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If they were Latter-day Saints, award-winning journalists and bestselling authors James and Deborah Fallows might have become a senior missionary couple sometime in the past decade.

In fact, the couple that met on a blind date 53 years ago did something similar: They spent four years working and traveling across the United States as a companionship in an effort to learn what works best in American communities.

When they visited Provo, Utah, on Monday and Tuesday, they compared their experiences living in China and crisscrossing the United States to write a book and produce a documentary both titled “Our Towns” with those of young missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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“Deb and I do feel a special resonance with the experience many, many people in this building and in this community have,” James Fallows said at the Marriott Center on Tuesday during a BYU forum they presented jointly.

“I just have one final comment that we’ve been thinking about you all as you go out into your missions,” said Deborah Fallows, a linguist, former stay-at-home mother and writer who has worked at Georgetown University and written for “The Atlantic,” “National Geographic” and “The Washington Monthly.”

“It’s really such an opportunity,” she said of mission service rendered by young Latter-day Saints:

“You have a secret weapon that other people your age don’t have. You are going into your calling in these communities and having the opportunity as an outsider to see what makes them work. What are the keys here? Who are the people who are making these towns grow? And what are they doing? Those are lessons you can bring back to your communities in your life and apply to wherever it is you end up living to build the strength of your communities. So we we applaud you. We thank you for letting us come here. And we encourage you because you’re the hope. You’re the hope for all of us.”

James Fallows, who has written for “The Atlantic” across five decades and won both the National Magazine Award and National Book Award, expanded on that idea.

“There are related factors, as Deb was saying, of going to some community where you are not from and having to engage with people different from you, learning how they live and thinking about how you live,” he said. “That is a gift. It’s a service you all are doing, but it also is a gift, as Deb said, that you have been given.”

He continued:

“For Americans, those of you who have been outside the United States, in our experience, there is no better way to understand both the strengths and the vulnerabilities of American culture than to live for an extended time in some (other) places, to help you appreciate the things that are resonant and unique in good ways about the United States. You notice the things that are most in need of correction here. So do we in our role as reporters traveling the country, traveling the world to understand people from different backgrounds, we do very much endorse what Deb was saying: You have secret insight you might not even appreciate to the workings of the world, the workings of your own country and your own communities.”

They asked BYU students to engage in conditional optimism, the idea that American communities could improve if people work together.

“Things very locally are happening that you all can be part of as you find the community that you want to call your own and pour your heart and your intelligence and your effort and your vision into creating that ‘Beloved Community.’”

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Find the five brief suggestions the Fallowses gave for getting started in my story about their forum address.

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Behind the scenes

Journalists James and Deborah Fallows consult together during their BYU forum address at the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah.
Journalism companions James and Deborah Fallows consult together during their BYU forum address at the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. | Brooklynn Jarvis, BYU