Time for Some Mormon Myth Busting

By Betsy VanDenBerghe

I can still see her out there, the second mission companion in a row I had driven crazy, furiously scrubbing her clothes in the concrete basin serving as washing machine in Brazil of the 1980s. I sat inside, fuming as well after another argument, but gradually embarked on a crucial mental trajectory.

Maybe the problem was me. Maybe it wasn't these Brazilian companions who couldn't seem to work within a schedule to save their lives. Maybe there was something to be said for their spontaneity -- and something wrong with my rigid reliance on agendas and veiled criticism of their modus operandi.

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It was one of many instances of introspection that a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints supplied, one of multiple painful interior shifts that strangely form the crucible of Mormon missions but prove the most underrated aspect of public perceptions of them. The Book of Mormon Musical, now adding international tours to its smash-hit status on Broadway, as well as NPR interviews with disaffected Mormons and superficial encounters with LDS missionaries inspire an amalgam of images: proud, hapless, white-shirted Caucasian boys simplistically tap dancing their way through Africa, South America, and Cleveland with ne'er a backward glance. According to the stereotypes, they somehow remain deluded for two pivotal years of young adulthood in an insular universe guarding them from reality and fueling an over-zealousness reminiscent of Oliver Cromwell.

Pardon my complicating what's proved an entertaining, laughable, lucrative stereotype, but a Mormon mission fundamentally consists of a whopping dose of reality, humility, and soul searching. Realistic mission movies and stories support my thesis that a well-lived LDS mission sends you home a lot more chastened and tolerant than proud and insular. Because the world will soon see even more missionaries after the LDS Church dropped age requirements for both men and women in late 2012 and the number of Mormon missionaries jumped 47% in 2013, allow me to dispel several myths regarding this most misunderstood of religious endeavors.

It's all about converting. Actually, a huge chunk of mission mental energy consists of learning to live with a mission companion at your side 24/7 -- a companion you didn't choose, and who, though only with you for a few months at a time, will at best become Samwise to your Frodo, only getting on your nerves occasionally, and at worst drive you to the brink of quasi-insanity only lifted when you find yourself alone in the bathroom.

LDS missionary movies get this right, with the originator of them all, God's Army, playing the refrain of die-hard devotee paired with an unsure, troubled seeker. Salt Lake Tribune reviewer Robert Kirby appreciated the film's depiction of "what it was like to live with a bunch of other servants of the Lord, who, if we couldn't love each other, we at least tried not to maim each other." Another cinematic variation on disjointed companionship pairing, The Best Two Years, takes on eager newbie matched with tired, disillusioned veteran, but also smatters in the daily annoyances of less egregiously paired missionaries, one of whose companionship comes to near blows in a train station over an annoying triviality.

One companionship saga, Errand of Angels, depicts "sister" missionaries -- specifically a newly arrived young woman ready to conquer Austria with her zeal, only to find the bulk of her spiritual growth consists of learning to accept and ultimately love an insensitive, introverted, enigmatic companion. Her journey of self discovery reminds me of an insightful mission memoir written by a woman who served in Japan. She arrives full of self-definition: Dean's list, musically gifted, past leadership prominence. But then a Japanese companion's eagerness to serve leads her to suspect disingenuousness -- a suspicion that festers, creates animosity, and leads her criticize the companion to others. When a fellow missionary vindicates the Japanese sister's complete sincerity, soul-searching begins in earnest. The honors graduate examines her own motives and pride, which leads her to feel like slime -- "green goo," to use her phrase.

That, to me, seems the crux of an LDS mission, and of religious transformation: realization of the need for God, of sin we can't root out ourselves, and of our mysterious exigency for forgiveness. The Book of Mormon calls it a "broken heart and contrite spirit." Jesus called it being born again. At any rate, the missionary in Japan discovered God was having a hard time molding the overachiever, but that he could work really well with someone who felt like green goo.

It's an insular bubble protected from the world. I don't know about you, but outside of an LDS mission, I'd never met anyone who'd killed someone, didn't know how to read, had family members slaughtered by gangs, or, for that matter, played soccer in the World Cup. I'd attended college and graduate school, lived on both coasts and abroad, and worked in an urban mecca, but never came across anyone tormented by evil spirits.

Sure, on a mission, you aren't supposed to go to movies, call your friends, or surf the net, but -- take my word for it -- not perusing the New York Times in no way buffers missionaries from being exposed to urban warfare, natural disasters, or some of the most repulsive personal and home situations imaginable. You're walking into people's homes and lives continuously, and those who let you in, "investigators," aren't usually flourishing. Even investigators whose lives include stability, education, and prosperity provide missionaries with an endless supply of doubt, scriptural challenges, and existential questions. If complete insulation from worldviews questioning God, religion, Mormonism, or the meaning of life is a goal, I'd suggest avoiding an LDS mission.

Missions foster intolerance. A family friend's first email from Africa seems representative of the concussion that is mission arrival. Shocked-induced sentence fragments described showering from a bucket and no vestige of stop lights, familiar food, or dependable electricity. Initial training in French left him unable to comprehend anyone, including his African companion, and over and over, he wrote, "Pray for me." Some great LDS fiction captures the surreal entry into a mission because every LDS missionary, even serving in Iowa, encounters environments far more rural or sophisticated, poverty-stricken or affluent, exotic or mundane than he or she is accustomed to.

But even more interesting than the greenie phase is the arc transporting a missionary from revulsion to begrudging acceptance to appreciation -- which segues into an assimilation so complete, the elder or sister becomes about as Brazilian, African, Californian, or Russian as non-natively possible. Even the families of missionaries vicariously enter this cultural tolerance in strange ways. You can't help but be grateful, as I was, when your missionary son in Germany encounters devout Lutherans who invite him in from a thunderstorm to pray and gets treated respectrully by most of the European agnostics he talks to. You also form a sense of kinship with the group of Muslim youth who witness a gang of punks physically assault him and not only ward off the punks, but make them shake my son's hand and apologize. Ditto for the good Buddhists in Taiwan who plied another son with endless meals and hospitality, and the now the good Buddhists in Thailand who've convinced my newly arrived third son that "Every Thai is kind. Honestly, there are no mean Thais."

Which brings me to another best kept secret of Mormon missions: We learn from you. LDS missionaries are not, as I've read that Book of Mormon elders facetiously portray, completely impervious to the wisdom of those we live among. Let's return to the movies, specifically Disney's rendition of LDS General Authority John Groberg's Tongan missionary experiences in The Other Side of Heaven. While definitely Disney-esque, the film goes beyond the real-life adventures of excruciating heat, rats eating the missionary's feet, drunken hoodlums menacing him, and hurricane-induced starvation almost killing everyone; it also explores the resentment the island's Christian minister feels toward Elder Groberg. The relationship takes some interesting turns until, in the hurricane's aftermath with no food arriving on the island for weeks, the minister gives Elder Groberg his last jar of food -- an act that saves Groberg's life and enables him to play his trumpet at the minister's funeral a few days later.

Maybe the best example of learning from others consists of a New York Times photo-essay featuring Sister Naisi Zhao, a Chinese college student serving as an LDS mission in Chinatown. Before coming on her mission, Sister Zhao explains, she thought she'd only teach others, but found God needed to educate her through the people of New York. One of those people was a mother who couldn't afford a private burial for her baby. After she grabbed Sister Zhao's hands and wept, the missionary reflected on the last twenty-one years of her life and wished she had been more selfless, spending less time and energy worried about grades, weight, make-up, and her future, and more time worrying about others.

"We all need a Savior," Sister Zhao observes in her dialogue -- including her. I don't know that I've met anyone, whether fully active or disaffected from the LDS Church, whose mission didn't offer them encounters with people who touched them deeply. Even a Book of Mormon cast member interviewed for NBC's Rock Center's "Mormon in America," who had actually served a mission and no longer affiliates with Mormonism, became emotional recounting his mission path from selfishness to selflessness thanks to the people of Mexico he lived among.

Finally, yes, we do proselytize, which is probably the most distasteful aspect of missionary work to a secular society bent on celebrating every expression but that of religious faith. Missionaries of all denominations live under the shadow of stereotypes like The Poisonwood Bible's Nathan Price, a Baptist missionary in Africa whose fanaticism imperils lives and souls. Interestingly, I've met evangelical families and youth groups proselyting in Haiti, Manaus, and elsewhere, and never encountered a Nathan Price, only people who work in orphanages, ghettos, and hospitals who also take the New Testament charge to preach the gospel "unto all the world" at face value. I once sat in a dinner group of editors and writers, one of whom expressed aloud his revulsion that my religion produced missionaries who turned diverse and interesting people into uniform and boring ones. To my relief and amazement, a woman from New Zealand piped up that the Mormons had done wonders for some of the Maori population whose conversions resulted in decreased alcoholism, domestic abuse, and unemployment.

Conversion is a mysterious thing. Honest missionaries marvel at the complex process between the seeker and God, and facilitate rather than view themselves as prime movers in the phenomenon. The missionary's job is not, as skeptics would have it, about talking innocent people into believing the likelihood of arks floating, Red Seas parting, water turning into wine, or, in my religion's lexicon, angels giving Joseph Smith golden plates that become The Book of Mormon. Instead, missionaries encourage people to pray, read scripture, and hopefully enter into what William James called The Varieties of Religious Experience, from Paul's Damascus Road to C.S. Lewis' surprises with joy to Sigrid Unset's embrace of Catholicism that rattled Scandinavia's respectably atheist intelligentsia. "Knowledge about life is one thing," wrote James. "Effective occupation of a place in life, with its dynamic currents passing through your being, is another."

Only, the dynamic currents of religious experience passing through your being often lapse into doldrums, particularly in mission life, where every inch of spiritual enlightenment must be paid for in miles of endurance. A disinterested populace, indifferent investigators, companionship issues, less-than-perfect mission leaders, fatigue, and most of all, our own inner demons ensure that the faith of LDS missionaries is not born of the Book of Mormon's blissful stupidity -- an equal opportunity stupidity that impugns all religious belief as patently absurd. Rather, it's a faith born of gut-wrenching prayers, intensive study, and inner transformations only God could empower. Otherwise, who would do this?

When Boston resident Lisa Morong laughed uproariously throughout The Book of Mormon, she thought, "Wow, these people are crazy. They must be brainwashed." But curiosity enticed her to live chat with LDS missionaries on Mormon.org, and after that, gradually start praying, reading the actual Book of Mormon, and engaging in her own variety of religious experience:

"I was riding my bike to class one morning through some side streets in an older neighborhood in Boston. I remember the light was just passing through the branches of the trees. I felt this peace that I have never felt before. I thought to myself, 'That just came from God.'"

Lisa began meeting regularly with the "sisters." Their series of discussions culminated in a moment which enables Mormon missionaries worldwide to endure bucket showers, dysfunctional companionships, heat stroke, even assaults from punks -- happily. She told the sisters she wanted to be baptized, after which, "Suddenly, all three of us were crying hysterically at my dining room table."

I still look back on those moments in Brazil when God and our investigators fully connected and my companions -- who strangely became more organized than me as the mission wore on -- and I shared the spiritual current. To those religiously indifferent or hostile, yes, it probably sounds ludicrous, even laughable. To return missionaries like me, it changed our lives forever.

Betsy VanDenBerghe is a writer based in Salt Lake City and served from 1986-88 as Sister Siddoway in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

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