8 december 2018 – leiden, the netherlands

The book of mormon

It rained lightly in the Breestraat. The main shopping concourse in Leiden was already getting less crowded at the start of this dark winter evening between Saint Nicholas and Christmas.

I pulled the hood of my blue jacket more snugly around my head to ward off the chilly and moist air as I paced briskly in the direction of my bicycle.

My eyes were quickly scanning the crowds as I moved along the street when they briefly met the eyes of a woman moving in the opposite direction. My gaze had moved on before my brain had even registered the fact that she was looking right at me. Also she was quite pretty.

Before I could make the conscious decision to do so, my gaze flicked back to her and I looked at her more closely. Her open face and long blonde hair seemed unfamiliar and while pretty she seemed to be about 24, too young for me to waste any time chatting up on the street. So I looked past her again, focusing on getting to my bicycle.

Oddly enough, she had stopped walking and kept her eyes locked on me. I also noticed she had a friend with straight dark hair of about the same age in a khaki raincoat by her side. Take aback I stopped walking to try and determine why she was looking at me. She took that as an invitation and approached me, her friend one step behind her.

“Good evening, can I ask you something?” she asked me in Dutch with a thick American accent and giving me a radiant smile. Her tone sounded like the way Americans who have had a really intense course in Dutch but have not been among Dutch speakers much: good word knowledge and sentence structure but really terrible accent.

“Sure” I said in Dutch. She came standing right next to me on my left while her friend positioned herself on my right. “Have you heard of the Book of Mormon?” She asked me. I smiled widely. “Actually, yes. Not even two weeks ago I had two men visiting me at home and we spoke about it.” I responded earnestly.

The Rule of Two

Can somebody explain the conversion-sidekick rule to me? Is it like the Rule of Two among the Sith Lords? Is there always an apprentice and a master when doing conversion work on the street? With nearly no exceptions, I always meet two people, with one of them doing 95% of the talking and the other just mostly nodding or curtly answering questions. Even when you address them directly they keep answers short and wait for the main converter to pick up the conversation.

I almost always respond friendly to people trying who try to convert me on the street (or doing house-to-house conversions). Partly because most of them are friendly and well-mannered, partly because I like to talk about faith and religion. I especially like discovering what motivates people who are so religious they want to go door-to-door to try and convert people. Religion always baffled me as a kid. How could well-thinking people believe in something that everybody knew and could see was obviously not true? What were these people doing in their secret meetings in their closed-off churches? Why were these odd mannerisms like praying and visiting church on particular days so important to them?

I don’t ask such questions anymore. I understand why people believe and I understand why many of us are religious. But I am still very interested in hearing the stories of the more extremely religious. What does it mean to them? What did their religion cost them? How did they become to be religious?

In my experience many of them are ‘converts’: they have been non-believers and non-religious in the past. Most of them have quite dramatic life stories: they have figuratively hit rock-bottom before they accepted a Divine being or principle as their saviour.    
The Mormon man that I spoke to at home earlier was a convert as well and physics major to boot. A curious mix to say the least. But even physics majors need to feel their life has meaning and even hard-core scientists need a social support network. Religions tend to be good in providing those.

Additionally, nothing changes my own perspectives and beliefs more than speaking and getting to know people with really different beliefs and perspectives. I feel pretty confident in my own beliefs, but I know I have continually changed and updated them as I gained experience. Learning about other people’s perspectives gives me so much insight in my own beliefs and mannerisms. That is also why I love traveling.

In any case, the conversation with the blonde-haired girl on the rainy street was not as interesting as the earlier one with the physics major, partially because she was raised as a Mormon. I find that people being raised with a certain religion often try to confuse belief with truth, conflating them into one concept. Converts tend to do that a lot less: they know they have radically changed what they belief in the past and realize much better that belief is changeable.

The girl was gentle enough when I explained to her that believing something to be true and something being true are not the same thing and that the strength of belief is derived largely from the fact that its foundations are not based in truth. People can betray you, science can be wrong, but principles and an invisible and untouchable divine being cannot. They stays loyal to you as long as you believe in them.

Shortly after the belief vs. truth exchange, the girl was ready to move on. Although I was gently enough in explaining my point of view, such conversations tend to make religious people edgy. The odd combination of me acknowledging the positive power of belief while simultaneously stating that it can only have that power if it isn’t truth tends to make the uncomfortable.

In any case, she asked me if she could give me to Book of Mormon and held a silver-lettered and blue-covered copy up to me. The offering or passing on of a leaflet ot book also seems nearly universal to conversion-on-the-street. It almost seems to be the end goal of many of these conversations. I still don’t know why that is. None of the people I have talked to have managed to explain to me why this particular gesture is so important than anything else. Are people that are ‘conversion-ready’ really swayed by reading such a book or watching a pamphlet? Are some passages in those books really so impactful on the hungry spirit that they spontaneously start the seed of religious belief? Is there like a personal divine score counter running that increase by one as soon as you hand a non-believer a book or pamphlet? In any case, I thanked the girl for her offer but said no. I told her I prefered the more environmentally-friendly non-dead tree version if I wanted to read it.

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