Before I get into my subject, memo to Sunstone fans; the June 2013 issue is the best I have read. Every article — from letters to in-depth features, was a must-read. And filmmaker Richard Dutcher offers an excellent short story, “Expiation.” This week’s blog was partially inspired by Tom Kimball, who handles books at Signature. In a short, personal essay in which Kimball offers his sentiments on watching — as a former Mormon — LDS priesthood holders set apart his LDS son for a mission, he wonders what his son will be like after his mission.
This line stayed with me: “Will the numbers game that rules so many missions open his eyes to my unbelieving view of Mormonism?” The “numbers game.” I have heard accounts, by Mormons and former Mormons, of the salesmanship pressures of baptizing. The “numbers game” pressure is a fixture in contemporary Mormon-themed fiction sold outside Deseret Book. I don’t doubt there’s a “numbers game” but the concept is foreign to me because I , drum roll, never experienced it during my time as a missionary. Not from the president, the assistants, the zonies …
I served an 18-month mission (1983-1984) in the Peru Lima North mission. It was a high-baptizing mission. In the 16 months I was in the field, my companions and I averaged between 8 to 9 baptisms a month. I assume those numbers were about average in the mission. I was in Iquitos (by the Amazon River), Chiclayo, Lima and Chimbote, a city blessed with too many fish factories and seemingly no rules on pollution. In Chimbote, we were frequently assaulted with waves of fish smoke!
Of course, we were urged to gather prospects, urge a commitment to baptism during the first discussion, and baptize converts, but there was never the follow-up pressure and cheers for baptizers and scorn for non-baptizers. We knocked doors in the AM, studied for a couple of hours in the afternoon (siesta time) and in the late afternoon or evening went to appointments, or knocked doors. Knocking on doors was not a difficult thing to do. I can only recall two occasions when the door was shut in our face.
Recreation was treasured in my mission. We’d get up at 6 a.m on Mondays to make our Preparation Day as long as possible. My fondest memories are in in Lima, by the Tupac Amaru highway, climbing the hills, early in the morning, in the outskirts of Lima. Near Chiclayo we once visited, via truck, a place sacred to Catholics, called The Cross of Chalpon. There were dozens of these types of trips. They relieved the tension that accompanies 12-hour missionary days six days a week.
On Monday night, there was zone meeting. We reviewed the week, went over procedures, congratulated missionaries on baptisms. But again, no pressure. I wonder if my mission’s easygoing style was due to the numbers of baptisms already being logged? Or was it the strategy of my mission president, an easygoing Idaho farmer named Harvard Bitter. I never saw anything other than good humor from him, and that includes the rare personal visits.
In fact, the “worst” thing that ever happened on my mission was when I was robbed at the Chimbote taxi stop upon arrival there. The casualties were my scriptures, about $70 cash, some Peruvian money, a key chain collection, and the big loss, my mission diary which had logged 15 months of my mission. I hated losing that. I put an ad in the paper, with a reward promised for its return and no questions asked, but maybe the robbers didn’t read the daily paper. (In subsequent weeks I was bemused to see parts of my not inconsiderable key chain collection for sale by street vendors at various locations.)
Warning: Very long sentence follows — Although I realize that my mission diary likely decomposed long ago in a landfill — is it possible that destroyed mission diaries are resurrected in the hereafter? — I still harbor a hope that it’s sitting in some members’ house and that one day, through the magic of social media — which definitely did not exist back then … we weren’t even able to watch LDS conference — I will be reunited with my mission diary, thereby having an absolutely fantastic spiritual anecdote the next time I’m tapped to give a talk in sacrament meeting.
Well, I have digressed from my original topic of not being pressured to baptize. As mentioned, to the best of my memory, I never felt the pressure others describe (even now my Standard Works colleague Cal Grondahl is telling me he was pressured to baptize in his 1969 to 1971 New Zealand mission). The only time I felt harassed was due to an overenthusiastic assistant who was a stickler for rules and was hassling me one day. I exchanged a few sharp words with him, which probably ended my faint hopes of becoming a zone leader. I was a district leader the final eight months of my mission, and was always given responsibilities over sister missionaries. My leadership skills could be summed up as follows: Work hard, and don’t baptize kids unless there’s a member parent or member adult sibling. One overly enthusiastic sister missionary used to complain about my “standards” to President Bitter (I read news magazines and boxing magazines) but the prez just laughed them off. (To be fair, I also polished off the “Book of Mormon” a few times, “Jesus the Christ,” the “Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt,” the “Articles of Faith,” and “Orgullo y Prejucio” (“Pride and Prejudice”), which I picked up in a Chiclayo bookstore.)
This stream of consciousness piece is about over. There’s another article in the current Sunstone, by Scot Denhalter, who ironically was in my mission area several-plus years before I got there. In “The Persistent Impermanence of Memory,” Denhalter argues that our memories may not be what actually occurred. As Denhalter writes, “… as the mind retrieves the raw data of memory for the first time, details needed to establish the logical coherence of the memory’s retelling — details not originally stored or possibly never perceived — can be unconsciously added, while seemingly unnecessary details can be left out or likely lost forever.”
I guess it’s possible my memories are skewed. Maybe I was pressured to baptize. But I doubt it.