I love the phrase, “It is what it is” for it says both nothing and everything at the same time.
My mission “was what it was.”
In some respects it was an incredibly awesome life experience. In other respects, going was the worst decision I have made in my life. I was a freshman studying acting at NYU on a small scholarship and during a small window of time in life when my parents could afford the rest. I thought at the time that it was a move towards personal success and spiritual wisdom by choosing to forgo all that for an 18 month mission.
The irony is that that time in New York was also probably the one small window of time my life when I was removed enough from family and church to have made a clean break…if I had known what I know now.
But I was terribly conflicted about many things at that point in my life and was searching for some easy answers. If Mormonism does nothing else, it certainly promises a clear path and easy answers. I was fighting the fact that I was gay. I felt tremendous “temptations” in New York. While I obsessed over my “personal worthiness” and “clean thoughts,” my classmates were doing what normal 18 year olds do. My male contemporaries were coming out one by one. Even my dorm roommate slowly cracked open the closet door and began his honest life journey as an open, honest gay man. Meanwhile I was pulling as hard as I could on the other side of the closet door handle to keep my door closed and I was sure that a mission would help me lock it shut. I believed that particular imaginary reward to be more valuable than my career dreams. Even my patriarchal blessing, which I got while in New York, promised me all the good stuff of Mormonism for serving a mission.
My family, especially my mother, were thrilled with my decision. Even non-Mormons who heard of my decision praised me. At the end of the school year I had to audition to return to the program before a panel of my teachers. They gave me rave reviews and excellent grades and they also naively admired my plans to leave it all for the life experience of a Mormon mission…I’m certain they had no idea what Mormonism was, let alone a mission. They said life experience like that would make me a better actor. They also said I’d be welcomed back in two years (but they had no control over the scholarship that wasn’t eligible for a leave of absence).
So be it…I left dreams of Broadway for Brazil and imagined I would return to New York a more confident straight man, free of all temptation.
At the time I served my mission to Brazil in the 80’s my mission was one of the top baptizing missions in the world. I’m not exaggerating. My first companion and I baptized a family of 7 during my first month there and I don’t think I had a month when I didn’t baptize at least one person. We received a monthly newsletter listing each missionary’s name and how many baptisms were credited to each in the previous month. The top baptizers consistently had monthly numbers in the 20’s. I routinely came in with numbers in the high single digits. I baptized well over 100 people in the 18 months.
But to say that it was all about the numbers for us would be untrue. I hated the transparency of our results and emphasis on numbers but I believed and I’m convinced my Mission President believed that we were simply using the most effective means to achieve the Lord’s goals.
What were those means? Like a factory assembly line we were the baptizers plain and simple. Mormon friends and neighbors prepared the person, we baptized them, the ward fellow-shipped the new member, the home teachers prepared them for the temple and they became God’s one day. Except, the truth is that in that particular bucket brigade the missionaries were the only ones eagerly performing their duties.
More often than not, an investigator’s ignorance of Mormons and Mormonism was really what planted the seeds of curiosity. The ones who knew Mormons or knew about Mormonism avoided us. We indeed treated investigators like widgets once they made it to our teaching pool. We were commanded to challenge folks to baptism during the first discussion. That’s right! “If you like what you hear from us in 5 more meetings, will you be baptized in 3 weeks?” The ones who hesitated or rejected the ridiculously irresponsible premise never heard from us again; the truly interested folks stayed on our list and became our best friends.
In 2-3 weeks we baptized them and handed them off to the next station in the assembly line, the ward. Sometimes the day of their baptism was the first time these folks had ever attended church so it’s not entirely the ward’s fault for not feeling a connection with them. But it’s also true that our converts were usually poor folks who felt uncomfortable among the unwelcoming middle class members. Maybe half of these converts came to church a second time. Half of those dropped off the radar after a month.
But perhaps 10% of these converts stayed active, went on missions, married each other. Some made significant sacrifices because they believed our testimonies that it was all true. One teenage girl I baptized was kicked out of her house by her father. Others became outcasts in their world. I know several who kept the whole thing secret from parents or spouses but the shit hit the fan once these loved ones found out. I have several converts who went on to serve missions themselves. As flippant as our first meeting baptismal challenge was, many of these folks definitely committed to Mormonism on a seriously deep level that matched if not surpassed my own sacrifice of leaving NYU.
They didn’t do it because it brought them closer to family. They didn’t do it for social reason. They didn’t do it “just in case.” These people committed to Mormonism because the evidence and testimonies we provided them convinced them that it was of God and true.
So fast forward 20 years to the point when I discovered new evidence and gained a conviction that it wasn’t all true or “of God.” Can you understand how petty and trite it sounded to me to have people expect me to stick WITH Mormonism because of family? They said staying in Mormonism was the safe option. I was told not to rock the boat and that my journey would be hard (translate that to mean, “We will make it hard for you”). To choose the easy path was not why I went on a mission in the first place and that’s not why my converts stuck with it. It was a conviction to truth.
The one thing I’m grateful to my mission for doing for me was teaching me that this conviction to truth trumps all other concerns. The way I was treated by LDS family members, LDS friends and LDS acquaintances when I came out as a disbeliever further taught me that most of these people don’t really believe and practice what their own Apostle stated back in 2004 regarding freedom of religion:
How can we have freedom of religion if we are not free to compare honestly, to choose wisely, and to worship according to the dictates of our own conscience?12 While searching for the truth, we must be free to change our mind-even to change our religion-in response to new information and inspiration. Freedom to change one’s religion has been emphasized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.13 One’s religion is not imposed by others. It is not predetermined. It is a very personal and sacred choice, nestled at the very core of human dignity.
I can tell you by personal experience of a mission and later that I don’t know a rank and file Mormon who has the ability to apply that to one of their own. It’s intended for others; it was intended for nations to allow their citizens to switch to Mormonism.
But at a personal level, Mormons impose their religion on their children and on the converts they teach on their missions. They also show no respect for one of their own who decides to leave it “in response to new information and inspiration.”In one visit with a former bishop and a former friend, I was told how I was abandoning and disappointing my young Mormon kids, as if their religion had already been predetermined. Born Mormon, it is assumed you will stay Mormon.
I couldn’t be a part of that hypocrisy any longer.
My mission helped me confidently leave 20 years later.