It’s not often that we hear a story in Sacrament Meeting about an atheist. But, today I am going to tell one. The man I’m going to talk about for a few minutes is Penn Jillette. For those of you who may not know the name, Jillette is an illusionist, comedian, actor and author. He is one half of a comedy magic act called Penn and Teller. He is also an outspoken and adamant atheist.

There has been a YouTube video of him that has been floating around the internet for a few years. In this clip, he talks about receiving a Bible as a gift from a fan after one of his shows.

The compelling thing is that Jillette, rather than being offended by the gift, as many of us might expect, was touched. Here’s some of what he said:

I’ve always said, you know, that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell, or not getting eternal life, or whatever, and you think that, "well it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…" How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? If I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming at you and you didn’t believe it and that truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point where I tackle you. And, this is more important than that.

Also, Jillette remembered that the man:
  • said nice stuff
  • looked him in the eye
  • made it personal
  • was not defensive
  • was truly complimentary, kind, nice, sane
  • cared enough about him to talk to him
  • was really wonderful
Sounds like this guy was one heck of a missionary.

But, why should we want to be great missionaries? Let me quote from a talk given by Elder David F. Evens of the Seventy during our General Conference last month.

Nephi taught that “we labor diligently to … persuade our … brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God.” (2 Nephi 25:23) As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, every one of us has the blessing and responsibility of sharing the gospel.

Also, Joseph Smith said: “After all that has been said, the greatest and most important duty is to preach the Gospel” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith [1976], 113).

We must be missionaries. We must share the gospel because it is a responsibility that our Lord has given us. And...because we love our neighbors.

What can we do to be great missionaries?

 I’d like to tell you a true story about a great missionary. Not a full-time missionary, but a member missionary. I’ll call him Brother Powell, because that’s his real name. He lives in another stake in the area. As for the other characters in this story, I’ll use fictional names.

The year was 1993. Brother Powell was talking to a fairly new co-worker (I’ll call him Mr. Jones) at a company sponsored dinner. Mr. Jones seemed like an affable guy, even though it was apparent that he’d had way too much to drink. At some point, Mr. Jones expressed a mild interest in Brother Powell’s LDS faith, which he had heard about from another co-worker. However, it wasn’t long before Mr. Jones’ conversation started to become less than appropriate, and Brother Powell moved away to talk with some other acquaintances.

A week or so later, Brother Powell received a prompting to share the Gospel with Mr. Jones. After all, Mr. Jones had shown some interest. When they met for lunch, Mr. Jones was very surprised when Brother Powell, pulled out a Book of Mormon and started to share. Mr. Jones was polite, somewhat interested, and asked some excellent questions; which Brother Powell answered directly and warmly.

After that initial meeting, time went on and the years rolled by. Although Brother Powell and Mr. Jones were not close friends, they continued to talk on a fairly regular basis. And, Brother Powell learned some things about Mr. Jones:
  • He had a difficult marriage; a situation which in many ways was his own fault.
  • He was a heavy drinker.
  • Although he was well paid by his employer, he always seemed to be in debt.
  • He was an outspoken agnostic.
  • Although he loved his children as much as any man could, he was a poor example and role model.
Brother Powell invited Mr. Jones to church and church activities almost monthly. Although Mr. Jones found this a little irritating, he respected the fact that Brother Powell seemed to live a life in accordance with his beliefs. In other words, Brother Powell practiced what he preached, and his sharing was a reflection of his sincere love.

Still, Brother Jones chose not to believe the gospel. A decidedly unlikely convert, without a doubt. But, this is a talk about sharing the gospel, not converting. We are commanded to share. In an article in the February, 2005 Ensign, entitled "Seven Lessons on Sharing the Gospel", Elder Clayton M. Christensen wrote about one of the lessons he and his family learned as they made a notable effort to share:

We learned … that we simply cannot know in advance who will and will not be interested in learning about the Church. We thought we could judge and therefore excluded from our list many people whose lifestyle, habits, or appearance made them seem unlikely candidates. As we reflect upon those who have joined the Church, however, it is clear that few of them would have been on our list of “likely members” when they first encountered the Church.

Over time, Mr. Jones continued to drink heavily. He and his wife divorced. His performance at work was suffering. His oldest son seemed to be following in his footsteps. However, Brother Powell did not give up.

Mr. Jones, met a customer of his who was a less-than-active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I’ll call her Sister Smith. Hearing about this, Brother Powell gently urged Sister Smith to become more active as he conspired with her to share the gospel with Mr. Jones. Sister Smith invited Mr. Jones to her daughter’s baptism. And who was there, but Brother Powell, ready to share his seemingly ubiquitous Book of Mormon.

This was more than ten years after Brother Powell had first met with Mr. Jones. Still... nothing.

Sister Smith invited Mr. Jones to the San Antonio Temple open house. Did Mr. Jones feel something? Curiosity? Perhaps. She gave him a Book of Mormon. It sat on the shelf and gathered dust. All the while, things were appearing bleaker in Mr. Jones’ life.

Finally, one day, twelve years after their first meeting, Mr. Jones said "yes" to Brother Powell’s invitation to go to church. Even Mr. Jones was not sure why. However, he felt the Spirit and met with the missionaries. He prayed for the first time since he had been a child. A month later Brother Powell baptized Brother Jones.

That’s not quite the end of the story. For the next year, Brother Powell attended church with Brother Jones on a regular basis. He accompanied him to the Gospel Principles class. As they developed a much closer friendship, Brother Powell continued to share his knowledge and understanding.

Fast forward another ten years. Brother Powell and Brother Jones are still close friends. Brother Jones lives the word of wisdom. He is out of debt. He is a full tithe payer. He has baptized a seventeen year old son. He has given two grandchildren names and blessings. Sister Smith is now Sister Jones. Sister and Brother Jones have been sealed for time and eternity and attend the temple regularly.

Before I began this story, I asked “What can we do to be great missionaries?”

Suggestions can be found in the July 2011 New Era. They are taken from a talk given by Elder Russell M. Nelson at the October 2010 General Conference, entitled "How to Share the Gospel." As I go down the list, you’ll see that Brother Powell’s actions were consistent with most of these simple suggestions:
  • Be an example of the believers. Each of you can live in accord with Christ’s teachings.
  • Prepare for questions. Let your response be warm and joyful. And let your response be relevant to that individual.
  • Be ready to take the next step. An invitation to attend a Sunday meeting with you or to participate in a Church social or service activity will help to dispel mistaken myths and make visitors feel more comfortable among us.
  • Reach out to those you do not know and greet them warmly. Each Sunday extend a hand of fellowship to at least one person you did not know before. Each day of your life, strive to enlarge your own circle of friendship.
  • Invite a friend to read the Book of Mormon. Explain that it is not a novel or a history book. It is another testament of Jesus Christ.
  • Invite friends to meet with full-time missionaries in your home.
Through Brother Powell’s diligence and willingness to share the Gospel, not only did he lead Brother Jones to the Church, but he helped rescue Sister Smith from diminishing activity. Was it worth more than ten years of effort? It certainly was to Brother and Sister Jones.

To go back to Elder Evans’ General Conference talk:

Some of those who need the gospel in their lives are not yet members of the Church. (Like Brother Jones) Some were once among us but need to feel again the joy they felt when they embraced the gospel at an earlier time in their lives. (Like Sister Smith) The Lord loves both the person who has never had the gospel and the person who is returning to Him. To Him and to us, it doesn’t matter. It is all one work. It is the worth of souls, whatever their condition, that is great to our Heavenly Father, His Son, and to us. The work of our Heavenly Father and His Son is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life” of all His children, regardless of their current circumstances. Our blessing is to help in this great work.

Our Heavenly Father loves us. His Son, Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior. Joseph Smith and all the Presidents of the Church are prophets. The Book of Mormon is true and what we purport it to be. This is our testimony and a testimony we all have the responsibility to share, in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.