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Exclusive: Tim Kaine: Why religious mission service matters to America

Editor's Note: Click here for additional opinion pieces advocating for the various presidential candidates, including Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

This week, hundreds of young men and women arrived in Provo to begin an exciting, daunting adventure. I have a keen sense of what that’s like. Once, just like them, I was preparing to go on a mission.

In 1980, after my first year of law school, I left my studies to work with Jesuit missionaries in Honduras. For nine months, I ran a vocational school that taught carpentry and welding. I struggled with my Spanish and saw up close what it was like to live under a harsh dictatorship and contend with crippling poverty.

I grew up in an Irish Catholic home in Overland Park, Kansas, the son of an ironworker and a home economics teacher. My Catholic high school planted a strong seed of public service.

That motivation led me to the village of El Progreso. The Jesuits have a saying: they are “men for others.” They live in poverty, chastity and obedience for the sake of creating a better existence for their neighbors.

Being a missionary taught me how to live Christ’s declaration that we find ourselves only by losing ourselves. I learned to go long stretches without a shower, to empathize with my neighbors when they were victimized by abusive officials, and to accept meals from those who had almost nothing to give.

At the time, one of the priests told me, “You’ve got to be really, really humble to take a gift of food from a family as poor as that.” What he was saying, of course, is that when you deny a person the agency to give, you deny them the opportunity to be fully human.

They say that nobody comes back from serving a mission the same person, and that was certainly true of me. My time in Honduras became my North Star, a crucible of my values. It has influenced everything I’ve done in public life since: as a civil rights lawyer, city councilman, mayor, lieutenant governor, governor, and now, a senator.

What I learned in Honduras can be summarized in three words: Fe, familia y trabajo — faith, family and work. Today, I recognize selfless leadership in all corners of our nation, by people in all kinds of clothing and of all skin colors, religions and incomes. And I take courage in the fact that men and women from all backgrounds still come together in good faith to address the challenges we face.

Around the country (and the United States Senate), I’ve seen members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints live those values. Whether visiting the sick and afflicted, supporting the church’s welfare system, or welcoming refugees from around the world who have been torn from their homes, they live Christ’s teaching: “I was a stranger, and you took me in.”

As members of a church that fled religious persecution just a century and a half ago, it should come as no surprise that Latter-day Saints have remembered God’s command that they love the stranger.

Like the LDS Church, my own Roman Catholic faith has endured periods when our members were persecuted merely for exercising their conscience. That should never happen in our country. We are a nation of immigrants, many of them drawn to our nation by the promise of religious freedom. We have no higher calling than to build a nation where all are free to lead safe, dignified and productive lives.

Unfortunately, not everyone has followed the example of Latter-day Saints. This election season has taught us some uncomfortable lessons, not the least of which is how a person’s religious tradition can be used as a weapon by politicians seeking to capitalize on fear. In Honduras, I saw how a dictatorship, in which people are afraid to speak as they like and be who they are, crushes the human soul. And in this election, some of our basic values are under threat in ways we have not seen in our lifetimes.

Hillary Clinton and I pledge to stand with you against these dangerous threats to our American values, and for the safety and the integrity of our families. Americans may worship divinity in different ways, but far more unites than divides us in our values, dreams and traditions.

One of the most profound lessons of Christian missionary service is that your mission really never ends. The calling to spread faith and help others lasts a lifetime.

When I left Honduras, it was with the vow that I would not forget what I had seen and learned. The most powerful lesson was that selfless leadership glorifies and protects others. Hillary Clinton and I will carry that lesson to the highest offices of our nation.

Tim Kaine is a senator from the state of Virginia. He is the Democratic candidate for vice president.