The Book of Mormon, the Tony-award winning musical, is currently playing in my hometown in Orange County. It tells the story of two white, clean-cut Mormon missionaries who are called to serve in the most unlikely and foreign of places: Uganda. Naïve and inexperienced, the elders undergo various mishaps, misunderstandings and crises of identity & faith, all while learning what life outside “the bubble” is really like. The portrayal of missionaries in the show has been described by one Mormon scholar as a “fun-house mirror” – rather than an accurate reflection, it aims for one that is entertaining.
People all over the world have been swept up by the story of Elder Price and his companions, a bright and clueless bunch who attempt to force their religion on a tribe of mindless Africans. But beyond the songs and the shock value and the hype, the musical’s fish-out-of-water storyline struck a particular chord with me for a very important reason: I actually lived it.
Nearly seven weeks after graduating from high school in the safest city in the United States, I – the whitest, cleanest-cut Mormon you’ll ever meet– flew across the world to Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe, to serve my two year mission. In many respects, things started off for me the same way they did for The Book of Mormon’s protagonist, Elder Price. But real life was nothing like the story told in the musical.
Today I’d like to give another story. A true story. The story of my African mission companion, Peace.
Peacefull “Peace” Ncube was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe in 1985. The nurse who wrote out his birth certificate misspelled “Peaceful” with two L’s, so he later ditched his full name and went simply by “Peace.”
As a teenager he found it difficult to stay out of trouble. He regularly got into knife fights. Yeah, knife fights – this despite his 90-lb. build. He generally believed in God but never really gave much thought to it. In his mind, he was just a punk kid from Bulawayo. But all that changed for him when he met the missionaries.
Encountering the Missionaries
Initially, Peace attended church as a courtesy. He wasn’t prepared to feel what he felt as the missionaries began teaching him the message of the gospel. Over time, Peace’s parents noticed a clear difference between the Peace they knew before he met the missionaries and Peace they came to know after. He cared more about the way he lived and in finding answers to the big questions. He cared more about his purpose in life.
Things were moving along toward Peace’s baptism, until Peace’s father’s health took a turn for the worse. On the day Peace was scheduled to be baptized, he received news that his father had passed away.
Now living in a single-parent home, it was up to Peace and his older brother Proletariat (“Pro” for short) to care for their ailing mother and younger siblings. Peace gave up knife fights, opting instead to fill his time with whatever work he could find, while Pro followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the military. But Peace soon learned that he didn’t have to do it alone.
Crispen and Mike, two young Zimbabwean men in the ward, bonded with Peace. Something changed in him as he saw these two friends go out of their way to reach out to him and show him that he mattered. This lit in him the desire to do the same for others. Soon the three were inseparable, and they became known in their ward as “The Three Nephites,” a reference to a story in the Book of Mormon (book, not musical) of three of Christ’s disciples who became ministering angels and went about doing good. The work they were doing not only fostered a greater love for God and for each other, but for their neighbors as well.
Becoming a Missionary
Peace wanted to keep doing good. He wanted to take the joy and the perspective and the peace he had gained and spread it far beyond his own small village. While reading the scriptures, he was overwhelmed by a verse in the book of 3 Nephi (that’s also found in Matthew) that reads, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.” Peace wanted to serve a mission. But when the time came for him to submit his application, he struggled to convince his non-Mormon mother that it was a good idea.
Peace’s 11 year-old sister Patronella suggested the two of them participated in a fast (going without food or drink for 24 hours) in order to petition to God to help open their mother’s heart to the idea of his serving a mission. So the two fasted. Every day. For ten days.
On the tenth day, Peace’s mother called him into her room, and said, “It’s OK. You can go,” as she signed his application. He gave her a kiss and sprinted to his bishop’s house to submit his application with his mother’s signature still drying on the paper. And in March of 2006, Peace gave his mother and siblings hugs, told them he loved them and set off for the MTC.
Two weeks into his mission, Peace’s mission president called to give him some tragic news from his hometown: his mother had passed away.
The president dialed his brother back in Bulawayo who did everything he could to convince Peace to return home where he belonged.
But Peace was no longer the same punk kid from Bulawayo. While he was deeply saddened by the loss of his mother, he knew that there were others out there who had experienced just as much and who needed his help. He had a new found perspective that when you ‘seek first the kingdom of God,’ everything else will fall into place. I recently asked Peace about that experience:
“I remember when I first read the Book of Mormon, and I read that verse in 3 Nephi about ‘seek[ing] first the Kingdom of God.’ I looked back on the previous year that had brought me to that point, and I knew that it was God who delivered me there and that He would continue … Everything that happens in life, happens for a purpose. Where I’m from. Why I’m here. Why I go through hard times. When people lose their loved ones. I understand that God is in control of whatever happens and that it will all work out.”
Peace had found a source of strength and (pun not intended) a source of peace – one that hadn’t been there to steady him before. In a time where it would have been very easy to do so, Peace didn’t turn the focus on himself – he kept it on others. He decided to stay on his mission and felt a very real confirmation that he was where he needed to be and that God would take care of the rest.
Enter Elder Rasmussen
Three days later, Peace arrived in his first area where meet me, his first companion. As he walked in the door, we bro-hugged (like guys do when they don’t know what to say) and I quickly introduced myself. I immediately offered my condolences and support, asking him if there was anything I could do to help him. His response? “Let’s get to work.”
So we did. And that was it. For the next four months, we forgot ourselves and focused on helping others. And if you ask either of us what the greatest time during our mission was, we’ll answer those four months.
Peace had no idea that he came to me at a time in my mission where I was particularly down. I had spent the previous three months with a notoriously difficult companion, and our area had very few people who were interested in our message. I was frustrated and emotionally deflated. And it took this 90 lb. orphaned Zimbabwean to help me break out of that mental and spiritual funk. I learned from his example – I forgot myself and went to work.
Peace and I had come from completely different worlds. The experiences that had led him to missionary service stood in stark contrast to the manicured, suburban, southern-California upbringing I was raised in. But we found a common bond in the gospel. And we developed a profound and lasting friendship through sharing that gospel with others and watching it bring strength and joy into their lives, just as it had done for Peace.
A Life Transformed
Peace Ncube’s life was transformed as a result of the efforts of two young missionaries in Bulawayo back in 2005. That transformation accelerated as he prepared to serve a mission of his own, and it catalyzed while serving as a full-time missionary. The once cocky knife-fighter had become a man who visited the sick, mourned with the broken-hearted and lifted the hands of those that hung hopelessly down.
He took the challenge to “seek first the Kingdom of God” and made the Lord make good on his promises. Some of the blessings of his service? Consider these:
- When she heard about his mother’s passing, another missionary’s mother back in the States decided to help take he and his family in. She wrote him every day of his mission like she did her own son and sent him care packages of Skittles and Tommy Hilfiger ties. She also helped his siblings make ends meet while Pro got them on their feet.
- Peace married a faithful woman, Olini on 14 February, 2009. The two were sealed in the Johannesburg temple four days later. The two are currently expecting their second child.
- Peace has served faithfully in several callings including as the Bishop of his home ward in Nketa. He is currently serving as a counselor to the Stake President in Nkulumane.
I haven’t seen The Book of Mormon musical. I can’t speak to the shenanigans that Elder Price and his companion get into as clueless 19 year-olds in Africa. But I actually was a clueless 19-year-old in Africa. I didn’t know a lot at the time, but I knew that somehow what I was doing was bringing people real and lasting happiness. And I met a quiet, kind African man with a troubled past, who chose to do something hard because he was dedicated to improving his life and the lives of those around him.
For Peace, and millions of people like him, the gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t the butt of a joke. It isn’t the setup to a punch line. It’s a very real and powerful message than can help those in the depths of despair find the peace and strength to go on – especially when things are most difficult. My experience as a Mormon missionary in Africa was more thrilling than any musical. My experience was real.