Yesterday (Saturday), I attended a session of the SLC Sunstone Symposium titled: “Sin of Omission: Spinning the Missionary Experience.” The presenter, John K. Williams, had gone to Bolivia on his mission. According his Sunstone abstract:
An LDS mission is commonly called “the best two years’ of one’s life. Most missionaries understand the difficulties, pressure to perform, mission politics, boredom, depression, emotional demands, and physical hardships of a mission. However, there is an unwritten rule to never speak negatively about one’s mission. Consequently, homecomings are typically uplifting pep talks, and candid discussion of one’s mission often provokes hostility.
Williams, who has a self-published memoir of his missionary experiences title: Heaven Up Here, didn’t really discuss the specific frustrations from his mission, other than his extreme problems with health which were aggrevated by physical hardships. He mainly stated that he was frustrated by the lack of candor among returning missionaries. And he read a series of comments he had received from other returned missionaries who had had similar thoughts.
Williams, who felt that the LDS Church was not going to change, had two suggestions for the parents of children going on missions:
- Before they leave, be honest about your own missionary experiences, and be as honest as you can about the experiences that are in front of them.
- When they return, in addition to having a physical examination, have a psychological evaluation.
Toby Pingree, a former missionary and mission president (both in developing countries), was the respondent. He tried for a more upbeat appraisal of the missionary experience.
My thought during the whole presentation was that there is an important secondary purpose in going on a LDS mission. It is an important right-of-passage or coming-of-age ritual. Living in a foreign environment is important; young Americans and Europeans frequently get a misplaced conception of the true nature of “reality.” Having said that, in the 1960s, I went to Belgium and France on my mission, so clearly I did not suffer the same physical hardships as Williams (who said at one point that his weight dropped to 114 lbs., clearly a serious problem). But still, I think it is important that young church members get an understanding of an “alien” part of the globe.
My real problem with my mission was not living conditions, it was the silliness of: mission rules, mission paperwork, giving the 6 discussion verbatum, the lack of cultural education, earlier “swimming pool” baptisms, the lack of a real vacation from missionary work, etc. And these were largely ignored in Williams presentation.
The entire session had a cathartic effect on nearly everyone in the audience (about 30). Each had their own frustrations about being in the mission field. Several said they had recurring nightmares about being recalled to their missions. (I haven’t had any of these.) One said he had a terrible mission president, and another remembered being yelled at by GA during a missionary conference. I’m not sure what Williams’ mission president was doing when Williams’ weight dropped to 114 lbs, but he was surely asleep as the switch.
When my sons got their mission calls, I was happy to see that one was going to the Philippines. To the best of my knowledge, he enjoyed his mission and had wonderful experiences. He has returned twice to the Philippines to visit. My son-in-law served his mission in Colombia. My other son and his wife, both served their missions in south Florida, almost a foreign mission. None of them seem scarred from their mission experiences.
One of the Sunstone participants indicated that after his mission, he went backpacking for 8 days in Europe. He felt that those 8 days of talking with other travelers were more productive than his entire 2-year mission. He asked Pingree if there was any hope for a much less structured missionary experience? Pingree just smiled.