I’m sitting on a stand in a stake center in Boston, Massachusetts. It’s October 22nd, and I’ve flown all the way across this country to speak at a conference. Elder Grant Bennett stood up and gave a great talk. Following Elder Bennett and a beautiful musical number, Sister Laurie Low stood up to introduce the next speaker. She described a man who had been around the world and lived a very interesting and challenging life.
His name was James Curran, known to most people as “James The Mormon.” Laurie talked about all of the things that James had accomplished in the short span of the last couple years. A guy like that might stand up and think he’s pretty sweet after an introduction like that. But when he stood up to speak, it was nothing of the sort. In a very humble and emotional tone, he talked about a life full of challenges and hardship. A life in which he’s had to overcome roadblocks resulting in sadness, loneliness, and ridicule. He’s very transparent about the challenges he’s gone through. He’s not trying to put up a front. He does this because he honestly wants to help others that might be in a similar situation. I could feel in his words that everything he’s done, and everything he’s doing, has been out of a desire to continue to be a missionary for the church that he loves so much. That’s real. I could feel it. It felt a lot like Alma was standing at that pulpit saying, “Yea, and from that time even until now, I have labored without ceasing, that I might bring souls unto repentance; that I might bring them to taste of the exceeding joy of which I did taste…” (Alma 36:24)
As James closed his remarks, it was now my turn to speak. I stood up after him, we swapped out our laptops, and I began my remarks. During my talk, I took a minute to explain that at one point about a year and a half ago, I almost decided to stop writing on my blog because of what seemed like overwhelming negativity. Throughout my life, I hadn’t ever really encountered people that were capable of being so mean. Even on my mission, people were civil, albeit sometimes annoyed. But when I wrote my testimony online… it was as if the jaws of hell opened up against me. I couldn’t believe that there were that many people who cared whether I believed the Book of Mormon to be true or not.
I have to be honest… the negativity online almost consumed me. It affected every aspect of my life. People told me that I shouldn’t let it bother me, and that I should just ignore it, but that is easier said than done. What I found most interesting was that it wasn’t the critics of the church that hurt me the most. It was when active members, people whom I would consider my brothers and sisters felt the need to exert their negativity. That… above all else caused me to question what I was doing more than anything else. I’m no Joseph Smith, but I remember feeling for him when he said that if what he was doing was “of no value to my friends, it is of no value to me.” (See Essentials in Church History, p. 374.)
Eventually, my talk came to a close and I began to make my way back to my seat on the stand. As I was sitting down, James reached out, leaned over, shook my hand emphatically, and said “Thank you so much.” He began to explain that over the last few weeks, the negativity he’s received has been almost too much for him to bear. When you put your heart and soul into something, and believe you’re doing a good thing, only to have people rip you to shreds, it can get really exhausting. I know that.
As the meeting came to a close, James and I remained sitting on the stand while people were mingling around the chapel. I felt as if this very short conversation was divinely orchestrated. In that moment, I was able to quickly share with him what I felt about the work he’s doing. I shared with James that I believed that what he was doing right now was his calling in life, and that he was foreordained to reach people that never would have been reached through conventional ways. His calling doesn’t need to be formal. It doesn’t need a name tag or a title. All it is… and all it ever needs to be is him using his passion and gift to bless others by reaching into the four corners of this earth to find those that need the gospel message in their life right now. What James is doing is the epitome of member missionary work, and as unconventional as it may seem to people, it has been very effective. The best member missionaries don’t try to be someone they’re not. They use their unique gifts to open doors that only they could open. If everyone tried to fit the same Mormon mold… then there would be so many people out there that would never be touched by the gospel.
It’s important to consider that what may seem unorthodox to us today might have been the Lord’s plan all along. James “the Mormon” rapping about the restoration, might be the modern day equivalent of Abraham “the Mormon” giving astronomy lessons to the Egyptians. (see Abr 3, and no… I’m not calling James the Mormon a prophet) Each style of teaching is a little unorthodox, but each opened doors that weren’t previously there. Each are catalysts for building common ground and gospel susceptibility. What’s to criticize?
Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin once said, “I often wonder why some feel they must be critical of others. It gets in their blood, I suppose, and it becomes so natural they often don’t even think about it. They seem to criticize everyone—the way Sister Jones leads the music, the way Brother Smith teaches a lesson or plants his garden.”
Just this last Sunday, my wife and I went to visit an 85 year old widow in our ward by the name of Barbara Boman. We shared with her the experience we had in Boston and related to her James Curran’s story of sharing the gospel through rap. She obviously doesn’t listen to rap. She had no idea who he was… but she was intrigued by this “rapping Mormon.” We talked about the many ways that each of us can individually share the gospel in our own quirky ways. This conversation prompted her to tell us about a couple of sister missionaries who recently came to visit her. She explained that these sisters played a video for her about “Some young lady covered in tattoos” whom Barbara, after watching the video described as “having a wonderful testimony.” At the time, Barbara (85 years old) also had no idea who Al Fox Carraway was. Barbara doesn’t have a Facebook or Instagram account. But Barbara is smart and she can see how the Lord works in the most interesting and effective of ways.
So Barbara Boman, this 85 year old stalwart, not having Facebook or any way to send a message to James or Al, said to me… “If you have any way to get a hold of them (The rapper guy and this tattooed Mormon) will you please let them know that they have been chosen and prepared to live in this day, and given a special mission to help many people that would have otherwise not been reached.”
Barbara continued by saying that “These people… this tattooed convert and this rapper guy can reach people that there is no way an old lady like myself could reach. They can reach people that not even the missionaries can reach.” People that might be initially turned off or intimidated by a couple of clean cut FBI looking missionaries knocking on their door might be softened and receptive to their message because they watched James the Mormon rap about the restoration or listened to a sincere New Yorker covered in tats bear her authentic testimony on Facebook a few days earlier. These are the types of member missionaries we need in the church. People who just get out there and be themselves. People who exude the gospel message. And people that aren’t afraid to say that the gospel of Jesus Christ is cool! Because it is.
I think what Barbara is trying to say to all of us at her advanced age… is to never waste another moment allowing the negativity of others or the fear of rejection keep you from being the light on the hill that you were always meant to be. In whatever small way, just do what you’ve been feeling the spirit leading you to do and share that gospel message to the world in your own quirky way. The Lord will love you for it. The missionaries will love you for it. And the generations you effect through your beaming testimony will love you for it as well!