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. LouinSC

    Elizabeth Smart is still being isolated and exploited by cultists. The first batch were crazy. This last group are just greedy and proud as she is now being taught to lie for the lord as a milk before meat missionary. Mormon missionaries are dishonest about what they proseltyze..

    November 9, 2010 at 12:00 pm |

    Such a beautiful girl, it saddens me so, the world is such an imperfect place at times. Keep your chin up

    November 9, 2010 at 11:58 am |
  3. brad

    I've often wished an atheist could be interviewed in the womb. It's warm in there, but he doesn't believe in warmth because he's never known cold. It's dark in the womb, but atheist wouldn't believe in darkness because he'd never experienced light.
    Suppose we say, "Atheist, beyond the realm of what you know are great mysteries and wonders (sunsets, people, trees, etc.). There is also a great being who is nourishing you and preparing you for a day when you will know these wonders. Do you believe in this being?" Atheist would feel his toes, the plancenta wall, run his fingers along the umbilical, and respond," I find no data to support the existence of this being. I don't believe." Turns out, atheist doesn't believe in his own mother.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:56 am |
  4. LDSinSC

    Great article! It is one of the better ones about missionary work.
    JohnQuest: Who do you think helped her through those dark days? Do you think she felt all alone, or that a stronger spirit than hers was trying to comfort her? If she had felt like God had abandond her, she wouldn't have stayed true to her faith. Miss Smart has said before that she felt that she was never alone and never gave up hope or "faith" that she would be free again someday. Faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things. She did not know how or when she would see her family again, but her faith that she would helped keep her strong.
    Frogist: Thank you for your interest. The church asks that "all worthy males" serve a two year mission. Unfortunately, not every young man in the church will fit into this category. I know many young men who weren't able to serve for two years due to either health or family issues. Young men are very strongly encouraged to serve missions. For the young ladies, its more of an option, but more and more young women are serving each year. Serving a mission can help you grow up fast. In collage, some youth tend to go wild or they still cling to mom's apron strings. How many collage kids do you think take their dirty laundry home for mom to wash on weekends? You can't do that if you won't see her for two years. But I know of plenty immature returned missionaries, and plenty of mature collage studants. It depends on the person. As far as seeing these other countries, they get the full tour. They know the launguge, eat with local families and most ride bikes wherever they go. They get to see more of these areas then the tourists do! Yes, in Paris, they can't taste the wine, or go to the bars, but is that what Paris is all about? She gets the chance to be a local and see what all the tourists over look. You can always go to mormon.org if you have questions. Thanks!

    November 9, 2010 at 11:56 am |
  5. Caleb

    Just wanted to throw out a reasonable definition of faith since these kinds of online discussions seem to miss the point:

    Faith is to accept something without complete proof and then to act on it. By that definition everyone exercises faith. Every time I start my car, turn on my computer/phone, make a call, visit a website, etc I'm exercising faith unless I first dismantle everything involved in those things and fully examine them myself every time.

    Some people choose to apply this same principle to the concept of a god, some don't. But we all go through life taking steps into the dark relying either on past experience, trust, or sometimes blindly. It takes courage no matter if it is applied to religious matters or seemingly mundane matters.

    A problem comes sometimes when people refuse to let reason inform their faith. I've meet very reasonable people who are religious and very faithful people who are atheist.

    I don't, however, think that Elizabeth is merely acting on blind faith. She's a grown woman that has experienced things far worse than most people in the US will. The fact that she chooses to exercise her own faith to make a positive difference in the face of that is inspiring regardless what one may think of Mormonism or religion in general.

    It's sad to see so many people who can't see past how others are different to see their humanity. I guess people will choose to see whatever furthers their own biases.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:56 am |
  6. kd

    from one who knows – these missions are nothing buy brainwashing for the too-young kids who are pressured and/or forced to go.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:56 am |
  7. Mikey G

    I want to serve a 2 year mission in the Bahamas.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:56 am |
  8. Mateo

    umm... I don't think anyone's mentioned this yet, but... Elizabeth's a full on babe! Sign me up for the next mission trip she goes on.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:55 am |
  9. Deborah Hernandez

    Good!!! She deserves to go and live in a beautiful city like Paris. Whoever gave her that assignment was doing her a mitzvah, and why not? After all she has been through...

    November 9, 2010 at 11:55 am |
  10. LDS

    Hey if this moron wants to worship Joseph Smith let her.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:55 am |
    • Mark

      It's cute that you think that mormons worship Joseph Smith. They don't they revere him as prophet. They worship Jesus Christ and God the Father. Maybe you should actually talk to someone who knows a thing or two before you type.

      November 9, 2010 at 12:29 pm |
  11. Jeff

    Spiritually mature and discerning members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, like Elizabeth Smart, possess a treasure far beyond the ability of man to express verbally or in writing. This intangible thing is what many Mormons recognize as a pearl of great price. It has the power to sustain one in the darkest hours of thier life – and in the months and years that follow. Elizabeth Smart knows this. Similarly, it gives hope and profound happiness to millions of people around the world. Mormon people generally are among the freest in the world; not because of where they live but because of how they live. Whatever the rest of the world may regard as kooky or unreasonable restrictions of the faith are happily embraced by members of the church, including missionaries. Their minds are clear and their sights are set high. They comprehend the nobility of man because they understand that all people are the children of God in a very real way. They strive with all their hearts to live by the word of God as revealed both anciently and today. Their outlook on life might well be summed up from the first book of Kings, "Let your heart therefore be perfect with the Lord our God, to walk in his statutes, and to keep his commandments, as at this day." I know of nothing the world can offer which will bring a man or woman the happiness available in living such a life. From this comes the inexpressable source of strength and inner peace we all see in Elizabeth Smart. God bless her.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:54 am |
  12. Robert

    The key point here is not the validity of a mormon 'framework' relative to others, its the value of personal freedom and choice. Those who would judge Elizabeth as 'poor kid' her situation as 'sad' are so shallow. Most humans feel they are endowed with a certain light, spark...something that separates us from the animal kingdom and the inanimate physical world. Something that ties us to our familes, to other human beings. All generations of humans have asked who they really are and why we're here, how we're all tied together and is mortality all there is. The answers can never be 'proven,' but can certainly be believed in by faith, whether through budaism, judaism, muslism, or christianity. The importance is allowing everyone to have their beilef, and not presuming to tell others how to believe. Those who would ridicule her for practicing her beliefs are truely the conflicted and narrow minded ones. If there is a God, we'll all find out some day, one way or another....and as in the classic southpart episode when everyone was in the afterlife wondering who had it right, it might just be the mormons. Wouldn't that be funny!

    November 9, 2010 at 11:54 am |
    • Molly

      Very well put. We all need to realize everone is not going to have the same beliefs, and it is not our job to belittle someone's belief just to prove someone is right or wrong. You can not prove faith.

      November 10, 2010 at 2:49 am |
  13. knrider

    Having served a mission in the states for the lds church, I must say that such an experience is most definitely the best way to heal from any sort of trauma or tragedy. I had a friend on my mission who lost his father while he was gone, and he only went home for the funeral. He later admitted that the best thing he did was to return to being a missionary, and serving others. Ask any counselor, the quickest and surest way to heal from any traumatic event is to serve and give back to others,and that is what a mission is for.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:53 am |
  14. Paul

    The article is rather fair. I spent two years as a missionary more than 15 years ago. I do not post here believing that I will "convert" a person intent on calling names and claiming that it is fact that God does not exist. I just want to thank the author and the few folks here that have asked honest questions. Some postings have suggested that missionaries are "cut off" from their families. Missionaries for the Church are highly encouraged to write letters or email (where possible) to their families at least once a week. They are more than able to pick up the phone anytime they want, but it is true that they are encouraged to not call home. They are at least 19 years old, no one could stop them if they simply walked out. So, why are they encouraged to not call home? They are encouraged to work and serve, and to truly discover what it feels like to put others before themselves full-time. Essentially, they are encouraged to try and live like Christ – selfless. When Judas betrayed Christ and the soldiers stepped forward to take Christ, Peter drew his sword and cut off the ear of one of them. Christ healed the man and then told Peter that if Christ elected to do so, Christ could call upon a legion of angels to deliver him. Christ gave himself, freely and willingly. Missionaries are encouraged to leave their past concerns behind them and to serve as selflessly as possible. Some posters have suggested that not reading the news is just terrible. A missionary speaks with hundreds of people each week. For me, it was a tremendous experience to be exposed to nearly countless other religions, professions, and philosophies. I am confident that I learned more in those two years than I would have in two years of reading about politics and sporting events; and I am certain that I learned more in those two years than I would have learned during two years of criticizing people on the Internet. In addition to preaching in public, I served in hospitals and public libraries. I experienced everything from uplifting debate with a minister in his presbytery to being kicked out of a man's house when I would not tell him that I believed he could efficiently burn hydrogen in his basement. I was certainly not cut off from the world.

    Ms. Smart seems strong to me. She was a child when this sick man abducted her. I have never met her, but under all this scrutiny, she has seemed to me to carry herself with dignity. I wish her well.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:50 am |
  15. IgnoranceIsBliss

    Think I could convert to Mormonism and get a free mission assignment in Amsterdam? I promise I will work hard and visit all the coffee shops!

    November 9, 2010 at 11:49 am |
    • The Aaron Effect

      lol .. totally a plausible idea but according to the article, you dont choose where you get sent, but ill make due wherever i end up

      November 9, 2010 at 11:55 am |
  16. shamgar50

    Wow! From one nutty group to another.

    I understand "Faith". That's why I don't believe in the "Tooth Fairy". Of course when you believe that jesus preached throughout North America, and that Native Americans have been cursed with dark skin, you'll believe just about ANYTHING!

    November 9, 2010 at 11:48 am |
  17. ann

    Just because you don't believe in a particular religion or any religion doesn't mean that the people who believe in those things are worthy of ridicule. For example, our town was blown away by a tornado many years ago and a group of Mennonites came to town and helped everyone rebuild without accepting any money at all. That was a very large act of kindness and whether you believe in their beliefs or not, it goes to show that the fruits of their faith aren't bad ones. Whereas there are people who are non-believers and spend their free time running around calling people nut bags and other much worse names. Why not use that free time to do something good instead.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:48 am |
  18. Andy

    Mormons are not Christian they are LDS...if they were Christian they would believe in the Holy Trinity and the Holy Bible! Plus if they were Christian they could go to any church at any time and not be estranged from family members for doing so. UGH! People know the difference!!!!!!

    November 9, 2010 at 11:48 am |
    • John

      wow, more ignorance. Mormons are Christians, they believe and follow the teachings of Christ and believe the Holy Bible. Mormons believe in God the Father, his Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost. I take it that by your denying someone else's belief in Christ, by definition, you are not Chrirstian. correct?

      November 9, 2010 at 12:28 pm |
  19. Reasontrumps

    Answer this question honestly.... Do you think the majority of believers are more intelligent than those who have the mental capacity for doubt and reason?

    November 9, 2010 at 11:46 am |
    • Rethink

      I would rather win a dignity contest, like Elizabeth Smart who is schooling all of us in the concept.

      November 9, 2010 at 1:54 pm |
  20. korwynias


    November 9, 2010 at 11:46 am |
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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.