France, July ’95—I can’t remember where I was going but I stopped when the Mormon missionaries said “bonjour” at the bus terminal. I can’t remember what we talked about but I said I’d come to Cours d’anglais. It was early July ’95 in the South-east of France and I had just completed my first year at university. Free English conversations with native speakers could only be beneficial for a Modern Languages student enjoying his summer break, right?
2—How it all began: teenagers looking for religion.
2—“How did a gay French boy become a Mormon?” One “bonjour” set things in motion. It’s as if I’d been prepared for the missionaries—because of my fascination for religion and America.
I didn’t care what people said about ‘Mormons’. They had no reasons to dislike them, since they had never met any, but they were worried. It was no scorn; it was genuine fear. And such is that fear that 160 years of Mormon presence (and good P.R.) across Europe haven’t changed a thing. We might as well have Dangerous Cult Member stickers on our foreheads. I’m serious: Not long ago, a co-worker in the U.K. had to promise her friends in Belgium she’d be careful around me. She related to me how they’d just hate for her to be brainwashed and erring on some religious compound, never again to be seen.
It’s not personal. They’d have come up with something similar if I were a Jehovah’s Witness (minus the concern about being a lobotomised plural wife living off-grid). I’m just baffled by such ignorance. And it’s even worse in France where all religious people (bar non-practising Catholics) make all folks nervous.
For being the most secular nation in the world, France was, and remains, incredibly insecure when it comes to religion. But why do we make them feel so nervous if they’re so sure there’s no God? I mean, my straight friends have never been nervous in my gay company—apart from the few who eventually came out as ‘gay’ (without me doing anything). Could it be that the French are in denial and really are gagging for religion? After all, human beings are programmed to be spiritual beings.
I was thirsty for religion. My Atheist family never understood that.
It was different for me for a variety of reasons. First, Mormon missionaries, who serve for 2 years (usually) after graduating from high school, were my age, so I could relate to them on that level. Second, it wasn’t my first encounter. I’d spoken to some before. About 18 months prior, when I was still in high school, a Muslim friend produced the Book of Mormon from her school bag before our Philosophy class started. She said ‘Mormons’ had knocked on her door and given it to her. “I don’t know much about Mormons except that they have several wives and are an American religion interested in genealogy,” I said. Something I must have seen on TV. But knowing my interest for religion, she gave me their number. I called and met them.
I did not enjoy the meeting we had. It seemed a bit strange and forced. But this time, I did go to Cours d’anglais at la chapelle and I enjoyed the conversations in English with the 4 missionaries assigned to our area and several nice French people. The chapelle was a flat—Americans would call it ‘a condo’—owned by the Church and converted into a ‘meeting house’, with a large room with chairs and a pulpit on a platform at the front, with several smaller meeting rooms, a bathroom and a kitchen. The main room had floor to ceiling windows and because there’s no A/C in France and the sun was so warm that evening, they were open to a balcony overlooking the courthouse.
You already know that this led to more than just English classes. I wasn’t your typical French boy. I was thirsty for religion. My Atheist family never understood that. When I was a child, they rolled their eyes whenever I spoke about wanting to know more about God. When I was a teenager I used my pocket money to buy a Bible and do a distance-learning course. So many biblical passages inspired me that I subsequently wrote short stories based upon them.
Back in high school I often had conversations with Muslim friends about the Quran, which I read and stirred something inside and shaped parts of my spiritual life with lasting effects. And that was also when Madonna made religion cool—and sexual—which caught my attention not only because I was a gay teenager but because, very importantly, it meant religion could be alive and passionate.
I took myself to the main city library to check out all the book I should find about the Mormons.
A separate element is that I was obsessed with America, or at least the America I saw on TV. I loved sitcoms like Roseanne and I was obsessed with Knots Landing. I grew up watching Dallas—THE television show of the 80s—with my family or my Dad’s new family. That series had an impact on me no one can imagine. Also, I translated songs of my favourite CDs (with the booklet and my pocket dictionary) and because I studied languages, I taped American news some channel showed in the middle of the night. And I took out a subscription to the magazine American History.
How is that relevant? Because religion was often represented or alluded to in American movies, songs and TV shows—and wasn’t at home—and because the Mormon religion was American.
Bottom line, I now think was almost ‘prepared’ to accept Mormonism. But for now, all I knew is that I wanted to know more. I didn’t tell the missionaries, though. I did not want some P.R. chat. I mean, if you’re going to buy a new sound system or a brand new car, you’d do some research. You wouldn’t just go to the guys who are after a commission. So—because this was before the internet—I took myself to the main library to check out all the book I should find about the Mormons.
The advantage of not going through the missionaries is that I could get the information I wanted and get a clear picture. Nothing was sugar-coated. The disadvantage was that I read things I was not ready for—and could not yet comprehend. But at least I had enough sense to realise that one of the books was biased against Mormons and was not a true representation of their religion.
That trip to the library would change the course of my life forever.