Jennifer Quist is an award-winning novelist as well as an essayist and a youth Sunday school teacher (which is its own reward). She has five sons but studies comparative literature at the University of Alberta anyway, and her Chinese is terrible.
I was worried about my boy. He left our home and our country as the youngest missionary in my family’s sixty-years history with the Church to go to a foreign nation. It’s a place with an unstable government led by an authoritarian madman elected by a mob that sees themselves as beset by outsiders and their leader as justified in violating international treaties, denying residents’ rights, taunting foreign governments, and doing nothing as the sick poor suffer and die. My missionary wrote home about culture shock, glossing over it in his mass emails, telling me “no, but really” in our private letters. What could I do but remind him to thank God for his Canadian passport? Then six weeks into his mission, his time at the Provo Missionary Training Center was over and he could move on, leave the surreality of Donald Trump’s post-truth America, to serve his mission in countries we’re more comfortable with right now: Romania and Moldova.
How did this happen? I’m a Cold War kid, raised on night terrors about The Bomb burning, cracking, bending the heavens together like a scroll. Little Jenny in her nightgown, standing scared in her parents’ bedroom doorway, closer to the DEW Line than most Americans will ever get—this girl has grown up to have a son living “behind the Iron Curtain,” as his grandfather still calls it. And I’m grateful, relieved that he’s there instead of in the United States. It’s like scripture about the end of the world, where part of the message, the prophecy, is simply surprise, disorientation, confusion. Wo unto them that are with child in those days, or, in my case, without a child.
I am without a vote too, without any voice in what’s happening in the smaller but vastly more populous and powerful nation just south of my own. All I have is Justin’s voice—our prime minister who has already met with Trump, shaken his hand. In China, Justin Trudeau’s name is phonetically rendered as 小土豆 which translates back into English as “Little Potato.” That’s our man—another trust fund baby head of state, the smug heir of a political dynasty. We’re all smug here though—healthy, unarmed, and smug–our nation’s shameful genocidal history with the indigenous people of this territory notwithstanding.
It was Justin’s father, past prime minister Pierre Trudeau, the original 土豆 “Potato,” who described Canada’s global position next to the United States as “sleeping with an elephant” where we are “affected by every twitch and grunt.” Now is the great season of twitches and grunts, of full-blown trumpeting and stamping. What you have done in your own country, you have done it unto ours.
I mentioned my misgivings about Elder Boy being in the United States on social media. It wasn’t directed at my conservative American Mormon friends but they did see it. “He’ll be fine in the MTC,” they said. “Most of us are just going about our normal lives.” I said nothing in reply to their well-meant reassurances about the placid normalcy of Provo. Going about normal lives, eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage—at this point, it’s a ghastly report. I’m glad they were wrong. A few weeks later, a raucous town hall meeting where Utahns called out rotten politics showed the world not everyone’s life is staying the same. Thank you. Thank God. But would Elder Boy, a foreigner behind the yellow-brick walls, would he be able to tell?
He needs to know. For him, for me, for most of us here in Canada, America’s executive has lost whatever moral authority it had left. My son’s experience in the MTC was his most intensive experience with America and his most intensive experience with the institutional Church. The two experiences were entangled, perhaps inextricably. What would the loss of the moral authority of one of those bodies mean to the moral authority of the other? What did America vote out of the religious hopes and expectations of members of the international Church when so many Mormon states went red? It’s hard not to feel betrayed, thrust out not from the living Savior’s heart of the Church but from the hearts of people we once believed considered us brothers and sisters rather than aliens and rivals. Those faces of the people in the Conference Center twice a year, singing on our screens—do they know we can see them, even if they can’t see us? Know me for the sister I am, for the faint and faraway Hosanna I am singing, for the missionary who passed from me to you—recognize us, here beneath a scroll that is beginning to curl and lift.