“I’m sorry — do I know you from somewhere?” I asked.
This young man had greeted me more enthusiastically and hurried over more quickly than I was comfortable with for someone I was pretty sure I didn’t recognize. It took me halfway through his, “no, I don’t think so,” to connect the tidy, striped tie with the nametag beginning “Elder” and ending “-of the Latter-Day Saints.” If my shoulder muscles had a voice they would have groaned. Missionary.
I have a schtick that I usually use with missionaries- and with political organizers, club promoters, and flyer-hander-outers of all denominations: Sorry, now’s not a great time. No, I don’t want to give you my contact info. Do you have any literature I can look over and contact you later if I want to? — and so on. But this was a beautiful fall day and I was feeling particularly benevolent. Plus, he had just asked about the bike helmet hanging from my bag, unintentionally reminding me that I was about to take the bus home and forget my bike on campus. I decided to be friendly.
We engaged in a little banter, goofing over my saying things like “swell,” and “peachy.” He introduced himself as Elder Maurer of the Mormon Church of the Latter Day Saints, and asked just the kind of things you’d expect. Am I religious? (No.) Am I seeking meaning in life? (Laughingly: “Oh man — isn’t everyone?”) He explained that he and his partner, Elder Asi, like to sit down with people one-on-one for fifteen minutes or so and share the testament of Jesus Christ. Had I ever spoken to a missionary before? “Yeah,” I said, because sure, I’ve talked to missionaries. Probably. Sort of? I used to call my parents to the door for missionaries when I was a kid. That counts . . . right? I mean, we used to go to Catholic church. I’m sure I talked to people there without knowing that they identified as missionaries — like, asking about how their weekends were or whatever. Hell, I’ve probably talked to missionaries in public places without even realizing it. I mean, even missionaries must take public transit, right? Even missionaries might have to ask for directions when they’re lost. Even missionaries probably stand in line for groceries. Missionaries are people too. #YesAllMissionaries.
Hell, I’ve probably talked to missionaries in public places without even realizing it. I mean, even missionaries must take public transit, right?
But the truth is, I couldn’t recall ever seriously talking with a missionary about their religion. Listening to some people talk, you’d get the picture that thinking of rude things to say to missionaries is one of life’s greatest art forms (oil on canvas with I-am-hella-gay-so-eat-rainbows-bitches!). I’ve never been brassy enough to say anything too confrontational, but I have always been politely yet firmly uninterested. But why, I suddenly wondered? I mean sure, missionaries have been part of a system of religiously-condoned colonialism, oppression, and violence for centuries. And sure, missionaries have been, and still could be considered, agents of that same violence and oppression. But who actually thinks about that before they set out to antagonize some poor unsuspecting Jehovah’s Witness? Does anyone really answer the door thinking, “Heh, I’ll make them so uncomfortable by waving my big, metaphorical, neo-liberal dick in their face that they’ll slink away and it will make up for hundreds of years of systemic injustice!!”? (Answer: dear God I hope not.) No, there’s more to negative perceptions of missionaries than narratives of injustice.
Is it possible that maybe — just maybe — missionaries are . . . scary? I mean, I consider myself pretty philosophically relativistic; when I was eight I told my Catholic-school-teacher mother that I wanted to learn about “all the religions” and make up my own with all of the “best parts.” Yet for all my self-assured “open-mindedness,” I still bristle at conservative Christian talk. It brings all the repressed shame and fear from my Catholic-school adolescence oozing to the surface. Could it possibly be that I had never really talked to missionaries because I was afraid of them?
And yet, what was there really to be afraid of? Elders Maurer and Asi seemed like two very friendly, relatively harmless young men. I am comfortable enough in my philosophical convictions and sense of critical inquiry that I don’t seriously fear accidentally being converted, and I ought to know better by now than to let ye ol’ Catholic trauma keep running my life. What was there to lose from fifteen minutes of friendly conversation? Fifteen minutes is nothing. A blink. Thousands of people have spent way more time than that with missionaries, even against their will. What’s fifteen minutes of my day compared to all those lifetimes? In the spirit of journalism, anthropological inquiry, and good old-fashioned human curiosity, I asked if they would speak with me for fifteen minutes and let me write about it. The earth shook, the heavens opened, the hand of God reached down — and they said yes.
In the days leading up to our meeting, I became increasingly nervous. Elders Maurer and Asi had given me the number of their shared cell phone — a fliptop, and, I assumed, for missionary business only — and asked me to contact them to set up a time to meet. But, I didn’t want to call from my personal number. When we first met, I noticed they would end their conversations with each passerby by asking for a phone number, and I had deliberately avoided giving mine out. What did the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints want with my phone number? Was I going to be a recipient of “can we talk to you about Jesus?” phone calls for the rest of my life? No, siree. I briefly considered calling from the free phone in the SUB but eventually pitched my idea to the Martlet and begged to use the office phone (sincerest apologies to the Martlet staff who are now probably on the Mormon Church’s to-call list). The Elders had spoken to so many people the previous day that I had to remind them who I was. I asked to meet under the twin totem poles on the southwest side of the campus quad, because the Book of Mormon claims to be about the ancestors of the “American Indians,” (the Book of Mormon’s words, not mine), missionaries have forever been implicated in acts of colonialism, and I have a real twisted sense of humour.
Once the meeting was arranged, I could set myself to worrying about what it would be like. With all my neo-liberal conditioning, I half expected the used-car salesmanship of religion. I wondered if I should mentally barricade myself against making the spiritual equivalent of a regrettable down payment on a sub-par property in Florida, like something out of a Latter-Day Saints Glengarry Glen Ross: with a more pious Alec Baldwin howling, “Coffee is for Mormons only! A. B. C: Always Be Christian.” Thirty minutes before our scheduled meeting, I texted my best friend: “ T-30 minutes to mtg. I am terror” and then, “If this is the last time you hear from me before I convert to Mormon, pls tell my mother I loved her.”
“LOL,” she responded, “Annie it’s not EBOLA.”
And a horrifyingly inappropriate reference to a deadly disease it wasn’t. The meeting was honestly pretty ok. Yelp review: friendly service, decent atmosphere – 4/5 stars.
Elders Maurer and Asi were almost late. Enough so that I began to draft a piece in my head entitled “I Got Stood Up By Mormons: Why Missionaries Make Bad First Dates.” But sure enough, just as I was starting to Snapchat totem pole selfies captioned “Waiting For Mormon” and hoping someone would get the Godot reference, I spotted them walking towards me down the tree-lined path. They had a third person with them — another potential convert, I assumed — and I didn’t want to interrupt. I just waved a little and watched quietly as they approached. They cut a pretty nice figure: three well-groomed, attractive, bright-faced young men. What do they do with all the plain-looking missionaries? I wondered. Do they disappear them into really undesirable placements in developing countries or something? I never asked, so we may never know.
These guys look pretty young for me to be addressing them as “Elder,” I reflected as I greeted the group. The Elders Maurer and Asi could easily have been the age of my younger brother. I fought the urge to give one of them a noogie — and then also the urge to laugh about having had that urge. The third member of the group was introduced to me as Ethan, a UVic student and former missionary. I would guess that he was there to give me some sense of initiation into the UVic Mormon community, but I couldn’t help but picture how awkward it is going to be running into him in BiblioCafé alongside all my former Tinder dates until kingdom come. If there really is eternal life like the Church of Latter-Day Saints preaches, I’m sure mine will be a purgatory of uncomfortable social interactions with people I thought I’d never see again. I’ve earned it.
The Elders requested that I not record our conversation, despite my pleas in the name of journalistic integrity. “We have some secrets we don’t like giving away to just anybody,” Elder Maurer said jokingly, but part of me wondered whether it was truly a joke. To be honest, though, no damning secrets were spilled. Our entire conversation was pretty vanilla oatmeal. The three men talked about their love for God and Jesus, their appreciation for the ways religion had given them a sense of meaning in life, and their desire to spread that faith and good news to others. They spoke calmly yet animatedly, and even poetically.
“It’s not a change that happens like a clap of thunder,” Ethan said when I asked him about how he knew the Latter-Day Saints was for him. “I like to think of it like a change that happens at dawn. As you’re watching it gets brighter and brighter until you see the sun has risen.” All three spoke warmly about the positive effects being part of a religious community had brought to their lives.
To their credit (or perhaps detriment, depending on your criteria), they carefully steered clear of any controversial topics. There was no anti-gay talk, no sex-shaming, none of the scary propaganda sometimes associated with religious outreach. When I asked what the hardest sacrifice to make when becoming Mormon was, Ethan talked mostly about the challenges of missionary work: being away from home for so long, travelling, standing long days on street corners. No scary Do’s or Dont’s there.
To be fair, I deliberately steered clear of inflammatory questions. I didn’t ask, for example, where all the lady missionaries were, or bring up my sexual ambiguity. I didn’t question the origins of the Book of Mormon or get into the nitty gritty of what it means to sin. I wasn’t interested in hard-hitting journalistic questions. I wanted the Authentic Conversion Experience, and I was curious what would happen if I just tried to connect with the guys on a friendly, human level. As it turns out, this was probably the exact opposite of their typical missionary conversation. “Most people like to tell us a lot about what they believe,” remarked Elder Asi. “It’s really cool that you’re letting us talk so much,” added Elder Maurer. They seemed genuinely surprised that I was friendly and nice and inquisitive. Perhaps I would’ve had a more typical conversation if I’d come in guns a-blazing after all.
Perhaps it really is possible to make a genuine human connection with someone whose beliefs seem vastly different from yours.
Still, I discovered that missionaries aren’t necessarily as scary as they seem. By being mild-mannered, I got to have a pleasant conversation with three nice young men, and the kinder and more inquisitive I was, the more they seemed to open up and to forget about converting me. Perhaps it really is possible to make a genuine human connection with someone whose beliefs seem vastly different from yours.
As we were wrapping up our talk, Elder Maher invited me to lead the group in prayer. For the sake of participant observation and a little carpe-ing of the diem, I thought, sure, why not, and used it as an opportunity to express my gratefulness that everyone had been so cooperative and good-willed. As we all looked down respectfully, I watched the first ray of sun I’d seen all day streak golden across the wet grass. If I were a more willing convert, perhaps that would have been The Moment I Truly Believed.
As things stand it was a lovely moment anyways. And, while I don’t think I’ll be returning to Christianity any time soon, I did get a free copy of the Book of Mormon to do with as I please. So I guess if anyone needs me, I’ll be making origami to the glory of whatever gods you may believe there to be.