TAMPA — The show was about to start, but the fresh-faced missionaries were just getting warmed up.
"Good evening folks," Elder T.J. Peters said to a middle-aged man and his wife hustling toward the David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts to catch Friday's staging of The Book of Mormon, the hit musical that pokes all sorts of fun at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"Elders," the man said. "How are you?"
"Take a card from our church?" said Elder Mitch Casey.
"No thanks," the man said. "I lived in Logan, Utah, so I've talked to you guys a lot."
He walked past them, then looked over his shoulder.
"Sorry we're going to see something offensive!" he said.
If you're a young Mormon missionary, there are worse things than trying to convert theater-goers on their way to see a show that excoriates, mocks and degrades everything you believe. But this isn't exactly fun, either.
"Take a card from our church?" said Elder Casey, 20.
"Soooo not interested," said a man wearing black-framed glasses and a purple coat. "Get a life."
"A free copy of the Book of Mormon?" said Elder Peters, 22, handing a card to an elderly woman.
"Are you in the play?" she asked.
"I'm a real Mormon missionary," he said.
The woman rolled her eyes and walked away.
"Take a card from our church?" Elder Casey asked a gray-haired man.
"Which way to will-call?" the man said.
Mormons have tried to capitalize on the play's success as a way to get the word out. The church buys advertising in playbills and dispatches missionaries to hand out information at venues. Eight missionaries have stood outside the Straz every night since the musical opened in Tampa on Nov. 12. They've passed out thousands of cards that show you how to download an electronic version of the actual book.
"Have you guys seen the play?" asked a high school student.
"No," Elder Peters said. "Just heard about it."
She chuckled and walked away.
About half the crowd tries to ignore them, filing around the young men like a school of cold-shouldered fish, avoiding eye contact. About 40 percent accept a card. The others?
Elders Peters and Casey take the laughter and insults in stride.
"Can we give you a card from our church?" Elder Casey asked another man.
"My nephew's Mormon," the man said, "so I know about you guys."
"Can we give you a card from our church?"
"Really?" said another man who seemed offended at the suggestion. "Really?!"
"No, no, no, no, no," said another.
"Are you guys real?" asked another.
"Where's the valet parking?" shouted another.
"This isn't easy," Elder Casey said in a quiet moment. "We leave our family, school. I have a girlfriend back home. So it's a lot to give up. It's hard to be out here."
This isn't the worst, though. At least they didn't have to go door to door in the Florida heat.
"Knocking on a door and presenting something you really believe in and having the door slammed in your face," said Elder Peters. "Not fun."
Even worse: people who invite you in and try to convert you.
"Are you the greeter?" asked a woman pushing a walker.
"No," Elder Peters said. "I'm a real Mormon missionary."
"How's it going, sisters?" Elder Peters asked two attractive twenty-somethings.
"It's going great now that you guys are here," one of them said. "Can we get pictures with you?"
They all squeezed together and posed, the missionaries careful to keep their hands at their sides.
"I'm on Facebook. Elder T.J. Peters. Will you look us up? Here, I'll write it on your card."
"What are your names?" Elder Casey asked.
"Hannah and Annie," one said.
"What's your full names so we can find you on Facebook," he asked.
"That's it," said Annie. "Just look for this face." They walked away.
"I wonder how people feel when they see us," Elder Casey said.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.