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. Alvin

    And to address the originator of the post here, Frogist, again:

    Thank you for your in trying to learn more about the whys of LDS Missionary service. I do have to say that I did honorably serve my mission for the LDS church. However, I did not grow up LDS. I converted when I was almost 20. Therefore, I was not subjected to constant childhood "indoctrination" of "ya gotta go on a mission dude!!!" from tons of church leadership.

    I felt my call from within as I read the letters a missionary son wrote home to his parents who are some friends of mine who happened to be one generation older than me. This missionary son was not expecting his letters to be read by people other than his immediate family, so he just describes his love for the work and his love for his family who are supporting him during his mission.

    So, like most groups of people, the majority of the youth of the LDS church do work towards a goal of serving a mission, and their motivations are different, because they are all individuals. I'm glad that two such young men did so years ago and taught me the gospel that eventually allowed me to follow in their footsteps.

    I hope this helps answer some questions.


    November 10, 2010 at 10:44 am |
  2. KY

    I am a convert to the LDS church from KY. I met the missionaries in 1997. I grew up Baptist and attended a Catholic HS, never joining, however. First of all, I am glad to say that Jesus is the one who gets to decide who the Christians are. Secondly, the Gospel works. Don't knock it til you try it. Regardless of how you feel about the LDS church, it works. The Church grew from a few members 200 yrs ago to 14 million today.

    November 10, 2010 at 10:10 am |
  3. uboughtalie

    where is my post? am I being censored?

    November 10, 2010 at 10:09 am |
  4. uboughtalie

    A more accurate name would be the church of Joseph Smith of Latter day saints. While the Mormonism refers to "jesus" it is NOT the Jesus if Christianity. For example the Jesus of Christianity is the ONE AND ONLY SON of the ONE AND ONLY GOD. The "Jesus " of Mormonisn is the "BROTHER" of Satan born to a Sprirt mom and Spirit dad who live on the planet Kolob... (What????) Kolob is one of many planets in the universe where a moromon man, IF GOOD ENOUGH, becomes God (multiple gods...)?? and breeds with his wives (before polygamy was socially unacceptable) Now he only gets to breed spirit babies with one wife....(What?). Recently asked at the temple in SLC, Hey, whats up with the baptism of the dead? multiple different replies included the comment: " well, you could work really hard for a thousand years and get to heaven and find out you didnt make it (??). so we have to do it to save them." (agaiin..WHAT????) . The Jesus of Christianity is the only son of the only god. He saves us through his life, death and resurection on the Cross. Wonderful p[eople who believe they are serving the God of the bible are being lied to. Brother to Satan, spirit baby, heavenly mother, planet Kolob, what a crock. Lets not forget the underwear that protects you from sin. (what, what, what???)

    November 10, 2010 at 10:07 am |
  5. Wendy

    I'm a mother. I spent a span of 35 years teaching my children. I taught them that a good education would bless their future, I taught them that work is honorable, I taught them that service to others is a good choice, I taught them that building true and honest relationships would bring them happiness, I taught them about the God I know and have great faith in. I taught them because I had traveled the road that they would now travel. The road of choices. Life's road. The world taught my children also in schools, in media, in neighborhood activities, on the school buses, in the football locker rooms and everyday in some way and somewhere by someone. I am glad that I did not leave to them the legacy of not teaching them. They have a real choice now. I remember once hearing a parent say I will not teach my child about God but when he gets to be twenty he can choose for himself whether to believe iin God. What kind of a choice does he really have. To me that is like saying to my child, you figure everything out for yourself (Math, English, History, Dating, Work, Career, Sports, Relationships, Driving, Good Nutrition, Hygiene, Work, Organization) and when you are twenty you can choose what you believe. Is there a choice.
    "Teach Men Correct Principles and they will govern themselves" Don't teach correct principles and I doubt men can govern themselves. They will be chained by so many poor consequences that doubt, depression, despair may well be their lot.

    Bottom line.....if you believe something strongly share it so that others my choose for themselves. Be an example of what you believe and let your "fruit" determine the outcome of the choices you make.

    November 10, 2010 at 9:53 am |
  6. Laevum

    I served a mission to Seattle. It was a growing experience for me, it taught me things that I never knew about myself. I know that I would not be the same person I am today had I not gone. In reference to the story, I was "in the field" when Elizabeth was kidnapped and had the opportunity to be acquainted with a member of her extended family that was also in the field with me. I offered many prayers for her safety and for her family. I also prayed and thanked our Heavenly Father that she was able to be found alive and safe. I am so proud that she was able to rise above her experiences and choose to serve the Lord.

    November 10, 2010 at 5:55 am |
  7. Whatever

    Her life in her mission is about as bad as it was in captivity.
    Cut off from real world.

    November 10, 2010 at 3:07 am |
    • KS

      Of course the major distinction being that in one case she chose to be "cut off from the world" and in the other case she was kidnapped and forced into that situation. See the difference?

      November 10, 2010 at 4:14 pm |
  8. *KMellor

    Awesome story! Extremely well written by someone who obviously took the time to really understand the subject material. Well done! It's nice to see a reporter so articulately expounding on the positive aspects of this amazing girl's life, while so many other writers have stooped to sensationalizing the disturbing details of Miss Smart's terrifying abduction.

    November 10, 2010 at 2:48 am |
  9. Joe

    She was Dumb as hell!!! Any child who is raised proper know's to trust the Police!!! When that detective asked her if she was Elizabeth Smart and she didn't say anything!!!!! Sorry but you let this continue on. A part of me thinks you actually liked the situation you were in!!!!

    November 10, 2010 at 2:04 am |
    • Taylor

      Are you serious? She "liked" the position she was in? That makes me sad that you would think that. She was scared.
      When people, especially young ones, are frightened, oftentimes they really have no clue what to do.
      I HIGHLY doubt that she was happy where she was.

      November 10, 2010 at 3:07 am |
  10. Joe

    2 bullets.... Him and his wife!

    November 10, 2010 at 1:53 am |
  11. Doug Schrecengost

    Be careful not to become pulled into another freaky cult religion where people will take advantage of you. Don't be paranoid, but be careful. Lots of dishonest folks who will take advantage of any perceived weakness. I recommend you go to the University and study all subjects, then make up your mind about all things considered. Good you are free of that first horrible thing, don't get caught up in some other form of it!

    Seattle WA

    November 10, 2010 at 1:24 am |
  12. Marlli

    Jessica Ravitz did a great job with this column, as evidenced by the responses. Thanks, Jessica. I am thanking you on behalf of Elizabeth Smart and her family. Elizabeth's mission of taking the Gospel of Jesus Christ "unto all nations" continues, even while she endures the long-awaited trial. When she sees how many people have been touched by this article, it will help to heal more fully the wounds of her past. And it will help her return to her mission in Paris knowing that her example has helped lead others to know more about the Gospel.

    November 10, 2010 at 1:10 am |
  13. Angela

    I am so impressed with this young woman's active faith. As Scott and I lived in UT at the time of her abduction and her ultimate return, I am filled with a great reassurance that all tragedy can be overcome through consistent faith in Jesus Christ–in daily word and action. I was able to serve a mission like she curr...ently is and I will always be grateful for the blessing that continues to be in my life. This article gives a good overview into the basics of serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Elizabeth is an example of "pressing forward with a steadfastness in Jesus Christ" (Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 31:20).

    November 10, 2010 at 12:50 am |
  14. Emma

    I was happy to read that she was a Mormon, cause I know of the love and support she gets from the Church. I have met some great men that would come into our church as missionary and some I am still in contact with today . The Church has been nothing but a Blessing to me. There is nothing wrong with trying to live more like Jesus by loving people, caring for other, helping others not judging other. This is all the thing that Jesus did. If being a Mormon make me wrong then wrong I will be, My life has not been the same since joining the Church , If one would just take the time to listen to our Missionary they would see for then selves the goodness of the Church. I say these thing in the Name in the of Jesus Christ Amen

    November 9, 2010 at 11:46 pm |
  15. Bonnie

    I want to compliment the writer of the article, Jesica Ravitz, on her very accurate understanding and description of what Ms. Smart is doing. Ravitz did a fantastic job doing research and interpreting what she found. As a former missionary to France and an avid reader of news articles, I am impressed by the quality of this work. Well done Ms. Ravitz.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:27 pm |
  16. KS

    I am LDS and do you know what I would really like? The dignity of being able to take responsibility for my own choices and opinions. Many people offer me that dignity, but I get so tired of hearing that mormons are brainwashed, or that I only do/don't do something because that's how I was raised. I just want the benefit of the doubt that I have seriously considered the tenets of my religion, what I personally believe, and how I want to live my life.

    November 9, 2010 at 10:39 pm |
  17. just sayin

    First of all, I would like to say Thanks to "Frogist" for being brave enough to ask the question and intelligent enough to stick around. I wish the conversation had stayed polite. It was actually very interesting a few hours ago.
    I am a Mormon. I served a mission in Quebec several years ago. (best experience of my life!) I also do humanitarian work in Africa now... I will tell you, I learned a whole lot more about the country, culture and the people as a missionary than I have in 3 extended trips to Africa. I saw more news coverage, I heard from my family more, I felt "in touch" with the world around me while I was in Quebec. I didn't see it as a hardship, I saw it as a way to keep me focused on the task at hand.When I'm in Africa – I have NO IDEA what is going on outside that village... and honestly, I know it will be there when I get back. I enjoy the break.
    On a second point, all of the critical comments stating that I have been brainwashed just irritate me. I am an intelligent person. I am a college graduate. I am one of the "go to" people in my field of medicine. Telling me that I am a "moron" and "drinking the kool-aid" just because I believe differently than you just shows how truly bigoted you are. I'm not forcing my religion down your throat – I'm offering to share what has brought me joy. You don't like it, close the door. But, please, don't assume that I am just an automaton. Ask my friends – I am very much an independent thinker, and must prove it to myself (I've read the Bible cover to cover several times, The Book of Mormon as well as some "anit-mormon" literature). It works for me. It brings me happiness and hope. And I treasure that knowledge.
    When you try to paint the picture that "all Mormons" are effectually forced to go on missions or be disowned or denied college... you are painting a picture of all Mormons based on one family's experience. You cannot paint all Mormons with the same brush... none of us is perfect. Which is why we need a Savior. For my last point... the official name of the Church is "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" If we don't believe in Christ, why do we call it His church?

    November 9, 2010 at 9:47 pm |
  18. Thaddaeus

    Elizabeth Smart captures my interest because of her courage in the face of death. At 14 years, she was able to internalize her faith, secure tokens of her real life, write secret messages, say continuous prayers, believe in her Heavenly Father. These are abnormal acts in any time, but most certainly in this superficial culture of today.
    Now an adult, as a testimony to her faith, she goes on a mission trip to Europe, removed from her family. HELLO!
    I am not a Mormon, but I have read their "Triple" and talked to their missionaries extensively. I do not understand their theology, but definitely respect the power that binds them to their Creator God. She amazes me.

    November 9, 2010 at 8:12 pm |
  19. AJ

    Lumping all these diverse ideas together as "Christians" is such a misnomer!

    November 9, 2010 at 7:21 pm |
  20. B.

    I was born and raised a member of the LDS faith, and served an LDS mission. This article is 100% spot on. In fact, it's far and away the most accurate news article I have ever read on the missionary program, or on the LDS faith. Way to go!

    Also, I served in a Far-East mission, and I can tell you that the level to which you end up *respecting* the culture has little to do with you. It has everything to do with how much you grow with the people you serve. Still, if one were to bring our motivations into the picture, I'd like to clarify that our goal is never to "change" people or tell them that they are wrong. Our primary goal is to represent Jesus Christ and help people, even if that simply means carrying their groceries or listening to their concerns. If they do not want our help, we politely let them be. If they feel like their lives are missing something (or, in the case of many people I met, feel completely miserable all the time), living the gospel the way we do unvaryingly leads to an incredibly powerful feeling of happiness and inner peace every day. (Except it's not quite happiness and not quite peace–it's the Holy Ghost, and it's not really possible to describe in words. Incidentally, this is probably the main reason our religion is often misunderstood; "knowing" the truthfulness of our Church is a product of feeling the Holy Ghost, a quiet, difficult-to-describe, powerful, uplifting feeling that you completely misunderstand until you experience it.)

    Not sure why comments on this post are slowly turning into debates about religion, as that was not the purpose of the article, and no one really wants to talk about that stuff anyway (with the possible exception of Bible-bashers who think they can argue people into their congregations). Come on guys, no one likes to bicker.

    Also, @Rethink, sorry you get a bad rep for believing what you do. I know what that's about. I would simply point out that the term agnostic does not automatically imply that you are a champion of truth. In fact, most dictionary definitions of agnostic imply, if anything, a rejection of absolute truth or truth values. In practice, there are many agnostics who hold to no moral code or absolute values (as Gandhi put it) other than their own, so I would understand if people were wary to trust that at first. A simple explanation should do the trick for most even-minded people, but I don't see any other way around getting mixed responses when you use the term agnostic.

    November 9, 2010 at 7:13 pm |
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