No discussion of Mormonism, even one as aimless and amorphous as this, would be complete without mentioning the most visible—and arguably most annoying—aspect of the LDS Church: the missionaries.
Like an incredibly awkward, acne-riddled army, these teenagers and twentysomethings leave their families, jobs, educations and the occasional girlfriend to travel the world, selling Jesus door-to-door for two full years. During that time, Mormon missionaries live like monks; they give up television, films, and secular music, and are only allowed to phone their parents twice per year.
Incredibly, these youths serve willingly, without compensation, and have no say in where they end up. They fill out an application and spend the next two weeks waiting for a letter that will tell them where they’ll be suffering—excuse me, working—for the next two years. My application took an extra week to process, possibly because I listed my blood type as “warm” on the medical information page.
The time between turning in one’s application and receiving one’s marching orders can be incredibly nerve-wracking for the missionary-to-be, as he or she could be sent virtually anywhere in the world. Some of my acquaintances went to exotic, far-off places like Mumbai, India, while others merely received a bus ticket to Pocatello, Idaho, where it was once against the law to look sad. Seriously.
My two-year stint as a missionary took me to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where I quickly learned that drug dealers, contrary to popular belief, are just like the rest of us. I passed most of my days in shanty towns and spent a particularly memorable period of time living in a tiny flat situated above an all-night karaoke bar. I swear, if I hear the Portuguese version of “Who let the dogs out” one more time…
In spite of my less-than-ideal accommodations and a language barrier that took about five months to break down (I didn’t speak a single word of Portuguese before arriving), I learned a staggering amount about both myself and life in general in a surprisingly short period of time. Having grown up in a middle-class family, I had never even seen poverty, let alone lived in it. My two years in Brazil opened my eyes to the plight of developing nations while simultaneously giving me unique opportunities to serve others. While there I taught English, painted houses, moved furniture, and even made an ill-advised attempt at changing the spark plugs in my neighbour’s Fiat. I bet that poor guy is still trying to get that awful car started.
Obviously, the missionary program’s primary function is converting individuals to our particular brand of Christianity, a goal which doesn’t often sit well with other churches or their members, hence the astronomical number of doors that were slammed in my face. Nevertheless, I sometimes worked with ecclesiastical leaders from other denominations to solve problems that, frankly, were well beyond my 19-year-old maturity level. As a missionary, one can be called upon to play roles ranging from marriage counselor to Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, and in such situations an experienced pastor or rabbi can be an invaluable resource.
Overall, those two years in Brazil provided me with the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my young life. At times I was utterly miserable, yet the experience as a whole was undeniably rewarding in some sort of strange, round-about way. Some of my more devout friends insist that their missions were the best times of their lives and claim they would give anything to be able to go back. I, however, respectfully disagree. Frankly, I’ve had quite enough of the missionary position, thank you very much.