My Strange Vocation, Part 1
I had a bachelors degree in history, but I was working as a paper bundler in a printing company. Once in a while my coworkers asked me, “What are you doing here?” I had no good answer to give them. I myself was waiting for an answer.
Immediately after college I had spent two years traveling the Pacific Northwest as a full-time minister for the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I had been a guest speaker at congregations and schools throughout the region and had even been interviewed on a television talk show produced by Oregon State University. But during those two years I had become aware that my vocation was quite different from anything that others in the church had imagined for me. For one thing, my travels throughout Mormon country had given me access to documents I had never read before, and my training in the field of history had prepared me to make maximum use of those documents. Even as my faith in Christ was strengthened, my confidence in the Joseph Smith story was severely shaken. By the time I returned home to Michigan, I knew that I must leave the Latter Day Saint movement–but I was uncertain how to do so without hurting many, many people.
But the issue of my church affiliation was minor compared to the larger disturbance roiling within me, for I had a deep sense of what my vocation was, and it wasn’t something I could put on a resume. During my college days I had talked about being a history professor, but while I was in the Northwest a commission was laid on me–one that I couldn’t explain to anybody. In my heart, I knew what it meant. But I couldn’t put it into words.
My last summer in Oregon, I sent away for information packets from the chambers of commerce at cities in Ohio and Indiana, thinking it would be easier to start a new life in one of those other places than to return home to the well-meaning queries of friends and family. But I received no clear direction on that point from the Spirit, and I returned home. My dad had spent his life as a pressman for a printing company, and now he was in charge of the warehouse. While I applied for other jobs, he asked me to fill in for a few days as a paper bundler. No other jobs surfaced, and I ended up staying indefinitely.
“If I had a college degree,” my coworkers would say, “I sure wouldn’t be here.”
Frustrated, I sometimes tried to explain myself in letters to a friend in Portland, Oregon. Here are excerpts from a letter I wrote in February of 1982:
“I used to think–as most people do–that if you really want to help people, you should get into one of the ‘helping professions,’ but the inclination I had as a social work student in college (before I ended up majoring in history) has now become a fervent conviction. I am now convinced that our vocation serves as an axis upon which we revolve around a given social context, and within that context, depending upon our degree of sensitivity to God and our associates, we have limitless opportunities for service to our fellow humans. Perhaps a surgeon has more obvious opportunities than a trash collector, or maybe the way is clearer for a counselor than for a filling station attendant, or for you as a special ed teacher than for me as a paper bundler. But all of us have those opportunities–and they transcend the parameters of our jobs, because our jobs only serve as the vehicle through which we make those contacts where ministry can occur. . . .
“I think God works that way with all of us if we let Him, not only leading us into service opportunities that are directly related to our field of employment but also using that field as a springboard into seemingly-unrelated opportunities for ministry. The difficulty is that I am obsessed with the idea, and every time I try to narrow myself down to some specific career goals, God gives me some kind of experience that thrusts this thing back in my face. The main thing for me is to be an instrument in God’s hands to aid people in seeing how the gospel impinges on their own particular situation. This is so necessary. I have often tried to convey from the pulpit how the gospel of Christ applies to daily life, but I have found that the pulpit falls far short of the kind of outright demonstration people seem to need. If someone who had contact with God could only come into their social situation and show them points of contact with God in that context, perhaps it would make up for what’s lacking in pulpit ministry. It’s a crazy idea, but it won’t leave me alone.
“What I’m talking about is a strange sort of missionary work. I have no name for it. But I keep getting this driving compulsion to give the idea a chance, to let it prove itself in a real-life situation.”
That’s what I wrote to my friend. Meanwhile, I kept working. . . and praying. . . and waiting for direction. . .