One summer day in 1982, two young men came pedaling up to my house, their black jackets and ties so out of place for cycling in the Texas heat, it seemed downright masochistic.
They politely explained what I already knew – that they were visiting to bear witness for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I politely explained what they couldn’t have known – that I myself was a missionary of sorts, halfway through a two-year term as a youth director for a small Presbyterian church.
Hence, not much of a prospect for conversion.
The pressure off, we were liberated from worrying about agendas, territory, and theology. Instead, we could act like what we were – three young men all living far from home, fumbling our way through a mission program, doing as good a job as our limited experience allowed. When I invited them into the living room to cool off, they agreed to at least that much hospitality – even though they kept rebuffing my offers of ice water. In this way, at least, Mormons must work from the same code of honor as my cable guy.
Just the same, they seemed glad for some shade and a chance to sit down for a spell – which cast new light on the terms of my service. Sure, this wasn’t my home, really; a member of First Presbyterian took me into her home for what I think was a modest stipend from the church. But my modest bedroom was worth it just to live with Helen Stone, the belle of the local AARP, a bold spirit who took her first white-water rafting trip on her 78th birthday. By the time I got out of bed, her swimsuit would be drying on the line, a reminder of how while I droused, she had driven into Corpus Christi for aquatic aerobics.
Beyond the room, I got a little over $3,000 in money for food and everything else – a big day was marked by one of Whattaburger’s jalapeno cheeseburgers. Not long before the missionaries visited, I had seen David Letterman, back when he was quirkier and therefore better, interview the guy who founded a Potato Museum in Poland. The tater curator was eloquent about how potatoes had saved his people during lean times; he was so convincing, I tried living mostly on potatoes for weeks. Ever polite, Helen didn’t shake her head, but she probably felt like it.
But talking to these visitors, I realized I was living a life of luxury compared to what they faced. I couldn’t imagine day after day of pedaling door to door, only to be turned down, rejection upon rejection upon rejection. If they were considerate people – and these guys seemed as if they were – they must have felt the tension of their intrusion even as they gave their spiel.
Then one of them revealed something that increased my admiration several fold – as teenagers, they’d saved up their own money to pay for the privilege of their current humiliation.
Time to stop whining.
I thought about those guys and their culture of service this week, when The New York Times published an engrossing article about a major change in the Mormon church – the inclusion of more women in that mission program. Constrained in many ways by a traditionally patriarchal denomination, Mormon women greeted this opportunity with enthusiasm; when the age for women to become missionaries was lowered to 19, so many responded, it affected college enrollments.
Those women, like their male counterparts, crave the opportunity to serve for reasons that go beyond religion. They are seeking adventures in places miles beyond their comfort zone – in some cases, thousands of miles. The Times article by Jodi Kantor and Laurie Goodstein depicted the near-impossible task faced by two young women, Nicole Ensign and Victoria Julayne Scott, trying to convert people in Mokpo, South Korea.
Riding a bus, Scott, who’d only been in the country six weeks, quickly ran out of vocabulary in engaging a seatmate; she “could overhear Ms. Ensign moving in on her target, comparing American and Korean Christmas traditions, making references to Korean pop music, pulling out pictures of her family at home, all in long, confident streams. …
“Though Ms. Scott was crestfallen, generations of male Mormon missionaries have said that kind of experience — falling flat and soldiering on anyway — helps them succeed professionally later in life. Missions are so frustrating, say many Mormons who have done them, that their real purpose is to convert the missionaries themselves, to build faith, focus and grit.”
As a Community Service Learning director and teacher, I’ve heard the same thing from both students and non-students. Hundreds have come back to tell me how the experiences challenged them, forcing them to grow, to develop confidence in areas where they didn’t even know they were insecure to begin with. This, on top of the benefits of being wiser citizens, seeing the world in a more complicated way. Benefits you can experience regardless of your faith.
Of course, some of those challenges are still spiritual – one of them being learning to resist the temptation to fall into the mentality of the long-suffering martyr or the self-congratulatory volunteer. To remember that it’s a privilege to serve.
When I need to remind myself of that, I often of those two black-clad visitors, pedaling away to the next street of closed doors, the summer heat beating up from the pavement beneath their wheels.