Monday, August 22, 2011

missions


As I have referenced before, I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which you likely know as mormons.

Mormons are cool. We do cool things. We go to church on Sundays, make acronyms for everything, dress up in 1840s garb and push handcarts across Wyoming,1 and spend our days trying to convince people we aren't polygamists.

Another thing we do is serve missions, which are two-year stints most men and some women perform in their early twenties.2

Since I fall under the classification of "bad mormon", I usually make only very oblique references to my mission, because telling people you spent two years proselytizing usually makes them reach for a wooden stake and run away for fear that you'll try to convert them. Spending a couple years talking about Christ sounds about as normal to them as spending your evenings lionclothed, smothering tapioca on your face, and barking at pedestrians on University Ave.

Having said that, I would like to make an attempt to repent to some extent and instruct you all on the finer points of a mormon mission today.

Missions are awesome, and ex-missionaries will usually refer to their mission as the best time of their life, mainly because no mormon woman will date you if you don't, but also because it's the best time of your life.

While you can choose if you wish to serve a mission, you have no choice as to where you're assigned. If you're lucky, you get assigned overseas. And if you were less righteous in the pre-existence,3 you get assigned stateside.

Just kidding! Missionaries who serve stateside are wonderful people! Please don't send me hate mail!

The problem with being sent overseas is you spend the rest of your life complaining about the luxuries stateside missionaries enjoy, while you had to tract uphill in the snow. I, myself, served in Argentina. My little brother served in Oregon. This introduced a new dynamic in our relationship, one which I'll refer to as "me keeping my mouth shut".

In his defense, every missionary follows similar regimes of scripture study and tracting (walking around trying to get people to listen to you), and every missionary experiences difficulties in their labors.

For instance, in Oregon, you may have trials like getting flat tires on your bike, driving a car two years older than another set of missionaries, and occasionally being annoyed by the fact that kind members would weigh down your suitcase with gifts of new shoes from Niketown.

Similarly, in Argentina, you may experience difficulties related to:
  • Eradicating parasites4 from your system.
  • Spending your first few weeks annoyed that the jubilant Argentines decide to light off fireworks every night and keep you awake, until you are able to appropriately differentiate the sound of gunshots and fireworks, and suddenly lose your annoyance at being kept up, and find gratitude for being kept alive.
  • Ensuring the man pulling a gun in your face does not, in fact, shoot you.
  • Fleeing from a mob of stone-throwing dudes.
  • Making sure you are never left alone with the missionary who spends his free time attempting to create a fireball by focusing his mental powers on his hands.
  • Hunkering down while the police and a gang engage in a firefight directly outside your house employing sawed-off shotguns.
  • Jumping over the live sparking downed electrical lines in the street.
  • Enjoying the bliss of counting eighty-eight visible mosquito bites.
  • Running fast enough so you could jump and clear the open sewage ditch on your morning commute to your area,5 then running fast enough to jaywalk across the six-lane highway without getting hit by rush hour traffic.
  • Probing for open sores on the lower half of your body during flood days so as to avoid infection from thigh-high water contaminated by the area's ditches.6
  • Feeling a strong guiding hand stopping you from walking down a dark path one evening, and returning the next day to discover a man was murdered with a screwdriver through his neck down the path the night before.

So, as you can see, missions are pretty similar across the world.

In both Oregon and Argentina you try to find people interested in hearing about the church. In both Oregon and Argentina you teach people who are interested and invite them to join the church through baptism. In both Oregon and Argentina you help them understand what that means, and as a last step before baptism, the interested parties are interviewed and asked a series of questions to ensure they understand what they're getting themselves into.

In Oregon, those interviews are usually conducted in the privacy of one's home, or perhaps a church, and are often deeply spiritual experiences. In Argentina, those can be conducted in one's two room home, and, if you're lucky, the neighborhood bully might come by with his horse and cart, whipping the horse furiously until the horse gives out directly outside of the house while the interview is being conducted. The man could then get a large wooden staff and begin beating the bleating horse as it writhes in the most horrific pain imaginable, which sound and sight could cause you nightmares to this day, and he could beat it to its painful and horrific death in front of you, while the interview is in progress, and, as the interview finishes, the neighbors could all crowd around cutting away pieces of the horse for food.7

The structure of missions across the world is pretty constant as well.

Missions are typically made up of 50 to 200 missionaries, grouped up into pairs, or companionships, though if there's an uneven number you may find an unlucky triplet out there. Two to four companionships make up a district, which has a leader, and two to four districts make up a zone, which has two leaders. The entire organization is guided by a mission president (older dude) and his wife, along with two assistants to the president (APs), who, like our stateside missionaries, were also less valiant in the premortal realm.

Just kidding! About stateside missionaries that is. The APs are totally legitimate targets.

In Oregon, a district leader might spend his time mentoring the missionaries, and trying to work through difficulties in interpersonal relationships. In Argentina, a newly-minted district leader might show up to his area the week the entire country descends into a state of near anarchy and political crisis, try to navigate through the riots and lootings, and finally get in touch with the sister missionaries in a nearby area, and beg them to STAY OFF THE STREETS FOR THE LOVE OF EVERYTHING HOLY AND PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE DO NOT DIE ON MY FIRST WEEK ON THE JOB.

While missions are pretty similar, you might find the occasional small difference in modes of transportation.

In Oregon, you might bike or drive to your appointments on paved roads. In Argentina, you might walk on dirt roads as kids with wrist rockets shoot rocks into the back of your head, or you might escape to an abandoned railroad track, featuring sections where the foundation has been excavated out some six feet and filled with jagged rusted metal, and your companion may taunt you for being too sissy to walk the lone remaining rail like a tightrope, with certain death a mere one slip away.8

In Argentina, if you do find yourself on a paved road, you might be driving a van of five other missionaries to a conference in the Southwest corner of the mission, and you might be doing this somewhere around 5:00 AM, and you might be doing this on a fogged-in highway with about twenty feet of visibility. And you might be doing seventy, because you might be out of your mind. And you might approach a barrel on fire, and, as you pass it, you might notice the road disappear underneath your van, and you might notice this because the van might suddenly plummet four inches and fishtail on a loose gravel road bed.9 And you might realize that the left lane was still paved, and so you might take quick action and jump the car onto the left lane so as to continue on pavement. And you might not tell the drowsy missionaries that you are currently speeding down the wrong side of a country highway in pitch black completely fogged-in conditions. You might continue this way for five or so minutes, sweating bullets the size of ducks, until you pass by another barrel of fire, and find the right line returned to its rightful place. And you might not tell anybody what you did for several years.

Missions across the world are pretty similar, and it's this similarity that makes it difficult for missionaries like myself to return home and not engage in telling war stories to everyone they meet. People hear so many mission stories, they have zero interest in hearing yours. Which is a real shame, because I have loads more that didn't make the cut.

Having now read over this post a few times, I realize you probably don't believe a word I've said here, but let me tell you: it's all true. The stories and the gospel. I loved my mission. I had some pretty freaking good times. But there are many, many more missionaries out there with even better, even crazier stories, and boy am I jealous of them.

1. Confession: I live in fear of my coworkers coming upon a youth group reenacting the pioneer migration and asking me what kind of crack we are smoking. They're not as weird as they look. I promise.
2. To be precise, 18 months for women, and men can leave at age 19 and women at age 21.
3. In LDS doctrine, we all spent some time living with God prior to our birth, and it is a time-honored tradition among us bad mormons to call into question the righteousness of certain groups of people we wish to annoy.
4. Please note that I only briefly link to said parasites, and mercifully spare you the details. Should you wish more information, I am, of course, more than willing to describe my experience in depth, along with other gastronomical adventures, but, for once in my life, I shall refrain from revealing to you in full the disgusting specifics.
5. My poor companion did not completely clear it one day, which led to me about wetting my pants in laughter, and he needing to return home to change his shoes.
6. To this day I remember the smell of Santa Fe, Argentina. Every street is lined with sanjas, which are ditches that catch most of the wastewater (though these did not contain sewage) from the homes, and in those sanjas the water would sit and fester and house large rats until flooded with rainwater and you found yourself out knocking doors in three feet of the most disgusting mess you can imagine.
7. I promised I would tell you this story, so there it is. Now, we're not absolutely sure that was the same man that tried to shoot us, as the evidence is purely circumstantial, but we were walking by his house one night when we heard the shot and felt the bullet whiz by.
8. I've made a few decisions in my life that directly resulted in the preservation of my life, and avoiding that balancing act was one of them. But he always managed to execute it flawlessly.
9. Anybody know what it's like to wake up to a feeling of flying and fishtailing? I don't, because I was driving, but from the words that were spoken in a variety of languages, I suspect it was not entirely pleasant.

9 comments:

Spencer Wilcox said...

I liked, "Making sure you are never left alone with the missionary who spends his free time attempting to create a fireball by focusing his mental powers on his hands."

Michemily said...

Yeah, I think I've heard the story of the elder not making it all the way over . . . but as for the rest, it sounds hilariously similar to your brother's experience in Oregon. Or not.

Kevin Dee Davis said...

"If you're lucky, you get assigned overseas. And if you were less righteous in the pre-existence, you get assigned stateside... and if you are clearly a chosen vessel of the Lord, you get to go to Japan."

All of the overseas cred lds women crave, everyone thinks you're an FBI agent and is therefore scared of you, better living conditions than the states, and a lifetime of feeling superior to everyone else at the restaurant table because you can interpret the sushi menu.

Thamina said...

Wow! Wow! Pretty much speechless after that. Except I do know what it is like to wake up to a feeling of flying and fishtailing. I blame Nettie for that one.

Jerkolas said...

VAMOS ARGENTINA!!! Wow, my experience in Argentina was entirely different. All I did was eat awesome food and got ogled by pretty girls...oh and preach the good word. That too.

Hazzy said...

Argentino slang is completely useless stateside. Take that.

Josh Bingham said...

Good stuff Chris!

On MY mission (after hearing those three words most people tune out)...I was held hostage in a trailer park, against my will, for a few hours.

Crazy good times on the mission. (Mine was Nashville, Tennessee).

Aroura said...

Alternately horrified and.... horrified.
My husband went to Kentucky/Indiana, which from the stories, IS like going to a different country. It sounds like some of the residents on his mission shared the same sanitary conditions as yours :)
I didn't serve a mission, but I was assistant manager at an apartment complex in Kearns. They also had interesting notions on hygiene - like the residents who tried to use the hot tub as their personal bathtub. Though I guess we should be grateful they tried to bathe at all. (And, in fairness, perhaps given their enormous size, it was the only small body of water they could fit into) :)
Many entertaining and horrifying stories come from that time, though I cannot claim it to be the best time of my life. Instead of proselytizing the good word of the Lord, I got issued mace spray and got to deliver eviciton notices :)

Nurse Betty said...

After your stories I'm convinced that those who served stateside were obviously more righteous in the pre-existence. (I was called to Argentina originally, but upon further investigation of my spotless pre-existence record, I was reinstated as a missionary in Colorado.) Thank heaven!