Know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.Doctrine & Covenants 122:7
I just finished writing what you are about to read. I didn’t intend to write it. I had quotes and media on another subject. But it just kind of came out in one piece. I apologize in advance for saying unpleasant things about a certain state in the Great Lakes region, but they kind of had it coming. If you are up for a longer read, welcome to my therapy session.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about my mission over the last few days. I came home from Chicago 33 years ago, and I struggled at my homecoming to make my time spent there seem like the best two years of my life. There was not enough rhetorical polish in all of Central California to make that happen.
My mission was hard. When I arrived in Chicago, the average number of baptisms per missionary per mission was…one. If you hadn’t baptized half a person by the end of your first year, the pressure was on. We rarely had the opportunity to teach. Mostly, we tracted. All day, every day. It was like that Primary song: “Pioneer children sang and they walked, and walked, and walked and walked.” Except we didn’t sing that much.
A guy held a gun on me. An old lady swung a kitchen knife my direction. And those were the friendly ones.
Even the members could be a challenge, depending on where you served. In my first area, we were treated like family. In my next area, I went for a period of six months with exactly one dinner appointment. Our attrition rate was high for missions in the 80s, as the daily grind was more than some folks could or wanted to put up with. People went home monthly. One guy just got up in the middle of the night and caught a bus for Salt Lake City while his companion slept. I stayed, blessed with a long stint in the mission office as the fleet coordinator, where I worried about carburetors rather than converts.
For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why the Lord asked me to spend two years walking around Lincoln’s country accomplishing little to nothing. It was like being sent to Nineveh, but without all the repentance.
What I didn’t know then was what the next 33 years of my life were going to look like. During those years I have sometimes been asked to endure stunningly offensive conduct by members of the Church. The bad experiences never have outweighed the good, but they certainly have stood out. I’m not going to share those stories. They aren’t worth repeating. But trust me: There are periods during which my principal feeling towards many members was nothing but animosity.
And as an aside, I’ve never been much on those talks about how people shouldn’t make the choice to be offended by other members. With all due respect, we need more talks on not doing offensive things.
At one point, because of some conduct directed at my wife, I was on the cusp of leaving the Church. I set up a lunch with a dear friend and mentor and talked to him about what was going on. At the end of my list of grievances, he asked me a surprising question.
“So why are you still here?”
I sat there for a few moments pondering that question. And I could only come up with one answer:
“I served in Chicago.”
Experiencing real difficulty and feeling like an outsider looking in for two years unquestionably prepared me to deal with often feeling like an outsider in the Church for the next 33. Church had always been a pleasant experience before my mission, and I had preconceived notions of what a mission experience should be. It wasn’t that. I learned that along with the angels and saints in the Church (of which we have many), we also have our fair share of knuckleheads, blockheads, meanieheads, and some wolves preying on the flock. And there are a whole lot of people in the middle (where I place myself), who have good days and bad. You roll the dice and take your chances with us.
My adult life in the Church has largely consisted of feeling like a foreigner and stranger rather than a fellow citizen. Even in wards where my love for the people is deep (as has been the case ever since I came to Texas), fitting in socially has never been easy. I don’t do the “guy stuff” that you usually associate with Elder’s Quorum. For a while I had a refuge in High Priests, where my health ailments fit in perfectly. Now they’ve moved us back in with guys that have way too much energy for me. No, I don’t want to play ultimate Frisbee. No, I don’t want to be in a weight loss club. I’ll pass on the Turkey Bowl. I want to sit my fat butt right here in a corner and finish this book.
Sunday meetings can be a struggle. It seems like well-prepared talks can be as rare as visits from the Three Nephites. If I comment in a class, either folks don’t get my perspective, or they do get my perspective quite well and are concerned that I am, in the words of one dear brother, “On the high road to apostasy.” I don’t know how many roads to apostasy there are, but it sounded like I had picked a good one.
And don’t even get me started on potlucks. One of those suckers almost killed me.
So why am I still here?
Because I served in Chicago, baby.
One thing I took away from that city was its attitude: I learned not to give a single fig for what anyone thinks about me. I do my thing, doing my best to be a decent husband, dad and disciple and to help others where I can. I know I don’t fit the Mormon mold (not supposed to use that word, but alliteration is important to me), but the people I like best in the Church don’t fit that mold either. That lesson I learned later in life from an older and even more cantankerous goat than me, who I hope I can someday measure up to. He knows who he is.
If I were to fit in better, that might be nice, but the relationship I am looking to develop is with the Lord. And only the Lord.
There’s another reason too. Texas ain’t Chicago. I’ve lived in the same ward for almost 30 years. I’ve watched people grow up, move away, and move back again. I’ve seen most of these people at their worst, but more importantly, I’ve seen them at their best. They are fundamentally good, caring, and loving people. They have lifted and carried me and my family through hardships that would be difficult to imagine. They have balanced my Church karma and helped me learn to look past immediate impressions and trust in the good that is in people.
I’ve learned to wait for the good to come out. More often than not, it does.
Without my mission experiences, I would not have been sufficiently prepared to deal with other challenges to my faith, and I doubt seriously that I would have endured in the Church. So I’m grateful for the challenges. Thankful for the grind. Appreciative of the fish sticks I ate in my apartment on Easter.
I’m thankful to Chicago.
Because of you, I’m not going anywhere.