A Mormon Mission


I lost myself in the service of self


Posted 05 Oct 2017    Edited 06 Mar 2019


This is me.



I don't have an exact date on this image, but I know I was 21 years old. I had just spent nine months on the Italian island Sardegna as a full-time missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If you look close, you can see the black name tag under my left thumbs-up. That name tag said:

ANZIANO HARRIS

CHIESA DI
GESÙ CRISTO
DEI SANTI
DEGLI ULTIMI GIORNI

If I had been serving as the same kind of missionary in an English-speaking country, the name tag would've been:

ELDER HARRIS

THE CHURCH OF
JESUS CHRIST
OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS

The picture above was [obviously] taken in Rome. I was en route from Sardegna [an island where I had been preaching and teaching as an official representative of the church] to Messina – the main port of entry to Sicily, another Italian island. I was almost exactly half-way through the two years of service that I had dedicated to serve as a missionary.

I was a little nervous about my new assignment; I was in awe at the beauty of the remnants of an ancient society all around me; I felt like my efforts to carry out missionary work were mostly ineffectual; and the normal life I had given up was the last thing on my mind.
To save myself any big trouble, I'm pretty sure I should say: I am not speaking as a representative of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am going to reference experiences from a time when I was speaking on behalf of the church; but, those days are over, for me. I'm just going to tell you what I did as a missionary and how I place those experiences in my life now.
It's hard to know where to begin this story exactly... I mean, every missionary officially starts his or her ministry with a "setting apart": a special ceremony where a church official places hands on the missionary-to-be's head and sets him or her apart as a full-time servant of God. A day or so later, the missionary is deposited at a designated Missionary Training Center (MTC), and, after a few weeks there, travels to the actual mission field [which could be anywhere in the world where there are people, beside the Muslim band stretching across most of North Africa and the Middle East; and mainland China – no missionaries allowed there, either].

Really, for each missionary, there is the "story of why this missionary is a missionary."

I was engaged in such a discussion my first couple days in the MTC. I was in a classroom with nine other new missionaries. We were all Italy-bound. Our instructor asked each of us, "Why are you here? Why did you decide to serve a mission?"

The answer I gave was, "I feel like God has asked me to do this. Since I was a teenager, I've felt like it's my duty."

But, the answer was a lot more complicated than that. Really, I had been conditioned to become a missionary from the time I was very, very young. Like, so young I don't even remember back that far.

Primary


I was raised Mormon, so when I was just a few weeks old, my parents dressed me in all white clothing and blessed me in a Mormon church [almost the equivalent of the infant baptism of Catholics, not in doctrinal equivalence, but as the celebration of a new life – and as the obligatory beginning of the child's relationship to the church]. That day, Brennan K Harris became officially registered on LDS church records – not as a member, but as a child of record. Since that day, I have been on the church's radar.

Here are my only intact memories from my childhood in the church:
  1. When I was about four, I remember being severely ass spanked in the foyer by my dad for dumping sacramental water out instead of drinking it.
  2. I remember sitting in a room with other kids while a lady with a fluffy mullet taught us to sing from the church's Children's Songbook. We sang about pioneers. We sang about Joseph Smith. We sang about living before being born. We sang a lot.
  3. I remember this game we would play, where two kids were selected as "it": one went out in the hallway, while the other hid a clothes pin somewhere in the room. The rest of us watched carefully where the pin was hidden. They called the student in the hallway back into the room. We were asked to sing a couple of our songs while the returning kid searched for the pin. We helped him by changing the volume of our singing depending on how close he got to the hidden pin: loud when he was close, and whispering when he was far away.
That's about it from my early days in Primary [that's what we call the church's curriculum and program for kids aged three to eleven].

I know that I must have been taught to sing a song called "I Hope They Call Me on a Mission." I don't specifically remember learning this, but the words have always been in my head. It goes:

I hope they call me on a mission
When I have grown a foot or two.
I hope by then I will be ready
To teach and preach and work as missionaries do.

I hope that I can share the gospel
With those who want to know the truth.
I want to be a missionary
And serve and help the Lord while I am in my youth.

The two main takeaways from Primary were one (1) the songs, and (2) the ability to please authority figures with the "right" answers to their questions. The call-response method in Primary is often used (sometimes in conjunction with candy) to teach kids about the church and about how to fit into it.

"Sally has a friend that asks to to watch a movie that has lots of swear words. What should Sally say to her friend?"

I don't specifically remember participating in this activity in Primary, but I must've bought way into it. I still have to really fight the urge, sometimes, to make trite remarks in church meetings.

Anyway, I eventually graduated from Primary to the Young Men's organization. Along with the move came my ordination to the priesthood. Twelve seems like a pretty young age to enter into the official lay ministry of the church and accept spiritual responsibility for the members of your ward [local organizational unit of Mormonism], but it's all part of the missionary preparation program.

Priesthood


In Mormonism, a young man typically progresses through callings in the priesthood. The priesthood is said to be God's authority to do things that he would do if he were around. The story is that Jesus Christ touched a guy's head and said he was in charge. Then that guy died, came back to life, and touched another guy's head – who touched another guy's head, who touched another guy's head, who touched another guy's head, who touched your grandpa's head, who touched your dad's head, who touched your head.

Boom. You are a twelve-year-old boy and you have inherited God's power.

I took this priesthood stuff pretty seriously when it happened to me. I was like, "Holy crap, I have a reason to come to church. I have people who depend on me to come and pass out sacrament bread and gather hymnals after meetings and set up chairs."

✝ 99.9% of the time I spent in the church as a teen was setting up or taking down foldable metal chairs.

A lot of Mormon meme creation centers on the folding chair phenomenon. I apologize to all the North American LDSs who will recognize that this chair isn't quite the same model that the church has a contract for. The legs and feet of real Mormon chairs are rectangular – not round

Keeping the building clean and passing out bread might not seem like much, but priesthood duty is an important, holy assignment. Each week, I was reminded that God had trusted me with his authority, and that I needed to remain worthy of it at all times. That meant no swearing, no porn, no drugs or alcohol, and no sex. My understanding was that I shouldn't even think about sex.

As a fourteen-year-old who spent eight hours a day mowing lawns in the summer, this was impossible. There's nothing else to think about when you're a male that age sitting on a loud, vibrating lawn mower for that long.

I spent most of my teenage years feeling like, no matter how hard I tried to do good things, I wasn't quite making the cut. I mean, God wouldn't use me as an instrument in his hands if I always had a boner. On top of that, I was pretty skeptical of the whole story of my religion.

It's a long story, kind of. You can read a church-sanctioned summary of it here, or a secular account of it here.

Basically, even though I didn't have much exposure as a kid to other religions or cultures, I understood that most people grew up with a religion, and that most people adhered to it for the rest of their lives. So, I reasoned that religious affiliation was merely an accident of birth. My parents were Mormon because their parents were Mormon. And we all would have been Muslim if we were born in Pakistan; or Hindu if it were India; or Catholic if it were Mexico.

That added a whole layer of internal conflict for me. I felt obligated to live up to the ideals of a good Mormon, at the same time feeling that I was just being subject to a historical accident. Joseph Smith, in the early nineteenth-century, convinced a group of people to believe something in a way that they convinced their kids and other people to believe it, too; just like all other religions.

But, I couldn't be a good Mormon if I thought that way. I had to really believe it to have power in the priesthood.

So every night, I read from the Book of Mormon. And every night, I prayed and asked God to tell me if it was true and if Joseph Smith really was a prophet and if Mormonism was true. I did that almost every night for a year. And I didn't get an answer.

One summer in the midst of this inner battle, my church youth group leaders invited me to take a week-long break from my hard-on-clad lawn care job to attend a campout. It was a big, long hike to the Upper Palisades Lake in eastern Idaho. On the second or third day of the trip, we had a "testimony meeting."

Bearing testimony is, in my opinion, the hallmark of Mormonism. In testimony meetings, each member has an opportunity to bear witness of what he or she believes to be true. The word "believe" is rarely heard in a testimony meeting, however. The politically correct format for bearing witness is to say, "I know that _____ is true," or "I know that the power of _____ is real," or "I know that _____ is important to our Heavenly Father."

I had participated in this ritual many times. Even though I was only fourteen or so, I had stated to small and large groups of Mormon people, "I know that the church is true," which, for me, was a lie. I didn't know the church was true. I didn't even believe it was true; but I definitely wasn't going to say that. Even that young, I kinda knew I couldn't be openly skeptical about what everyone else "knew" was true.

This camp testimony meeting was shaping up to be no different. A few of the adult leaders had shared their testimony about the usual stuff: the church is true, Joseph Smith is a prophet, the priesthood is real, God answers prayer, etc. Then, some of the boys my age shared their knowledge with us. Some of them claimed to know that the Book of Mormon was true. They said they knew it by the way they felt as they read it or when they prayed about it, asking God to show them it was true.

After a while, it was my turn. I started going through the motions, saying the words I knew would get the adult leaders off my back; saying the things I heard others say, but delivering them with some linguistic uniqueness to mask that they were hollow and dishonest.

Something weird happened, though. The words, "I know Joseph Smith is a real prophet" came outta my mouth, but the words weren't hollow or dishonest. They were full of light and joy. I felt like warm liquid was being poured into my body from head. The image of the trees and grass and the people and the air itself became clear. For a few brief moments, I could see every detail of every thing in my view. It was like all the different things around me became one perfect thing and I knew that Joseph Smith was a prophet. I was released from the inner turmoil that was causing me to be at odds with my world.

There were other things that happened when I was a teen that influenced my decision to serve a mission, but none of them were as important as whatever happened that day in the woods. I finally knew something. And I needed to do something about that fact that I knew it.

I interpreted my experience to mean that God told me, "Joseph Smith is a prophet." I continued to have major doubts about all the other things I doubted before. I didn't really believe the Book of Mormon was true [which is bizarre: I believed that Joseph Smith was a prophet, but I also kinda believed that he invented and lied about its origins].

I knew that the church experienced a succession crisis, so I didn't really have great confidence in the continuity of the church after the death of Joseph Smith. After the big feeling in the woods, I had experiences where I felt peaceful as I listened to modern church leaders talk, so I kinda let that ease my mind about whether or not they were good guys.

Even with all my misgivings, I felt like I should serve a mission. There was a pretty strong sense of expectation from my family and from my community that I go; but, mostly I felt like the leaders of the church wanted me to do it, and I was duty-bound to "put my shoulder to the wheel."

My plan was save up some money from a summer job after my senior year of high school, then submit my application for a mission. The job I got to make that money ended up literally breaking my back so I wasn't medically cleared to serve until a year-and-a-half later. Once my spinal column finished fusing, I submitted my papers.

With the application, you don't get to pick where you want to go. You send some forms to church headquarters that say, "I'm allergic to peanuts, and I have a sinus arrhythmia, and a clean criminal record, and I don't endorse any groups that are in official opposition to the teachings of the church, and I studied French in high school."

And one of the church's Apostles, who we believe gets revelation from God, looks at a giant board with all the missions in the world and all the stats about how many slots there are open, how many missionaries will be finishing their 1.5-2 year term of service in the next quarters, and some of the restrictions that apply to each area [it's not a good idea to send a diabetic kid to Africa where he can't refrigerate his insulin, for example].

And he picks where you go; and after a brief period of language training, they send you there. Everyone pays the same amount of money to serve a mission, but missionaries in developed, urban areas draw a lot more out of the centralized account, and missionaries in the developing world draw out much less. So, you either win or lose the lottery depending on where you are sent – and depending on what's important to you. European countries are a big win if you want a rich cultural experience with great food and safety from danger and disease. They represent a huge lose, though, if you want to teach people about Mormonism and baptize them into the church. In terms of places where you can really do some good missionary work and convert and baptize a lot of people, Christian West Africa, Christian Central Africa, and most of South America are prime.

My call letter came winter 2010. I was on campus at my university when my mom texted me and told me it had come in the mail. I drove home and ran inside. My mom was giving my dad a haircut in the kitchen.

I was like, "Mom, where is it?"

She was like, "Hold on, let me get the camera."

She hid it so I wouldn't open it without her. I was pissed.

My dad [with his wet head sticking out of a sheet] was like, "It's on top of the fridge."

In one motion I pulled it off the fridge and slapped it on the counter while simultaneous opening a drawer and grabbing a paring knife. I slit the envelope and peeked in. The call letter was on the very top of the stack of papers and booklets in the envelope. Even upside down, my eyes shot to the location: Italy Rome.

I smiled.

My dad was like, "Is it cool?"

I nodded.

My mom walked back in with the camera and saw me with the envelope. She was like, "You little shit!"



A few months later, I broke up with my girlfriend, got rid of my phone, and gave most of my stuff away. I checked into the church's Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah, with a couple new suits from JC Penney and a bunch of socks and white shirts and two pairs of shoes.

The Empty Sea


The primary reason I was assigned to spend nine weeks in the MTC was that I needed to learn Italian. Missionaries who are serving in areas where they will be speaking their mother tongue spend only two or three weeks there to get oriented to missionary guidelines and practice teaching the church's missionary curriculum.

The missionary training program is constantly being adapted in response to statistical reports of the church, and to changes in missionary training resources, and new church initiatives about what they want to accomplish with this army of bright-eyed volunteers. So, I can only tell you what I saw going on in the MTC in Provo, Utah from February to April 2011. All this stuff could be way different now.

Immediately upon arrival, a guy helped me stash my suitcase in my dorm, then took me to a big, open room with all the other new missionaries. There are about ten middle-aged women with stitch pickers in hand.



They cut my jacket's breast pocket open; we all arrived in our brand-new mission suits, and pretty much all of them come with the external jacket pockets stitched shut to hold them flush. We had no reason to open the pockets, but the MTC did: that's where our name tags went. After slashing our pocket stitches, they asked us our full name, and found each of our shiny, black, new name tags out of a box.

From that point, no one called me by my first name for two years. I was Anziano Harris.

I remember quite a lot about the nine-week period in the MTC. It was bizarre. One of the first memories I have is being taken on a tour of the facility. They took us into the cafeteria and told us about all the rules and meal times and stuff. I was like, "Ah, okay. Buffet-style meals three times a day. Unlimited soda and cereal. I can get down with this."

It was a huge cafeteria full of young, single people: all the boys dressed in suits and ties, all the girls in skirts or dresses; eatin' lunch; havin' a good ol' time. Except for one table.

I was like, "Who is the table full of dead-eyed kids?" They were all blank-stares and sighs. They ate like robots, not tasting their food, and not speaking to each other at all.

I learned a few days later that they were sitting at the Russian table. All of them were preparing for assignments in Russia or Ukraine; their language program was much longer than the majority of missionaries at the MTC, who [like me] were in Latin-based language programs. They had been in the MTC so long, they were becoming institutionalized.

From The Shawshank Redemption, 1994

The prison/MTC comparison isn't a bad one, actually.
  • The schedule is absolute
  • The menu is cyclical
  • Unauthorized contact with the outside world by any means is forbidden
  • The campus is literally enclosed in a fence
  • There is 24-hour supervision, in one form or another
  • A lot of emphasis is placed on superficial showings of obedience [shirts buttoned up, beds made, hair combed, lights out, etc.]
  • Everyone is dressed the same
There's a specific scene in The Shawshank Redemption where some of the inmates are watching a black-and-white film. The main character, played by Tim Robbins, comes up to his friend, played by Morgan Freeman, in the little theater room to ask him a favor. Freeman holds up his hand and is like, "Wait, wait, wait, wait! Here she comes. This is the part I really like, this is when she does that shit with her hair."

And the camera cuts to the little projector screen, playing the Rita Hayworth film Gilda. A guy in the film says, "Gilda, are you decent?" and Rita Hayworth seductively pops her head into frame from below. Gilda was released in 1946, so they couldn't show nudity or anything; but Rita is shown from the shoulders up, and she's clearly not wearing any clothes.

The horny, repressed inmates in the theater erupt in laughter and cheers. That little moment in the movie was all the sex they got.

I saw the exact same thing happen in the MTC. Every Sunday night they showed these crappy, church-produced movies. In a couple of them, there are some love story subplots. Both of them show some very G-rated, closed mouth kissing scenes. But, every time it happened, this gym full of nineteen- and twenty-year-old boys and girls start giggling and clapping, for the same reason as the prisoners: it was all we got.

Also in Shawshank, all the incoming prisoners are taken into a concrete room, right after they arrive. The warden welcomes them to the prison. He says:

I am Mr. Norton, the warden. You are sinners and scum, that's why they sent you to me. Rule number one: no blaspheming. I'll not have the Lord's name taken in vain in my prison. The other rules you'll figure out as you go along.

...

I believe in two things. Discipline and the Bible. Here, you'll receive both. Put your faith in the Lord. Your ass belongs to me. Welcome to Shawshank.

Then, in the movie, the prisoners are stripped of all their clothes and sprayed down with a fire house. Then they get a shot of delousing powder to the face and back. They put on their prison issued clothes, get a number ID, and begin prison life.

You don't get stripped naked in the MTC, and you probably never feel physically threatened or anything like that; but having your name taken away, wearing a uniform, following a strict schedule, and basically doing the same thing every day with small weekly variations – it all invites comparison to prison. To be honest, any of us could have called it off and walked out the front door; some of us did.

I watched a missionary who started running for home the minute he got in the MTC. He was my first "companion." Really, the companionship of missionary pairs is so fundamental to understanding a mission, I think it deserves a little aside here.

One of the missionary rules says:

Never be alone. It is extremely important that you stay with your companion at all times. Staying together means staying within sight and hearing of each other. The only times you should be separated from your assigned companion are when you are in an interview with the mission president, on a companion exchange, or in the bathroom.

Never make exceptions to this standard for activities that seem innocent but take you away from each other, including being in different rooms in the same building or in a home. Situations that seem harmless at the beginning can quickly lead to serious problems. If you live in an apartment with more than one room, always sleep in the same room as your companion, but not in the same bed. Arise and retire at the same time as your companion. Do not stay up late or get up early to be alone.

Obey the standards of missionary conduct and the rules of the mission. If you notice any inappropriate situation or behavior, discuss it with your companion. If the matter is not resolved, have the courage and love for your companion to ask your mission president for help. Violations of missionary standards may threaten your companion’s effectiveness and even his or her salvation. Care enough for your companion to ask for help from your mission president before a problem becomes serious. Your loyalty is first to the Lord, then to your mission president, then to your companion. If your companion leaves you, inform your mission president immediately.

Be aware that you have a responsibility to protect your companion from physical and spiritual danger. If you do not fulfill this responsibility and your companion engages in serious misconduct, you may be subject to Church disciplinary action.

So, I got assigned to be the companion of this tall, zitty kid from Arizona. I honestly don't remember his name. He was really quiet, and was acting pretty bizarre from when I first met him. That first day, he started to complain about different pains in his stomach and not being able to breathe right through his nose. Within a day of being in the MTC, he had to go to the nurse's office.

According to the rules, I followed him around. The nurse referred him to a psychologist who was on staff at the MTC. From there we got sent to the Vice Director of the whole place. I spent my first two days waiting outside closed-door meetings that this kid was having with all different people.

And he's not, like, talking to me or anything between appointments. He just comes out of the door and says, "Uh... We gotta go to the C building and meet with Elder Blah Blah Blah." And then I follow him there. The only thing I remember him saying was as he was coming out of the meeting with the psychologist. Under his breath, he goes, "Never see a shrink..."

After the first two days, they sent him home with an unofficial anxiety diagnosis and reassigned me to be the companion of a different guy. I thought about getting Anziano Arizona-boy's contact information so I could stay up to date with how he was doing, and see if I could encourage him to get back in it once his anxiety was under control or something, but then I got this funny feeling.

It was out of character for me, but my thoughts went cold, and I felt like it would be better to just forget about him. Maybe I was smug in my ability to stick with it. Or maybe I thought that he'd be a distraction to my missionary work. Either way, I don't know anything about him, and I never thought about him again until now, writing this up.

They shuffled some missionaries around and set me up with a new fella: Anziano Jimenez.



Jimenez was rad. He was from Texas, and was stoked about going to Italy. We were nothing alike. He was an athlete. I was a nerd. He was an extrovert. I was quiet. After our second day together, he was like, "Anziano Harris, you are freaking weird!" And I was weird. Being with a person 24/7 was something I'd never done before. Before the mission, I usually tried to spend as much time as possible alone.

Despite our differences, I liked Jimenez a lot. Actually, the entire group of missionaries going to Italy was cool. In my class, there were seven or eight guys and four girls. We spent ten or twelve hours together everyday as a group. Half the time, we were with paid tutors, and the other half was kinda self-directed study. It was full-immersion language training for three or four hours a day.

The rigorous schedule became a lot easier in the coming weeks. The food was pretty good. And getting to know these guys and girls was awesome. Spending all our time with each other, and struggling to learn a language together, and grappling with doubt and fear and frustration together really laid us bare to each other. We watched each other have emotional breakdowns like it was no big deal. By the end of nine weeks, we could all feel the love.

Not everything was bad, but without hesitation I'd say the nine-week stretch I spent at the MTC was the most psychologically uncomfortable experience of my life, for a few different reasons.

As a toddler and child, I had been nicely and gently brainwashed. I don't think this experience is rare, and I don't really think it's exclusively had by children of religious parents. We all get brainwashed in a fashion. One of my favorite quotes is by David Foster Wallace. He says:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.

...

Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Along the same lines as Wallace explained, I think raising a kid to believe in some non-violent, boilerplate Christian stuff isn't any more unethical than raising a kid with more secular beliefs and worldviews. Both perspectives will have their (+) and (-) effects on the mind of the child. I mean, short of actual brainwashing, most kids can choose to disavow themselves of it later if they really find it isn't right for them. For most people, I think lapsing out of a religion can be a lot like the transition from belief to disbelief of Santa Claus or the Easter bunny.

Like all the missionaries in my MTC group, I was raised from infancy on Mormonism. From what I'd been taught, I believed that God allowed us each to be free. So, God let people choose things for themselves, even giving them the chance to choose self-destruction – even letting them hurt and deceive other people – even giving them the freedom to take other people's life and freedom away.

So, it wasn't a big deal to me that some people chose not to be Mormon. I thought, "Obviously, in a world where few people are members of the LDS church, and everyone is free to teach and believe what he or she wants, most people aren't going to believe Mormonism."

Hilariously, Joseph Smith himself said:

I don’t blame any one for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I would not have believed it myself.

The administrators and instructors seemed to have a really different take on that. From the first day in the MTC, I was taught that the church's teachings were the answer to everyone's problems. I was literally told that if what I taught someone about Mormonism wasn't compelling to them, I should dig deeper to determine what "need" they had that could only be satisfied by our message. A reasonable sense of, "some people are not going to be into this" was not really on the table, in the MTC.

It was a radically different approach to the faith than the one I had become habituated to over a lifetime. I didn't quite recognize it at the time, but Mormonism was being framed as a product, and I was being trained as a salesman for it.

I don't know what I expected, honestly. I mean, how did I sign up to be an evangelizing missionary for two years without realizing that my job would be to convince people to accept what I was teaching?

I don't know what it feels like for everyone, but for me, the MTC felt like a giant experiment where I was the test subject. I could feel myself getting manipulated. I felt like I lost my grip on sanity and identity at certain points. The worst, for me, was the leadership structure.



Early on, Jimenez and I were called to be "zone leaders." They told us to be the example mission companionship for all the missionaries in our group. We were encouraged to report rule violations to the branch presidents who were the adult ecclesiastical authorities for us during our stay at the MTC. They also told us to mediate disputes with other MTC groups, and to confiscate any contraband toys or personal items that were against MTC guidelines.

I did it, too. In violation of my personal character and against everything I understood about Christian tolerance and my natural skepticism of authority, I turned into a ball buster. It strained my relationship with my companion and the other missionaries in our dorm and with the adult leadership. And I was always around all these people, so it was like an inescapable hell of tension.

Mormon missions have pretty clear rules, that get adapted to a certain degree depending on where in the world you serve. The problem is that different people and missionaries have different beliefs and interpretations of the rules. And the MTC has a set of guidelines that are specific to the nine-week period, but dissolve when you leave for the actual mission field. And this entire system that emphasized minutiae and outward expressions of obedience to arbitrary [and, at times, changing] rules, seemed completely antithetical to the spirit of Christ's message, which I was studying in preparation to share as a missionary.

Like, in the Bible, Jesus gets super mad at these Pharisee guys who think that rule-following is the way to God. At one point, he says

This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.

I thought that being a missionary meant that I would spend two years trying to be like Jesus Christ and teaching people about him. Once I got to the MTC, I felt consumed by bulletpoints in the Missionary Handbook and keeping my room clean and ratting out missionaries who didn't turn their lights off at 10:30 every night.

At times, my own mind became subject to George Orwell's doublethink. In his book 1984, Orwell describes a phenomenon the totalitarian state of Oceania has brought about in its population. He goes:

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it ... to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself -- that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word 'doublethink' involved the use of doublethink.

For me, the MTC was an exercise in doublethink.

A lot of missionaries loved the MTC. Despite the parts I liked, I hated it. It wasn't the gentle indoctrination of my infancy; it was a lot more invasive. It didn't involve physical threats, so it probably falls outside the strict definition of brainwashing, but there was something about it that felt evil, to me. The constant oversight by religious chaplains and teachers and other missionaries along with the emphasis on the rulebook as the most important metric for measuring each missionary's progression was hell.

Over the nine weeks, I could feel my mental resolve deteriorate; I'd lost a spark of individuality or something. I started to just inhabit the personality I was told I should have, at the expense of my genuine characteristics. Four or five months after I left the MTC, I felt like I got some semblance of an identity back. I lightened up on myself and enjoyed my mission experience without worrying about the rules I was breaking and the dear leaders I was disappointing.

Italy


was too much for me to take in.

I had spent my teenage years working for potato farms and potato warehouses in east Idaho. Besides a trip to California, I hadn't been out of the states that directly border Idaho in my life.

By the end of my mission, I could have told you a lot about Italy. I could've given you an authoritative glance into several layers of Italian society, from the perspective of the people. I spent time in the homes of people who were wealthy – who made their money by circumventing Italian law and through their involvement in organized crime. I'd lived among the poorest Italians – who barely subsisted on government aide. And I shared meager meals with the lowest classes in Italy: black immigrants from the developing world.

But if you'd have asked me what Italy was like within a month or two of arriving, my answer probably would've been mostly incoherent. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Every day was filled with these images that knocked the wind out of me – the architecture and the art and the culture and the history. Like, there would be this fascist-era monument that would totally grab my attention, but it was erected against the backdrop of a medieval city wall, and pretty soon I'd be transfixed on that, and thinking about how the world changed around that wall; but, how it had always been part of the city.

Because of a flood that struck my home town in the seventies, there were only three or four structures that survived from before that time. We have to rely on old photos to understand what Sugar City, Idaho looked like before 1976. Almost all the old folks live in houses they rebuilt for themselves, or bought new.

So, in contrast to that, the sense of history in Italy was overwhelming to me; not in a bad way, though. It was so, so awesome. What my companions considered the most mundane aspects of missionary life, I couldn't get enough of. Riding the bus was my favorite thing in the world. When bus drivers let me, I'd stand in the front near them so I could see more of the streets and sidewalks and shopfronts through the big windshield. Most of them were happy to have me up there to chat about whatever.

I tried to fill myself up with everything. I knew that I needed to stay concentrated to be a good missionary, but trying to stay focused on passing out religious propaganda when I was literally standing in the shadow of a 16th-century church was about as easy as not thinking about all the girls in my high school naked when I was a mowing those lawns.

Italy wasn't like I thought it would be. My naïve impression of Europe was that it was so post-everything. I thought that the people would all be well-educated and healthy, and they'd be politically informed and secular and completely rational. I thought that it would be a culture of wealthy and happy people who were liberated from racism and bigotry and traditionalism.

There were some things I was right about. But, Italy wasn't a utopia. The racism we complain about here in the US is nothing like what I saw in Italy. People's disgust toward immigrants from Africa and Asia and even Eastern Europe was totally open-faced. Even the youngest kids were consistently backward in terms of racial attitudes. It was like living in the past.

And there were lots of little things that were just weird. Like, lawn equipment and certain household goods [buckets, wheelbarrows, rakes, plastic chairs, garden accessories, tools for car repair] all seemed kinda shittily-manufactured. I don't know if that makes sense, but it seemed to me that there was a certain category of consumer goods that was kinda chintzy.

And sometimes you'd see a state-employed street sweeper, and he'd be cleaning up the sidewalks with a witch's broom made out of sticks and a bamboo handle. But he'd be wearing, like, modern clothing with a reflective vest and utility boots – and his primary tool was this 800-year-old version of a thing.

I remember once, walking up a sidewalk along a busy street in Messina, Sicily, I saw a construction team across the road stripping old stucco of the face of an apartment building. There was only about six feet of sidewalk between the building and the street. There was a guy standing with his shoulder against the building with a big hook on the end of a pole. He'd hook the claw into a chip in the cracked stucco, and pull chunks of it off.

From Corey Etzkorn's Textures of Italy

I just stopped walking and watched this happen for a while.

The pole he used was long and he was tearing big hunks of the building down from the level of the second-story windows; and they'd just fall and explode onto the sidewalk and the street.

No one had bothered to close down the lane of traffic closest to the sidewalk. The hook guy managed to dislodge a particularly large piece of rubble that broke off and crumbled into a few smaller bits of very non-uniform size. The surface that hit the ground first became a kind of gravel/dust mess, but then two larger pieces of rubble rolled out from the impact center. One of the pieces [which was probably twenty pounds, and about the size of a cantaloupe] rolled out into the street, right where traffic was tracking their passenger-side tires.

A car going 35 or 40 MPH swerved to miss it.

I couldn't stand to watch after that.

I saw three car crashes in real life, there. One was a cop car that t-boned someone outside our window. Another was a scooter that ran into the back of a stopped car at full speed. And the third one was a fender bender between two sedans. Right after the accident, both drivers got out of their cars and started yelling at each other. They were pointing to the damage on their own cars and inching toward each other, but getting less and less agitated. At one point, the smaller guy shrugged, and then they kissed each other on the cheek, got back in their cars, and drove away.

Discovering that Italy was not necessarily better than the United States in every conceivable way, was a little surprising to me, but I got over it quick. I actually grew to be super amused by the quirks that sometimes made my North American colleagues lose their patience.

If I could describe Italy in a phrase, it would be beautifully inefficient.

People generally worked only about six hours a day, and none of them were really working. There were a lot of shop owners who mainly kinda sat around. They took long breaks in the middle of work ["peak hours" in America] for lunch and a nap. In August, most people literally move to the beach for the entire month.

It all contributes to a great lifestyle, and a relatively sick economy, considering the resources available as raw material and human capital.

I never saw these things as negative, though. I really was envious, in a way. When I was there, I wished I could stay forever. Even now, I feel attracted back, not to visit as a tourist, but to live as an expatriate.

The man-made parts of Italy are beautiful, and they're made even more so by the way they're weaved into the natural landscape. Italian soil is fertile, and the climate is ideal for growing and enjoying, and there are mountains and rivers and caves and beaches and white clouds on blue skies.

I almost don't want to talk about the food – it seems too obvious to discuss.

As an American, I see food as something that I buy and eat. I really enjoy food – from stuff I cook at home with premium ingredients to things I buy for one dollar at Wendy's. Here, I feel the necessity of eating – and even the pleasure of it – but I don't experience the essential nature of life in each meal. In Italy, I did. Whether I was eating in the apartment with my mission companions, or sharing a meal with a small group of Italian Mormons, or buying a pizza in a small, hot place run by a bunch of old men, I was growing closer to the people I ate with. I was, like, falling in love with them.

Plus, Italian food just tastes so much damned better than any other food I've ever had.

I'm afraid I wasn't terribly informed about Italy's history or politics. I really liked learning and hearing stories about it from the people. Sardinians [or Sardi] had a sort of mystical view of their history. Once I listened to a guy tell me that Sardegna was originally populated by tribes of Hebrews who broke away from Moses's group during the Exodus.

Their political system was a mess, but I didn't stay updated on it, and I never really thought about it. When I was in Messina, a guy who came to our English class was like, "Oh didn't you guys hear? The government dissolved last week."

I was like, "So, who's running the country?"

He was like, "No one, really. We're in a transitional time between legitimate leaders."

I was thinking, 'If the government dissolved in America, wouldn't there be, like, a purge or something?'

Nobody there seemed to be too worried about it.

Beyond that, there were elements of Italian political issues that I saw with my own eyes [like the migrant crisis], but I never really understood how the country worked, as a whole. I don't know if the people did either, though.

The best thing about Italy is the people. They're really sassy, but good-natured. The most introverted [and even Asperger-y] Italians were more talkative than a typical American. They were opinionated and expressive and beautiful.

Seriously, every third girl was like a supermodel. Another third were pretty enough to be K-mart models. The last third was on the spectrum from normal-looking to not particularly attractive. They say that when you're a missionary, you get super thirsty and everyone looks hotter. But I knew it wasn't just that.

One time I was in Rome for a conference and I was on a bus, and somebody sat down next to me. I looked down and could tell it was a lady from her skirt and shoes, and she had a book on her lap. Being the good missionary that I was, I thought, 'I'll strike up an innocent conversation with this woman, and by the end, I'll trick her into becoming a Mormon.'

I was like, "What's that you're reading?"

She goes, "Oh, it's a biography of a painter. I'm reading for a class."

I was like, "Hm, how is it so far?"

She's like, "It's okay. Not my favorite."

Then she's all, "Do you like to read?"

I looked up at her. Up to that point, I hadn't seen her face. I had so far just kept my eyes down at the book.

She was like twenty-seven or twenty-eight years old and insanely attractive. She was dressed well, and her hair was styled, and she was wearing bright, orangey-red lipstick. Below these artificial adjustments to her appearance, I could see that she was completely beautiful. Her eyes were full of light and she was smiling at me. And she wasn't just asking me about books to be polite. She was, like, starting a conversation with me.

I was like, "Uh... Yeah. Yeah, I like to read. Yeah."

She was like, "Who's your favorite author?"

I sort of caught my breath and was like, "Uh... have you heard of the American author John Steinbeck?"

She hadn't.

I kinda looked away from her and shyly told her a little about The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden and how Steinbeck wrote about America during the Great Depression and how, in my opinion, he really had a deep understanding of people, and that came through in his novels.

I was like, "I've mostly read American literature, though. I'd like to read more Italian now that I'm learning it, but it's hard to read it for long stretches of time."

The truth was, I wasn't allowed to read anything but my approved missionary library for two years. But I wasn't about to tell her that and look like a freak.

She was like, "You speak Italian very well."

I was like, "Haha thanks. You should hear me speak English. I'm even better at that."

She laughed.

I was like, "Do you speak any English?"

Then, she said, "Yes, I speak English," in English.

I switched to English, too, and was like, "Oh, why didn't you tell me? We should have been speaking English this whole time."

She kind of cocked her head sideways and narrowed her eyes and lowered and softened her voice. She said, "No. I wanted to hear you speak Italian."

I was full-on flirting with this woman, and I couldn't handle it. Any thoughts of talking to her like a missionary were out the window. I'm thinking, 'Where do I go from here?' I looked over at my companion, and he's giving me the look like, 'What the heck are you doing?'

One of the missionary rules says:

Never be alone with, flirt with, or associate in any other inappropriate way with anyone of the opposite sex. Do not telephone, write, e-mail, or accept calls or letters from anyone of the opposite sex living within or near mission boundaries.

I didn't know what to say next, and luckily, our bus stop arrived right in that moment. I awkwardly said, "Um, I'm on a mission. Here's a card where you can see my church's website. Bye."

I got off the bus and thought, 'I'd have way more fun in this country if I weren't a missionary.'

Where I actually was in Italy.


The two years of my mission was broken up into sixteen 6-week "transfers." Every time a new transfer comes around, the mission president [for me, a guy in his sixties who had served on the board of JetBlue and some other companies and had a golf course in his backyard at home] lets you know if you're staying in your area, or getting sent to a new place.

One of the cool things about serving a mission in Italy, is that no matter where you're assigned, it's pretty much the raddest place you've ever been. Each city I served in was surprisingly unique. Like, here in the United States, you can travel from the east coast to the west coast, and experience very little change – you can eat at the same restaurants, and see the same architecture, and barely discern a difference in people's accents.

In Italy, you can ride fifteen minutes on a train, and get off in a town where the old guys are speaking an entirely different language than the old guys in the city you came from. That happened to me once in Sardegna. Each city has its own version of Sardo [that sounds kind of like Italian with all the vowel sounds replaced with long 'u' sounds], but once you go to Alghero, on the west coast of the island, the elderly are speaking a weird version of Catalan Spanish, since it was a Catalan port city in the Middle Ages.

My first area was Oristano in Sardegna [I stayed there 4.5 months]. I had two different companions there, then got assigned to Sassari [6 months], which was still in Sardegna, but at the far north tip. My third area was Sicily's main port of entry Messina [4.5 months]. The last 9 months of my mission, I was in Brindisi, halfway down the "heel part" of the country.

Another cool thing about serving in Italy is the heritage you follow. Jesus Christ's apostle Paul [who the Bible says saw Christ in a vision after his death] walked some of the same shores and streets that I walked. I was doing the same work Paul was doing, in some of the same places – that's what they told me, at least.

Somebody made a map of Paul's mission journeys in Google Maps. I plotted my path in on top of the same map. Paul's journey is shown below with red dots and blue lines. My mission is orange dots and red lines. Paul and I crossed paths in Rome and Reggio Calabria.



LDS missionaries call the beginning and ending of the mission "birth" and "death." So, Paul and I both died in Rome. Me by ending the mish, and Paul getting his head cut off by Nero.

Rome wasn't ever my assigned city, but I luckily got to spend a lot of time there for conferences and during transfers throughout the mission.

Missionary Work


There are two kinds of missionary work: fun stuff that makes you feel good, and tricky stuff that makes you feel evil. I did both, but I got better and better at doing just the fun stuff as time went on.

A big part of the official missionary program is to track and report "key indicators," which are quotas that you determine with your companion. There are daily, weekly, and transfer-long numeric goals that form the basis of LDS missionary work, globally.

The weekly summary section of a missionary daily planner

The key indicators establish how well a missionary companionship is bringing new people into the church. The ultimate goal is baptism and confirmation, which means that a person [called an "investigator," or "sympathizer" in Italian] has met consistently with a missionary companionship over the course of a few weeks [at least], has attending Sunday worship services, has demonstrated a belief in and commitment to church practices, and has entered the church officially by being baptized in water and confirmed as a member by the laying on of hands in a Sunday meeting.

The other indicators are supplementary to that ultimate goal. They have to do with how often you are meeting with the people you're teaching, how many times you involve already-established church members in your appointments, and how many new people you meet each week. The church has determined these indicators from stats analyses of missionary work over the years.

Some missions adopt different priorities. I had one friend who served in Ghana about the same time I was in Italy. He said that their main goal was a more targeted style of missionary work. Because most Africans were willing to be taught by missionaries and be baptized, the church was experiencing problems from the rapid growth – local units were growing quickly, but they lacked members with the experience and ability to serve in leadership roles. The churches there were huge, but lacked organization. A lot of times, charismatic new members took hold of the membership and started practicing and teaching things the official church didn't like.

My friend said that, at a certain point, they were only teaching people who had stable careers, intact families, and who could speak English.

For us in Italy, it was hard enough just meeting new people who would listen to us for a few minutes. The average missionary only baptized a handful of people during the two years of service. I knew some missionaries who never baptized anyone. Missionary work, in many areas, was an experiment in masochism.

For the first half of my mission, I knocked on tons of doors trying to find people who would listen. Sometimes, my companion and I would go weeks without really teaching anyone. We tried approaching strangers on the street. We tried door-to-door techniques. We also used teaching records from previous missionaries in our area to contact folks who had expressed interest before, but had lost touch with missionaries for one reason or another.

As a brand new missionary, getting rejected was hard. I took it really personal when someone slammed a door in my face or told me they weren't interested or whatever. I quickly built a callous, though. I got to the point where I couldn't wait to see the different ways people would use to avoid us or get us away from their door.

The vast majority of the people who were willing to talk to us were literally mentally disabled. By about the half-way point of the mission, my first response to someone who expressed interest in the church was skepticism. I was so cynical, I sometimes thought, 'What has gone so wrong in this person's life that she actually has invited us in to speak with her?'

At their worst, I sometimes worked with missionaries who tried to harness the suffering and vulnerability of people to draw them into the church. I met missionaries who grew to see family members of the recently deceased as targets for missionary efforts.

The church's guidebook for missionaries Preach My Gospel literally says:

Work with the bishop and the ward council to identify and contact people who have recently had a baby, moved to the area, or experienced a death in the family.

Obviously, the leaders of the church see this as an effective strategy for finding people to teach. I always thought it was creepy. The mission gave me opportunities to help people who were in tough situations, but I always tried to avoid spinning their tragedies into a method for filling my quotas.

The same section of Preach My Gospel offers several guidelines for finding new people to teach. One of the big strategies is asking people for referrals to others who might be interested. This is a classic sales strategy that you'll hear used a lot by door-to-door salesmen and real estate agents and stuff. If they lose the sale to you, in a last-ditch effort, they ask, "Do you know someone else who would be interested in _____." It works, though.

As I got older in the mission, I abandoned traditional techniques like door knocking and street contacting in favor of these more networking style approaches.

I really liked the rare occasions where I actually got to teach people about the church. I had two or three experiences where I taught people who were genuinely interested in what we were teaching, and one or two of those got baptized. Meeting these people seemed like a mix of luck and miracle.

One time, I met a guy who listened to the words he heard in a dream that told him to go to the bus stop outside his house. He listened to the dream against his better judgment, and when he got outside, my companion and I were waiting there for a ride to the next town. He said hi to us, and we made an appointment to see him later. He was Muslim refugee from Chad who spoke English. We taught him for a while, and he eventually became so conflicted about what he believed about Islam, and what we were teaching about Christianity, that he asked us to stop visiting with him. I had strange experiences where I felt like I was peering into his soul, and that he was peering back into mine, and that we were able to communicate by shared experience instead of talking.

It was extremely rare, but I had other experiences like that on the mission, where I felt like I had a real connection to people, and that God was present in some way. There were a few times I felt transcendence, similar to that time I was in the woods as a teen.

Mostly though, I went through the motions.

In each city I served in, there was a free English course taught by the missionaries. Usually, they sucked because missionaries used them as traps for potential investigators, and didn't do any work making the actual course good. I developed flyers in each city and plastered them up all over. About 90% of the calls we got were from people interested in the course. When we made English course a priority, we almost always saw it grow from a group of a few weirdos to the capacity of what we could effectively teach.

One of my companions teaching an English class in Sassari, Sardegna

It was a good way to meet people and build relationships, while doing something that benefited the community and didn't feel wrong.

At the end of each lesson, I'd go like, "All right, that's it for tonight. If you want, Anziano _____ and I will give a spiritual thought. If not, that's fine. See ya, Tuesday."

Not everyone stayed, but a lot usually did. Where the official missionary lessons were really structured and were intended to prepare people for baptism, the thoughts we shared at the end of English course lessons were free form and open for questions from the group. In my last area, I had been with the same group of people for a long time. I became really good friends with some of them.

Friends from English course in Messina, Sicily

Meeting twice a week for several months, I had given them a basic overview of the church, and couldn't think of what else to share. One night, we asked the people who stayed for the thought if there were any questions they had about Mormons or missionaries, and compiled them as a list. That was the kind of missionary work I liked the most: getting to know people and answering their questions without quotas in mind.

Pulling Back the Veil


Overall, I'd say my experience as a missionary actually shook my faith way more than it built my faith – which is kinda the opposite of what the church is trying to accomplish with the program.

In my second year of being a missionary, I got called to be a zone leader. Unlike the MTC, where that meant I had to be a dick, being a zone leader in the actual field was fun. There weren't many responsibilities beyond normal missionary work, and the responsibilities you did have were things you'd want to do anyway. Each transfer cycle, you got to spend a day or two doing missionary work with each anziano in your zone. Also, once a transfer, zone leaders got to attend a conference with the mission president and his wife in the mission home. I got to see old companions I'd worked with, and do a quick tour of something in Rome. The actual conference was, like, a lot of administrative stuff and some initiatives the mission president wanted us to lead out among the missionaries. At the end of the night, though, the mission president and his wife stayed up late and let us ask them questions about whatever we wanted.

One time, I asked the president, "What percentage of the missionary program is intended for its stated purpose – to bring new converts into the church – and what percentage is just designed to be an experience for us as missionaries to deepen our faith?"

Based on all the rules and conditions established by the church, it seemed to me that there were plenty that had nothing to do with bringing people into the church, and a lot that only affected missionaries and their personal commitment to the standards of the church.

The president said, "Well, in my handbook, there's very little instruction about what I'm supposed to do to help bring more people into the church. There's a ton of stuff about what I'm supposed to do for you guys. Most of my focus is helping you be safe and helping you grow."

I was like, "So how much of it is for us?"

He was like, "I mean, both purposes are important, and it's hard to put a number on something like that, but I'd say at least seventy-five percent of the reason we have missions is to develop the missionaries."

This report from the church, published back in 1979, reinforces the view that missions are designed to alter the long-term trajectory of the missionaries who serve them. The report discusses the rates of participation of returned missionaries in important activity metrics, like how many were married in LDS temples, how many had callings [volunteer ministry positions], and how many paid the full 10% of their income required for full-privileged standing in the church.

The report [which was written by Orson Scott Card, the Mormon author of the Ender's Game series] claims a high correlation between improved church participation and the status of church members as returned missionaries.

I think part of this phenomenon is fueled by the amount of exposure to opposition you encounter as a missionary. A good percentage of missionaries originate from high-density Mormon communities in Utah, Idaho, and Arizona. For some kids, their experiences in the mission represent the first time their core beliefs are challenged. For some, the mission is the first place they realize that there are people in the world who believe just as strongly as them – in totally different things; in other gods, or in no god at all.

I think, on balance, this ends up being a good thing for the missionaries, from the church's perspective. Having their beliefs constantly questioned leads young missionaries not to doubt what they believe, but to believe way harder.

In an article he published in January in Scientific American, Michael Shermer explains why people double down on their beliefs when exposed to contrary information:

In the classic 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, psychologist Leon Festinger and his co-authors described what happened to a UFO cult when the mother ship failed to arrive at the appointed time. Instead of admitting error, “members of the group sought frantically to convince the world of their beliefs,” and they made “a series of desperate attempts to erase their rankling dissonance by making prediction after prediction in the hope that one would come true.” Festinger called this cognitive dissonance, or the uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts simultaneously.

Two social psychologists, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (a former student of Festinger), in their 2007 book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) document thousands of experiments demonstrating how people spin-doctor facts to fit preconceived beliefs to reduce dissonance. Their metaphor of the “pyramid of choice” places two individuals side by side at the apex of the pyramid and shows how quickly they diverge and end up at the bottom opposite corners of the base as they each stake out a position to defend.

In a series of experiments by Dartmouth College professor Brendan Nyhan and University of Exeter professor Jason Reifler, the researchers identify a related factor they call the backfire effect “in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.” Why? “Because it threatens their worldview or self-concept.” For example, subjects were given fake newspaper articles that confirmed widespread misconceptions, such as that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. When subjects were then given a corrective article that WMD were never found, liberals who opposed the war accepted the new article and rejected the old, whereas conservatives who supported the war did the opposite ... and more: they reported being even more convinced there were WMD after the correction, arguing that this only proved that Saddam Hussein hid or destroyed them. In fact, Nyhan and Reifler note, among many conservatives “the belief that Iraq possessed WMD immediately before the U.S. invasion persisted long after the Bush administration itself concluded otherwise.”

There were three reasons, I think, why I ended up less convinced of Mormonism after the mission.

The first was the extraordinary doubt that I felt before the mission ever started. The thought that Joseph Smith invented a compelling religion that I ended up being born into was too obvious to ignore. Because I never struggled to see Mormonism as a human invention, the church's humanness seemed really apparent to me, especially on the mission.

The second thing that did my testimony in, to some extent, was the exposure I had to differing views in Italy. This is a picture of me next to some graffiti in Sassari.

My companion was a little freaked out that I wanted a picture with this. After the mission, I came home and read Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, my interest stemming back from this exposure to the graffiti

It's a real quote from Nietzsche that says:

A stroll through an insane asylum shows that faith doesn't prove a thing.

This idea really resonated with me. I was going about, promising people blessings of well-being in this life and the next; but I also was having experiences that contradicted that message of benevolence from God.

In that same city, there was this thirty-year-old guy Maurizio who attended our English course. He was super nice, and always came early and stayed late. He looked totally normal, but there was something off about him. He had some kind of mental delay that affected his speech and his ability to socialize.

One day, he called us at lunch time. He asked us to meet him on the other side of town. He tried to explain why, but I couldn't understand what he was talking about. He sounded like he needed our help, so we hopped on a bus and met him outside an old church. He asked us to follow him. He was leading us along the edge of town in a neighborhood neither my companion nor I had ever been. We eventually ended up at the entrance of a medical center.

He led us inside.

We literally had no idea why we were here, or where we even were. As he led us through hallways and up staircases, nurses and med techs were waving to him and calling him by name. Abruptly, he led us into a hospital room. There was an older woman lying on the bed, with her eyes rolled up, staring at the ceiling. She showed no sign of knowing we were in the room.

Maurizio said, "This is my mom."

My companion and I were just standing there, not quite sure what to do. Maurizio was kinda smiling and waiting for us to do something.

I said, "Maurizio, do you want us to give your mom a blessing?"

He said, "If you can. I mean, if there's anything you can do to help her..."

My companion and I placed our hands on his mom's head. She had a reaction to our touch, but it was more like a plant reacting to a change in sunlight or something. Her face scrunched up and she strained her head away from our hands. She didn't seem to see us, or have any conscious awareness of what was happening. I said a prayer and asked God to bless her and help her. Through the prayer, I had this feeling of dread and shame, like what I was doing was really wrong.

When I finished the prayer, I looked up and saw two nurses who were waiting to care for this woman, but who waited for us to be finished. One had a look of kind appreciation on her face, and the other had a look of contempt.

I was like, "Hi, we're friends of Maurizio. He invited us here to give his mom a blessing."

I couldn't wait to be out of the room and the hospital.

Maurizio led us out and asked us to follow him some more. He took us on a wandering route to a care facility he was enrolled in. It was a nice villa with a huge yard around it. Scattered around the grounds were patients and caretakers. Some of the patients were severely handicapped, sitting in wheelchairs while caretakers wiped drool from their faces. Others looked to have Down's syndrome, and were playing yard games.

Maurizio told us we needed to talk to someone there. We were like, "Okay..."

We sat in a waiting room for a few minutes before a well-dressed lady invited us into a conference room. She looked puzzled, and introduced herself as the director of the care center.

I was like, "We're missionaries here in Sassari. We run a free English course that Maurizio attends twice a week. He just took us to the hospital to see his mom, and then brought us here, I guess to meet you."

She put her palm to her forehead. She was like, "Oh dear, I'm so sorry. He's probably just wasted a huge part of your day."

The funny thing was, he hadn't wasted any of our time, really. At that point in Sassari we had no one to teach, so we would have just been blindly knocking doors anyway.

She apologized a few more times. We left her our contact info, and asked her to call us if there was any community service or anything we could do for the care center.

Maurizio was waiting for us in the lobby. He led us out of the facility to a place where we could catch a bus back to the church. Right as he rounded the corner after dropping us off and leaving our view, the bus arrived. Before we could even catch our breath and talk about how crazy what just happened was, this other guy we knew hopped off the bus: Benedetto.

Benedetto was another mentally disabled guy we had met. He was in his forties and lived with his parents. Missionaries had tried to teach him in the past, but he mostly asked the missionaries over to practice his English. Whenever missionaries tried to explain that they couldn't spend time with him if they weren't actively teaching him about the gospel message, he would feign interest in Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon to get them to stay. I had met Benedetto just one other time, at that point.

Immediately upon stepping off the bus and seeing us he starts talking to us in English. He was spouting off sentences as quick as I ever heard a native English speaker talk. He goes:

Oh my dear missionary friends, here you are I'm so happy to see you I've been wanting to talk to you in these days I am very interested in going footing and I want to get a suggeriment from you of where I should be do my footing I feel so many things in these days and I need to practice my English my father is a good man and I want to buy a present for him, but I need to practice my English to I can get a job to make some money to get a gift for him and...

I cut him off. I was like, "Benedetto, we'll have to see you later. The bus is waiting."

We hopped on the bus and as the doors closed behind us, I started laughing hysterically. My companion was embarrassed and the old people in the seats were staring at me like I was crazy. I could feel tears welling up in my eyes, I was so disturbed and sad, but I kept on laughing way hard.

I had no idea how to process the chain of events.

As the weeks went on, Maurizio asked us a few times if anything would change with his mom. We awkwardly tried to explain that all things were possible with faith in God, but he also had a divine plan that seemed mysterious to us, sometimes.

All I knew was that I accomplished nothing as a missionary in the four-and-a-half months I spent in Sassari. Other missionaries tried to say that we were sowing seeds. Our mission leaders encouraged us to believe that God was happy with our efforts whether we saw the fruits or not. But, at that time, the Nietzsche quote seemed true enough: our faith couldn't help anyone with real problems.

The third thing that really made me question my mission and my life was the juxtaposition of my religion [which was relatively tiny in Italy and Europe] against the backdrop of hundreds of years of Roman Catholicism.

One of the key doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the concept of restoration. In the church's own words:

The gospel of Jesus Christ was lost from the earth through the apostasy that took place following the earthly ministry of Christ’s Apostles. That apostasy made necessary the Restoration of the gospel. Through visions, the ministering of angels, and revelations to men on the earth, God restored the gospel.

After the mission, I took a class offered at my LDS-funded university on early Christian history. We talked about some of the actual events and forces that perverted Christ's original teachings, and led to the apostasy [or falling away] of the original Christian church: the acquisition of the church as the state religion by Constantine, the changing of church ordinances like baptism, and the introduction of Greek and Roman philosophy into the teachings of Christ.

Many of the changes that occurred were carried out by perfectly well-intentioned people and church leaders. But, they ultimately turned the simple Christian church into a politically powerful entity that sought money and power and taught totally weird stuff.

The Book of Mormon has a few chapters dedicated to the fall of the Christian church. It calls the church that rises to take its place the "great and abominable church, the whore of all the earth." One time, a guy we were teaching read this chapter and was like, "It's talking about the Catholic church isn't it?"

Trying to be politically correct, we were like, "No, it's just referring to the general state of apostasy on the earth after Christ left the earth."

He was like, "No. It's the Catholic church. I know. I was raised Catholic. I know all this stuff about it is true."

I had a genuine appreciation for the Catholic church. I didn't meet a ton of nuns or priests while I was there [it's like we had completely contradictory worldviews or something], but the ones I did meet were warm, generous people.

I saw all the good the church did for the people, in the form of soup kitchens and homeless shelters and schools and gyms for kids. But, I could also see that the Catholic church was a political entity. Several times, I had the opportunity to visit the nation of Vatican City. The church had money; and it had influence – in politics, and in the minds of believers.

Inside St. Peter's Basilica, January 2012

And I couldn't help but realize that as Catholicism is to Italy, Mormonism is to Utah [and, by extension, Idaho – at least the part I grew up in]. Mormonism really was the overwhelming dominant factor of culture where I grew up, just like Catholicism had been for so many years in the country where I served my mission.

So, to be logically consistent, and honest, I felt I had to hold my own faith to the same standard I held the apostate religion of the masses that surrounded me. I've committed hours to considering my own church's history. Even if the restoration really happened, didn't it only take a couple centuries for intellectuals and political decisions to apostatize the original church? In thirteen years, it will have been two hundred years since the founding of the church that would eventually become the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Looking deeply at specific events in church history, and specific policy decisions, and interaction with U.S. history and politics, I see a lot of factors that mirror Catholicism's path. Money and politics changed the landscape of each one. Some teachings in the original version survive and grow, while others are forgotten or intentionally covered up.

I see a lot of good being done by each, and an overwhelming potential to do even more good. Both churches have large holdings of land and real estate and liquid assets that could be used as a concrete force for promoting human well being. Both carry out Christ's commandment to care for the poor and the fatherless and widows.

But the similarities make me see Mormonism as a slightly different version of the same old story. If I had served my mission anywhere else, I may not have thought so much about it.

To My Young Mormon Friends


My advice to any Mormon considering a mission: go. It's the most rewarding, transformative experience you will probably ever have. You'll have a framework for committing 90% of your time for something that is bigger than you; and that'll make you feel really good.

People always talk about how the mission is the hardest thing you'll ever do; but that really depends on you.

Once I stopped caring about my own plans and stopped thinking about home and stopped worrying about all the stupid crap they tried to get me to worry about in the MTC, I had a blast. Serving a mission wasn't hard, because there were no stakes. As long as you don't break any big rules, they're not going to send you home or anything. And if you start feeling tired or overwhelmed, you can just give up for the day.

I mean, you're volunteering your time to do everything. So even if you're the crappiest missionary in the world, you're still killing missionary work compared to the people who don't do it.

If the only thing I could have done for people was tell them about my religion, I don't know that I would have considered it a great experience. But, it was made up of way more than that. I taught people English. I toured over parts of Italy I didn't know existed. I learned a new language. With the exception of one, all my companions and I got along really well and had tons of fun. Being in a mission companionship was like getting to hang out with my best friend all day.

If I had to do it again, I think I'd enjoy it even more than my first go around. I'd be able to focus on the parts of it that made me happiest, and avoid the parts that made me feel evil.