Thursday, December 4, 2014

My Mission - 10 Years Later

Ten years ago today I returned home from my mission. While I had some great experiences on my mission, and I don’t really regret doing it all that much, it wasn’t the “best year and a half of my life” that it was billed as. They say that missions are hard, but words can’t quite convey exactly how hard, and 19 to 21 year olds aren’t likely to listen anyway.

I joined the church shortly before my 13th birthday, and through my teenage years, I decided that when I was old enough, I was going to serve a mission. I didn’t really know what missionaries did all day, and I was painfully shy, but I figured that if the guys were expected to do it, I shouldn’t be exempted based on something as irrelevant as my chromosomal makeup.

People tried to talk me out of it, saying that I should get married instead. I thought that was kind of silly, since by the time I was a legal adult, I wasn’t in a serious relationship. It’s not like I could dial 1-800-Find-a-husband and be wed by the next month. There was a guy I sort of had kind of an on-again-off-again thing going on with, but he was totally supportive of me serving a mission.

I powered through college in three years so that I could finish before going on a mission. I did this for two reasons. The first is momentum. I was afraid that it would be too hard to go back to school if I took a break. The second is that I didn’t want to wait until finishing 4 years of college to go on a mission. I had absorbed from YSA culture that women had an early expiration date on the marriage market, and I didn’t want to be too old to get married when I got back. (I’m currently 32 and single. I recognize the irony in this.)

Because of my hurried rush through college, I feel like I missed out on a lot of things, and if I had it to do over again, I would have taken the full four years and either gone on my mission after college or interrupted college to serve a mission. I could have gotten the double major I was so close to getting, and I could have had more time for social activities. Live and learn.

I began working on my mission papers in November 2002. I’m kind of a procrastinator, so I didn’t turn them in until January 2003. I blame Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year’s for that. I had been told that it takes 3-4 weeks to issue a call. By the time March rolled around and I still didn’t have a call, I began to wonder what was going on.

I got a phone call from the medical department, and they had a few questions for me before deciding whether or not I would be issued a mission call. This was the first I had heard of the possibility that an individual who was spiritually worthy could be denied a mission call.

I had a foot condition that I’ve had three surgeries and numerous other treatments for. Apparently, it’s the most serious case my doctor had ever seen in her career and she had no idea how I was able to walk without pain. (Oddly enough, I always considered the condition to be a painless mild nuisance. I had no idea I was a medical marvel. I was in sports in high school and ROTC in college with no problems.)

I answered their questions, and they went back to their deliberations. I had no more contact from the medical department, so I was left waiting in limbo, and I began to wonder what my next step would be if the call didn’t come through. I had taken the LSAT before I began my mission papers, so I started the process of applying to law school.

Finally, in late April, the big white envelope arrived. I was home alone because my parents and sister were out of town touring college campuses to decide where she would be going in the fall. I didn’t have classes that day because it was Good Friday and I attended a Catholic school.

I opened the envelope and began to read the letter. I was called to Charlotte, North Carolina, and I would be entering the MTC on August 6. I called my family to tell them the news, and then I contacted my best friend and told him. I didn’t really tell anyone else that day, and I didn’t say anything about it at church that Sunday because I didn’t want to upstage Easter.

I stopped working on my law school applications and devoted my energy to finishing up the last two months of college. I graduated from college in June and spent the 6 weeks after graduation putting my affairs in order and obtaining the necessary items.

I entered the MTC full of energy and vigor, ready to take on the charge of St. Ignatius of Loyola to “Go forth and set the world on fire.” (You can take the student out of the Jesuit school, but you can’t take the Jesuit school out of the student…)

I found the MTC to be pretty miserable. All of the things I hated about the ROTC, and all of the reasons I decided against a military career, were in full force there. If going on a mission is enlisting in “God’s army”, then the MTC is boot camp. My entire day was programmed from sunup until late at night, with no moments for quiet reflection or contemplation. Plus, in an effort to buoy up those with little in the way of formal learning, the MTC leaders basically gave the impression that education was a disqualifying factor in being a good missionary. So I was stuck in a rigid militaristic environment where the last three years of my life were being belittled on a daily basis and where I was told that I couldn’t be a good missionary because I had gone to college.

When my three weeks were up, I was so glad to get out into the field. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the first six weeks in North Carolina were the worst six weeks of my life due to an emotionally abusive trainer who nearly destroyed my sense of self-worth. I almost threw in the towel because this was not what I signed up for.

I stayed, mostly because I feared the stigma of coming home early. When I told my mission president what was going on, he transferred me right away, and my next companion was awesome. My next area was widely viewed by missionaries to be one of the worst, even being described as “the armpit of the mission”. I loved it and thought it was a wonderful place. I stayed there for six months and would have loved to stay longer.

My third area was extremely rural and was a bit challenging for me, since I’m a city person. My fourth and final area was in a suburb of Charlotte, and it was another lovely place. A lot of the people there were transplants from the Bay Area, so I felt that I was among my people again.

I didn’t have many converts. In fact, most of my meaningful work ended up being with other missionaries. I kind of felt like a cross between the mission’s HR department and chaplain. I had several opportunities to minister to and counsel with missionaries in my district in an informal way outside the mission hierarchy. Because I wasn’t part of management, people felt comfortable telling me things that they wouldn’t have told the zone leaders, APs, or the mission president.

Serving a mission opened my eyes to a lot of things. It was the first time I saw poverty up close and personal. It was the first time I knowingly experienced sexism. It was the first (but sadly not the last) time I experienced sexual harassment while walking down the street. But it was also my first opportunity to step outside a classroom and make a difference in the world. Because of my mission, I developed the skills necessary to be an effective prison chaplain, and in a way, my mission probably helped me succeed in my career as an HR professional.

1 comment:

TopHat said...

Thanks for sharing about your mission! I really enjoyed learning about it since I didn't get the chance to go on one myself.