About the author:
As an ensemble member in the Tony-winning musical The Book of Mormon, Clark Johnsen suits up in a simple shirt-and-tie uniform each night to spread word of the Mormon religion. Unlike his co-stars, however, Johnsen has first-hand experience of the world he is portraying onstage. A former Mormon himself, Johnsen was sent on a mission in western Mexico at the age of 19. Johnsen has since left the church and appeared on Broadway in La Cage aux Folles and The Addams Family as well as tours of Mary Poppins, High School Musical and Mamma Mia! Below, Johnsen recalls his time as a missionary and reflects on how his history has helped drive his performance.
“We are still Latter-Day Saints—ALL OF US,” concludes The Book of Mormon’s Elder Price, “even if we change some things, or we break the rules, or we have complete doubt that God exists.” While many active Mormons may not agree with that assessment of what it means to be Mormon, they might like to think that those leaving the ranks of the church had found a purpose while they were in it, and feel a sense of ownership even after leaving.
Enter me (from stage right): an ex-missionary, now ex-Mormon and a gay to boot (A triple threat?). But for me, being a Latter-Day Saint meant a lot more than donning a white shirt, dark pants, a tie, and a slick black name tag bearing the title of Elder—it was my life. My entire life.
In Broadway’s The Book of Mormon, we dramatize the way mission calls come about in order to invite the audience into the excitement that truly surrounds a missionary’s journey into the field. In our Broadway Mormon world, the prospective Elders (a potentially misleading title for a 19-year-old) are called to serve while grouped together in the Missionary Training Center. In real life, a mission hopeful will have to fill out a short application complete with a glossy smiling mug shot, pass a rigorous physical examination at the doctors office, excel in not one, but two even more rigorous ecclesiastical interviews with scrutinizing church leaders, and get his or her wisdom teeth removed before finally finding a large white envelope in the mailbox addressed, in my case, to Elder Clark Johnsen.
When my mother came through the door screaming, “It’s here! It’s here!” the eight other members of my perhaps-cliché-in-size Mormon family dropped Nintendo controllers, abandoned grilled cheese sandwiches mid-chew, squealed in excitement and delight, and as for me, paused the soundtrack to The Secret Garden and marched into the family room. “Elder Clark Lawrence Johnsen, you have been called to serve in the Culiacan, Mexico Mission. It is anticipated that you will serve for a period of 24 months.”
That’s right, folks, two years: an eon to a 19-year-old. But I’d been preparing for this moment my whole life. I was ready to go out and serve in the spiritual army of Heavenly Father. It was my density. I mean destiny. Over the next 24 months, I parted my hair, knocked on doors, taught curious Mexicans about Mormon doctrines, got illegal highlights (second reference to my hair—you see where this is going), taught piano lessons, listened a lot, talked more, held babies, heard more Norteño music in the streets than I knew existed, ate an incalculable quantity of corn tortillas and baptized men and women of all ages (most notably a paralyzed woman by digging a hole in a jungle clearing behind her corrugated tin home and diverting a nearby hot water stream to fill it with sufficient water—you can’t make this stuff up). I loved it. Me encantó.
Serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was the defining experience of my young adult life. It gave me the opportunity to lead and follow, work and live with people who are completely different from me, and share my feelings with complete strangers: all skills I use daily as a Broadway performer. But beyond being a preparatory experience, my mission and my time as a Mormon overall were very rich and special to me. I used to think that this was because of the system of beliefs themselves: that without the church I would feel sad, lost and broken. Since leaving the church I have realized that what was so beneficial and sacred about the religion in my life was not what I had faith in specifically, but rather the having of the faith.
As The Book of Mormon’s Elder Cunningham accidentally discovers, it doesn’t matter what people believe in if what they believe has the ability to unite them and inspire them to serve one another and love each other freely. Their beliefs can be silly—absurd, even—but that doesn’t matter. It’s the believing that counts. The Book of Mormon on Broadway brings smiles and laughter to 1,000 people eight times a week, but that same thousand may also walk away thinking about the nature and value of faith, regardless of how or to Whom (whom?) it is directed.
As for me…am I sad, lost and broken since I left the church? On the contrary: I am grateful, whole and loved.