Called to Serve
My girlfriend waited anxiously beside me at the entrance to the police station. We had just called my mom to tell her we’d arrived. She appeared in her work uniform and raced down the stairs to give us each a big hug. She already had tears in her eyes. I held up the thick manila envelope that would determine my fate. “Open it, open it!” my girlfriend urged.
I opened the seal and pulled out a thick stack of papers. I read aloud from the top sheet:
“Dear Elder, You are hereby called to serve as a missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You are assigned to labor in the Sapporo, Japan Mission.”
“Japan!” My mom and girlfriend both cried out. Tears were flowing freely now as we all joined in a group hug.
Of course it was Japan. It all made sense. I had studied the language all through high school. And now I would actually go there— live there– as a Mormon missionary.
Every young Mormon man is expected to serve a two-year mission. This is relentlessly drilled into your head throughout childhood. Even though I had more or less “escaped” the church during my early teenage years, the notion of serving a mission never left me. It felt inevitable, like I was running from something much bigger and faster than myself.
Oh, and it didn’t hurt that I was in love with a beautiful Mormon girl at the time. She saw herself getting married to a righteous “RM” someday (stands for “returned missionary”). Make no mistake, I wanted to be that RM.
I was only 18 at the time. But in Mormon culture, you start early. You leave on your mission at 18 or 19, get back at 20 or 21, and if all goes well, you’re married by 22 and having kids by 23. (It is no small coincidence that marriage is the ONLY avenue to sex in Mormon culture, either. It adds considerable urgency to the whole affair.)
Welcome to the MTC
I showed up to the Missionary Training Center with two brand new suits and a set of luggage. Starry-eyed young Mormons streamed in from the parking lot, surrounded by their crying moms and girlfriends. There were a handful of “Sister” missionaries in the pack as well– girls are allowed to serve missions if they want, but aren’t obligated like their Priesthood-holding (read: penis-having) counterparts.
White-shirted missionary leaders guided us all into a large auditorium. Proud mission veterans gave testimonies about the sacred nature of the work that we were about to embark on. This was world-changing, life altering stuff! You couldn’t help but get caught up in it. Then, all too soon, it was over. The final instructions: missionaries must leave through the door on the right, and families and friends through the door on the left. This was it. Say your farewells, and do it quickly.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. These were the last hugs, the last goodbyes, the last in-person exchanges you’d have with your friends and family for the next two years. Once you walked through that door, you were officially on your mission.
Enter to Learn, Go Fourth to Serve
The MTC is essentially Mormon Bootcamp. Every hour of every day is scheduled out for you, and the pace is grueling. For example, here is an actual schedule from one day at the MTC:
From day one, everyone gets a “companion” missionary assigned to them. You and your companion are to NEVER lose sight of one another. You’re at each other’s sides 24/7. (The only exception: bathroom stalls).
My companion and I had something of a rocky start. Early on, he said if he’d known me pre-MTC, he probably would have beaten me up. He was an extroverted sports guy and I was an introverted books guy. But we managed to become friends by the end. It really was like a boot camp– we ate, slept, and studied our asses off together for three straight months. That sort of thing binds you together.
6:30 a.m. – “Arise and Prepare”
7:00 a.m. – Breakfast
7:35 a.m. – Gym Time
8:25 a.m. – Prepare (shower and change)
9:00 a.m. – Classroom Instruction
11:55 a.m. – Lunch:
12:45 p.m. – “Zone Teaching”
1:45 p.m. – Personal Study (Scriptures and other church-approved resources)
2:45 p.m. – Companionship Study (more study, but with your assigned “companion”– more on that later
3:45 p.m. – Doctrinal Study Time
4:30 p.m. – Dinner
5:15 p.m. – Classroom Instruction
8:15 p.m. – Doctrinal Study Time
9:00 p.m. – Daily Planning Session (talk about what you did today, plan for tomorrow)
9:30 p.m. – “Personal Time” (recommended activities: journal writing, getting ready for bed)
10:15 p.m. – Quiet Time
10:30 p.m. – Sleep/Companionship Prayer
Seek Ye the Gift of Tongues
After a couple of months, our whole district started to feel like we hit our stride. We were MTC veterans now, eldest of the elders. We weren’t like those America-bound missionaries that get kicked into the field after just two weeks. No, we were hand-picked by the Lord to learn one of the hardest languages in existence: Japanese. That’s why we were here for the long haul.
One day we were sitting in a classroom joking about the lecture we got from Hardass Sensei earlier in the day. He chewed us out because of our lack of progress with the language. His threats used to scare the crap out of us, until we realized that there wasn’t anything he could actually do about them.
The room quieted down as Spiritual Sensei walked in. I sank back in my seat, settling in for a relaxing two hours. Spiritual Sensei was the mellowest man on earth– always good-natured, and always encouraging. He had a steady, reassuring voice that was somewhere between a therapist and a Zen master.
Spiritual Sensei smiled and asked how we were doing with SYL. (Stands for “Speak Your Language”, and it is the ubiquitous mantra for all language-learning missionaries at the MTC.)
I exchanged glances with my companion. We definitely could be doing better. Our district leader spoke up. “It’s a hard, but… we’re doing our best”.
Spiritual Sensei raised an eyebrow and said “Your best? So, every possible conversation outside the classroom is in Japanese? 24/7?”
We shifted in our seats. Spiritual sensei gave a knowing look. “Or, when outside of the classroom, do you just find yourselves speaking English with a few ‘arigatos’ and ‘kudasais’ sprinkled in?”
The whole district exchanged guilty smiles. That was exactly how it was. Japanese was really hard! How could we be expected to have a conversation when saying “I have a pen” was already testing the limits of our vocabulary?
Spiritual Sensei nodded slowly as relieved laughter spread around the room. We were so lucky to have a teacher that actually understood how hard it was for us. Someone who “got it”.
But then I noticed that Spiritual Sensei wasn’t laughing with us. He was sitting there stone-faced. The laughter died. After a weighty pause, he spoke. “Every single one of you has been called here by God. Every one of you made a sacred promise to serve Him, and to obey his commandments. SYL is a commandment. There is no grey area. You won’t be able to share His gospel without being able to speak the language. And yet you’re sitting here laughing.” He stood up. “This isn’t a game. If you think throwing in a few words of Japanese here and there counts as perfect obedience, you need to think very seriously about why you’re here. I think Heavenly Father is very disappointed in you right now, and so am I. Class is over.”
Spiritual Sensei left the room. A heavy silence overtook us as we stared at our desks.
Spiritual Sensei never once raised his voice, and yet he emotionally sucker-punched us infinitely worse than Hardass Sensei could ever hope to do.
A Marvelous Work and a Wonder
One evening, my companion and I were sitting in a tiny living room across from two “investigators”. (People who are interested in learning more about the church). One was a Japanese lady, the other a young white guy. Both spoke Japanese.
We presented our “lesson”, which consisted of every Japanese phrase that we knew. Things seemed to be going well. Then the guy asked a question. My companion and I leaned forward and used our favorite phrase: “mou ikkai kudasai?” (one more time, please). The guy spoke again, slower this time. My companion looked back at me with a gleam of panic in his eye. I shook my head. Sweat beaded up on our brows as we reached for our Japanese dictionaries. “Mou ikkai, kudasai?”
Several agonizing minutes later, we had puzzled out the gist of his question. We were now sweating profusely. Neither of us had the vocabulary to answer. Instead, we fired back with one of the phrases we did know. “I know this church is true. It will bless you and make you happy.”
It had nothing to do with what the he asked, but we were banking on him having learned his lesson from the first question. It usually worked.
Suddenly a loud buzzer went off. Sweet relief. We got up and said our rehearsed goodbyes. I even went for extra credit, asking when we could schedule another lesson. (We had just been reviewing times and days of the week).
We left the fake little living room and entered a long cinderblock hallway. Other missionary pairs were emerging from their own living rooms. Together we all filed into a big AV room and split up into our stations.
A friendly instructor came over to play the videos back to us. Together we watched the “lesson” that we had just conducted, while the instructor critiqued our performance. At first this was terrifying, but I quickly learned to look forward to these review sessions as a welcome break from the prolonged awkwardness in the teaching rooms. After the ten minutes were up, we were off to another fake living room to teach another pair of investigators. (If you haven’t guessed, most of the “investigators” that volunteer for these things are actually just church members that happen to speak the language. Usually they’re returned missionaries themselves.)
Heart, Mind, Mind, and Strength
It was finally Wednesday again. We had five precious hours to ourselves. If we were on the ball, we could knock out laundry and all our cleaning chores in just over an hour. That meant that we’d have almost four whole hours that were totally unscheduled! Can you imagine? Of course we’d have to eat lunch somewhere in that time too, but the point was, we got to pick when we ate lunch. This was the magic of “Preparation Day” (or “P-day” for short).
On this particular P-day, laundry couldn’t go fast enough for me. I folded up my still-damp clothes and rushed my companion out the door. Back at our dorms, I reached into to my locker and pulled out a thick envelope. I took a moment to savor the scent of my girlfriend’s perfume. I had been waiting for this moment ever since the letter got delivered on Thursday. Usually she was really good about getting me letters on P-day itself or at least the day before, but this one got held up an extra day. As a result, I spent the whole week just dying to tear it open. But like a good missionary, I waited.
The wait was now over. I greedily tore open the envelope and pulled out a half dozen handwritten pages, front and back. I dug in.
She started off normally enough, telling me what colleges she was thinking of, catching me up on the week’s events. She told me how proud of me she was. Then, she told me how much she missed me. How she knew she wasn’t supposed to write things that were too familiar, or things that would distract me from “the work”. But she loved me and she missed me so much. I ran my hand over the page– there were tear stains blotting the ink. My own eyes immediately filled with tears. (Luckily I was on the top bunk, and my companion and I were the only ones in the dorm). I started reading again from the beginning, slower this time.
After taking some time to breathe, I got some paper and a pen to write a letter back. I missed her so much. She was my first girlfriend, and we had stuck to each other like glue for the last two years. We were definitely getting married someday, I could feel it. I eagerly started pouring out my soul.
This whole affair killed at least two hours. When I came back up for air, my companion was lying in his bunk eating a granola bar. Our district mates were back in the dorm. They wanted to pull the mattresses off the bunks to do another backflipping contest. But then it hit me: there were less two hours left in P-day, and I still hadn’t written an email to my family! I told my companion, and his eyes shot open. “Oh crap, let’s go!”
We sat down in the computer lab and logged into our church-issued email accounts. If we didn’t write our families every P-day, they’d definitely worry. It was actually a commandment in the White Bible (i.e., handbook of missionary rules) that missionaries should write their families each week on preparation day.
We finished with about 40 minutes left, so we went to the MTC bookstore for some new reading material. It had a great selection– all the church-issued books and study guides in existence, for hugely discounted prices. Not to mention all the office supplies you’d ever need, and real missionary-issue copies of the Book of Mormon.
I was always an avid reader. We weren’t allowed to read anything that wasn’t church-approved, of course, but we did have a lot of time appointed for study. So naturally I tore through all the usual study guides within a week or two and was quickly moving into the more obscure stuff. The MTC bookstore became my favorite place.
Cleanliness is Next to Godliness
“Shower party, guys, grab your snacks and lets gooooo!”
It was one week from departure, and one of the missionaries in our district was rounding up people for his latest hobby. It was after a long day of study, during the half hour break we had to prepare for the next day. I grabbed a cold soda from the vending machine and headed to the bathroom.
When I arrived, the shower party was already unfolding. Several others from our district were already hanging out around the communal shower trees (nicknamed “Tree of Life” after a Book of Mormon reference). They all had some kind of snack or drink with them, usually placed on a shower shelf away from the streams of hot water. Obviously, everyone was stark naked. I took off my towel and joined a shower tree.
I’ve never been much of a sports-player, so communal showers were something completely new (and rather unexpected) for me when I first got to the MTC. But I got used to it faster than I expected. Everyone around you acts as if it’s normal, and thus it becomes so.
Towards the end of the three months though, we were starving for some kind of entertainment or novelty. A touch of irreverence in an environment where reverence is law. One day, someone had the idea to bring a soda into the shower with them. Just to be weird. The next day, two people did it. Before we knew it, we practically had a pot luck going in there. For no other reason than to be a little absurd.
Now, I know you can’t go around talking about naked Mormon shower parties without raising some eyebrows. So I’ll go ahead and answer what’s probably on most of your minds. No, to my knowledge there was never any “gay stuff” going on behind the scenes. However, that does bring around an important point.
I personally knew one missionary who came out as gay after he got back from his mission. His story is anything but unique– you can find hundreds of accounts of from gay (or as The Church would rather put it, “struggling with homosexual attraction”) missionaries who felt pressured to conceal their true selves for years, at great personal costs.
To anyone in this situation, I can only say this: I am so sorry. Truly. I can imagine no greater hell, especially at that delicate time of your life.
Let’s put this in perspective. For example, if you’re a straight male, imagine you’re being forced to live with girls in your age range, 24/7. You eat with these girls, you work with them, you shower with them. That’s right, you see their naked bodies every day. But here’s the clincher. You know that you must never manifest any sign of attraction to them. You believe that such attraction is unnatural, ungodly. You hate yourself for it. You know that if you act on those those feelings, even once, not only would everyone be horrified and disgusted with you, but you’d also be booking a one-way ticket to eternal suffering and damnation. I dare you to come out of that without a few awkward shower boners and a whole lot of baggage.
Go Fourth Among All Nations
It was so surreal as we rolled our luggage across the parking lot at 4 am. It was still dark out. A black bus waited to ferry us to Salt Lake City, where we’d board the plane to Tokyo, and then on to Sapporo. Our three months at the MTC were finally over.
While it was happening, every single day there seemed to drag on for an eternity. Yet when it was done, it felt like the whole thing flashed by in an instant. Little did I know, I was just getting started.
Get ready for: Tales from the Field.