He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Bruder

I just finished reading the enjoyable and entertaining Bruder, a mission memoir by Roger Terry that was published by BCC Press on the same day as my own mission memoir, The Legend of Hermana Plunge. Both books are available on Amazon in Kindle or paperback format.

Bruder is a great addition to the canon of mission memoirs, harking back to a mission in the 1970s when transfers came via letter (!) from the mission office, and when his incoming mission president was a little alarmed at the rumpled, big-collared, subtly patterned shirts and not quite conservative suits that were sneaking into the missionary wardrobe at that time.

Like other mission memoirs, there are irritating companions and kindred souls, perplexing investigators, unexpected successes, people who come to love Bruder Terry and people whom he unexpectedly comes to love. There are allusions to the person Terry is now, a person I found very compelling, someone I could sit and have a Diet Coke with, the person who says:

I study Mormonism for a living. I have no illusions about it anymore.

There are also inexplicable spiritual experiences that are powerful yet ultimately baffling, creating more questions than they answer. I completely related to this as a former missionary.

His argument, apparently, is that this warm feeling inside doesn’t really constitute knowledge. It’s just a warm feeling. Bruder Terry probably would have agreed with him. He didn’t want a warm feeling. He wanted to know. But the bigger question is, what can one know?

In considering the meaning of various experiences that he, companions, and investigators had, he concludes:

My experience over the years is that spiritual feelings are devilishly hard to decipher. I’ve been certain about what I felt were spiritual communications from time to time, but time and experience have proved me wrong as often as right.

The book uses a literary device of referring to the missionary as Bruder Terry, but the author is not the same person. This can be confusing at times, particularly in the beginning of the book, but ultimately the device works. As any missionary will attest, the end of one’s mission is like a death. The mission self is real, is one’s identity and whole life, but when we are released, that person we were truly ceases to exist. I felt the mantle of responsibility fall away at the end of the book, felt the persona of Bruder Terry die, maybe mourned him a little, or maybe instead I just rejoiced that Terry could once again pick up his own life and move ahead, leaving that life behind him.

At one point, a fellow missionary introduces the ideas from Alvin R. Dyer’s Challenging and Testifying Missionary, ideas that have apparently been passed around from missionary to missionary since they were first written, and ideas that were infused into our approach in my own mission. He quickly discards these ideas as exciting, but not workable.

He noticed something odd: a huge percentage of the inactive members had been baptized between 1960 and 1962, when Dyer was presiding over the European Mission.

Despite this, from reading the memoir, we seemed to have a similar enough approach, even though I was operating under the Dyer system, and we even had similar amounts of success, despite his mission being in a much harder area. In fact, he notes that retention was an issue for his own investigators. That’s simply the nature of religious conversion. It doesn’t always last.

All the others, though, left barely a trace of their brief membership. It’s as if they were never Mormons, other than to temporarily pad the inflated statistics the Church publishes (inflated because so many of the people the Church claims as members don’t themselves claim to be Mormons anymore). This is probably true for the majority of people who join the LDS Church worldwide. Most don’t last.

Maybe that just means that while gimmicks don’t work, ideas can resonate and motivate and help an individual figure out their own approach. I suspect that wherever there are missionaries, there will always be that search for the elusive silver bullet.

As is nearly a prerequisite for male mission memoirs, it fails Bechdel. How could it not? Male missionaries are almost always with men. He notes of his pen pal girlfriend back in the states:

Her letters were sparse and superficial, and he began to wonder if her letters were but a reflection of her life.

His understanding of other religions was as naive as most missionaries which creates needless conflict that nevertheless hasn’t been systematically addressed or eliminated. This is something that gives him chagrin decades later, but was a way of life for Bruder Terry.

As I look back over the years to Bruder Terry’s experience as a missionary, it occurs to me that he had a very skewed “us vs. them” mentality. A few extra decades of living in the world have given me a more realistic perspective. I see now that other churches are doing their level best to help their people lead good lives and be productive members of society. Some do better than others, but they all have good intentions and some very good results, and Mormons are by no stretch of the imagination perfect, nor do they have “all truth,” as they sometimes naively assume.

His perspective changed, not just about the goodness of other faiths, but about the cyclical, self-reinforcing nature of the perceived persecution church members often share:

Mormons expect to be persecuted. They expect to be misunderstood. They expect to be at odds with all other religions (even though they irrationally yearn to be admired and accepted, if not downright loved by them). They explain this persecution by claiming that it is Satan moving people to oppose them. And, of course, the “fact” that Satan is opposing them is proof that they are right, that the Church is true. In a way, this is a circular sort of logic that is incredibly self-reinforcing.

He makes a conclusion that is pretty simple, and I hope something the Church’s missionary department is very seriously considering:

There was and, I believe, still is no training missionaries receive about other religions or how to respect other people’s beliefs.

Like all missionaries, he struggles with the concept of goal-setting and making a commitment that if you do X, you’ll be blessed with a certain number of converts, an idea that his revered mission president espoused.

But Terry was not Randall, and although he served a good mission and tried his best, his best certainly was nowhere near the goal he set for himself. And lost somewhere in this talk of faith is the idea that people have their own free will, and one person’s faith can’t really overrule another person’s agency. Or can it?

This was something I also dismissed as hubris in my mission. We couldn’t control others’ lives with our own acts of faith or obedience. And ultimately, a point he makes that has doubtless crossed every missionary’s mind at one time or another:

Since some LDS leaders (including fifth Church President Lorenzo Snow) have declared that in the spirit world it will be much easier to accept the gospel and very few will reject it, then those who hear it here, like the many who listened to and then rejected Bruder Terry, are at a distinct disadvantage. In essence, it would have been better for Bruder Terry to have not given them the chance at all here in mortality. Their eternal odds would have been much better if he hadn’t bothered them.

He compares his own faith with the faith of an African investigator he teaches in the pre-1978 era, and it’s an experience that nobody should envy.

Now, all these years later, I’m quite sure that everything Terry told Leon that day was not just offensive to Leon but to the Lord also. Nearly everything Bruder Terry taught Leon that day and in the following weeks was completely false. The only thing he told him that was true was that he wasn’t allowed to hold the Mormon priesthood. Why? Well, the only correct answer Terry could have given was, “We don’t know.” But he didn’t. He taught Leon all the invented doctrines and myths, and Leon, to his great credit, took it well. He said if it was true, it wouldn’t stop him. All he wanted to do was save his soul. When Terry heard this, he felt nothing but shame. He knew he was sitting in the presence of a far greater soul than he would ever be.

And that’s ultimately the message of the book, or at least one of the most salient points–that missionaries go on a mission to save others, to achieve “success” which is a number of converts, but the real hallmark of success is one’s own growth and ability to love others, not to win an argument or to prove the Church is right.

We meet together in our little bubble and convince ourselves that we alone can save lost humanity.

These are things that Bruder Terry didn’t comprehend, but that author Roger Terry understands quite well. Like a mission, the book is a valuable exploration of a human journey from egotistical, naive, black and white thinking to mature, charitable, compassionate, patient, humble thinking. It’s well worth a read, and even more than that, a good think.

Comments

  1. Happy Hubby says:

    Very compelling. Another book added to the list I need to get.

  2. Another Roy says:

    Thanks for the review. I’m intrigued!

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    I quite enjoyed it. He served a couple of years before me, but I was stateside and a mission in Germany was an entirely different animal, so I appreciated being to experience it through Bruder Terry’s eyes.

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