When people ask me for my opinion on recent events regarding the excommunication of Ms. Kelly and the disciplinary actions being taken against other members of the Church I admire greatly, I often (and perhaps somewhat unusually) lose myself in suppressed memories from my time as a Sister missionary. It’s embarrassing to have to admit to being one of those RMs, the kind that occasionally slip into their mission language and feel the need to recite stories from “this one time in my second area” in Sunday School.
I can assure you that I am much more ashamed to have to mention my mission than you are annoyed by it.
But my mission defined so many things for me. As I wander down the virgin paths of my personal faith journey, feeling regret and sadness for those who are, according to Church leaders, not able to join me, I think about my mission. When I wonder about my membership in the Church and why I cling to it, when I think about my doubts and my fears and my concerns, when I ponder the implications of recent events on my testimony and my decision to stay, I do in fact think about my mission. When I think of why I am the kind of member I choose to be, I think about my mission.
I remember clearly my very last day. It was a typical cold, gray day as I stepped into a train destined for Berlin. I found this to be an adequate scene to accompany me on a two-hour journey in which I would be alone with my thoughts, the first time since arriving on a blustery winter day almost a year and a half earlier. I was expecting to feel relief, but I mostly just felt numb.
My last area on my mission was my hardest. We had very few people to teach, the members were not always willing to work with us, and I was worrying myself sick about people at home. To add insult to injury, it also happened to be the darkest winter Germany had experienced in over sixty years, which meant that my dear companion and I saw the sun once or twice over a four week period. I was exhausted, I was ill, and I was homesick.
With all of this weighing on me and my testimony seemingly hanging in the balance, I returned to my American roots on March 20th, 2013. I remember the air smelled like cheeseburgers and a large carbon footprint. I looked around, soaking in the happiness of my family and the seemingly extreme width of the streets. I sat down at dinner with food that no longer felt familiar to me and dozens of eyes staring, waiting in anticipation for my former self to finally rise to the surface. The favorite question had been summoned to our gathering and I was obliged to answer.
“So, Lesa, how was your mission?”
“It was hard,” I responded, quickly and resolutely. “It was really, really hard. And I wish never to repeat the experience.”
This is the answer I have given every time I have been asked this question in the past year and two months following my return. Sometimes I couple it with “but it was worth it!” if I feel so inclined. Other times I exaggerate the pain it caused by including “the worst 18 months of my life” as a subtitle to the overall experience. I receive mixed reactions, most of them surprisingly supportive. As it turns out, many people feel the same way I do about their missions. But I also get to see shocked faces, glaring eyes, and upturned noses on account of my general lack of appreciation for the time I was supposed to be spending tending to the Lord’s flock and being his perfect servant.
But I wasn’t a perfect servant. I wasn’t even close. And I’ll tell you something else.
I didn’t enjoy being a missionary.
Waking up at ungodly hours, forging my way through foreign languages, attitudes, and ideas to impose my belief system on unsuspecting passersby, trying to become the missionary everyone wanted me to be or expected…this was my hell. It was more difficult than I had ever imagined to feel true to myself and to simultaneously be a “good” Sister missionary. I began to question everything, and I am convinced that the sheer will of God was the reason I stayed. I found small sources of comfort in knowing that it had to serve some greater purpose, and I clung to that piece of divine revelation with every ounce of strength I had.
Yet as content as I was for the mission experience to be over, coming home was equally hard, if not worse in some ways. I was surprised to find that I did in fact retain some missionary-minded traits, such as feeling the need to relate everything to Christ and feeling bad for not talking to every person I saw, but I quickly resumed my feminist, liberal, LGBT-ally activism and the aforementioned habits eventually faded into normalcy and I created an interesting blend of the two that confuses people to this day.
I never thought that these two sides of me were mutually exclusive, but I felt opposition from the day I took off my nametag. From some I felt incredible pressure to be exactly who I was to them before the mission, and for others I appeared to be an unchanged, ungrateful RM who was probably not 100% obedient (which again, for full disclosure, I definitely wasn’t 100% obedient). Within months I become lost and confused, and I had never felt farther from the Spirit. I had lost that comfort I felt in understanding a larger purpose. In other [churchy] words, I lost my eternal perspective.
With conflicting opinions and social pressures amounting, all trying to claim or alter a piece of me without my consent, I realized I needed to be more honest with myself and with others. I wanted to start deciding things relative to how I truly felt about them, not how others dictated I should feel about them. So I kept praying because I felt peace when I poured out my heart to God. I began writing feminist essays again because I felt so fulfilled and honest when I did. I went to church when I wanted to and I allowed myself to spend other ways communing with God when I didn’t want to. I vehemently supported my LGBT friends struggling in their Church membership in times of opposition because that’s when I felt the Spirit the strongest. I continued to question my Church leadership on matters pertaining to my activism and convictions because I never believed in blind faith. I sought out Christ’s example emulated in other people and basked in the Spirit they carried with them. I always let others know when I was sad or pleased or frustrated or fulfilled with gospel-related things, most especially because I always believed in the power of honesty. And I have felt very satisfied in this space I’ve created within Mormonism for myself.
The recent events regarding the Church disciplinary actions have hurt me dearly, especially as I’ve come to recognize that the same space I carved within my religion is so similar to the one that wonderful people like Kate Kelly and John Dehlin have advocated for. In a lot of ways the events that have unfolded in the past couple of weeks have brought me back to that day I ended my mission – a cold, gray, confusing time – that paved the way for a year of struggling to accept my place in and relationship to the Church.
Yet as I find support in those who likewise grieve for the harsh actions of the Church against a well-meaning member, I’ve also found another chance to be honest and frank, with myself and with others, just as I did when I returned home from my mission. This is an exciting time for igniting important discussions across the Mormon spectrum, which I believe is vital to the future of this Church and the strength of its members. I’ve found more opportunities to say yes, I’ve had a hard time with the Church and yes, I am still clinging to that tiny testimony and to the witness I’ve had that I should stay. People have been hurtful, mean, and rude. But far more have been loving, kind, and gentle.
I believe strongly that we should make decisions carefully and prayerfully, and that the decisions that will make us most happy will not all lead us down the same path. Some may leave the Church, others will stay firm, and some will be clinging for dear life. But as I stand with Kate and John and the ideals they embody for me, I also stand with the covenants I’ve made and the peace I’ve felt and the happiness I’ve found through things the Church has taught me. What may seem like a contradiction to so many has been the source of my faith, and as I continue to be honest with myself and with others I grow closer to God.
I have told so many people that my mission was hard. And it was. It was so, so, so incredibly hard and awful and often downright miserable. As I said, I would never repeat it. Yet for me it was necessary, and as I look over my journal and the letters I wrote home I remember how utterly painful it was to mourn with and for others and yet how infinite my joy seemed at times as I watched them grow closer to Christ. It was on my mission that I truly learned how to “press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men.” (2 Nephi 31:20)
And that is why, despite the excommunication of Kate Kelly and all the implications surrounding it, I have decided for now to stay active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Lesa also writes a personal blog where she discusses religion and feminism. Visit her blog at http://lesayoung.blogspot.com/.