Missionary Mistaken Identity

The second area I served in was Burlington, Vermont. Our mission was referred to as the New England Mission. It no longer exists. Huge by today’s standards, it has long since been broken up into many smaller missions. I was in Burlington during the winter months. Our apartment was the attic of a building very near to Lake Champlain. Down below was a rest home. The apartment had no provision for heating or cooling and that is the beginning of a number of fun stories, which I will not go into here.

My companion, Elder E. was a slick, competent missionary. When I say slick, I mean he was very comfortable dealing with people and was a capable senior companion. He was an easy-going guy and good to be around. I’m not sure how he felt about me. At least I’m not going to say what I think about that here.

That winter was cold. For one six-week period, the daytime temps didn’t get above 6*F. Night time temps could drop below -40*F. With constant wind and snow on the ground, tracting the streets of Burlington was no picnic and neither one of us were so hardy that we could take more than an hour or two out in that stuff. Hence we tried “telephone contacting.” A sort of ad hoc procedure that involved simply running down names in the phone book, dialing and trying to introduce yourself and your message. It was a singularly unproductive method for us.

One afternoon we were heading back into our digs. To stay out of the weather, we would use the nearby department stores and hardware stores, walking into the front of the store and out the back and into the next store and so on. On a good day, we could get by with this without anyone noticing us. On this afternoon though, I noted that ahead of us, wherever we walked, was a rather unkempt gentleman who kept turning around every few feet, glancing at us and then hurrying on. I didn’t really pay much attention to this.

As we exited our last shelter-store and headed to the cross street just east of our apartment, I noticed this guy again, still ahead of us. We were walking a bit faster now hoping to get out of the cold wind. We gained on this man until we were about 6 feet back of him. Suddenly he turned around, rushed us and started saying, “I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it! Honest!” We realized immediately that he thought we were plain-clothes police who had been “following” him for the last half-hour. I guess we did look like cops of the day, wearing suits, ties, overcoats, shined shoes, all in dark hues and we didn’t have name tags.

I confess to the temptation of playing the role, but my companion quickly explained that we weren’t officers of the law but would he like to hear a gospel message? No. He didn’t and turned and moved off as fast as he could. Whatever “it” was, I was a little suspicious that we had the guilty party.


  1. Very fun. It’s incredible that your missionary apartment had no heat in Vermont. How did you make do that cold winter?

  2. In Alabama and Florida we would often hear the children ask: “Ya’ll the po-lease?”

  3. Researcher says:

    No heat? Not even a wood stove? That’s horrid!

    Sometimes the German kids would tell us that we were FBI or CIA. I could understand them telling that to the elders, but the sister missionaries?? What about us looked like agents of the FBI? Especially when only one of us was American!

  4. My dad spent part of one winter of his mission in Toronto in an unheated room–an addition to a house, like WVS’s attic, with no radiators or other heat source.

    I’d guess, though, that it was warmer than France in the winter of 1945 , when he had spent the entire season out of doors.

  5. We did have a heat source. Our beds were at one end of the attic, and at the other end was a kitchen/dinning area. But that area was walled off from us, with a single door entrance. There was a nat gas oven in the kitchen. At night we would open the kitchen door, open our bedroom door, open the oven door and light it. The funny stuff happened when we forgot one or more of those steps.

  6. More than one Bulgarian blew my cover and exposed me as a CIA agent. Apparently the best way to collect intelligence is to walk around and knock on doors all day every day.

    I always wondered why they would think we special agents would adopt such a high-profile cover — you could see missionaries coming hundres of meters down the road. But then I wondered if it was from experience. After all, if that’s what the KGB and its Bulgarian counterpart relied on during the cold war, it might explain why the ’80s ended the way they did. And it’s not that much different than the “sleeper agents” arrested this summer, is it?

  7. On my mission, I got mistaken for an insurance agent, FBI, plainclothes police, social worker, and child protective services. (CPS was the most common.) In the only area we had a car, it was a white Ford Taurus that looked exactly like an unmarked police car. People would drive so slowly around us. (It drove me crazy!)

  8. (I was in North Carolina, if that makes a difference.)

  9. Aaron Brooks says:

    In Venezuela, everyone thought we were airline pilots, and kids would ask us for money every day. Our dress was dark slacks, short sleeved white shirts, and ties. I always wanted to pretend I was FBI :)

  10. “Les Jehovahs” (Jehovah’s Witnesses). That’s what we were most often taken for in Quebec. As much as some people hated seeing us at their front doors, I think the JWs were more deeply loathed — but that might just have been because they were at that time more numerous than were LDS missionaries.

    Cold? Oh yeah. One apartment we had in Montreal had only the kitchen stove for heat. We had to be careful when stepping into the shower in the morning not to get our feet stuck to the frozen bottom of the tub.

    Oh, and frostbite isn’t pretty.

  11. In Argentina we always had people assume we were “la sia” (CIA). One time it came in handy.
    It was a winter night, it’d been raining, and we were headed home for the night. About two blocks from our apartment a group of kids were gathered, and when they saw us they started throwing rocks. In a Matrix-Neo-like way I spun around, acted like I pulled a gun from my trenchcoat pocket, and pointed “it” at them. At least half of them hit the ground.
    My companion was so angry with me, I thought he was going to kill me. On the other hand, the kids never threw rocks again.

  12. #10–same thing in Germany. In one very Catholic city, any time we’d go out to do street contacting we’d hear a dull murmur of “Zeugen Jehovas” in the background, as people would kindly warn others that we were coming.

    Once or twice people thought we were Amish. Sometimes they thought we were trying to sell books or vacuums.

    Occasionally, we’d run into someone who actually recognized us as Mormons.

  13. I had a comp who was a little more subtle than B. Russ. When kids asked if we were CIA or whatever he’d stop, turn, look straight at them, then pull out his notebook and begin writing furiously.

    Worked every time.

  14. This type of thing happend to me frequently. Insurance salesmen was probably the most frequent. We often were asked where things were in grocery stores too. After a while I would just direct people by saying something like – those are on isle 7 at the far end, and thanks for shopping the Piggly Wiggly.

  15. I served in NYC. One day while we were walking around in Harlem (being white, and wearing a suit and trenchcoat in a predominantly African-American neighborhood), a kid came up to me if I was an undercover cop. I had to explain why this was a silly question.

  16. “I have papers, I have papers” was often the response of people when opening their apartment door to the sight of two men dressed in suits.

    Dressed in my suit for church, I used to pick up a church member who lived in the projects to take him to church each week. One day I passed by the playground and the neighborhood children were talking about who I was going to take away. Apparently they thought I was CPS.

  17. JW’s – nothing else, at least that we heard.

    My apartment in Nemuro, Japan (Hokkaido) had no insulation and only board walls. The ocean wind was brutal, and the winters . . . We used to put our shampoo in the refrigerator at night to keep it from freezing.

  18. Cynthia L. says:


  19. Once when we forgot to light the oven, we froze a rat in the bacon grease jar.

  20. John Mansfield says:

    Phone contacting sounds ineffective, but none of our methods are particularly effective. Decades ago, missionaries initiated contact with our future stake president that way. Brother and Sister Abernathy were very blessed to have a listing on the first page of the phone book, probably right after AAA-Lock and Key.

  21. While working on a street display in Wiesbaden, Germany, my companion for the day and I were approached by a boy who was about 10 or 11 who looked at us, pointed, and called out (to whom?), “Franzoesische Detecktiven!” Never before or since has anyone ever accused me of being French.

  22. Once when we forgot to light the oven, we froze a rat in the bacon grease jar.

    That is either the funniest or saddest thing I’ve ever read in my life.

  23. At the time, we were pretty grossed out about it. We didn’t bury that rat, we put the jar on the window ledge and said appropriate things. The jar disappeared a few days later.

  24. Paul, French police can be pretty scary. You should be honored.

  25. I dig your blog, good job.

  26. Paul (#20) – Reminds me of one of my favorite movies as a boy: Emil and the (French) Detectives.


  27. 24, 26: I suppose we were so named because we were wearing those double-breasted trenchcoats so popular in the 70’s (and maybe now; I don’t see many folks wearing tan trenchcoats anymore).

  28. yikes…when it got down to the 50s on my mission I put on my sweaters and wished I had a coat. cold is NOT for me.

  29. britt k: those people serving in the “hot” countries have their challenges too. (grin)

  30. When my friends who served in Brazil talk about 115 degree weather with 100% humidity, I quiver in fear. I think forcing Elders to wear ties in that weather is wrong. Then again, one had a pet monkey, I think that almost makes up for it.

  31. They also get the jungle horror stories too.

  32. I would have found it very very hard not to have a good time with that guy. Things like that get me into trouble but I’m evil that way.

  33. In LA we got mistaken for being Immigration officers and LAPD or another of the million law enforcement agencies! Which is totally ridiculous considering that I am like 130 lbs wet…

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