Apprehension filled my mind as I walked up the porch steps of the house. After I knocked on the door, I stepped back and shot a glance at the 19-year-old who stood by my side. He was the missionary companion I’d been assigned to; he was wearing a white shirt and tie, black slacks and a black nametag that read Elder Brown. I looked back toward the door when I heard footsteps from inside the house getting closer. Someone opened the door and peered from inside, looking questionably at both of us. I took a breath.
“Hello. We’re missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. You’ve probably heard us called the Mormons.”
“I’ve heard of you guys,” the stranger replied, “but I’m not interested. I already have a church that I belong to.”
“That’s O.K,” I reassured the stranger. “We’re not here to take anything away from you. Instead, we want to add to what you already have.” A few moments of silence ensued. I continued. “We’re here to tell people about a message. The message is that Christ’s true church has been restored on the Earth, and through this message families can be together forever.”
“Yeah, I’m not interested. Thanks.” And with that, the stranger stepped inside the house and closed the door. My companion and I stood there awkwardly for a few moments before we slowly made our way to the next house. For the thousands of doors that I knocked on during this two-year period, the vast majority of these encounters ended in a similarly mundane fashion. Very few people would invite us into their homes to hear this message we shared, and of these invitations only a tiny fraction of them ended in baptism. Serving a mission is a peculiar thing.
From the outside looking in, Mormon culture itself is a peculiar thing. On the inside, it didn’t feel peculiar — it felt normal at the time. It felt normal when I ended up in the Washington D.C. North mission, comprised of the Washington D.C. and Maryland areas. Before going to D.C., along with most prospective missionaries, I spent six weeks learning the ins and outs of missionary work in the Missionary Training Center, located in the mountainous region of Provo, Utah. After this short period, I was shipped to D.C. where I hit the ground running.
My first missionary companion was from Utah and trained me as a newcomer. My later companions varied in personality and nationality, one being a rule-abiding stickler from Hong Kong and another being a rule-breaking misfit from Hungary. I adapted to each type of companion, having served with around ten or so.
It’s all a blur, really because I vehemently despised missionary culture. Missionaries are convinced they are ordained with special powers. I recall one incident where I, along with a group of missionaries, visited a sick member of the church in a hospital whom we were told needed a blessing of healing.
Only one missionary could lay his hands on their head to enunciate the blessing, and each of them wanted to give it to prove how worthy they were. I don’t remember who was chosen, but the sick church member died the next day.
Additionally, members of the church place missionaries on metaphorical pedestals, akin to the way military personnel are treated with reverence. Of course, military personnel serve our country by defending our freedom with their blood and sweat; missionaries spend their time meandering around town on bicycles, gleefully passing out pamphlets to unsuspecting victims.
Furthermore, favoritism played a large part in people being promoted to leadership positions within the mission. Missionaries relish in this fact. Seeing young men compete to win over the affection of other missionaries in leadership positions was difficult to stomach. However, a select number of down-to-earth missionaries could see through this façade. It took me a while to see through it as well.
The experience wasn’t all bad, but it wasn’t very good either. In fact, it was painfully long and dreary. Looking back, the only reason I went at all was because I was pressured by family and friends to do my duty for the church. To me, that seems to encapsulate Mormon culture as a whole: do your duty in full, or risk being estranged from family and friends.
I was sent home after 21 months of missionary service.