This is the first in a multi-part series of posts on this topic. Sorry for the length.
Like most American elders in my mission, I promised countless investigators and churchmembers that one day I would return to Argentina to visit them. Unlike most American elders in my mission, I actually made good on that promise. Roughly 16 months after I returned home, I travelled back to Argentina with a friend who’d also served there — once-a-year BCC commenter John W — and together we embarked on a whirlwind tour of La Mision Bahia Blanca. Our trip was intended as part mission visit, part tourism, but once we arrived, we quickly jettisoned all touristic ambitions, and spent every day retracing our old stomping grounds, looking up every memorable person we’d ever had any meaningful interaction with. (We’d eventually hit 5 of my 7 areas, and 3 or 4 of John’s). It was quite the adventure…. in more ways than we ever anticipated.
The long plane ride to Buenos Aires gave me ample downtime to imagine how the next 12 days of my life would play out. I did a mental inventory of all the people I remembered who I couldn’t wait to see. “I wonder if Brother Quinteros has stayed active?”, I said to myself. “I wonder if Sister Rodriguez ever felt welcome in Relief Society, or if the sisters eventually drove her into inactivity? I wonder how Brother Rocha is, and I wonder whether we should have baptized him in the first place?” Of course, these were versions of the same questions I’d pondered after each mission transfer back in the day. But this time things were different. This time I would soon KNOW the answers to my questions.
Perhaps the single biggest shock of the trip was my realization that many of the local churchmembers I had spent time with, ate meals with, laughed with and loved, no longer remembered who I was! A Brother or Sister might have said or did something that stuck with me, that was formative of my mission experience, or that changed the way I understood the Gospel in profound ways, but to them, I was just one more tall, white, fungible American boy in a cheap suit and plaque, no different from the thousands of other tall, white American elders that had graced their doorsteps and dinner tables over the years. This was hard to accept. In one instance, I compounded the awkwardness by insisting that a certain family listen to me recount my elaborate memories of them, complete with a detailed play-by-play of all our interactions, only to find that they still couldn’t place me to save their lives. It was awful. But then, at other times I’d be walking down an old familiar street, when a churchmember I barely remembered would exit a residence and approach me, chatting me up as if we were best friends and he’d seen me only yesterday. Strange.
* * *
But when it came to my actual baptisms — people to whom I’d taught multiple discussions, and who’d been baptized on my watch — I knew I’d be remembered fondly. And of all my baptisms, I was most anxious to see the Omars. Mario and Mariela Omar were a young couple in their early 20s, with a baby boy, probably a year old. My trainer and I had baptized them in my first area, Carmen de Patagones, and they were a truly golden find. They were just beginning their lives together, and our message of eternal families really resonated with them. We taught them the Plan of Salvation, and explained all the wonderful blessings their membership in the Church could bring them, now and for all eternity. They happily embraced our message, fully and without hesitation. The Omars were ideal, pristine investigators, the very sort I thought I’d come on my mission to teach. The sort that in 40 years would look back on their rich, successful lives as members of the Church and would testify that they “couldn’t imagine where we’d be today without the Gospel.” Maybe they’d even thank my companion and me for so profoundly impacting them and their eternal destinies all those years ago.
John and I approached the Omar residence on a hot, dusty Friday afternoon. It was the siesta hour, so I figured they’d both be home. We knocked on the door. A few moments passed, and we heard a woman’s voice inside the house. “Just a moment,” she said. More seconds passed, and I found myself practically unable to breathe. Seeing the Omars again was something I’d anticipated for nearly 3 years. This was to be one of the highlights of my return to Argentina, no question about it. The door opened. There stood Mariela, just as I remembered her, peering out at us.
“Hello, Mariela!” I exclaimed joyfully. “It’s me, Elder Brown, one of the Mormon missionaries who baptized you! I’ve come back to Argentina with my friend John, and I’ve come to visit you!”
Mariela stood there for an awkward moment, looking at the ground rather than at us. “No, no, no. We don’t have time to talk to you right now,” she replied. “We’re very busy at the moment, and not really interested.” She quickly shut the door.
Ouch! I wasn’t personally offended. It was obvious Mariela had no idea who I was. I had written several former baptisms to let them know I’d be passing through town, but for some reason the Omars were not among them. So Mariela was seeing me very much out of context, and besides, I had put on like 50 pounds! She clearly thought John and I were just the local LDS missionaries, dressed in P-Day attire.
But my heart sank nonetheless. That Mariela could be so abrupt and dismissive with the missionaries told me everything I needed to know about her family’s current relationship with the Church. Obviously, something bad had happened, and she and Mario had become inactive, disaffected. All my picture-perfect dreams for the family came crashing down in an instant. This was incredibly depressing. I had many baptisms who I imagined might not have stayed active in the Church. And to be brutally honest, for a number of them I didn’t really care all that much! But Mario and Mariela were different. They were supposed to be stellar, model Mormons. They were supposed to be poster children for how the Gospel could change lives, how it provides a richness, a meaning, a purpose to Earthlife. Their young son, though still Primary-aged, was destined to grow into a faithful Aaronic Priesthood holder, and then serve a 2-year mission. Heck, Mario was a shoe-in for “Bishop Omar” in the not-so-distant future!
But no. It was not to be.
I knocked again. A few seconds passed, and Mariela again opened the door. “Mariela,” I said. “We’re not the Mormon missionaries assigned to your area. We’re former missionaries who’ve come back to Argentina after our missions ended. I’m Elder Brown, the elder who taught you the discussions 3 years ago. I just wanted to visit you and see how you’re doing.”
Mariela wasn’t hearing me. Her mind was still in “How do I get rid of these annoying Mormons” mode. So then I asked her, “Mariela, is Mario here? Can I speak to him?”
“Just a moment,” she replied. She turned around, leaving the door ajar, and walked away from us, calling out Mario’s name. She whispered some additional words to Mario we couldn’t hear, presumably about the annoying LDS missionaries at her door, and how she couldn’t get rid of them. A short time later, Mario appeared, looked at us, and politely but sternly asked what we needed.
“Mario,” I said. “We are NOT the local Mormon missionaries. Mariela didn’t recognize me, but I’m Elder Brown, one of the missionaries who baptized you. Remember Elder Z?” (I knew he’d remember my companion, who was legendary and impossible to forget). “Remember the tall, skinny American elder who couldn’t speak Spanish very well, but who always accompanied Elder Z? Well, that’s me!”
Mario paused for a moment, slowly proceessing what I’d said, and then suddenly, his demeanor totally changed.
“Elder Brown!” he screamed. “I can’t believe it! Is it really you?” He gave me a big hug, and then ran back inside the house, screaming: “Mariela! Mariela! You’re not going to believe who’s here! It’s Elder Brown! Do you remember Elder Brown? He was companions with Elder Z! He’s actually come back to visit us!”
Both Omars came to the door, and then Mariela hugged me too. I introduced them to John, and they invited us both inside. It was the Dia de Noquis in Argentina, so they had prepared vast quantities of this famous Argentine dish. Lucky for us, this meant lots of extra food on hand. We spent a long, leisurely afternoon catching up on old times, talking about our respective lives and all that had happened since we’d last seen each other.
But this was a bittersweet visit for me. I was happy to see them, and they were obviously happy to see me, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what might have been, but clearly wasn’t. I wanted to ask them what had happened to distance them from the Church, but at the same time, I really didn’t want to know. Did it really matter? Finally, I did ask them, and they started rattling off all the problems in the local branch. I don’t even remember precisely what they said. A predictable list of grievances and bad experiences, all of which were quite believable, I’m afraid. Eventually, the afternoon came to an end, and John and I said our goodbyes and departed. I was glad I’d paid them a visit, but sad about what I’d learned.
* * *
Fortunately, there was a silver lining to my otherwise disappointing trip to Carmen de Patagones. Two of my other “best baptisms” also lived in this area. (It’s crass to rank one’s baptisms, I know, but we all did it). Brother and Sister Paleta were surely in their 70s when my trainer and I first encountered Brother Paleta. We were out tracting in the hot, mid-day sun, and we chatted him up as he was working in a field. Brother Paleta invited us to his home, and he embraced us and our message almost immediately. While he and his wife were not quite the poorest people I ever taught during my two years, they were definitely the poorest to ever feed us. I won’t describe either of the two meals we were served, except to say the “food” was virtually inedible. But the spiritual experiences afterwards were intense. Sister Paleta liked us as much as her husband did, but she was less sure of our message, less certain that baptism in a Christian church was something she wanted or needed. But she eventually decided to join the Church after one particular evening visit, when the four of us stood in a circle, and three of us took turns bearing testimony of the truthfulness of the Gospel and the need to enter the waters of baptism. The events of that evening rank as one of the most vivid spiritual experiences of my life.
A few weeks after their baptism, after the Paletas had settled comfortably into their new lives as LDS churchmembers, a small scandal hit the local branch. Sister Paleta and all the other sisters were attending a Saturday Relief Society activity, and the old-time sister leading the activity decided she’d finally had enough of being underappreciated by her social and religious inferiors. Who did they think they were, not respecting her years of membership and experience in the Church? So she stormed out of the activity, and the building, locking the outer door of the church, thereby trapping the entire Relief Society inside. (Yes, believe it or not, this is how building keys worked in Argentina). After a couple hours of imprisonment and incessant yelling for help from the building, a passing Mormon youth happened to hear the cries of the trapped sisters, and he ran to inform the Branch President. All the women were freed without incident. But the following Sunday, the offending sister was promptly disfellowshipped after the 3-hour block, and emotions ran high in the halls. While two sisters with opposing sympathies engaged in a screaming match in the foyer, Brother and Sister Paleta both stood a few feet away, observing the melee. I remember thinking that if anything could disillusion inexperienced new members, it was surely this trainwreck. But after the fireworks subsided, something amazing happened. Brother Paleta turned to the missionaries and declared that despite the present turmoil, he knew that the difficulties would pass and that this was the Church where God wanted him to be. I was stunned. And at that moment, I knew the Paletas’ religious convictions were rock solid and the Church would never lose them.
Fast forward 3 years. After our visit with the Omars, John and I visited the current branch president, who gave us the Paletas’ new address. They had moved residences since I’d last known them, and the distance to their humble abode was great. We hiked long and far to reach them, only to find they weren’t home. We waited for what seemed like an eternity for them to return, but they never did. And unfortunately, our bus was about to depart for our next destination, so I eventually had to abandon hope of ever seeing them again (I’m sure they’ve both passed away by now). But I was pleased when the branch president confirmed that they were as faithful and stalwart as ever, hardly ever missing a Sunday, even in their advanced age. I was happy for them, and for the branch that benefited from their presence and unwavering commitment.
* * *
What can I say? You win some, you lose some. My trip to Patagones was definitely a mixed bag, and things didn’t exactly go as I’d hoped or planned. But for so many reasons, returning to the mission was an adventure, and this was one. If you’ve served a mission, and you’ve thought about going back, I highly recommend it. But be warned: Things may not play out in reality the same way they do in your head.