By Sheldon Lawrence
The thing that kept me from snapping sooner was shame. I didn’t want to be “that” missionary–a delicate case requiring special handling, the homesick momma’s boy who couldn’t handle it. So I quietly endured the first two months of my mission to Santiago, Chile, without complaint, slogging through the muddy streets of the poorest neighborhoods, withstanding the jeers of children, and struggling to comprehend a new language. But the shame didn’t go away; it was a private shame between me and the Lord whom I was supposed to be serving.
In that two months a great chasm grew between what I was supposed to be feeling and what I was actually feeling.
I was supposed to feel grateful to have been called to Chile because, we were told, Chile was a special place in the Lord’s vineyard, and we were special missionaries. This was the preparation ground for the Church’s future leaders. The field here was ripe and ready to harvest, and the numbers proved it. Santiago North, my mission, was the lowest baptizing mission with a mere 500-600 baptisms per month. The other Santiago missions baptized between 1000-1500 per month, and they taunted us by faxing their reports to our office.
I was supposed to love the people. That was the mantra, learn to love the people. But I didn’t love them. I didn’t know why, only that this was a spiritual defect. My companion loved the people. He joked and laughed and gave them high fives on the street. He knew how to work a crowd, and I would watch him in awe, feeling exhausted that this was the thing I should aspire too.
He would almost apologize for me to his admirers. ”He’s new,” he would explain. “Just arrived from Los Estados.” But in private, he would do his best to get me on board. “Dude, you gotta get PUMPED!” he would say, generating enthusiasm or “animo” from thin air. I soon realized he was merely repeating the rhetoric of our monthly zone meetings.
At my first zone meeting, the chapel was cold with tile floors and concrete walls. Steam rose from the twenty or so missionaries that gathered in a damp clump in the front pews. They greeted one another with cool handshakes and hugs. It was like they were part of a secret club I wasn’t sure I wanted to join but still envied. The zone leader, a grizzled looking veteran missionary sporting a hat and mittens made of alpaca wool, drew a grid on a chalkboard with the name of each companionship on the left. At the top of the grid were the numbers we were to report–contacts, discussions, and, most importantly, baptisms. He labeled the grid “Weekly Comparativo.” This was the routine throughout the mission, putting up the numbers for the zone to see.
He went down the row, alternatively celebrating big numbers and questioning, with a tone of concern, the lower numbers. It became clear that “loving the people” meant baptizing them, as many and as quickly as possible. And why shouldn’t it? “Todos nececistan un bautismo.” Everyone needs a baptism to get into heaven. Besides, the South and West missions were getting cocky; we needed to step up our game and reach the mission goal of 800 baptisms.
One companionship had a good month. Fifteen baptisms. “Look at this, Elderes,” he said, slowly circling the number. “Let’s hear some animo!” The missionaries shouted and cheered as the meeting took on the feeling of a football pep rally. I tried to fit in. I shouted and smiled and gave high fives and got pumped, for worse than the shame of pretending was not pretending and being discovered as a dud missionary.
After the meeting I found a rare moment when I could be alone and wonder why I was not on the Lord’s side, why I couldn’t get pumped about this great kingdom building work, and why all I could think about was the mountains of Montana I left to come down to the bottom of the planet where the seasons were backward and even the angle of light was wrong.
“It hugs the northern horizon down here, the winter sun,” I said to my companion once.
“Huh…never noticed,” he said.
I could not admit it, not even to myself, but I wanted out. I knew it was a sin to want to leave, but I wanted it more with each day. It never occurred to me that something was wrong with the mission. The mission was from God. If I didn’t like it, there must have been something wrong with me. I was a soldier in God’s army fantasizing about desertion–a secret I couldn’t share with anyone. Not my fellow missionaries, not the mission president, and especially not my proud family back home, for whom “having a missionary out” was the one bright spot in their otherwise unstable life. So I kept my dislike of the mission a secret, a guilty secret.
I did not know at the time that I was part of a phenomenon in Chile that Salt Lake would later come to see as a problem that needed special clean up. The baptizing heydays of the 1990s in Chile produced such a vast wasteland of rushed or questionably baptized people that the Church took the unprecedented step sending Elder Holland in 2002 to personally oversee the effort to clean the records of “chueco” (crooked) baptisms and refocus missionary efforts on reactivation and retention. In the decade of the 90s, membership in Chile grew by 211,000. By comparison, during the following decade membership grew by a more manageable 54,000.
The pressures this environment produced were immense. A hard working missionary in Germany, for example, would produce the same results as a lazy missionary in Germany–that is, practically nothing at all. But in Chile, if you did not baptize every month, it was conspicuous. Something was wrong. And the wrongness and the shame of it were on display for all to see.
If you wanted to get promoted, you had to produce baptisms consistently. A couple months of double digit baptisms could get you to Zone Leader as well as special attention from the mission president. A couple of dry months, and you were treated with special care, with the president’s assistants doing splits to train you in the high powered sales tactics that got results.
I was often witness to sincere spiritual seeking and teaching and was deeply touched by it. But too many times the thing that secured the baptism was the charisma and relative handsomeness of the missionary (and yes, this was a man’s mission. The few sisters there were not part of the numbers race, for reasons that would require another essay). When young Chileans, even children, found themselves lavished with the attention of sparkling, white shirted gringos, it was hard to resist. Jesus got baptized. Didn’t they want to follow Jesus? They would have their chance at the chapel the coming Saturday. That they had, technically speaking, become Mormons in that process was not always obvious to them or their parents.
The thing that kept me going was a sense that I had to pay my debt to my culture. I wanted a good Mormon wife, and a family, and roast beef on Sundays. Those blessings didn’t come free, so I had to earn my place.
But I still wanted out.
The tipping point came when I was transferred to the country, a move I hoped would be a rest from the crowded, dog infested streets of Santiago. For the first few weeks it was. But then the “Mamita” who hosted us in her home decided our rent was not sufficient and gave us notice to find a new place. I was with a native Chilean companion at the time who had zero sympathy for culture shock or homesickness. He was also relatively new to the mission, and this was the first time he lead a companionship and could make a name for himself. He fantasized about Pentecostal-like conversion of the small town of Curacavi.
My companion arranged for our new accommodations without talking to me. We would be moving to live in a squatter’s settlement on the outskirts of town with chickens, goats, and open sewers. We would live at the residence of a man the missionaries nicknamed Gargamel, after the Smurf nemesis. This was the same man whose infamous fresh-squeezed juices (from an orchard irrigated with contaminated water) was believed to be the source of a previous elder’s Typhoid fever.
I found out about the housing change when the zone leaders arrived from Santiago to help with the move. Something happened in that moment. Something took over. I needed to go away. It was as if I was no longer making decisions. I watched myself get on my bike and ride past the zone leaders and my puzzled companion.
“Where are you going?” asked the zone leader.
“Away,” I said, for that was all I knew.
I had no plan, only a vague sense that I needed to grab hold of something solid, reach out to something familiar. I rode my bike away—out of the gate, onto the street, then toward town on the highway. My flight was not calculated like a prison escape, but was more like that of a criminal caught in the act. I knew they would be in pursuit, so I pedaled hard.
I had a vague notion of needing to reach a phone, and I knew there was one at the town’s only bank. I ditched my bike and ran inside. At the phone, I contemplated my options. I couldn’t call my parents and tell them I had become a deserter in the army of Helaman. Nor could I confide in my brothers, both decorated mission veterans who earned accolade of “AP.” I couldn’t call my nonmember friends who thought I was on some kind of study abroad program picking up girls.
I decided to try my inactive sister. This was a risk. She was already a little suspicious of my mission, and I was afraid she would catch the next flight to Chile and demand my release. The phone rang. No answer.
For a brief moment I imagined running into the hills and building a hut in the Andes Mountains until I could gather myself. But everything was falling apart. I looked outside and saw the zone leader and companion approaching the bank like police.
I had nowhere to run. The game was up. It was time to turn myself in. When I walked down the steps and saw the missionaries eyeing me nervously, my arms went numb. I grew dizzy and my breathing became irregular—a sort of hyperventilation that frightened both myself and my approaching comrades.
To my horror, I was coming undone on Main Street in the full light of day. In an instant I changed from the quiet greenie who kept to himself, to something I had never wanted to be: a special problem to keep at arm’s length. I could already hear the mission gossip: Dude, when we found him he totally started freaking out.
When, after a few moments, my soul reentered my body, the zone leader took me to a park bench and bought us each a cold Coke. I told him everything, that I didn’t like the work, that I didn’t know if I belonged there. And there was something else, something I hadn’t told anyone.
“My dad is sick,” I said. “He has some nervous system disease that is only going to get worse. I don’t even know if he’ll be there when I get home.”
He said he would talk to the president and see what could be done. Now the president would know about me. Everyone would know. I felt shame, of course, but there was also something liberating in it. The breakdown and fleeing were the most honest things I had done on my mission.
We moved to Gargamel’s house right away. The new housing would not have been approved by the mission office, but I knew the office didn’t know the details. We were at the outer reaches of the empire; my companion was Col. Kurtz and was not entirely under the rule of mission law.
The new housing provided an opportunity to plan for a seemingly honorable escape, for this was the house where a missionary had contracted typhoid fever during just a brief visit. Still depressed, one day I asked Gargamel for a sample of his legendary orange juice, a request he happily and quickly obliged. For one who was teased as a “germ freak” and who would not share a can of soda with friends or family, the will power required to drink the diseased potion was significant. But I believed the unsanitary blender, unwashed hands, and foul-smelling orchard would do the dirty work of getting me home.
When he produced the juice, I raised my glass and toasted in English so as not to offend my host. “To home,” I said, then downed the concoction as if it were a shot of hard liquor. But nothing happened. Days passed without the drink producing so much as an upset stomach.
The mission president offered to send me home. But I stayed. One more day. One more week. Then a month. I was soon transferred to a better situation, and slowly the fog lifted. In time I gained the confidence to resist chueco missionaries, even if only in passive aggressive ways. And there were good times, times when it felt right and good. And there were turning points. I remember a moment in prayer when I said to God for the first time “Let thy will, not mine, be done” and meant it. Then there was the moment I chose to stay no matter what, an act of defiance more than devotion. Somehow the power to run, the power to leave, made the decision to stay mean something.
My kids recently pointed out that I rarely talk about my mission. Apart from sharing a few funny anecdotes, it’s true. I grew in those two years in ways I could not have done otherwise. I do not regret my mission, and even feel gratitude for it. But I still don’t understand it. In some ways, I’m still in that bank, phone in trembling hands, wondering who to call and wondering what to say when they answer.