Elizabeth Smart's other journey
November 8th, 2010
08:05 PM ET

Elizabeth Smart's other journey

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN

In a courtroom in Utah this week, Elizabeth Smart revisited the darkest  days of her life's journey. But her testimony came during a short break from a spiritual journey - one that has shielded her from reminders of her abduction, the nine-month ordeal and the attention that's followed her.

For more than a year, Smart, who recently turned 23, has been in the midst of her LDS Church mission, a rite of passage hallowed by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Serving in Paris, France, she is among the 52,000 Mormon missionaries - most of them young adults; the others retired couples - who are knocking on doors and speaking 107 different languages in 180 countries, according to Lyman Kirkland, a church spokesman.

Those overseeing Smart’s mission didn’t return a call to CNN to discuss her missionary work. But if her time in the field is typical, here’s a glimpse into how she’s been living.

She’s been cut off from television, barred from seeing movies and prohibited from following the news. The only music she hears is church-approved. She wakes at 6:30 a.m. everyday to study the gospel by herself and with another young woman missionary known as her companion.

Barring the one day a week when she and her companion can do laundry, run errands, write letters home and, time permitting, go sightseeing, Smart’s days are spent with her Book of Mormon in hand, reaching out to strangers and teaching those who will listen.

Sharing the LDS Church doctrine, and being of service to people they meet along the way, is a cornerstone of Mormonism. By teaching the gospel and baptizing others, the homegrown U.S. religion has grown to about 14 million members worldwide since it was founded 1830, Kirkland says.

Joseph Smith Jr. established the Christian church after translating the Book of Mormon from golden plates that he said the angel Moroni revealed to him in New York State. In its first year, 16 missionaries were called to serve the fledgling faith, church records show.

From an early age, Mormon children are taught to sing “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission.” To be called on a mission is considered the greatest of honors.

Starting at 19, young men (referred to as elders) may be called to serve two-year missions. Young women (sisters), starting at 21, serve for 18 months. And wherever they go, they travel in same-sex pairs.

A missionary does not choose where he or she will serve.

The would-be missionary completes an application, which is then sent with other materials to LDS Church headquarters by that missionary’s stake president. A stake is sort of like a diocese; it’s the church body that oversees a group of LDS Church congregations, referred to as wards.

At LDS Church headquarters, members of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles pray for divine inspiration before making mission assignments. In April of this year, Ronald Rasband, a general authority in the church, spoke about once witnessing the process when he addressed Mormons at a semiannual conference.

On one large computer screen, photographs of would-be missionaries appeared, he said. Another screen showed areas of the world where the LDS Church has missions. Before doing anything, the apostle knelt in prayer. He would envision where the missionary might go and study medical records, comments from the stake presidents and bishops, and any other materials submitted.

“Finally, as he was prompted by the Spirit, he would assign the missionary to his or her field of labor,” Rasband said. “This general method is typical each week as Apostles of the Lord assign scores of missionaries to serve throughout the world.”

The young adult finds out where he or she is going in a “mission call letter.” The call could take a missionary to places as various as Bolivia, Uganda or Kentucky.

Smart received her mission call letter, which sent her to Paris, France, in September 2009, according to the church-owned newspaper Deseret News.

Standing before family and friends, as most soon-to-be missionaries do, Smart opened her call letter, her father Ed Smart told the newspaper.

“She starts screaming and we’re wondering, ‘Where is it?’ And then she starts reading it,” the paper reported him saying. “We’re thrilled. It couldn’t be better. … It’s away from all this. Some of the celebrity type issues won’t be there. We couldn’t be happier for her.”

The newspaper also reported that during her captivity Smart was forced to write in a diary each night, and  at the bottom of each page she would write messages in French that her captors couldn't read.

Last fall's competency hearing for the man accused of abducting Smart, Brian David Mitchell, was scheduled to allow her testimony in court before she began her mission. She returned temporarily from her mission to testify further in Mitchell's federal trial on charges of  kidnapping and taking a minor across state lines for sex.

Before leaving for their destinations, missionaries report to one of the church’s missionary training centers. There they engage in spiritual study and, depending on where they’ll be traveling, intensive language classes for up to eight weeks.

New arrivals, dressed to proselytize in suits or modest skirts and always wearing name badges, are partnered up with companions who are further along in their missions. Under the guidance of mission presidents, stationed in the field, these young Latter-day Saints set out to serve.

The mission presidents and their wives act as surrogate parents to the missionaries, and local LDS Church families look out for them, too, often hosting them for meals.

Smart, like other missionaries, has in many respects been cut off from the wider world. A typical missionary is only allowed two calls home a year - on Mother’s Day and Christmas Day. In extenuating circumstances, perhaps like Smart's, exceptions are made. The church could not verify how much phone contact she’s had with her family.

But the odds are she has not followed the ins-and-outs leading up to Mitchell’s trial. Her commitment is elsewhere.


- CNN Writer/Producer

Filed under: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints • Courts • France • Mormonism • Utah

soundoff (1,111 Responses)
  1. Rita from pa

    She has suffered more than I can understand. God Bless her and be with her the rest of her life!

    November 9, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
  2. Jayson

    I love the correction police.

    This is much like listening to two nerds talk about superman vs batman. Arguing over points which really don't matter.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
  3. bfly

    What struck me as funny was the last part of the article where it said exceptions were made in reference to telephone conversations with her parents. I thought through out the entire article that exceptions were made for her. It said that the priest prays to God for direction to send the missionaries. I'm sure it was Mr. Smart intervening with some money as well. Money talks...therefore that is how I believe she was sent to Paris. She already knew the language....hello. It bothers me when priest in churches say they pray to God for certain things, when a lot of times it is the influence of money that gives them their answers.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
    • Dennis

      The Mormon church has a lay clergy – that means no one is paid, so your argument's a bit weak.

      Also, yes, she already spoke French. Wow, consider the possibility that God actually wanted to send her to a country where she already spoke the language and would have loved to go. Of course, that would mean God was a loving God.

      November 9, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
  4. Noonespecial

    This is nothing but religious dribble. There is about two sentences with real meaning and the rest is an advertisement for the LDS church. It can't even be called an editorial. What a ridiculous piece of rubbish.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:55 pm |
  5. CS

    I am a Mormon and proud of the fact that, like most members of my church who serve missions, I tested my faith and had a personal conversion before applying for missionary service. Mormon missionaries present a relatively simple message regarding the Book of Mormon, families and God’s plan. They encourage individuals to read the Book of Mormon and pray regarding its truthfulness. I followed this process and personally received an answer to my prayer. My experience as a missionary in Korea was similar. I shared the message and those who were open minded enough to read the Book of Mormon and pray about its truthfulness received a similar answer (admittedly some were surprised by the answer).

    My mission was one of the defining experiences of my life. I was immersed in an incredible culture, made numerous friends (many who were not interested in my message), worked in orphanages, taught English and volunteered in various capacities in addition to proselyting. I learned sacrifice, discipline, how to work hard, how to handle rejection, life skills, etc. The benefits were enormous, at the same time, I doubt I would have had the capacity to fulfill the assignment and live my faith today if not for the very personal answer to my prayer.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:55 pm |
  6. Janet

    So she's out of one prison and into another. The church is controlling what she can do, where she can go, what music she can listen to, whom she can see, etc. How is this different from what she went through before? Of yea, she's supposed to acquiesce to a male superior. Wait, she went through that before, too. Um, so how is this different?

    November 9, 2010 at 12:54 pm |
    • CL

      The church isn't controlling what she can do. She is in complete control. She is doing what she chose to do. This is the difference. You can't see it because you have blinded yourself.

      November 10, 2010 at 11:27 am |
  7. Bryan

    Ok, I'm a Mormon and there has been little accurate truth about out beliefs on this comment board. We aren't Omish, we aren't a cult, we love good movies, we listen to Jay-Z, we drive cars, we go to college, we have normal jobs. Yeah we don't drink or smoke and we give a couple of years for missionary service. We think we are Christians, as we believe in Christ and his divinity as Savior. We also read the scriptures critically and have a major academic approach to bible (and in addition to our bible beliefs, we approach the Book of Mormon on the same academic path). We wear trendy clothes, we travel to other countries, we play sports, and we love all kinds of different food. We are the most mainstream relegionists you will find.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:54 pm |
    • CS

      As full disclosure, I too am Mormon and get frustrated by the sterotypes. I recently discovered some interesting video profiles of Mormons at http://www.mormon.org/people/ that I believe shed interesting light on Mormons. The profiles don't have a religious message but are simple stories of Mormons from various walks of life from a professional skateboarder to a Harley Davidson Motorcycle designer.

      November 9, 2010 at 1:01 pm |
  8. drew toonz

    Poor girl went from one slave driver to the next

    November 9, 2010 at 12:54 pm |
  9. Lily

    People have said "I don't understand faith". That's fine. But don't condem what you don't understand.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
    • Lily

      I meant – don't condemn (please excuse my spelling)

      November 9, 2010 at 12:53 pm |
  10. Sherri

    However Elizabeth Smart survived, she obviously has a strong belief in her faith. Just because I question my religion doesn't mean I question my faith in something bigger than myself. I have seen with my own eyes miracles that could not be explained by scientists; I have watched as they dismissed it as chance. If people want to believe, let them be. How exactly does their belief harm you, at least here in the US? It is only when people force their beliefs upon me, do I object strenuously. If Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, or the local evangelists come visiting, I either don't answer the door or I tell them politely I'm not interested. I do the same with my atheist friends who question my beliefs. My father taught me long ago that my personal beliefs are my own.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:51 pm |
  11. cynthia

    ugh...Mormons are NOT Christians, no matter what they read. Notice they tote the Book of Mormon, not the Bible. What a shame that people mistake them for followers of Christ, instead of what they are...followers of Joseph Smith.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:51 pm |
    • CL

      Look closer. They carry the Bible as well as the Book of Mormon.

      November 10, 2010 at 11:25 am |
    • Se7en

      i like to carry the "Quad" with me, In which the bible and Book Of Mormon are side by side.

      November 12, 2010 at 1:43 pm |
  12. Steve

    Everyone has faith in something.
    We all "know " that air is around us though no one can see it.
    Some believe that the universe created itself from nothing. As a scientist, I have never seen anything create itself.
    So, in my opinion an atheist must have more faith than I have. For I believe that a powerful being created everything.
    Nothing created everything from nothing does not make good sense.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:51 pm |
  13. adam

    So what do you think is worse, the brainwashing Mitchell fed her, or the brainwashing LDS feeds her?

    November 9, 2010 at 12:51 pm |
    • Dave

      Both brainwashing is equally as bad. I have a freind who has become a "Born Again" Christian. All I can say it has been tragic watching her mentally being taken over. She is living in a fantasy world of literal Christianity. It has been devastating to her family and friends. She believes we " the unbelievers" will perish but we the people who cared about her have been praying for her return to reality and mental sanity. Her born again Chrisitanity has destroyed her family.

      November 9, 2010 at 1:09 pm |
  14. Dave

    It's so sad that this woman is being brain washed and indoctrinated like this. This is mental abuse pure and simple. When will humans grow up, educate themselves and realize that Christianity is a man made myth, including this LDS BS. 99.9% of Christians know next to nothing about their religion or how it came to be. That doesn't mean their isn't some kind of Creator but that Christianity is completely man made BS.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:50 pm |
  15. magnus

    To have faith, you must believe in things unseen. You must believe that there is a spiritual world as real as our physical one. If you believe in something in something larger than yourself, which is the beginning of true wisdom, you will experience true faith.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:49 pm |
  16. Duwayne Anderson

    My nephew just returned from a mission to the DC area. He seemed pretty familiar with world/national news. He told me all about the evils of Obamacare and how Obama is a socialist and leading America to ruin.

    So it looks like Mormon missionaries *do* get the news - it's just the propagandized version that comes filtered through the church's right-wing leaders.

    I should know. I "served" a mission for the LDS church from 1974-1976 in British Columbia, Canada. I'm no longer affiliated with the church, though; I'm a scientist and a Democrat.

    Duwayne Anderson
    Author of "Farewell to Eden: Coming to terms with Mormonism and science"

    November 9, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
  17. leslie

    This is an incredible sad story.. she prolly knows what hell feels like going through everything she has went through. with the mission topic ... she is out getting to experience life in so many ways which is a good thing .. b ut the sad thing ... she is cut off from anyone and everything! thats exactly what happened when she was abducted ... she was taken from her family, life, everything she new.. WHY IN THE WORLD would her family want her gone away from them again. That is the only thing that bothers me about this article... I couldnt imagine sending my daughter thousdanceS of miles away after having her abducted..no way .. just doesnt make sense.. BUT SHE SURVIVED IT AND IS AN AMZING YOUNG WOMAN!!

    November 9, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
    • CL

      What makes you think she was cut off from anyone. She chose to leave her family for a short time but is not cut off. In fact, most missions require that a weekly letter is written home. You need to educate yourself better.

      November 10, 2010 at 11:23 am |
  18. toddger

    I find it sad that she has lived a bizarre existance in her "abducted life" only to be thrust into a situation where she is now being reprogrammed with Mormon ritual and thinking. I guess that is better than what she had before. But it is just a cleaned up, prettier version of her previous existance.

    Indoctrinate, Obey, Control. Same as it ever was.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:46 pm |
  19. Ant928

    Not for nothing but some guy "praying" to the "Spirit" waits for the "Spirit" to tell him when to send this girl and others. These missionairies trusting this unseen thing to throw them somewhere...church approved music only...annoying people to talk about the unseen things...and try to get THEM to believe in the unseen thing...

    ....and the guy who kidnapped her is nuts? Hmmmm....pot and kettle people.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:45 pm |
  20. uisignorant

    She is such a beautiful lady.
    I as so happy she did not get pregnant.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:45 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.