Guest post by Janeva, originally posted here.
You are hereby called to serve as a missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
FINALLY. I was 22, a college graduate and ready to go. I’d been wanting to serve a mission for virtually my entire life. Seriously. I asked my dad what I had to do to be a missionary when I was about ten. He told me I had to toe the line and choose the right, because you had to be pretty righteous to be a missionary.
So I did. I toed the line. And I was really, really good at toeing the line. And now all of that righteousness would pay off.
I was ready – oh, SO ready – to serve. Ready to learn. Ready to go. Ready to see. Ready to FEEL. Ready to experience.
You should report to the Provo Missionary Training Center in September 2011. You will prepare to preach the gospel in the Spanish language.
My MTC experience was truly wonderful. I LOVED the elders in my district and my two companions. We were a close-knit group of what ended up as 9 missionaries headed to Argentina. Truly, it was the best experience of my mission.
That said, I began to notice something unexpected.
My first Sunday, I went with my companions to Relief Society. How nice it was to see other women, but how small of a group were we! Maybe 200 sisters (including MTC support staff), compared to the thousands of elders. The MTC President’s wife began the meeting, and informed us that new sisters were asked to stay after RS for the first 2 weeks of their MTC experience for an orientation of sorts.
The first orientation meeting was about health and hygiene. (Honestly, I don’t remember much about that one.) But the second week, our orientation was about proper grooming. In that meeting, we learned the eternal doctrines of appropriate skirt length, proper hair care and what clothing styles and accessories were acceptable.
We were also informed of expectations of behavior. We were not to play with our companion’s hair. We were not to pat or scratch her back. We were not to be physically affectionate beyond the traditional handshake and the occasional light, brief hug. These expectations were, of course, in addition to the rules detailed in the missionary handbook and in the MTC pamphlet.
Why were we to follow these rules? To not distract the elders or even the administrating brethren. (I’m not kidding – that was part of the presentation.)
I, being the obedient, willing missionary I was listened to these instructions with some skepticism. I had always believed that morality was the responsibility of the individual and that my actions concerning modesty would influence my eternal welfare and no one else’s. But, for the sake of obedience, I complied.
We trudged back to our 5th-floor classroom to our elders and MTC life resumed. But over the next few weeks, I began to notice: elders were allowed to sit on each others’ laps. Elders were allowed to give each other back rubs. Elders were allowed to join in multiple-person extended hugs. All of these activities were condoned with little to no backlash.
I was peeved at this. Not that the elders were allowed to participate in those activities, but that they were allowed to do it while I and my fellow sisters weren’t. Even though WE were serving the Lord too. Even though WE were the minorities there. Even though WE were worthy children of God too. I just couldn’t understand the double-standard.
Then, my third week in, they announced a special speaker would be coming to address us after RS. I grumbled, but mostly because I had been looking forward to 45 minutes of free time (read: nap time).
A woman came to speak to us about beauty and grooming. What I remember most about her presentation was this: As a sister missionary, you have to be as beautiful as the message you are sharing. People won’t take you seriously if you and your message don’t match up. So since you’re sharing the message of the Gospel – the most beautiful thing imaginable – you’d better match up.
She then taught us ways to do our hair and makeup, and explained that it really WAS possible to be a beautiful missionary inside and out. She, of course, knew this because she had served a mission in France 20 years ago.
I didn’t really allow this to bother me at the time. I was experienced at ignoring those types of messages (one of the many things I’d learned in YW). Eventually I figured I’d just better get over it and that everything would be different in the field.
You are assigned to labor in Argentina.
My first few months in Argentina were a bit of a whirlwind. Some heartbreak, some homesickness, some frustration (Spanish was hard! Why didn’t those people just. speak. ENGLISH??), some joy – really some of everything. I loved my area and my trainer. This was the stuff homecoming talks were made of.
Then I was transferred.
Over the next few months (and for many reasons), I began to sink downward. I was dying on the inside. My new area was hard. It was a notoriously difficult area. I raised my head in defiance. I could do this. No – GOD and I could do this.
Despite the inner turmoil and struggles I was having, I began to notice the unexpected again. The mission schedule is really intended for elders. I still think it’s generally unreasonable to expect two women to “be as beautiful as the Gospel” in one hour, when you’re starting out sweaty from a workout. And then to maintain that during the day? During hours and hours of walking through steaming, summery South American streets? Yet again, even in the field, I was taught that that – my appearance – was my duty as an hermana misionera.
In every area but one of my mission, my companion and I were the only hermanas in a sea of elders. All of the elders seemed to know each other – there was a general camaraderie, a general brothership. Each brother was welcomed to his area with gusto and kindness by at least nine others. *I* was extended a hug from my companion and the stiff MTC handshakes of elders who were fearful of getting too close to us.
And while I wouldn’t want to change it for them, I grew to envy that brotherhood. To envy the friendships they were able to make because they were able to serve each other and with each other. I envied the support system that was built in for them… an opportunity not afforded to me or my hermanas because of our limited numbers.
It is anticipated that you will serve for a period of 18 months.
Over time, it began to be apparent that I would not be serving for 18 months, for reasons that are still personal and raw to me. Suffice it to say, I was having problems. BIG problems. I wasn’t unworthy, and I wasn’t giving up. I was just miserable.
During this very, very painful period, I began to feel very lonely. I felt abandoned on all sides, geographically distanced from my loved ones, and absolutely alone. I cried out for help in the outlets I had: I was in frequent contact with my mission president, elders (including some very special DL’s) reached out to me, and I even called some past companions for help.
None of it worked.
As a naturally private person, it was hard for me to open up to these people. These people who barely knew me were the ones I was telling my deepest heartbreaks and problems. I began to feel uncomfortable again.
I always felt like the leaders (read: Priesthood) that were responsible for me always knew more than I was comfortable with them knowing. And like they would talk to each other about it and I wasn’t invited, even though it was me they were talking about. Like there was some big priesthood club that made up the mission – and, heck, the CHURCH – and that I wasn’t invited because I was female. All of anything spiritual had to be passed through them – unnecessary past sin “confessions” (in hopes that that would fix the problem), permission to call home, etc.
I was permanently and forever in the place of reporting to a man (even GOD was a man) things that I had a hard time articulating to my parents and loved ones… and even to myself.
There was no other outlet. My hermanas and I, we were not allowed to develop deep friendships with each other. We were not afforded time to develop a connection with my mission president’s wife (at one point, we lived in different provinces… how could we possibly bond?). It was us versus a world of men, and, I was told, that was how God intended it to be.
The Lord will reward you for the goodness of your life. Greater blessings and more happiness than you have yet experienced await you as you humbly and prayerfully serve the Lord in this labor of love among His children.
Last June, I came home. It’s been a long, hard road since then. I still don’t have all the answers. Some things are still really hard. Sometimes I wish I could go back to my life before – the one without problems and complications. The world where I knew what was right and wrong. The world where things like feminism were topics I learned about in school and then could brush off as I stepped into a church building.
But I can’t do that anymore. And somehow, in my pain, I stumbled upon FMH. And found that there were other people like me – other people who had the same concerns and the same questions. People who were willing to stand up for what they believed, even if all of it didn’t come over a pulpit in Salt Lake. Genuine people with real stories, real lives,real problems and real testimonies. A group of people I felt I connected with.
I’m still waiting for the supposed blessings from serving my mission. I hope they come in time, and I hope that somewhere out there, God is okay with my mission, and, more importantly, me – the true me, the me I’m still discovering. Even if that me is a feminist.