This Sunday marks my 10th anniversary of entering the MTC. This was back before they made you say goodbye to your family at the curbside, so I have vivid memories of sitting in the large room, watching the short video of missionaries singing “Called To Serve,” parents walking out one door while missionaries walked out another, and absolutely everyone weeping uncontrollably. (It’s probably for the best that saying goodbye is now like ripping off a bandaid.) While my opinion of my mission in particular and LDS missions in general have changed over the years—for instance, whoever thinks those were truly “the best two years” must have had a lousy post-mission life—I am still very grateful for my time spent in the Washington DC North Mission, for the people I worked with, and especially the people I served.
As I’m sure is the case with everyone, I have mixed memories. So without further ado, below are 10 of my favorite Mission moments, followed by 10 of my most painful regrets.
Top 10 Memories
Reading, reading, reading. I was one of those nerdy missionaries who woke up early to read, made a quick meal so I could read during lunch, and then stay up to read late into the night. I read through all the missionary books within the first few weeks after the MTC, and then quickly worked through a lot of classics (Parley Pratt’s autogiography, Lucy Mack Smith’s memoirs), BYU RelEd books (a good number of edited collections on the JST, Church History, FARMS stuff), Nibley stuff (Approaching Zion, Temple and the Cosmos), before finally landing on academic Mormon history stuff that grabbed my attention and never let go. After my mission president made a moratorium on non-missionary library books, I had to be more creative: at one point, I was using a flashlight under my covers while reading Thomas Alexander’s biography of Wilford Woodruff so that my companion didn’t catch me.
- The few times I actually tried thinking outside the box. (Something my mission president strongly encouraged.) I hated tracting and street contacting, but it was often extremely difficult to come up with other things to do. The rare occassions my companion and I were actually creative included doing a community movie night (with The Other Side of Heaven), setting up a lemonade stand near Georgetown, and running a family history booth outside of Walmart. We had limited success with these events, but I still think the future of missionary work relies on innovative techniques and an increase in service projects.
Very few people are as vehemient in their hatred for tracting as I am, yet my biggest success as a missionary came through knocking on doors. The Lau family, some of the sweetest people I ever met, invited us in and allowed us to teach them. (The wife was a member who had fallen off the church records, the husband was a very kind Protestant.) A month later was the baptism, and a year later was their sealing. I will never forget the feeling of seeing them kneel around the alter in the DC Temple, their little toddler both antsy and awe-struck at what was going on.
- The general excitement for and unadulterated trust in the power of the gospel.
Touring the D.C. Freemasonry Temple. Way cool. In fact, touring a lot of places in DC was a blast.
- Getting to know so many fabulous members. One in particular, JS Armstrong, acted like a godfather for every single missionary in the area: he would go on splits, help with teaching, take elders out to lunch (long live Continental Subs by the temple!), give birthday presents, and even gave Brooks Brothers ties to every departing missionary. We would always joke that he was John the Beloved, and I still haven’t been convinced to believe otherwise.
- My mission president was very forward thinking, and wanted to break the mold of tracting so he organized a lot of mission service projects. The one that I remember the most was a community project where half of our mission teamed up with a dozen other church organizations to clean up one of the housing projects in southeast DC. (It looked like “The Pit” on The Wire!) At the BBQ that followed the cleaning, my mission president went on stage with the leaders of all the other church involved, who were mostly charismatic black ministers. The MC of the occassion seemed to be handing out promotions to the various leaders, granting one minister the label of “Seventy” and another, “Deacon.” (I’m still not sure how ecclesiology in these churches worked…) After he declared another reverend an “Apostle,” my mission president, the best PR guy I’ve ever met, said, “I’ve always wanted to be an apostle!” The MC then did his thing, bestowed the apostleship on our mission president, and the latter said, “With all the authority you can muster, I accept!” We missionaries thought it was hilarious, but the important thing was it built some strong relations with the neighborhood and its leaders in ways that only our continued tracting could destroy.
- Becoming more aware of racial assumptions and backgrounds. For instance, being introduced to both black Jesus and black Santa, and realizing that my previous connection of both figures to whiteness was culturally conditioned. This may seem like a very simple, jejune point, but it actually rocked my sense of self and started an ideological transformation that continues today.
- Going to dinner appointments with lots of members in a wide diversity of different settings and wards. It was by meeting different families and being exposed to different traditions and environments that I was better able to craft what I wanted in my own family and home—all of which I have mostly changed since then, but still.
- Failing to learn the French language. This might seem like a regret, but I really cherished the experience. For a few reasons too complicated to detail here, I was switched into the French program after I had been in the mission for about ten months, even though I didn’t know any French works beyond bonjour. For the next five months, I served the population of African immigrants while floundering with their language. (I was then given another assignment that mercifully ceased my language training until I could resume it at BYU post-mission.) The combination of being humbled by my lack of language skills (never had I failed so completely!) and working with such a humble group of people taught me more lessons than the rest of my time in DC.
Top 10 Regrets
Being too concerned to not overstep the four-hour limit for weekly community service. Ammon would have been disgusted.
- Acting like a jerk to a couple of my companions when they were struggling with mission life. “Just suck it up and get lost in the work!”—something I said far too often.
- Not keeping a better journal during the last year of my mission. I was fairly regular in the first year, but totally sucked after my “hump” mark. I tried to make up for it by writing 20 pages on the planeride home, but I’m sure I still missed a lot of important things I wish I’d have remembered.
- Losing contact with a lot of the members, converts, and investigators I worked with.
- Not taking rogaine before it was too late. Seriously, the before/after shots of my hair are more-than-moderately depressing.
Not thinking highly of different religions, and falling in the missionary trap that anyone with half a brain and familiarity with the Bible would recognize Mormonism as the true church. I soon learned that “bible bashing” wasn’t productive and thus avoided it for much of the second half of my mission, but that was because I thought the “bible thumpers” were too stubborn and not because I realize it was I who was ridiculously stubborn.
- Failing to develop good cleaning habits. I mean, I know most Mormon missionaries live in filth, but I look back on a lot of my living habits and shudder.
- Doing the Galon of Milk Challenge. That was truly a mistake.
- Becoming too frustrated with investigators when they did not fit my own timetable for conversion. It is silly to look back on now, but at the time I was convinced that if I presented the gospel in a particular way, shared a particular series of scriptures, and testified at particular times it would be common sensical for the person to drop all previous ideas, change many of their cultural habits, and declare, “By golly, let’s run down to the river right now!”
- Becoming obsessed with a tremendously embarassing category we missionaries called “deep doctrine,” which I truly thought was both the “meat” and the “core” of the gospel. A lot of us carried our own “deep doctrine” binders with photocopies of photocopies explaining the mysteries of the universe, from transcripts of Cleon Skousen’s atonement talk to 100-year-old-reminiscences of where Joseph Smith said the Lost Tribes lived. (The stars, of course!) One of these years I hope to revisit that binder, which I keep under lock and key at my parents’ house, and do a material history of Mormon missionary exotic beliefs, but I don’t have the courage to do so until there are perhaps two decades of separation between me and that nonsense.
So those are just a few things that came to my mind this morning. What are your favorite memories and worst regrets from your mission?