Going Back

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.

Comments

  1. John Mansfield says:

    Thanks for writing this. It’s a bit like the lunar astronaut who said he had to not only perform his tasks, but also to experience what it was to be on the moon for all mankind since of the earth’s billions he was one of only a handful who would ever know first hand. I spent an unusual week in Carmen de Patagones almost at the end of my mission, the same week Pope John Paul II visited Viedma.

  2. Did you feel an urgent need to “get back home” when 9:30 PM rolled around? Did you feel uncomfortable walking around your old areas without someone else with you?

    my first time back to Romania, I was amazed at how strongly I felt those two urgings. That said, I had great experiences in going back and visiting with friends. I still keep up with many of them on facebook.

  3. I returned to the mish for the first time about a year and a half later and although I didn’t anticipate a hero’s welcome I was a little taken aback by all the blank looks.

    Ten years later, however, I ended up moving to one of my old areas where I had only spent three months in the first place. The first Sunday back I visited the old ward and three people came up and greeted me by name and plenty of others recognized my mug (no doubt from the posters hanging up in the post office).

    I was eventually called as ward mission leader and I like to think I’d remember most if not all of the missionaries who have served here in the last five years.

  4. I worked with an elder who, while very bright, was in some aspects kind of an idiot (think the comic book guy from the Simpsons). We served in a mission with only three language-specific areas, so transfers were rare, infrequent and when they did happen usually back to an area where you had already served. Assignments of nine months were average, 12 months common and for an elder to serve the majority of his mission in one area was not strange.

    This elder had a theory that the members didn’t really recognize the person-hood of the individual elders. To prove this theory he said that he was going to wear the same exact tie everyday until one of the members noticed (I know, but reread the first sentence again). He sweat and spilled on that same tie, in the tropical heat, for months and not one of the members ever said anything to him. At the end of his mission, he got on the plane back to the mission home wearing that rotten tie.

    Starting the very next week at Church, and every week after that, all the members referred to him as “the elder with the stinky tie.”

  5. Thanks, Aaron. I served in Japan, and I’ve never been able to go back – but I have the same thoughts and hopes and concerns as you’ve outlined in this post. I especially would like to find out about Yakuza Bishop, as we affectionately called him because of his looks, and Soma Shimai, with whom I and my companion shared the most intense spiritual experience of my life.

  6. I too served in Japan and have never been able to return, but would like to. I’d love to experience the country without a curfew. My guess is that I would be able to find a good number of members I loved, but few, if any, investigators.

  7. Aaron,
    Great post. You’ve really touched a nerve here. I’m choking up a little thinking about similar experiences. The mission is a profoundly affecting place.

    Pete,
    When Brother Perez embraced me in Wien IV in 2006, eleven years after my service, the happiness was sublime.

  8. That’s why I’m glad I went to Italy. With no baptisms, there is no dissapointment.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the engaging aroey, Aaron. I never went back to Colorado, at least not specifically for mish purposes. I doubt anyone would remember me; I can’t keep our local elders straight, either, so I wouldn’t take it personally

  10. Dia de Noquis . . . . . yummy.

    I still miss Argentina, even 17 years after leaving.

  11. I’ve been back to the country of my mission several times. I’ve even looked up a few old friends from the mission days and it’s been fun. Their activity rate is so-so, but I didn’t really care about that as I looked at them as friends and am not really a “numbers” type of person.

    My biggest issue when looking back at my mission from a “numbers” point-of-view is the work in general. It’s been over 20 years since I got home from my mission, and there are the same number of members in the country now as there were then. So, looking at it from a “grow the Church” aspect, the mission (along with the hundreds and thousands of other missionaries who have served there in the past few decades) was a failure. But from a “have-a-good-experience-make-some-cool-friends” aspect, I still look back with fond memories.

  12. Thanks for this. My mission president told us all on our last day that people wouldn’t remember us. I didn’t think much of it at the time.

    I swore to myself that once I stepped on the airplane, I would never return. While I don’t regret serving a mission, it was a truly miserable experience for me, and I’ve never desired to go back. The funny thing is that once I finish school, there’s a small chance that my work will take me back there temporarily. I don’t expect to be remembered, except by the one convert who I still keep in touch with. (If I am remembered, it will probably be “that crazy hippie from California”. I’m not a hippie, but I was perceived as one.)

  13. The shock for me was that the girls on the train just ignored me. As an elder I was a flirtation magnet. As a civvie, nothin’.

    You’re right about it being a good experience. My first time back was about five years after, and I had some similar experiences. Now I go to Holland or Belgium about once a year for a conference or a school trip or whatnot, and while the friends I have there are based on twenty years of correspondence more than the mish itself, the ghosts are still there.

  14. RJH,

    The world is a village in Wien IV.

  15. I went back to Korea about fifteen years later with the military. In the meantime, the Olympics had hit Seoul, and very little of the areas where I had served looked the same. It seemed as though the area had jumped forward in time about 50 years. Nothing looked the same.

    However, my brother also served in Korea, the Pusan mission, arriving in country just as I was leaving. He tells me that at one area conference he saw one child point at him and ask his mother, “Isn’t that Elder CS Eric?” “No,” she told him, and in the colloquialism for returning home she said, “He died a couple of months ago.”

  16. Thanks, Aaron.

  17. I really enjoyed taking my new wife back to Japan about 5 years after the mission. In the intervening years I had been really astute at writing letters back and forth with certain people, which ensured that I was remembered by some when visiting. But I really appreciate the bittersweetness of this post, as some people who were important to me remembered our times together fondly, while others were unresponsive or uninterested.

  18. are you guys keeping up with people you met on your mission on facebook?

  19. Ironically, I had the opposite experience about 6 months ago:

    I was friended on Facebook by a family in Argentina. I assumed that I knew them, but couldn’t for the life of me remember who they were. I noticed they had also friended one of my old companions so I sent him a message asking who they were before I accepted the friendship. (not because I wasn’t sure if I was going to friend them, but I wanted to remember who they were before the inevitable “do you remember us?”). Turns out it was a family who, when we were serving, had a mom that was inactive, and the rest weren’t members. We had taught the father, baptised him, reactivated the mom, and then taught the kids before the dad got the Aaronic Priesthood and baptised them himself. I hadn’t thought much of them since, and when the kids – who had been 8 -12 when we had taught them – friended me on Facebook, they looked so different than they had those six years prior.

    Needless to say that when I had been reminded of them I was incredibly excited to find that they were still (relatively) active in church, and believed its teachings. It was a great reunion, even if it was virtual.

    —-

    I plan to go back to Argentina someday. I still debate if, and how much, visiting I will do to old member friends and baptisms. I’m sure it would be a wonderful experience, but I also fear that the “hey, remember me” approach would be a little outside my comfort zone.

    That, and I’m not sure how many of my areas I would feel comfortable taking my wife to. I don’t know many missionaries from my mission that weren’t robbed at gun/knife-point during the course of the two years.

  20. So Aaron, it appears that what they say is true: you never can really go back.

    Dan, I am connected to many mission friends (missionaries, members, and a couple of converts) via Facebook. One member told me he would be in the US a few months ago, and so while he was in the country he called me. We chatted (in his native tongue) for just 10 minutes or so, but it was wonderful. The most touching thing was that he said I was one of the missionaries he and his family fondly recall now and then.

  21. I really enjoyed this post. Thanks.

    My husband and I visited his mission together five years after he left. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, to see him through those members’ eyes. He thought most people wouldn’t remember him, but a lot of people did. However, there were a few disconnects (on either side) like you mentioned. Still, on the whole, it was brilliant.

  22. Good stuff, Aaron. The first (of 2) times I went back to Guatemala me and my buddy did the things we always wanted to do as missionaries but couldn’t, like swim in the ocean, go out of the area and go to the discoteca in the Capital. Lots of fun, but I also tried to visit folks with whom I was close. Similar experience as yours, some had gone inactive, others were still strong. But one of the sweetest, most sublime moments of my life happened when we went to my favorite ward and my dear friend, the non-member husband of an active sister came forward and gave me a hug and told me his story of his baptism and the role I played in it (he was baptized by one of my favorite missionaries right after I left the mission). I always knew he would be baptized and that I wouldn’t be the one to do it, but I savored his friendship. It was a wonderful moment (and IIRC Nine Moons perma Tim J. was witness to that moment, being the missionary in the ward at that time). Good, good times.

  23. ” As an elder I was a flirtation magnet. As a civvie, nothin’.”

    Very, very true. That has to be the most obvious difference when you go back. Especially as a missionary in SoCal, the difference was very obvious.

  24. I went back to my mission two years after I came home. One member asked me where my companion was. I was pretty surprised that so many people remembered me. Several asked why I didn’t notify them to let them know I was coming. I think we got to know members in our mission better than most missionaries do. That was probably my favorite part about the whole experience.

  25. “As an elder I was a flirtation magnet. As a civvie, nothin’.”

    There are a few of possible explanations:

    1) When you were a missionary, it was important to Satan to try to trip you up, so somehow he convinced a bunch of girls to flirt with you.
    2) You are somehow less attractive without a backpack, tie, and a bike helmet.

    or the true explanation, 3) girls flirting with you on the bus were mostly just doing it sarcastically as a way to tease you, and you were too stupid to realize it, because you were 19.

  26. I went back to Guatemala about four years after the mission with buddies in college. Traveling all over Mexico and Guate in buses was a great adventure. I went to visit my best companion in his village, completely surprising him as I walked down the street with my backpack. Then in the capital went to my old ward (nine months). My favorite youth I went on splits with had just left a few days earlier on his mission. I went to the MTC in Guate and walked right into the dorms and there he was. It was a great reunion and I think a big boost for hima t the start of his mission. Some very shocked senior missionaries found us and shooed is out.

  27. GST, an Argentine magazine once took a poll of their female readers as to who were the “sexiest” men alive, by category. “Mormon missionaries” came in second, losing out only to “rock stars.” I take this to mean the correct explanation is actually your #2. Women do appear to find the Mormon uniform uncommonly sexy. Those missionary plaques transform awkward, stuttering white boys into Walking Pornography for women.

    AB

  28. “Walking Pornography”

    I do not think that means what you think it means….

  29. I just know theres a missionary position joke in there somewhere.

  30. Impressions from my return (four years later):

    Germans like solo travelers a lot more than a pair of missionaries. Very friendly people (especially if you avoid the touristy areas).

    Teenagers were much more likely to remember you than adults.

    My trip wasn’t so much a “visit the mission” trip as a “tour Europe” trip, but I did visit two wards I’d served in. In one of them, perhaps four people remembered me, including the ward mission leader, a former ward missionary, and a man who was baptized while I was there. In the second one, most of the members remembered me (including all of the many teenagers). I’d spent the last 10 months of my mission there, and had gotten to know the members quite well, so that wasn’t a huge surprise. But a few of the older members, people I’d regarded as friends, didn’t recognize or remember me at all–and that was difficult to come to terms with.

  31. Ron Madson says:

    Served France-Switzerland 73-75. Two of the seventeen I saw baptized died before they could apostasize—the best and only effective member retention program I know of in France after nearly 40 years…

  32. I’ve returned to Ecuador 6 times (three on biz, three on pleasure) since I came home in ’97. I didn’t set any expectations at all that were based on my mission experience. My objectives in going were to do all the things I wanted to do on my mission but could not do due to mission rules (no, no, take your mind out of the gutter guys). So I had a great time each time, and was pleasantly surprised when I literally bumped into a few people I knew, taught, and loved. Can’t wait to go back again and purchase a beach front lot on an empty toob I found two years ago in 78 degree water!!!!

  33. Latter-day Guy says:

    Thanks for this, Aaron. I’m looking forward to your next installment!

  34. Speaking of next installments, LDG, when are you up?

  35. Latter-day Guy says:

    The contractions have started, but my water hasn’t broken yet.

  36. Great post. I have also been extremely lucky to have been able to return to my mission (in another country) many times. The first time was two years after going home. I was pleasantly surprised that a lot of members remembered me.

    One remembered me because when I was on my mission I’d had a weird dream that this guy was sitting behind a gigantic old wooden desk and that he was my boss. I told him about it because I had thought it was funny. He also laughed but apparently had taken it very seriously. When I came back he approached me and said he still didn’t have a “hölzernen Schreibtisch” but someday . . . .

    I visited a sister who my companion baptized in my first area. She had been an “eternal investigator” and in my greenie enthusiasm I had blurted out a baptismal commitment at our weekly meeting with her and she accepted. It was great to see her and to learn she was friends with people in the ward, which had been a concern of mine when she got baptized.

    One investigator that we had taught never ended up getting baptized but we had remained friends for the rest of my mission through letters after I had been transferred. He visited me in the states once I was back home from my mission when he was on a trip there. I stayed at his house on my first trip back to my mission after two years and we still keep contact now. He just visited us a few months ago, in fact.

    I turned up on Sunday in one ward and a lot of people remembered me. They told me they had thought I was British when I was a missionary there. Go figure.

  37. I never felt a real urge to return to the area of my mission, but that might have been because it was stateside. What did surprise me was when I was in law school I ran into a number of people from my mission who remembered me — one of whom returned a book I had lent him.

    Maybe if I had not served stateside it might have been different. As it is, I have fond memories, just never felt like intruding on people.

  38. It’s been almost 13 years since I returned home from Venezuela and I still dream of going back. Unfortunately, the political climate is such that I wouldn’t feel safe there at the time being.

    Still, it is a beautiful nation with a rich heritage and wonderful people.

    Over the past few years Facebook has been a real boon for finding and reconnecting with many of my amigos venezolanos.

    I look forward to the day when I can feel welcome there again, but until that time, I’ll have to settle for wall posts, messages, photo uploads, etc.

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