As missionaries in France, Christopher Vincent and Jean-Charles de Ligne are not exactly preaching to the converted. But proselytizing for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in this irreligious country has not left them defeated.
In fact, as they combed for converts here the other day - their conservative haircuts, white shirts, black suits, and lapel badges instantly identifying them as Mormons - Elder Vincent and Elder de Ligne were upbeat.
"I've never had a problem finding people who want to talk to me," said Vincent. "You smile, you're friendly, you introduce yourself, and you build on common beliefs with the person. Most people believe in something beyond our power."
That is true even in France, where a secular tradition permeates society: 61% say they believe in a God, according to a recent European survey. That does not, however, mean they are ripe for conversion to the Mormon Church, as the two young men have discovered in repeated attempts to talk to strangers and bear witness to their faith. A recent afternoon they spent evangelizing in front of City Hall illustrated the challenges they face.
Most often, they were met by polite brush-offs, even before they had a chance to spread their word.
"I'm a total nonbeliever and have no time to give them," explained Francois Le Lay, after ignoring the pair's approach. Some passersby listened for a while, but said later that they were not interested in the Mormons' spiritual message. An English couple visiting Paris for the day found them "quite sweet," and Steve Doherty, the husband, said he was happy that he didn't feel he was "being converted."
One young man gave Elder Vincent cause for hope: after conversing for several minutes he took a copy of the Book of Mormon, which Mormons regard as another testament of Jesus Christ.
But it turned out later that he had taken it in the same spirit in which he said he had taken a menorah months earlier from an Orthodox Jew. "If I am offered something, I accept it," said Hugo Lesimple, a student. "I'm interested in history and in America, so I will probably leaf through their book," he added. "But I am an atheist, and frankly, this isn't going to change my mind."
Elder Vincent seemed happy with what he called a fairly typical afternoon: the English couple and Mr. Lesimple had seemed open, he thought.
His hope, he explained, was that people would "go away feeling better than when I began, with new understanding. And, of course, we'd love to speak with them again."
That does not appear to happen very often. Though Vincent estimated that about one quarter of the people he approached allowed him to set up a further meeting, there was little evidence of such a success rate on this afternoon.
During the past 20 months of knocking on doors and stopping passersby on the street, Vincent reckons he has spoken to about 40,000 people. "A few" ended up joining his church, he reckons.
"Sometimes it can get discouraging; you can do the same thing over and over again," said Elder De Ligne. "But I love what I do. I'm here for a good purpose."