2017 marks 20 years since my mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Every Monday, I’ll be posting tales from that time.
So it’s been a few Mondays since I wrote about my mission…writing in general has been sporadic lately. The musical really derails my life, and every year it takes longer to get back to normalcy.
20 years ago at this moment, I was in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. The boundaries of the Montreal Mission at that time extended far north, way past Quebec City, and south into three small towns in New York (those towns are now part of a different mission). I knew before leaving the MTC that my chances of actually using my French on my mission were slim, and serving in Ottawa offered very few opportunities to speak French. I must have been concerned about that, because every journal entry from my first month in Ottawa is written in French. A sampling, from April 12, 1997:
IL NEIGE MAINTENANT!!! C’EST AVRIL, ET IL NEIGE! Alors, et on fair de porting ce soir.
Translation: it was snowing in April, yet we were still going to knock on doors. This is called tracting, and it’s what I spent much of my mission doing–going door to door throughout an assigned area in Montreal, talking to people about my church. I’m an introvert, so this was not easy work for me. But I did it, because we had goals to meet.
To outsiders, fans of the musical “Book of Mormon,” and those who are no longer LDS, “goals” in missionary service can come across as harsh–if the purpose of a mission is to bring souls to Christ, should numbers-driven goals be involved at all? My answer is a qualified yes. Without goals, introverts like me would never leave the apartment. I would never open my mouth to speak on a bus or metro, I would never preach.
But not even a month of service in Ottawa and my journals reveal early signs that my lifelong church participation and spiritual development would not follow an expected path. I was put off by the emphasis on numbers–so what if we only taught three people this week? Isn’t that three more people who heard our message? I wanted to work with people who had been baptized but weren’t coming to church anymore. I had been that person just three years prior–I felt I could offer perspective and empathy to them, and most important, love.
So when, on April 14, 1997, we got word that our assigned area had been cut in half, I wrote this: “Our area shrunk tons! But that’s okay. I think our tracting has been ineffective because we need to take care of the people we have now, reach out to people who aren’t coming to church, and then redefine success.”
This was not something I shared with my companion at the time, but as my mission progressed, I became bolder in expressing my disdain for quantifying the work of saving souls. And that boldness continued after I came home.
For example, yesterday I taught a lesson at church about Jesus. And at one point, I told the women I was teaching that we can never assume that everyone sitting in church believes in God and Jesus, because at times, I’ve gone to church and wasn’t sure I believed in God or Jesus. This can be a radical admission in some circles, especially when church is often the place where we put on our perfect faces and pretend we are “all in.”
I often wonder if I would be so outspoken now when it comes to spiritual matters if I hadn’t served a mission. I’m not sure I would be, because it was on my mission where I started to see how some people can lose sight of what Jesus’ gospel was all about–and having crawled back to the church after leaving it, I wasn’t going to spend my mission too concerned about anything other than loving people.
That framework made me a bit of a rebel missionary, but I’ve never really been one to do things the way someone tells me to anyway.