‘Mission Rules’ a too-rare example of realistic fiction about the LDS missionary experience

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here) There’s a scene in “The Mission Rules,” — a short fiction book comprised of the LDS missionary experiences (link) of “Elder Barker,” sent to Brazil — where he and his companion encounter, Odette, a young wife. Odette is what any missionary would describe as a “golden investigator.” It isn’t long before she and her husband, Marcos, are set to be baptized. They have young children who will presumably be baptized one day. But Marcos leaves for the big city to find work. Odette puts off the baptism until he returns.

At this point Elder Barker is thrust into a situation that any missionary who has gone to a high-baptizing mission (Brazil, Peru …) encounters, what to do with investigators who for some reason are delaying baptism? The pressure to baptize is huge, you’ve got zone leaders and assistants to the mission president who want the baptism, yet you don’t want to baptize a young wife if the opportunity results in not baptizing her husband. … Your mission president constantly tells you that male baptisms, due to the priesthood additions, are a priority. And, as mentioned, you have 7 to 10 other investigators you are trying to prep for baptism …

Do you get the idea of how convoluted and confusing a single potential conversion can get? In S.P. Bailey’s novella, “The Mission Rules,” the whole Odette affair ends badly. Marcos absence is continually delayed; eventually Odette learns that he’s left her for another woman. Despite Elder Barker’s request to missionaries who replace him that Odette be fellowshipped and prepped for baptism, his replacements ignore her and she joins another church.

This short vignette in “Mission Rules” is an example of realistic fiction that deals with the experiences of a Mormon mission. Too often the genre is cast in a forced positive light (a clumsy attempt to serve as a spiritual potion) or in a memoir tense, that usually serves as a tale of sacrifice that leads to enhanced spirituality, either for the narrator, the investigators, or both.

What we don’t get much of, at least in books, is the missionary experience devoid of spirituality or drama; instead a narrative of what it’s like for young adults to be thrust into a mission, a culture and land they are novices in. Becoming diplomats, problem-solvers, counselors, ministers, and so on, come with mistakes, frustrations, anger, happiness, disillusionment, repressed passions, spirituality, ego, regret, and sometimes, as much wisdom as can be spared on a person so young.

“The Mission Rules” is unfortunately structured in a manner that may reduce its readership to primarily returned missionaries who will nod at the parts they recognize well. It’s a collection of anecdotes, in no real time order, of a missionary’s service in Brazil. If a theme could be established and sequence installed into these stories, it might have been a seminal work that describes mission life through the eyes of a missionary.
Nevertheless, so many instances that comprise the mission experience, from the mundane to events that can shape one’s life views, is captured in “Mission Rules.” Elder Barker’s experiences include the local populace’s fascination with voodoo and the supernatural, the experience of getting robbed by criminal gangs, the absolute random events that drive missionaries from frantically searching for homes to teach a discussion in, local ward members to accompany them, or even locating a baptismal font, to consciously ignoring absolutely beautiful girls and women who are trying hard to be attractive to you, eating food that is not at all palatable to a gringo’s taste buds, or picking out your evening meal while it’s alive and penned in an open-air market. Or that old missionary favorite, encountering a child at the door who tells you the parents are not at home. (My favorite response to this was to ask the youngster to ask his or her parents when they would be back)

And these are events, that after the drama, frustration and temptation, you can find humor in afterwards. But Bailey also relates the events, familiar to many missionaries, that never find a humorous conclusion, the pressure to baptize that comes from a mission president, relayed to the president’s assistants and handed down to zone leaders, the lecturing to elders who fail to meet goals, the insinuations that their faith is lacking, or they are sinners, because they haven’t accomplished 10 first discussions, or a certain number of baptisms. In a Stockholm-syndrome-type effect, even missionaries repulsed by the bullying become enablers of the pressure to baptize as they seek to move up the mission business hierarchy and become zone leaders or assistants.

In Bailey’s book, this derives from a mission president who considers the mission, and perhaps the Gospel, as an extension of his business experiences, and sees his charges as workers who can’t be fired. In the president’s opinion, the best missionary is one he never interacts personally enough to get to know very well. There is a strong scene in “Mission Rules,” near the end, where Elder Barker, in his final “personal meeting” with the president, wants to express some of his discomfort about the business-like manner the mission is run and the lack of spiritually. However, he realizes it’s pointless now and instead asks a silly doctrinal question that he has no interest in exploring and knows the president will evade. The passage sums up the depth of relationship the president has with his missionaries.

There is another strong passage in which a missionary, saying goodbye to an older woman that he has converted, along with her daughter, is made uncomfortable by the mom’s farewell declaration of how much she loves him romantically. Although romance between elders and girls they baptize is not uncommon — witness the occasional post-mission marriages — the type of yearning that Bailey describes hit a nerve with me. As a missionary to Peru, I had a mature woman tell me how much she loved and yearned for a much-younger U.S. missionary who had served there in the past.

What I like best about “The Mission Rules” and a few other books that deal with the mission experience (Coke Newell’s “On the Road to Heaven” and Douglas Thayer’s “The Tree House,” both from Zarahemla Books, are other novels worth reading) is how positive and ultimately faith-affirming a mission experience can be when it isn’t lathered up with an excess of faux spirituality.

The mission was not my best two years (actually, mine was 18 months in the early 1980s). But the amount of experiences I logged in Peru made it such an interesting experience. Here’s a small sample: teaching nubile teenage moms, with full view of their large breasts, while they breastfed their babies; having a military contingent point the rifles at me, and then, while I struggled to maintain my water, see the sergeant break up in laughter; having a knife thrust at my throat by the leader of a “wilding mob” of youths, and then being spared by the leader who said, “Don’t touch them, they are evangelicals!”; the “golden” families who failed to get baptized, usually because the father faltered; trying to get 7 or 8 investigators to Sunday services; dealing with a crooked lawyer while trying to get a couple civilly married and then, when that failed, meeting with the mayor of a suburb of Lima to set a date for a mass civil wedding date; mediating disputes between husbands and wives who had long ceased to love each other; trying to eat fishhead soup and extracting a long rat’s tail from a loaf of bread; battling flying ants, flying cockroaches, and moths as big as Book of Mormons; losing my temper, and paying for it later, at a pushy assistant hassling me over baptismal numbers; explaining to a drunken investigator that we could not procure him an LDS “sister” for sexual services; dodging insults and threats from drunken law enforcement authorities; arriving at Lima airport at 2 a.m. in the morning for a mission transfer, and, alone, having to get myself to the mission home 25 miles away via taxi. …. and so on.

There was a lot more great stuff; most of it I told people in letters and talks afterward. But these human experiences, the ones mentioned and others, became more important and treasured as time went on. I think S.P. Bailey understands that, and I hope there’s more realistic mission fiction out there. It’s worth more than the average MTC mission cultural class, I’d wager.

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17 Responses to ‘Mission Rules’ a too-rare example of realistic fiction about the LDS missionary experience

  1. Jeff Schrade says:

    For me, my mission was two of the most valuable years of my life. It was also two of the hardest. I was glad to see church leaders stop using “the best two years” in reference to a mission. That made it sound like one great joy-filled experience after another. It’s not. It can and should be filled with great, spiritual experiences. But it is often filled with daily challenges and lots and lots of hard work. In the end, a missionary should leave the mission knowing he or she has worked their rear end off in a worthy cause.

    I think LDS General Authority Vaughn J. Featherstone put it best when he wrote: “The mission life is not easy. It requires self-denial, mental and physical exertion, maturity, self-mastery, spirituality, and a very strong, positive mental attitude. It requires an elder to be a man, not a boy. A mission should be a Spartan life. It will require resiliency and total commitment.

    “To you my young friends who are preparing for missions, remember, it is not one of the most glorious experiences of life because it is easy. The rewards do not come from the glamour of the call nor from the personal attention and accolades that members extend to you after you receive the call. Missions are not rewarding because of assignments to exotic places. It is not a time when growth automatically takes place. A young elder whose girl friend or parents have persuaded him to go on a mission against his will or have offered some reward to him when he finishes his mission have done the elder a great disservice.

    “Fulfillment will come to the missionary who is willing to practice self-denial. The reward will come from Him in whose service we have been enlisted. No other reward or compensation can compare to the wage received from the Lord of the vineyard.”

    • ScottH says:

      I heartily agree that missionary service is challenging, spartan, and sometimes just mundane. I served in Scandinavia where success was pretty sparse. So I didn’t see the same kind of pressures Doug expresses about South America. Our challenges were quite different.

      I was a callow and flawed missionary. My mission president was a flawed and demanding man. But in many ways he was a wonderful man too. (Although one of my former mission friends maintains that our mission president was crazy.)

      As Jeff says, I came away from my mission knowing that I had worked hard and faithfully, although, I had seen few baptisms. There had been lots of tough times, but there were also many joys that I would have missed had I not have served.

  2. Nancy says:

    Thanks for writing the review but I really liked hearing of all your missionary adventures the most Maybe you need to write some realistic fiction from your mission experiences Hmm?

  3. Midwinter says:

    I miss the olden days when this blog was about politics.

  4. Neal Humphrey says:

    I wrote my own book about my LDS mission, filling two journals with handwritten reports on every single day’s activity.

    My mission president was a pleasant man with a gift for majoring in the minors. He’d been a life insurance salesman in Salt Lake City. We bumped some, which was difficult for him because I was also one of his hardest working and most productive elders. We were in a European mission where the average for convert baptisms over two years for a missionary was three. In fact, it wasn’t unusual for our mission president to elevate an elder to serve as one of his counselors even though the elder had never baptized a convert. In my case, me and my companions would average baptizing someone just about every month. For some elders that meant the only baptisms they “scored” on their entire missions was when they were working with me.

    And when I served in district and zone leadership, there was a spike in baptisms for the elders I was serving.

    Still, in my exit interview with my mission president he used the occasion to tell me how much he disliked me.

    ‘Bottom line: serving a mission was a key factor in helping me leave The Church.

    I haven’t changed all that much. But my person quirks my mission president found so unnerving are considered strengths in other religious settings. I’ve even served as the Moderator (bishop) of the Presbytery of Utah – a Presbyterian general authority, so to speak. Now I’m an ecclesiastical judge.

    • Lasvegasrichard says:

      I think you penned my initial thoughts on this whole crap shoot called missionary experience . It sounds just like an insurance or car salesman mentality. Heavy pressure to ‘seal the deal’ . And no matter that a majority of converts back away from this religion. And if true historical and doctrinal discussions were held, no one on Earth would join this outfit. That’s kinda like not being told the car they want to sell you has a bad transmission. I personally couldn’t sleep at night knowing the deception I was peddling .

      • Bob Becker says:

        If you believed it to be a be a deception, not likely you’d be “peddling” it on a mission.

        Talking with Mormons who’ve been on missions( some fallen away, some not), I get the impression that a substantual number of Mormons think/believe/ suspect that the main benefit from missions comes from the growth, experience it provides the missionaries rather than the harvest of conversions that might result.

        For the record: I am not now, nor have I ever been, nor do I expect ever to be, LDS. I have no dog in this fight. Just an interested non-believer reader of Doug’s columns.

        • Neal Humphrey says:

          And I’m not allowed to have a dog in this fight because I was excommunicated for apostasy some 30 years ago.

  5. Doug Gibson says:

    I had an experience similar to Bailey’s “Mission Rules” that I didn’t include because the blog was already too long. In “Mission Rules,” there is an account of the elders being robbed and later finding their stolen shirts for sale on the street. In June of 1984, I received a transfer to the Peruvian city of Chimbote. Upon arrival, the missionary I was with and myself separated briefly. I think I went to get a taxi and he was watching our luggage. While I was gone, one thief engaged my traveling companion in conversation while his confederate stole a portion of our luggage. I lost — in part — my Scriptures, about $100 in U.S. and Peruvian money, a Peruvian keychain collection I had accumulated, and my mission journal, which included 15 months of entries. Losing the journal was the only painful loss. To try to get it back, I put an ad in the local newspaper offering a reward for its return with no questions asked. No luck, never got it back. I harbor an idealistic hope that someday I’ll get it back although the realistic part of me acknowledges it likely has long molded away below garbage. Anyway, I’m off topic. As I mentioned, the elders in “Mission Rules” saw their stolen shirts for sale on the street. While I was in Chimbote I was bemused to often see selections from my stolen keychain collection for sale by street vendors. I never bought one; maybe I should have.

  6. carlos camacho says:

    So sad brother Gibson that you saw your mission the way you described. Our Heavenly Father knows all the challenges we are facing during our missions, and even though these experiences are not the most pleasant, they are important for our spiritual growth. My testimony of the gospel got stronger than ever after I returned from my mission. I wish one day you can see it the same way.

    • Doug Gibson says:

      I’m sorry you got that impression from my post, Carlos. My mission was overall a very positive experience, and it helped maintain my faith and activity in our LDS faith. Do we disagree that mission experiences should be sanitized or presented in an always-favorable light? … My mission president was distinct from the president in “Mission Rules.” He was an Idaho potato farmer who kept a low profile. Although I must have had one or two personal interviews with him, I can’t recall any of them now. I do recall liking him a lot. His assistants, with one notable exception, were similar in him to style. Pressure to baptize was institutionalized within the zones, with goal numbers and admonitions that we could match or beat that zone or program … The missionaries I worked with were overall good guys, doing the best they could and like myself, sometimes making mistakes.

  7. Neal Humphrey says:

    I just got up from my desk in my study at Westminster Presbyterian Church, walked to the bookcase where, next to my volumes of missionary journals is my 45-year-old Central British Mission I P (Instant Preparation) Handbook.

    Quote: “Our measure of success and purpose in being here is and always will be CONVERT BAPTISMS [sic]! There is no such thing as a successful missionary who does not convert and baptize.”

    Pressure to baptize in the mission field I served in wasn’t institutionalized, it was a commandment.

  8. Bob Becker says:

    Well, no, not really, since you were an LDS missionary and so can provide first-person narrative [or primary evidence so to speak] about the issue under discussion. Doesn’t give you a dog in the fight on matters of what LDS Missionary policy ought to but absolutely gives you standing in a discussion about what it was in fact, on the ground, in reality, during your mission. You’re an informed source on this one, Rev. H.

    • Bob Becker says:

      Damn. Above meant as reply to your comment about not being allowed to have a dog in this fight. Disquis hates me.

  9. Ben Pales says:

    When I went on my Mission in the early 90′s, in the wildly exotic State of Indiana, it was very much based like a sales organization. Many of the trainings were about moving people from “pool to pool”, from fellowshipping, to teaching, to baptizing using the commitment pattern. Just like any other Sales Organization they very much used Sales techniques, including the pressure from upper management, to hit your Sales goals. To be honest, I think that is why I excelled on my Mission and also after in other Sales Organizations. I have always said that if I could go door to door talking to strangers about Religeon, why would I ever be nervous about talking to physicians about medicine. If anyone tries to portray Missions not bieng high paced, high pressure Sales Organizations, they are bieng disingenuous.

  10. Pingback: This Month in Mormon Literature, January 2013 | Dawning of a Brighter Day

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