I recently returned from a trip back to the Canary Islands, where I served my mission over 27 years ago. I’ve been back a couple times before, but this was my first time back to the island of Gran Canaria where the mission home was, where I spent my first day, and where I spent about half my mission. As we went to various places in Las Palmas, I kept having flashbacks to the emotions I felt on my first day as a missionary as well as on subsequent pivotal occasions. It was weird.
When I started my mission, I had some strange ideas about the need to slough off my identity, to leave behind the identifiable parts of myself in favor of a new, bland, passive Christian identity that was really no identity at all. I had the idea that I was entering a monastic order, similar to an abbey. I envisioned myself as a sort of Mormon nun, having transcended or at least forsaken my own interests and personality and ready to just be an empty vessel for the word of God, a conduit for a will other than my own. There was no room for defensiveness or for my need to be understood or known. Being misunderstood by others gave me a chance to let go of my identity, to kill the natural (wo)man.
Obviously this lasted about 5 minutes.
I had already spent most of my time in the MTC feeling misunderstood. This was partly my own fault because being a “good” Mormon was still somewhat new to me. I had always seen myself as a bit on the fringe, not fitting in at BYU or in the church. That really never changed. I didn’t dress or talk like people from Utah. I hadn’t dated any Mormon boys before. I was a loner, Dotty, a rebel. So in deciding to go on a mission, I felt like my identity was unsuitable anyway. I needed to be silent and milquetoast if I couldn’t be that pastel-wearing smile machine that seemed to be the desired stereotype. Since I was mostly pretend-dour in the MTC, my district didn’t really like me. They thought I was a killjoy (me! a killjoy!), and they would hum the Miss Gulch/Wicked Witch theme whenever I came in the room. My companion was cool and didn’t see me that way, but I silently let the elders think that, considering the loss of identity my necessary cross to bear. Then I got sick for a couple weeks, sick enough that I couldn’t go to the classroom. It was one of those awesome illnesses where you lose 10 pounds just like that! In the meantime, my companion grew closer to our district, and I was even more estranged. But again, I figured that it was part of that necessary step of losing my identity. Not feeling defensive and not reacting when they thought I was judgmental and witchy (when I was really just trying to be a complete cipher) seemed like an important part of becoming a missionary to me at that time.
Two scriptures I thought a lot about at this time were Matthew 10:39: “He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” and Luke 2:19: “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”
I didn’t have that same self-aggrandizement that I had seen in the much younger elders when they left for their missions. There was a boy I met when I was a freshman at BYU who sent me letters from his mission in Washington D.C. sealed with a sticker saying the letter was from my favorite missionary (which wasn’t warranted since I only considered him a bare acquaintance). He said he had been humbled greatly because he thought he would be preaching the gospel with the tongue of angels on the floor of the senate, but he didn’t realize that D.C. largely comprised of poverty-ridden areas and hitherto unfamiliar-to-him minorities. I laughed it off as some quirk of his, but later encountered other elders who had these ideas that they were going to be some amazing preacher, converting dozens or thousands in a single St-Crispins-Day style speech. I suppose it was a byproduct of too little travel outside of Utah coupled with too much literal reading of the Book of Mormon. I always assumed the Book of Mormon mass conversions were hyperbole, and even if not, they weren’t likely to go down like that in 1989. So, no, I didn’t really suffer from taking myself too seriously or imagining myself to be the savior of mankind. I didn’t invent some super-personality that I thought I needed to adopt as a missionary. For me, a Christian identity was more about erasing myself.
My first day as a missionary is a little blurry. One of the first things that happened was that the office elders took me to an alley a few blocks from the office where someone took my picture for my visa. The paper explaining my purpose for being in the country said that I was a minister. I hadn’t specifically thought of myself as a minister before. Clearly, that epiphany was a big change in how I saw myself.
I met with the president in his office at his house for my initial interview. He asked me how many people I was going to baptize on my mission. I said I had no way of knowing that, thinking he was asking me for a prediction. I didn’t quite grasp that he was asking me to set a goal. The idea of setting a goal about such a thing still strikes me as a little off, all these years later. I demurred. He said I should set a goal to baptize many, many of the Lord’s elect (something like that). I said I would teach the gospel to the best of my ability to the people who wanted to hear it, and the rest was out of my hands, between God & them. That was a belief I stuck to throughout my mission. I never did like the numbers game as a motivator. It always seemed to motivate unethical behaviors as much as it motivated getting work done. I didn’t really care what the president thought of me since I was kind of unsure what he had to do with my mission anyway. As a sister, I wasn’t inside of the leadership structure. I saw myself as mostly autonomous, more of a contractor than an employee.
After the interview, one of the APs took me a few blocks away to the ugliest piso (apartment) I had ever seen. There was a graffiti picture of a very large penis facing the gated entry to the building that I awkwardly pretended not to notice. I eventually spent 5 months of my mission living in that piso, and that graffiti penis obscenely greeted me every day for those 5 months. I was sent out on splits with a sister named Hermana B. She was from the peninsula, a native Spaniard. As we boarded a city bus, I naively asked her (in Spanish) if she spoke any English. She rounded on me with a righteous fury and hissed “En que pais crees que estamos?” I put up my hands and quickly said it was no big deal, just to speak slowly, and I’d do my best. Or at least I think that’s what I said. For whatever reason, despite this inauspicious beginning, this sister ended up being someone who really liked me, although she had a reputation as a rather prickly sister, especially hostile toward the Americans. We were never companions. I did eventually inherit and pay several of her long distance phone bills due to transfers (phone bills in Spain had a few months’ lag).
One of our first stops was at a house where she said there were some investigators. It was a young edgy looking couple in punk clothes. They were painting pro-Communist protest signs for a rally. She started to paint signs with them. I was a little confused about the whole thing. After we left I asked why we were painting protest signs for a political rally. That query resulted in another earful about how not everyone is an American, and that Communism would be good for Spain. Then we stopped at a pay phone so she could call her boyfriend, and I waited for her to talk to him for about a half hour. She said he was on a mission in mainland Spain. Then we took a bus down by the capilla (chapel) where there was a baptism taking place. It gave us a chance to meet some other missionaries, a few of whom spoke English which felt like a relief because I was getting a headache from trying to follow along combined with some serious jet lag. One of those missionaries I met that day later became my husband, although I don’t specifically remember our meeting.
Last week, during our visit, we stopped by the capilla again, and as I reached out to try the door, memories came flooding back. An elder about the same age as my sons poked his head out of the church. Then two sister missionaries walked out. They had an investigator there being interviewed. After a few minutes, another pair of elders stopped by, one from Murcia who unsuccessfully attempted to pump us for 27 year old referrals. Talking to these elders and sisters reminded me of the relief it always was to meet up with other missionaries; it probably feels something like the break room at a used car lot, where the sales people can let their hair down and talk about their frustrating customers with colleagues without having to have their game face on.
Later that night, we were walking back to the hotel through the crowds dressed for Carnaval who were making their way to the make-shift arena where dance music was loudly thumping. While I felt a kinship with these local party-goers based on my time in the islands, I felt an even stronger pull toward those young missionaries, knowing what their days are like, understanding their joys and frustrations, and seeing that familiar camaraderie among them. I remembered another day at that same capilla toward the end of my mission when the local branch held a dance for the members. My companion was on the floor dancing with a boy who had Down’s Syndrome, and all the members were laughing and dancing and having a good time. One of the elders made eye contact with me and nodded toward the dance floor, raising his eyebrows in invitation which made me laugh. Obviously, we weren’t actually going to dance, but it was a reminder to me at the time that all missionaries feel like we’ve given up our identity, and the dance felt like a break from our role, a moment in time when we could imagine we were real people again.
Perhaps all missionaries feel as I did, at least initially, that letting go of our identity was a necessary prerequisite to being a good missionary or even a good Christian. But putting your life on hold doesn’t really mean you have to erase your entire personality. That was something I figured out in time.
- What ideas did you change from the beginning of your mission?
- Do you think elders & sisters have different ideas about their identity as a missionary based on age, how the church sees them, etc?
- How do you interpret the idea that you have to lose your life to save it?
- Do you think missionaries have to erase their personality to be successful? If so, to what extent? Do you think all Christians have to let go of their identity to follow Christ?
 Well, maybe more like a few months. I did later realize that it was kind of a dumb idea and that we were more effective if we allowed ourselves to be real people and not just interchangeable robots.
 My initial reaction was “It looks like D.I. threw up in here.”
 Roughly “What country do you think this is?”