Imperfect, But Still Useful: Reflections on the Film God’s Army, and on My Own Missionary Service in Light of It
By Ken K. Gourdin
Author’s Note – For more of my reflections on my missionary service, see Ken K. Gourdin (February 1993) “We Did It,” New Era 9, available at: https://www.lds.org/new-era/1993/02/we-did-it?lang=eng last accessed on June 1, 2014.
Notwithstanding its maker having turned away from the faith, I have always loved Richard Dutcher’s saga of Mormon missionary life, God’s Army. It reassured me that someone else knows that while missions, contrary to what we hear at so many mission farewells and in the Missionary Training Center (MTC), are not all “sweetness and light,” neither are they all “dullness and drudgery.” (I recognize the purpose of such spiritually charged meetings and locales: if we told missionaries the unvarnished truth about missions in either case, the world’s missions would practically be bereft of personnel.) The raison d’etre of the tremendous “spiritual charge” of the MTC is that without it, there’s no way that the vast majority of missionaries would complete their full term of service.
By way of comparison, I recognize the difference between the Church production Labor of Love and God’s Army, respectively. Each has its place: the latter is intended to put forth the “high points” of missionary service, while the latter is devoted to showing experiences that run the gamut of missionary life–the good, the bad, and the ugly. While I recognize the difference between the two, I love them both because each fulfills its distinctive purpose so well.
What of the varying levels of “success” among missionaries? Such productions as God’s Army do much to put that issue into perspective, I think. In terms of sheer numbers, Mormon’s son, Moroni, wasn’t a very good missionary. He tried exhorting a totally apostate nation to faithfulness, but was unsuccessful. In light of that, there were only three things he could do: (1) save his own skin; (2) preserve and abridge the records in his possession for the benefit of future generations; and (3) stand as a silent witness to the tragic downfall of his people.
I’ve always been somewhat ambivalent about my mission in many ways, chiefly because I, in my puniness, had never felt equal to the massive mantle that I, as a missionary, had had placed upon my shoulders. God’s Army was the first treatment of missionary work I ever experienced that made me exclaim to myself, “Finally! Somebody gets it!” Someone finally stared the fact that missions aren’t all sweetness and light in the face and said, “So what? That’s OK. There’s still value in the valiant-if-imperfect efforts of valiant-if-imperfect people to spread the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ – if nothing else, to stand as witnesses, just as Moroni did.”
Not every door is going to be swung wide open by someone waiting with open arms and an open mind and an open heart. Not even everyone who gains a testimony of what the missionaries teach them is going to have the courage and commitment necessary to follow through on that knowledge (at least, not immediately upon gaining it: never say “Never”). There will be a lot of slammed doors, closed minds, and closed hearts. There’s where that pesky, annoying free will comes in: even if we were to exercise our moral agency in a vastly different way than someone we would seek to have the Holy Spirit influence chooses to do, Christ died for that person’s ability to make that choice—no matter how much we wish he would make a different one. It’s a missionary’s job to bring people to Christ, hopefully by leading them into the waters of baptism and into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—but if not, then at least as far as they are willing to come.
Often when we read Doctrine and Covenants 18, we tend to overemphasize the “how great shall be your joy if ye shall bring many souls unto me” clause and to conclude, based on the sheer numbers alone, whether someone “failed” in his missionary efforts. Perhaps we should emphasize the “if ye should labor all your days and should bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the Kingdom of My Father” clause far more than we do.
Speaking generally, there is no question that “success” varies widely from mission to mission and even from missionary to missionary. We would do well always to remember, as we sometimes inordinately seem to focus on numbers, that behind every number is a name, and behind every name is a person—a real, live, flesh-and-blood human being with a perspective, and fears, and pesky, annoying free will, and perhaps prejudices, all his own.
As the very senior Elder Dalton (Richard Dutcher) reminded his “young tadpole” of a companion, Elder Allen (Matthew A. Brown), only the Holy Spirit could convert: his job was to facilitate communication with it, and, by doing so, hopefully bring people to Christ by helping them to enter into the waters of baptism. Or, failing that, perhaps to plant seeds that would germinate at some future time into a tree bearing the fullness of the fruit of the love of God. Did Moroni feel like a failure because, rather than accepting his witness and turning from their wicked ways, his apostate nation degenerated even further into iniquity and depravity? Perhaps. But how many millions of souls have been brought unto Jesus Christ thanks to his then-unsung efforts to bring forth The Book of Mormon?
In a similar vein, I wrote the following as a missionary regarding my feelings on the purpose of missionary work:
OCEANSIDE, CALIF. – My purpose as a missionary is to bring souls unto Christ, however that may be done. To touch hearts, minds, souls, and lives, and to bring them [by the Spirit] as close as possible to Christ.
As I lead, some may only desire to come so close to Him; not as close as they could be or should be, but the greatest gift we have been given is the ability to choose. That is their choice.
Still others will desire to come as close to Him as they can, in which case I will be privileged to teach them His plan, lead them through the gate of baptism into His Church, and give them the gift of His Spirit to guide them along the path to Him.
But no matter who else, if anyone, I bring to Christ. I must know and I must travel the road to Him myself if indeed am to lead others to Him: “For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the [souls of] the whole world and [yet] lose his own soul? [Of course, Christ taught His Apostles that “He that saveth his life shall lose it, and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” What I was alluding to here is that it is possible for missionaries to get so caught up in the “numbers” that they lose their perspective – their desire to do the work and to quest after obedience—their “soul,” if you will, if the “numbers” don’t match the effort they put forth.]
If indeed I am rejected by any and all, if I nonetheless fulfill my Missionary Commission, then they who reject me would reject Him, were [H]e to visit them. So did they reject Him when He came to preach His gospel and save them from the very sin they were committing in so doing.
I pray that I may fulfill the measure of my calling to his service. [Footnote omitted.]1
I also like this, from Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:
[S]ome of our most important plans cannot be brought to pass without the agency and actions of others. A missionary cannot baptize five persons this month without the agency and action of five other persons. A missionary can plan and work and do all within his or her power, but the desired result will depend upon the additional agency and action of others.
Consequently, a missionary’s goals ought to be based upon the missionary’s personal agency and action, not upon the agency or action of others.2
Later, I reflected:
OCEANSIDE, CALIF. – As I have contemplated my purpose as a missionary [as] stated herein, I have pondered what I would say if someone were to ask me, “What kind of a missionary are you?”
My answer would likely be something like this: “I am not as faithful, dedicated, and obedient as I could, should, and want to be. My faults are many, my virtues few. I pray the Lord’s mercy, that he will overlook the former and magnify the latter. I pray for his strength, that I may faithfully dedicate myself in obedience to His will, for this is His work and His glory.
“I thank him that despite my weaknesses, He has seen fit to use me as an instrument in His hands to bless the lives of these my brothers and sisters with His gospel.” [Footnote omitted.]3
My brother, Thomas, testified at my missionary farewell that he felt I wouldn’t see my missionary service as a sacrifice: I would see it as a privilege; and I did. While I couldn’t necessarily identify with the sacrifices made by the characters in the film, that does not mean that I didn’t encounter several missionaries who laid aside (or forewent altogether) other opportunities in order to be able to serve a mission. I appreciated the faithfulness inherent in the sacrifices portrayed by several of the characters, such as Sister Fronk’s (Jacque Gray) sacrifice of a marriage relationship in order to gain a testimony and serve a mission, and Elder Dalton’s sacrifice of a medical career to do the latter.
One of the characters with whom I relate strongest in the film isn’t a missionary, but rather a convert: Benjamin “Benny” Yao (Doug Stewart). Like Benny did at the beginning of the film, I walk with a pair of forearm crutches. And while my “healing” experience wasn’t as dramatic as Benny’s after Elders Dalton and Allen administered to him in the name of the Savior and by the power of the Melchizedek Priesthood, I was the beneficiary of a similar experience in the MTC.
PROVO, UTAH – I must bear record of what has been far and away my greatest spiritual experience in the MTC thus far.
A few days ago it snowed here in Provo. Because of my condition [Cerebral Palsy] my legs tend to cram really badly with extended use in extreme weather. I prayed for my condition to improve, but gradually, it worsened over the next two days until I was literally clenching my teeth with every step.
As I lay in bed that night, unable to sleep because of the pain, the Spirit told me, Ken, have your companions give you a blessing. I thought of every argument I could to discourage it: they were asleep and I didn’t want to wake them; they would be embarrassed; I would be embarrassed; they wouldn’t know how . . . But still the Spirit persisted. I did not obey. Nonetheless, I was able to get to sleep – eventually. I was convinced things would be better in the morning. I was wrong. They only got worse. [Although] I was suffering from a condition which is chronic – recurrent – It had never, ever gotten this severe.
By the end of morning class . . . I could no longer stand it. I took all the elders in the class out into the hall and explained the situation to them. I was hoping one of them would suggest a blessing [because] I didn’t want to. Neither [they nor I suggested it.]
One of the instructors [finally] suggested it, took all of the elders into the room, and explained procedures for administration. [After he did so], Elder Kenison anointed me, and then all of the elders [lay] their hands upon my head with [my companion] Elder Bodrero acting as voice. The sisters were present as well.
At that moment, the Spirit which I had rejected the night before entered the room and filled it – filled it with Peace, Love, Healing Power, and Forgiveness. And when I arose from that chair, I was healed! I know that this was in reality a miracle. I know that it was though the power of faith, and the power and authority of the Priesthood that this was so. And I will never again doubt the promptings of the Spirit. [Footnote omitted.]4
On another occasion, I, along with my companion, played the role of conduits in another such precious experience. A young mother had come to church with her toddler daughter, who had a condition similar to mine, with neurological and musculoskeletal components. Her daughter was in obvious distress, and mom asked my companion and me to administer to her. We were simply conduits, witnesses more than participants; as sure as I am that the Lord loves and looks after His missionaries, I know that this is truer by orders of magnitude of others of His Sheep, such as that wee ewe lamb and her mother sheep. The former was writhing and crying in pain, which ceased almost the moment we laid our hands on her head: not only could we see her relax, but the reaction was palpable – as was the Spirit on this occasion, as well.
I wasn’t a big fan of President Beecroft (John Pentecost) at the beginning of the film: his first encounter in his office with Elder Allen struck me as the type of approach my first mission president would have taken with a missionary (and frankly, I wasn’t a fan of my first mission president, either). Why, I wondered, did he feel it necessary to take such a seemingly-harsh approach with the exceedingly “green” Elder Allen? Fortunately, just when I had determined that there was no way President Beecroft could redeem himself of my dislike, following Elder Dalton’s untimely passing as the elders are preparing to put the casket containing his earthly remains onto a plane for the trip home, President Beecroft gave that stirring impromptu, ad hoc assurance concerning the reality of the resurrection and of how Elder Dalton had given his earthly life in the service of our Heavenly Father, finding his eternal life in the process—and how his missionaries (and, by extension, all who labor in God’s service) were and are doing the same.
I also appreciated his assurance that the Lord still could work through those missionaries, notwithstanding their imperfections. It makes me feel as though there might even be hope for me on that score in the various roles I have fulfilled (albeit imperfectly) in the Church. (As much as our personalities might not have “meshed,” I’m willing to give my first mission president the benefit of a doubt similar to the one I gave President Beecroft. After all, the latter is merely a fictional character.)
Bottom line? I was not perfect then, and I’m not perfect now. I know that no matter what I do, I will still be one of the “unprofitable servants” of whom King Benjamin spoke. My efforts often are inadequate, my weaknesses many, and my virtues few. Like Nephi, “my heart groaneth because of my sins”; but, also like Nephi, “I know in whom I have trusted.” And I know, as Moroni taught, that there are moments, few and fleeting though they may be, in which, by the grace of God, I am “perfect in Christ,” and that, as I do what Nephi taught and “press forward with a steadfastness in Christ and a love of God and of all men,” one day, I will have Eternal Life.
- Ken K. Gourdin (2003) My Story: Lots of Good, Some Bad, and a Little Ugly in the First 32 Years 108-109. Collierville, Tenn.: Instantpublisher.com (hereinafter My Story.
- Elder Dallin H. Oaks (October 2003) “Timing,” accessed on line at the following address on August 4, 2016: https://www.lds.org/ensign/2003/10/timing?lang=eng.
- My Story 109-110.
- My Story 165-166.
Update, June 2, 2014: A Brief Thought on the Follow-up to God’s Army, God’s Army 2: States of Grace – Warning: Here Be Spoilers. If you’ve never seen it and are thinking you might want to do so, you might want to come back after you do. The film tells the story of the intersection of the lives of Elders Farrell (Lucas Fleischer) and Lozano (Ignacio Serrichio); their neighbor, Holly (Rachel Emmers); Louis, a homeless, alcoholic street preacher – in this case, perhaps the appellation “beach preacher” would be more appropriate – (Jo-sei Ikeda); a gangster and unlikely Mormon, convert, Carl (Lamont Stephens); Carl’s younger brother, Todd (Allah Chapman); and their grandmother, Mae (J.J. Boone).
Lozano and Farrell are caught in the crossfire of a gang shooting, and Lozano ends up saving Carl by bandaging his wounds, and the Elders end up teaching him the Gospel as promulgated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The missionaries break with protocol by hosting Louis, whom they find on the beach in a drunken stupor, in their apartment and asking Holly to check in on him while they’re out proselyting.
Holly later bares her soul to Ferrell, leading them to foster a closer relationship than missionary rules allow (missionaries are expected to devote their total time and attention to church duties during their terms of service, forsaking such pursuits as dating – let alone not engaging in nonmarital intimate relationships). Ferrell tells Holly that there is nothing she has done for which God will not forgive her. Lozano wakes early one morning to find Ferrell absent, later realizing that he and Holly had paired off. Distraught that this breach of mission protocol will lead to his being sent home in dishonor, Ferrell attempts suicide.
I wrote the following today about the film on Mormon Dialogue & Discussion:
I had resisted (re-)watching God’s Army 2: States of Grace because of the differences in tone between it and its predecessor. There’s more sex (granted, it’s just implied) and violence in the latter than in the former, so perhaps it wasn’t appropriate for Sunday-night viewing (or, some would argue, for viewing period). Holly showing up during the manger scene and holding Elder Farrell’s hand before he holds the Baby Jesus strikes me as more than a bit of dramatic license. Had I been the mission president, I would have given Elder Farrell an armed guard to keep them apart. 😉 Then I thought, “Well, that ship already has sailed; perhaps the thinking is that, well, the ‘damage’ already has been done on that score.”) I still like the original the best, but I have to admit that the themes of sin, of repentance, and of redemption through Christ’s Atonement are powerfully portrayed. A couple of my favorite lines:
Elder Lozano, when he and Elder Farrell are debating giving Louis shelter in their apartment: “Are we going to keep the rules, or are we going to keep the commandments?”
Holly to Elder Farrell (aka “Scott”; I mean, if you’re gonna do The Old Hippity-Dippity with someone, you’d better be on a first-name basis with him or her, right? Sorry) when the latter is in the hospital following his suicide attempt: “You don’t have to die for your sins, Scott. I think somebody already did that.”
And of course, the manger scene is powerful. More dramatic license, because if I’m a new mom, I ain’t lettin’ strangers hold my child, much less pass him or her around (if you look at the credits, Baby Jesus was played by a goyl), but, still powerful.