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. BC

    Many atheists actually have blinding faith is in their own wisdom and intellect, and that of so-called experts. They stick to it like dogma. In a sense they have become their own God.

    November 9, 2010 at 1:13 pm |
  2. Andy

    No, I didn't read all 500+ comments..

    A few comments:
    Serving in the Paris, France mission doesn't mean that you serve only in Paris. All LDS missions are geographically defined areas usually named after the major city within them. The Baltimore Maryland mission, for example, extends to the PA line and into parts of WV. Missionaries serve in practically all areas within the mission. Some areas may be determined to be unsafe and therefore prohibited and there are often areas that Elders will be sent into but Sister Missionaries will not be, for obvious reasons. It is also untrue that missionaries are prohibited from reading works from other religions, etc. I've some some missionaries to even attend other religions services, often in a "I'll attend yours if you attend mine" exchange.

    I am LDS, but did not grow up LDS or even in a religious home; I was agnostic at best. I studied Mormonism on my own and, after displaying some faith, had that faith answered with proof. But yeah, that first step of faith was a very difficult thing to do. Like many posters here I did not understand faith at all, thought it was weird, and for the weak-minded. I now know differently, but even so, I know that that won't convince anyone.

    It's one of the catch-22s. God *requires* faith before He'll prove his presence. You'll never receive proof that God exists until you first display faith that He does and even then, it will be a personal proof, not something you can "scientifically" share with someone else. So, those who refuse to display faith will never receive proof that God lives and those of us who have displayed that faith, have proof, but not in a way that we can share in an irrefutable way.

    I also have to take exception to the "brainwashing" comments. The LDS church holds the principle of Free Agency, getting to choose for yourself, very dear. Every member is encouraged to study, ponder, and pray for themselves about what is taught. Before my son was baptized at the age of 8, I spoke to him to ensure that *he* was sure he wanted to get baptized, and for the right reasons. If he hadn't been ready, he would have had my fully support. Brainwashing couldn't be farther from the truth.

    November 9, 2010 at 1:12 pm |
  3. vp

    C U L T

    November 9, 2010 at 1:10 pm |
  4. David

    I'm a rather spiritual person, not religious mind you. After my time with "the church", I find it hard to believe that any child that would "chooses" to go on these types of missions isn't pressured by their family and community to partake. Those that think that this doesn't happen are just kidding themselves. And no, Mormon's are not Christians, no matter what they say. They have too many different ideas and thoughts on god and heaven. And Christians....most you see today, unfortunately, the ones you see on the news and newspapers, portrayed as intolerant and letting their religious views influence their political choices, are unfortunately the majority. As far as I can see, their chruch is in a huge need of a wake up call. More and more young people have become disenfranchised with Christianity because of hypocrisy and the fact that msot don't want to be your friend, but convert you so that they feel good. Christians nowadays, as one christian church put up on a roadside sign, are jerks.

    With Elizabeth, I'm glad she's okay, but I see her going on this 'mission" to be doing more harm than good. Her psyche is obviously harmed, and letting her delve deeper into religion so soon after her kidnapping is not only irresponsible, but is also ridiculous. I'd never wish this only any child when they are so vulnerable.

    November 9, 2010 at 1:10 pm |
  5. Snowclone

    I have been home from my mission to Peru for just over 10 years. It was awesome. Yes, I knocked on a lot of doors. I had great conversations with people of all faiths. Some times people didn't open the door. Only a handful of times was the door slammed in my face. But many times we were greeted with humble, happy people who loved God. Did I miss the Superbowl? Yeah, but my friends told me about it in letters that made my day. Did I miss a whole bunch of movies? Of course, but can you imagine going to blockbuster after being away for two years and half the store being a new release?

    I respect the beliefs of others. I have also attended church (mennonite, catholic, ukranian orthodox, lutheran, etc.) with my friends of other faiths. As a youth, during our sunday school hour, we would often attend meetings of other faiths in order to gain a greater appreciation of the thier faith. There are a lot of great people out there.

    I feel that I have drawn sufficent strength from my journies in life, and that of others I have seen, to feel pretty unshakeable in my love for Jesus Christ and a devotion to his gospel. No one can take that from me. I don't know Ms. Smart, and this was the first I had heard that she was out serving a mission. Pretty darn inspirational if you ask me.

    November 9, 2010 at 1:09 pm |
  6. Thad

    This is, by far, the most balanced press article I have seen about Mormons, where the author doesn't seem to be advocating for or against them, but just reporting "what is."

    It seems like Ms. Smart was equipped with something that made her strong enough to endure that ordeal, and still be able to focused and productive with her adult life. Her parents must have done SOMETHING right.

    Kudos to them and her!

    November 9, 2010 at 1:08 pm |
  7. Alex

    What an informative article! There's so much I still don't know about the LDS church. Even though I'm not a religious person, I still find their history, beliefs, and customs to be fascinating.

    November 9, 2010 at 1:07 pm |
    • Kimbooly

      Hi Alex. Thanks for your comments. Anytime you have any questions, mormon.org is a great place to go because they have a "live chat" button at the top right of the page where you can ask anything you want with complete anonymity. There's no pressure to join, but you can appease your curiosity about the mormons. : )

      November 11, 2010 at 3:26 am |
  8. Greg

    LOL mormonism freakin amazing its like really elizbeth smart. i loved dave chappelles take on her.

    November 9, 2010 at 1:06 pm |
  9. David

    To Fenris:

    All missionaries only teach in nice neighbourhoods?

    Tell that to my friend currently serving in the Congo, where he has already been witness to people being burned alive. Nice neighbourhood, indeed.

    November 9, 2010 at 1:05 pm |
    • John Pack Lambert

      I had my bike stolen on my mission. It was locked up and we had gone in to see some other missionaries for a short time, and when we came out the lock was cut and the bike was gone. No where I serve was quite like those places in Congo, but some of the areas I was in were anything but "nice". The same can be said for some places missionaries in Detroit serve. A few years ago some missionaries there went to court because they had been witnesses to a drive-by shooting.

      November 13, 2010 at 3:53 am |
  10. ronjon

    Stephen Hawking is the poster child for the me,me crowd. God by definition is non understandable and guess what, Stephen doesn't understand God either. That must be frustrating for him. If you understood God that would make you just a little smarter than him. Faith comes from experience and practicing praying. If you put no effort into faith you will not have any.

    November 9, 2010 at 1:03 pm |
  11. bb5

    I am LDS and I'm also someone who used to be a devote atheist. I simply couldn't get past the same arguments I have read here today; believing in God is the same as believing in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Choosing to believe is truly an intellectual leap. Do some poeple choose to use their faith as a crutch? There's no doubt that they do, just as much as some people who are Atheist choose to use their lack of faith the same way. I admire anyone who chooses to see beyond themselves when faced with lifes many challenges. Elizabeth Smart made a choice to not let this horrific experience scar her for life, and her belief in a higher power has helped her deal with this pain. Why do so many of you who believe differently feel justified in attacking her and her faith and all of the other faiths in the world? Its absolutely baffeling to hear such disdainful remarks simply because someone believes differently.

    November 9, 2010 at 1:02 pm |
  12. jan

    Elizabeth, you are a courageous and inspirational young woman. Good luck to you and thank you for having the courage to use your personal faith to rise above your horrific experiences.

    November 9, 2010 at 1:02 pm |
  13. Craig

    Joseph Smith famously said that he faulted nobody who disbelieved his story, and that he wouldn't have believed it himself had it not happened to him. Arguments about faith are silly because you can't know somebody else's experience.

    Smith also once said that the gospel net catches all sorts of fish. Would you judge a hospital based on how sick its patients are?

    November 9, 2010 at 1:01 pm |
  14. AV Dave

    Hm. This young woman comes through an ordeal that would leave most people blithering idiots rocking in a corner, relatively unscathed and sane....and some people discount the value of her faith.

    Let's see...faith and sanity; doubt and insanity. I'll bet on the "Smart" money.

    November 9, 2010 at 1:01 pm |
  15. Davis

    How can you know what happiness is, if you don't know sadness? There is a God, and He created men and women and put his here to have our faith and obedience tested. We have been created so that we might have joy, which we won't understand what joy truly is, unless we understand sadness.

    November 9, 2010 at 1:00 pm |
  16. unafiliated

    I find it comical and at the same time disturbing that this article purports to provide "a glimpse into" Smart's life as an LDS missionary and then starts this glimpse with the oppressive: "She’s been cut off from television, barred from seeing movies and prohibited from following the news."

    I'm an atheist now, but in my youth, I was a missionary for the LDS church. I still consider it the happiest time of my life. I learned Spanish and worked among people with dirt floors and no plumbing or electricity, trying to bring a ray of hope into their lives. I worked at it, morning noon and night 6 days a week, with one day having free time 'til 5PM. I was constantly exhausted from the work. I walked everywhere, talking to any who would listen, tried always to be respectful of other faiths, never tearing down, but only building up. I struggled with the language at first, but it came eventually. I worked really hard at it. I met people that, for the most part, where warm and friendly. I didn't have time to watch TV, go out to the movies, or follow the news. That's a laugh. Prohibited? Uh, yes... technically... in the same way you are "prohibited" from watching TV at your place of work. I didn't own a TV or have time to watch it. I don't think any of the towns I lived in had a movie theater.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:59 pm |
  17. Catherine

    Wow. From one weird cult to another. And this whole thing about being brought up to say "I hope I'm chosen for a mission" sounds so much like what Islamic terrorists pray for. Religion preys on the sheep of the world, and always will.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
  18. Kenady

    Most of you all are a bunch of dumb asterisks!
    Who cares if you agree, disagree, believe or don't, served a mission or didn't, have one or twenty wives. This is an article about a girl who has survived and thrived in spite of a terrible segment of her life and the subsequent celebrity she had to endure. And how being cutoff from stuff we see as essential (i.e. computers, tv, news) might have helped.
    So keep all your Christian/Mormon/atheist/enlightened and ignorant comments to yourself, and just give the girl a virtual High Five for finding something that helps her cope.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:57 pm |
    • CL


      November 10, 2010 at 11:28 am |
  19. Roadhunter

    @Codwpned, you obviously don't understand faith. You say "While I have faith in man to be good and just when its important, I base this off of observations I've had during my 35 years of living." The fact that you base your views on observations you've had over 35 years means you believe in science and statistics. Faith is believe something which you have zero evidence exists.
    This poor girl was raised by a cult, which made her quite susceptible to this man's influences. Now, she's returned to her original cult. At least she'll get a nice bicycle out of the deal. You can get your own at http://www.ctrbikes.com/

    November 9, 2010 at 12:57 pm |
  20. Fred

    You know, I always say that there are so many religions in the world that believe different things and still have lots of followers...still are very successful. Yet some of hundreds if not thouosands have very different doctrins. Mormons, Jehovah Witness, Budists, Adi Dam followers, the list can go on and on. What I find interesting is that the leaders or founders of so many of these religions have detailed accounts of how God appeared to them or spoke to them, but these accounts are very different...THEY CAN'T ALL BE RIGHT. Yet they all say the same thing...there's is the right way. I am a christian, and I do believe in Christ. But I believe that God has looked at mankind, His creation for all time and knows we could never reach His standard...never be right enough on our own to stand before Him, we could never reach God in our own strength. Just looking around and seeing how we are as mankind confirms that in my heart, how we treat each other. That's why I believe God came to us in love through the person of Jesus. But when he hung on the cross, he spoke profound words...IT IS FINISHED, or ACCOMPLISHED. Why then...I mean why do all these religions need to come up with more added things, Tablets, Books, Things that only certain men can interpret, Joseph Smith, Charles Russel, Adi DA, The Pope, John Rutheford, The list goes on and on. It Was Finished...theres was never any need for anything else to be instated. God came to us, why are we still bent on thinking we can add more things to get to God.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:57 pm |
    • Dennis

      Um, I don't know why any Christian would try to bash other Christians, especially using your logic.

      "It" is finished, meaning Christ's mission on earth. Why would God love us enough to give us further guidance in a world with so much uncertainty? Why would God feel it necessary to make prophets write about the gospel of Jesus Christ before AND after he came when Christian doctrine is so easily understood by every Christian? Why would a devil appear to others like God and try and set up alternate versions that kept us from the truth? Yeah, I think all of this is a possibility. The question is, which prophets claiming to have visions really did? How can we know? Well, I guess you can look in the scriptures for some guidance: "Surely the Lord God will do nothing but he revealeth his secrets unto his servants, the prophets." "Ask, and ye shall receive." I guess God won't do anything without prophets, and the only way to know if one is true is to ASK God.

      God bless you, fellow follower of Christ, in your search for truth.

      November 9, 2010 at 1:43 pm |
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