on her bike as the woman speed-walked away. Webb managed to sneak in one query: “If you could ask God one question, what would it be?”
The lady’s response: “Why me?”
After a few words of encouragement, the woman stopped. She explained how her nephew had killed her mom, dad, sister and sister’s fiancée, before stabbing her 13 times. The question was really: “Why me? Why did I live?” It provoked tears and descriptions about rehab and the battle to regain custody of her children and life. The woman had no phone number and the sisters never found her again. But it was enough.
“She needed us that day,” Webb said. “…Sometimes you just know when you are talking to someone that you were placed in their path just to talk to them, to help them that day.”
Webb tries a similar tactic with a 26-year-old Arby’s employee we meet at a bus stop. They discuss the $15 minimum wage and his ex-girlfriend before Webb asks, “What would be the one question you would ask God?”
After a moment, the man responds, “For a loan?”
The sisters laugh but prod for more. He caves with the question: “Why?” The bus arrives before either could pass him a Mormon.org card that, they know, could provide answers.
“There was promise in him, I think,” Pearson says.
“We’ll have to remember to go to lunch at Arby’s,” Webb adds.
I ask the sisters if following the guy to his place of work might seem a little stalker-ish. The idea seems to catch them slightly by surprise.
“Some people might,” Pearson says.
“I don’t think he would,” Webb adds.
I start to understand their logic: why would a persistent, positive attitude ever be considered sinister? It’s a slightly different wavelength than I’m used to, but one I am learning to appreciate.
About five hours into our ride, we stop by the home of Brother Steve Wierlo, who fell from a ladder while cleaning his gutters three weeks earlier. The clean-cut, middle-aged man suffered a broken nose, badly injured wrists and fractures in his kneecap and eye socket. Doctors inserted dozens of screws, staples and stitches, a plate and cadaver bone. We found him watering the plants in his front yard without any casts and reporting almost no pain. He explained to the sisters that a priesthood blessing prior to his operation made all the difference.
“Realistically, I should be in casts,” he says. “…I’m gonna be playing golf in a few more weeks. That’s what I told my doctor.”
It’s a remarkable recovery. One that I would generally attribute to Wierlo being a quick healer who has taken proper care of his body over the years (thanks, at least in part, to the Word of Wisdom) and lots of luck. But that kind of rationale isn’t in the ever-optimistic sister’s thought process.
“Miracles happen!” Webb says. “That’s what I’m talking about.”
As we ride away from the house, we talk about our dreams and goals. The sisters are curious about how I hope my future plays out. No matter what I say, it always seems to make them happy and excited about life. The positivity is contagious. I wonder why everyone isn’t so … Pffffffffff.
My front tire pops. The rubber flattens against the road, producing a pathetic melody of thuds.
“There goes that,” I say, as my 8-ball-shaped tire valve rolls onto the pavement. “This may be the end.”
The sisters laugh and never lose their enthusiasm. There are too many other things left to do to end now. It’s only 3:45 p.m. We still have a dinner to attend.
“We can just walk with the bikes,” Pearson says.
Pick up next week’s paper for the conclusion of Mandel’s adventure with the Mormons.