This is adapted from a journal entry in spring 2002, about six months after I had moved to Helsinki. Names and details have been changed, but the mixed feelings I had at the time about my own mission and missionary work generally have been left intact. Any efforts to alter those feelings are several years too late.
So I went on a teach with the missionaries last night.
They are the kind of missionaries that I disliked on my mission — humorless, scanning everything for its righteousness quotient, earnest to the point of callowness. They know the missionary book forward and backward, but they don’t seem to know anything else. Needless to say they’re ZLs.
So I pick them up and they tell me the plan: the appointment starts at 6:30, so they’ll review what they talked about last week, go through the apostasy and the restoration, make another appointment for the week and challenge to read the BoM and attend church Sunday, then off to the 8:00 appointment. Sounds good. Then I ask about the people we’ll be teaching: more than one family of Nigerians. I smile, remembering my own experiences with teaching west Africans.
Sure enough, they’re not home. We call, yes, they’re on their way. I say something about ‘African time’ and smile, and we go to wait outside the building. I offer to buy ice cream, but the elders are restless — they spend the time calling people, canceling the 8:00 appointment. After an hour and three calls, a woman and two girls arrive, apologizing. The elder struggle to look cheerful, but they do.
As we go inside, I meet Ifi, who is about my age and originally from Nigeria. One of the two girls is hers. The elders want to get teaching, but she says she needs to make some food for them — it’s not OK for someone to come to her house and not eat. Again, some tension, but they go along with it with smiles.
While she makes the salad, I chat with Ifi in the kitchen. It turns out she is already a member of the church. Her parents joined in the late 1980s, and her brother and sister recently returned from missions. She shows me her Ibo Book of Mormon and even hums a few bars of ‘The Spirit of God.’ On the other hand, she calls the sacrament ‘communion,’ says her daughter was baptized as a baby and inexplicably asks the missionaries if they eat pork, so her involvement in the church seems to have been distant or limited.
So we eat a little, and then we settle in the sitting room for the lesson. It’s 8:00. They start, and the phone rings. Then someone drops by and decides to join the lesson. Then another call, this time from Africa. Two more people arrive, then one leaves. The elders’ smiles are getting thinner and thinner. They build a pyramid out of paper cups and ask leading questions about the priesthood, about which nobody seems very well informed. The teenage girl says, ‘I don’t remember what you said about the priesthood, but I remember the Holy Ghost.’ I jump on that and start talking about the Holy Ghost, but the elders wait me out and get back to their paper cups.
Finally its 8:55, and they need to get their commitments out. First, an appointment for later in the week. Thursday night? Yeah, probably. One elder, exasperated, says, ‘Can you promise to be here Thursday night at 6?’ The two adult women there at the time give each other a smiling look. The teenage girl says, ‘I’ll probably be here, but I’m not going to promise anything.’ There’s a little squabble with the girl’s mother, and they all agree to meet on Thursday, but nobody promises. Ifi mentions she’s going to make fufu [a traditional west African dish], which brings back great memories for me. We pray and leave, all smiles.
In the car, the elders fret. The progress seems quite slow to them. I suggest that they need to adjust their idea of progress to the people they are teaching, and listen to them and try to fulfill their needs, mentioning the Holy Ghost incident. Elder Y says, ‘They’re really ready, almost golden. If we stay close to them and keep them progressing, they should be baptized, especially Ifi.’
Oh dear. I say, ‘Um, I think Ifi may already be a member of the church,’ and I paraphrase the conversation I had with her in the kitchen. The elders are crestfallen. They admit that she was the only real prospect in their teaching pool, by far. And in their tone of voice I hear that pressure to produce results that I knew as a missionary — that Ifi’s keen interest in going to church was offering a lifeline to their faith and their self-esteem, and through nobody’s fault that lifeline is gone. And as I drop them off at their flat, I feel terrible for them. I kind of want to pray with them before they get out of the car, but its already 9:35 when we get to their flat, and they sprint off into the darkness to make their phone calls. I know exactly how that pressure feels, even if I dealt with it differently.
Postscript: ‘Ifi’ was indeed a member of the church, but she lost contact with the church quickly after joining. Her daughter, however, had not been baptized, only blessed, and she joined the church within a few months. They were quite active in our ward, and then Ifi got married, and they moved to another European capital.
The fufu was delicious.