Your Sunday Brunch Special: Caleb.

When I arrived in the mission field, nineteen and green as grass, I was mostly frightened and homesick. That lasted about four weeks. The homesick part. Fortunately my parents, though poor, were entirely in favor of this adventure. After spending a night in the mission home, sleeping alone upstairs in a quiet Cambridge neighborhood, where I didn’t actually sleep, I was sent to the airport at 9 a.m. where I had to buy a ticket to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

This was all new stuff to me and I was pretty nervous about it. But I finally boarded my flight. I had no glorious experience on board, you know, meeting someone who was utterly disarmed by my simple faith, etc., etc. I was met by my companion at the airport, and we were driven to a small town on the peninsula. The area had not seen missionaries for some time, though it sported something miraculous: a chapel housing a branch of about 50. I have no idea how they raised the cash (70% in that era). But I think it must have had a golden age sometime previous, and then lost some significant population. I played the piano in that branch (too loud and too fast) a few times, until they suddenly felt a cappella held heretofore unrealized virtues. I think it was about that time that the mission president forbade us from attending church, unless we were accompanying a potential convert. So I think we attended once in the next six months.

One of the things new missionaries discovered with some shock was the responsibility of establishing a home. This is the sort of thing your mom took care of, you know, figured out WHERE TO GET BED SHEETS AND SPOONS. And of course, find a furnished apartment. A substantial river ran through the town and across the bridge from the chapel we found an apartment with one bedroom. My companion slept on the couch, and I got the bedroom. Next day, I got my first dose of tracting. It was unpleasant for a nerdy introvert, as many others can attest, and sent me off to repair my nearly complete lack of knowledge of the Bible (we actually talked to someone–who turned out to be Jehovah’s Witnesses overseer I think).

P-day was Monday, and as we were discouraged from visiting with members, following a scouting trip to the post office where we set up a General Delivery relationship, we ran into the person staying in the next apartment. Caleb Bunch. He was remarkably friendly, perhaps because he was about as friendless as we were. I can’t recall why he was living in this out-of-the-way hamlet, but he was. Next week we spent most of P-day in his company and had dinner with him. It was then I think that our District Leader took a notion to visit us. I’m sure to see if we were blowing off the entire day rather than just the requisite hours to 5 p.m. (which of course, we were). We got the tongue lashing for it. What baffles me just a little, is the degree to which we were somehow cowed by this. Not that I’m a Rebel. It’s just that he was a kid, a couple of years older than I was, but a kid. Anyway, I’m getting away from the object of this thing. Caleb.

Caleb was single, Jewish (not practicing), an attractive man by my judgement, but alone–possibly reflecting the very Protestant nature of the region. I think he only had about 4 months in country and then he was heading back to the UK. I don’t know for sure now, why. I can’t recall. But Caleb welcomed our attempts to convert him. We gave him “discussions” (mostly for practice as far as I could tell). We were puzzled as to how to approach the problem of Jesus, and to be honest, we were unprepared for such a possibility. And he remained impervious but very jolly and open to our visits, usually on P-days. In that time, tracting for 60-80 hours a week was considered a must. I don’t know what would happen to you if you conspired not to do that. Nothing I imagine, except possibly solemn stares or phone calls. In any case, we did count that time with Caleb as missionary time, though it was more friendly banter, which sometimes degenerated into laughter and then a kind of broadening of cultural horizons. Of all our “investigators” he was most fun I think, but the Rules made it difficult to keep spending time with people where no progress happened.[1] Stern voices bade us move on, and we did. It was too bad for us I think. Winter closed in, and Caleb departed, while we trudged the snowy streets smelling the woodsmoke and getting our faces frozen off. Where are you Caleb? I wonder. In the hereafter, I hope we can sit down and chat, unimpeded by the rules.

[1] Our other countable investigator was the semi-retired Baptist preacher at the south end of town. We bought bicycles to get around and while drunken sailors (what *do* you do with them?) sometimes swore at us or threatened to beat us up, it was mostly a quiet ride down there, where we debated the merits of the Book of Mormon. He was pretty fun to talk to, but obviously considered us a lower form of life. The startling thing was that he had actually read the book, and was prepared to debate what he saw as major inconsistencies with the Bible. Another reason to actually read it.


  1. Weren’t allowed to go to church? Am I reading that right? Wow. Different times.

  2. I agree with Walker F. I’ve heard of some pretty strange stuff done by mission presidents to try to meet goals, but that’s a new one to me.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    There was a time when the rule against going to church unless you had investigators in tow was pretty common (not something I personally experienced). I’ve always thought that was crazy. I’m sure the thought process was these young people want to go to church; if they can’t unless they bring investigators, then of course they’ll get some investigators and bring them. A motivational ploy. But such a rule can have unintended consequences, which the genius MPs obviously didn’t think all the way through. For some young men of that age, not going to church might be considered a feature rather than a bug. And not going to church might over time attenuate their commitment to the institution. And if they’re not at church, what else are they doing? It was such a thoughtless practice for us in 2015 it is scarcely believable that many MPs thought such a thing was a good idea.

    (Thanks for the post, WVS. I think we all had our Calebs.)

  4. I’ve heard of that practice, my dad’s mission, perhaps. Heathen!

    As I just noted over at Keepapitchinin, what a contrast between this experience and the serialized missionary diary that Ardis is posting right now. It’s too bad that your mission president couldn’t figure out a way get the missionaries out into the community, serving and building up the small, isolated church units. What a strange thing to concentrate on numbers and rules instead.

  5. Kevin, one of my many Caleb’s in the Chicago region is a son of the wealthy gold pyramid house builders. We met him toward the end of fall when people were having their last garage sales. We connected on his Star Wars toy collection which he had even created a vault under the house for. Our success was getting a free tour of the pyramid house for our district. My dream was that we could possibly have a fishing/EQ activity there (what LA would resist a photo op there?) with the moat and all. Alas it was but a dream — thanks Chicago Winters.

    I am still in awe over that man’s commitment to his two boys and the fact that his wife converted to Catholicism to marry him. We never did get to have a sit down lesson with the wife. Perhaps he thought we would have been successful with working with her. I had 5 or 6 companions whom I introduced to him. They all thought he is Bishop material. Maybe when their kids are off at college in a decade they will meet some nice Mormon girls…

  6. “Unimpeded by the rules.” That phrase is haunting and packages a lot of melancholy returned missionary wisdom.

  7. Kev, that branch had a vibe I can’t fully articulate, but they actually didn’t like seeing you come around. Possibly there was some history there we didn’t know about, so the no missionaries in church was not a deal breaker for them, and neither was no missionaries at the door. But as you say, church was a way to stay connected to the institution. That meant we just didn’t connect with the Saints there. I can honestly say that one of my few memories of the place was the branch president, whom we met a few times outside of church. Another was a family who drove us to their place about 20 miles from town for Sunday dinner once. Maybe some past missionaries had “poisoned the well” in the town. Maybe that’s why those sailors took such a negative interest.

  8. I thought it was bad that we weren’t allowed to eat dinner or go to all the conference sessions because we had “better things to do with our time”. (This was in 2010). But not being allowed to go to church takes the cake.

  9. “I’ve heard of some pretty strange stuff done by mission presidents to try to meet goals, but that’s a new one to me.”

    Bizarro land.

  10. adair_from_ns says:

    I’m from Liverpool NS so I’m hoping based on the comments it wasn’t there! I do remember thinking some of the mission presidents from when I was a kid has some interesting ideas but this was only from hearing things third or fourth hand.

  11. Adair, no, not Liverpool.

  12. eponymous says:

    Oh how I identify with this post WVS. I recall several Calebs of an interesting variety with whom we developed deep relationships and enjoyed warm fellowship. In certain cases we had moved past the awkward teaching stage to a comfortable detente where we could break bread together, share a common understanding and explore the role of religion in our lives. These were not perpetual investigators but instead fellow travelers in faith, just not the same faith.

    On the subject of the strange behaviors of Mission Presidents, we had a young President with a highly unusual approach to encouraging discipline into his flock. A number of Elders and Sisters who were struggling in the mission were prescribed an extreme dietary adjustment for a period of time. Call it a progressive cleanse if you will. For the first week they could eat nothing but vegetables. Strict vegetarianism. After the first week progressively other foodstuffs were re-introduced but gradually and over a number of weeks. My recollection is that the symptoms that could lead to the prescribed diet included a variety of ills that befall a missionary far from home in a foreign land such as homesickness, depression, and overly undisciplined behavior.

    I best recall a couple of Elders who were toiling under the first week’s diet and were half way in explaining how they were ALWAYS hungry. Which didn’t surprise me because we were all on bikes and regularly rode 10-30 miles a day along with the daily trudge of tracting 10 hours.

  13. I’ve heard a few stories about a mission in Kentucky, those are probably 30 years old, that have dietary implications like those you describe. That mission had an elder on elder murder. Shows how frustrating things can get I guess.

  14. A young man in our ward is about to leave for Sweden, where the hours will stretch before him in ways he never expected. I’ve been thinking about what an old Scandinavian missionary might say to a new one, and your post sums it up: treasure the Calebs you meet, forget about trying to impose the gospel on them (especially when they don’t “progress”), and just nourish real human relationships wherever you can get them. Craig Harline’s memoir gets at this, too.

  15. I’m still haunted by the one I never talked to. She was an older, Puerto Rican woman living in a Brooklyn slum. She had Spirit-filled eyes that somehow spoke of deep loneliness too. We saw her on the street three times in one week, and each time I felt strongly prompted to speak to her. I never did. I was too shy, and too unsure of my Spanish. After the third time I promised myself I’d say something the next time we saw her. I never saw her again. If only if only if only.

  16. Clark Goble says:

    Weird dietary restrictions combined with hot areas and extreme biking is a bad situation. We were biking 50 miles a day in the hot Louisiana summer, for instance. We were told to limit fasting to only the once per month because some missionaries presumably were fasting for other reasons and having health issues.

    WVS, there was an elder on elder murder in Texas around the time I was in Louisiana. However it was related to gay issues as I recall. Kentucky was in our area but I don’t recall hearing about that one. But from what I could tell lots of strange and wild things happened in the south in the 80’s. Lots of excommunications in our mission for “secret combinations” for instance.

  17. Sounds like my experience on my mission in Chicago. Tract all day long, little success. Find refuge with lonely little old ladies who were mostly interested in our company and who were great cooks.
    The thought of not being able to go to Church without an investigator would have been very discouraging. Chicago at that time was producing 3/4 of a baptism per 2 years for English speaking missionaries. We would have rarely gone to Church at all.
    Going to Sacrament meeting was our one chance to recharge in the week. We would have 14 missionaries in one ward in the City and it was nice to see our fellow saints.
    Dinner appointments with members were in the range of 1 per month, if that.
    Good times.

  18. I can relate to the no church without investigators rule, but for me it didn’t come from the MP, it came from two of the Bishops in the wards I served in.

    I feel like I can’t win in this missionary church. As a missionary I was made to feel like a failure because I couldn’t bring people to Christ. Back then, missionaries were responsible for converts. Now I still feel this way, because now, the members are made to feel guilty for not providing the missionaries people to teach. Those poor missionaries, with nothing better to do than help people move. And it’s all my fault.

    I had several Caleb relationships on my mission. I still think of them often. Thanks for this post.

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