(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.