Living with Mister Bean

BeanHe looks like Mister Bean, I thought.

The first time I saw Elder Fowler had been at a zone conference a few months before. He didn’t quite fit in with the other elders, and I think he liked it that way. He was a big man, around 6’4” and 280 pounds or so, with a strange face that he frequently contorted into bizarre facial expressions purposefully. He had the standard missionary gear on, white shirt and tie, slacks, and black shoes, but he wore characteristic ties, with bizarre patterns or obscure cartoon characters on them. During that first meeting, while the other missionaries ate sandwiches and chatted with each other, Elder Fowler sat over in the corner solo, blowing bubbles from a pink container, like a child would in a park. No one really interacted with him because, well, he was blowing bubbles.

I had been in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, for two months when I got the call that Elder Free would be leaving and Elder Fowler would be my new companion. My brain scanned itself, remembering the bizarre bubble-blowing, and I felt a sense of dread come over me. Living with a person like Fowler would not be easy. I had no idea what I was in for.

Living with a companion was difficult. We shared the apartment, the car, even the bedroom. We weren’t allowed alone time, ever, except to shower. Sharing space with someone like that, with no breaks, was trying even when perfectly suited for each other, but living with someone that was difficult to be around, with no breaks, with no reprieve, with no recreation… I knew I was in for a major challenge.

The first day in our apartment, Elder Fowler entered the apartment singing show tunes. He opened a bag, calling it his Mary Poppins bag (Mary Poppins was his personal hero) and removed a series of bizarre items that he placed around the apartment, things he would use ritualistically every day thereafter. He had a stuffed winged bat that he hung from the ceiling over his bed that he kissed good night before bed, three purple ceramic hippopotamus figures that matched the small plastic purple hippopotamus he wore on a string around his neck, a collection of cooking supplies (like a rolling pin and cookie cutters) that he would use to make elaborate baked breakfasts every morning (stuffed French toast, hash browns, cinnamon rolls, and thick pancakes), a small CD player that he played Disney soundtracks on, and a large bottle of bubble bath.

Elder Fowler was impossible to talk to. He avoided basic questions about himself, constantly engaged in banter that proved impossible to respond to, and he burst out singing frequently. He blew bubbles while he walked, made the Catholic sign of the cross (father/son/Holy Ghost) before opening any door (and he opened a lot of doors), tried doing terrible magic tricks for strangers, and had a laugh that ranged over several octaves in just a few strained breaths. He was generally silly, not happy but silly, and on a few evenings per week he would lock himself in the bathroom for a bubble bath, during which I could hear him splashing and singing. I looked forward to his bubble baths as they were the only breaks I had from him.

I was determined early on to be a good companion for Fowler. He casually mentioned how his other companions had teased him before this, and how he had a difficult time fitting in, and I certainly knew how that felt. Toward the end of our companionship, two months later, he soberly mentioned how he hadn’t counted on that aspect of missionary work, confiding how he had not fit in with peers most of his life and he had hoped that would go away on his mission, but how instead it had only intensified, leaving him more isolated and lonely. I grew to admire how much effort he put into being an individual. He was almost definitely gay and struggling to change, just the way I was, and I empathized with him there, too. And so I was determined to be the nice guy, which meant no criticism, no telling him to change, no rude comments or angry looks. And I succeeded, every hour of every day, clenching my stomach tightly every time he made the sign-of-the-cross, every time he kissed the bat good night, and every time he had a conversation with his purple hippopotamus necklace.

Outside of the bizarre complexities of Elder Fowler, missionary work remained much the same, but with shocking twists that constantly tested my patience. We knocked on doors like usual, trying to find people to teach the gospel to. Fowler had unique approaches. When a stranger answered the door, instead of introducing ourselves, he would use a fake thumb with a hanky stuffed in it or a few face cards to try and grab attention with a poorly executed magic trick. At other doors, he would hold his pointer and pinky fingers up in the air, and use his other three fingers extended out from his hand to form a mouth. He would then talk through this strange hand puppet, flapping his fingers and thumb together as he spoke in a high pitched voice from the side of his mouth. “Hi there, I’m Elder Chihuahua of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints! We want to teach you!” When the person inevitably closed the door in our faces, Fowler would drop the pointer and pinky fingers straight down and make a dog’s whiny noise, indicating his disappointment.

After several weeks, Fowler began to relax around me a bit, letting his facade of strangeness drop from time to time. The weather grew colder as he grew warmer, opening up about his life a bit more. In the early days, when I asked questions about him, he would either avoid them or directly refuse to answer. Over time, he began telling me about his childhood in Arizona, about his father leaving when he was a kid, about his mother’s struggles to make end’s meet.

One night, as we hit light’s out time, after he kissed his stuffed bat and climbed into bed, he lay down in the dark and asked if he could share something personal with me.

“This isn’t something I share with many people,” Fowler said, serious, his voice low. “When my mother was working at her job while she was pregnant with me, she became very sick and weak and she fell. When she woke up, an angel came to visit her, and it was the angel who told her to name me. A lot of people assume my first name comes from the Bible, but it is actually not in the Bible. I’ve never heard of anyone else having my first name. Anyway, the angel told her that I had a great destiny in my future, and sometimes I don’t know what that means for me, but it’s a lot of the reason I chose to come on a mission, because I’m supposed to do something really amazing. I know it sounds a little crazy, but it is really special to me.”

As he drifted off to sleep, I sat thinking of my own upbringing, similar in many ways. My mother had talked at times of Heavenly visions, had told me I had a destiny to save souls, and I too had wondered why I didn’t fit with those around me, wondering if my destiny somehow caused me to be set apart from others. I felt a strange kinship with Fowler that night, isolated and divinely inspired all at once, and I wondered if we were more the same than we were different. Then I heard him whispering good night to his purple hippo again and instead clenched my ulcer tightly.


Small Rebellions Among the Amish


There were several different kinds of Amish people in south-eastern Pennsylvania. Some used the names of their families or particular sects, others were completely different religions, like Mennonite or Quaker, but followed many of the same customs. The ones we saw most wore dark colors, the women with long hair and in long dresses, generally with bonnets; the men in dark pants and shirts and generally with beards. They drove down the side of the road in black buggies pulled by horses, with only reflector lights on the back of the vehicle (as per the state law); they used black so as not to draw attention to themselves, and they would ignore waves or honks as the cars drove around them. The ones I spoke with were kind, direct, and very peaceful. They asked to not have their photographs taken and politely refused to discuss anything about religion (we were missionaries after all, what else did we have to talk about). Occasionally we would stop at an Amish store front, where simple products lined the shelves, most homemade on the farm, everything from hand-carved dolls to hand-churned butter.

Over time, I came to see the other types of Amish. Some drove more colorful cars and had cell phones, claiming they could use technology but only for business. Some were Amish six days per week, but had days off and would come into town in blue jeans and wearing make-up. Many were formerly Amish and had stayed in the area, forming families and learning to interact with others. These kinds of Amish seemed more real to me, they could be just a bit rebellious within their strict faiths. In my time there, I met many Amish, but never taught any of them about the gospel.

I lived in Kutztown, Pennsylvania for three months as a Mormon missionary. Kutztown was a tiny town of about 5000 people, named for its original founder, George Kutz, a few hundred years before. On its outskirts was Kutztown University, which had a population of about 10,000 students, tripling the town’s population by its proximity. Our geographic area, as missionaries, extended around the town by dozens of miles. We had a car in this area, but we were only allowed to drive so many miles per day. If we had to drive to the other side of the area, say to Shoemakersville or Mechanicsville, then we wouldn’t be able to drive on the day following or we would exceed our allotted mileage, having to then be on foot to stay within the rules.

When I arrived in Kutztown, I had been a missionary for 8 months. My early mission had been fraught with forced attempts to fit in, with the mission rules, with the other elders, within myself. But I had just come from a period of time when I no longer cared and I had just let go, largely due to my last companion, Elder Benjamin, who had been so relaxed and easy-going about life. Now here I was in a new area, another isolated one without other missionaries around, and I was the senior companion. I felt like I had something to prove here, in an area that hadn’t seen a lot of baptisms for some time. I wondered if this is the place I might make a difference. And as far as I could tell, there was only one major barrier to tremendous success as a missionary…

My new companion was beautiful. Elder Free was half-Japanese and half-white, and he looked like a guy who could star on a Disney Channel feature, or who could perhaps be a model for an underwear or swimsuit company. He was compact and strong and muscular, with beautiful brown eyes and perfect hair and a wide smile, and it was impossible to not be constantly distracted by him. He was extremely straight, and had a very cool girlfriend back home in Idaho that the wrote to constantly, but he was also unintentionally flirtatious and charming, and he walked around in his underwear shirtless far too frequently. We shared a room, and an apartment, and there wasn’t anyone else around, and it was impossible to not be attracted to him.

I had worked through most of my mission (and, well, through most of high school and after) trying to suppress any sexual energy at all in my life. When I noticed an attractive man, I would simply shut my thoughts off, distract myself, or start praying or singing hymns to turn off the thoughts. I wasn’t always successful, but thus far in my mission I had almost entirely avoided having sexual fantasies, and I had barely struggled with masturbation. But now there was Elder Free, walking around and smiling and laughing and looking beautiful, and it was nearly impossible to shut my hormones off. I found myself getting up extra early and doing push-ups and opening windows to try and clear my thoughts, but I was a 19 year old young man and it was almost impossible.

Still, I worked us hard. I came up with the idea to start doing massive amounts of missionary service in an attempt to win over some of the locals, many of whom were very proud Pennsylvania Dutch families who were friendly but unwilling to discuss religion. I got special permission from the mission president to increase the amount of service work we were doing from 2 to 12 hours per week, and he agreed to give us a shot. We started volunteering in a local nursing home and in the city library, and we offered more frequently to mow lawns or shovel walks or help people move. Elder Free and I both appreciated the exercise it gave us. In addition, I started making calls at the local university, and we got permission to leave copies of the Book of Mormon out for some of the students who might want to read it. We knocked doors and visited members in all of the other working hours, but we rarely taught discussions and we didn’t have any baptisms.

I tried implementing consistent healthy missionary patterns with Elder Free. I would set the alarm for 6:30, read my scriptures and journal, and encourage him to wake up at the same time, but he was reluctant, needed more sleep than me, and liked sleeping in. After a few weeks, he was less responsive and started sleeping until 9 every morning, and I just let it happen, not wanting to push the boundaries, which helped me keep that sense of peace that I’d had with Elder Benjamin, but also made me feel like a bad missionary for not sticking to the rules more frequently. Mostly, though, I enjoyed time to be alone in the morning while he was asleep.

One morning, at 7 am, I could hear Elder Free snoring in the next room, and I felt a streak of rebellion run through me. I put on an old pair of jeans and a sloppy white T-shirt, took off my missionary tag, and went outside. By myself. I was by myself, for the first time in months. I walked down the stairs and onto the sidewalk outside our apartment, my heart thudding in my chest, hoping beyond hope that I wouldn’t see anyone who knew me. I concocted an excuse to use in case Elder Free woke up, that I had to run out to the car for something. But instead, I walked. I walked, feeling free and excited. I walked down the block. There was barely anyone out and no one recognized me. I turned the corner, and kept walking. I made it all the way around the block. And then I walked around the block again. I passed a window, casually glanced in, and saw a gorgeous college-aged man, shirtless, sitting at his desk studying. I walked by again, then again. Fifteen minutes had gone by, and no thoughts of God’s judgment had passed into my brain. I just felt… normal. For just a few minutes.

I walked back into the apartment, and Elder Free was still asleep, and I had a powerful moment of feeling like I had gotten away with something. I had a surge of sunshine in my soul, and realized I needed more of that, more feelings of freedom. Not egregious sins, but ways of clearing my head and releasing the pressure. The next morning, I went out to the car in the early morning, and listened to the contemporary radio station, hearing artists like Ace of Base and Ricky Martin and Paula Cole and Natalie Imbruglia and Smash Mouth. I felt myself again, and made sure to turn the station back off before heading back inside. I started purchasing comic books, checking out books from the library, and scanning newspaper headlines. Then I purchased a GameBoy, with a Pokemon Gold game, something I could easily hide but play in the mornings or evenings to feel more normal. Lastly, I bought a small beta fish, another major rule violation, and I named him Caliban.

I heard of other missionaries breaking rules, some of them major and some minor, and I began to understand why. Some had small television sets, some would go to movies, some would have sleepovers at the homes of members of the ward. Some traveled outside their zones to do fun things, and would lie about the lessons they were teaching. Some got tattoos. Some dated women. I was used to keeping secrets (I was gay, after all), and I was exhausted with feeling like I didn’t fit in. If I could keep my brain busy, maybe I could survive this after all.

Suddenly, I could relate to those relaxed Amish sects even more.

Benjamin and Bernard


The roads in northern Delaware were the flattest I had ever seen. They stretched on and on as we rode our bikes, and I would sometimes wish for hills so that my legs could get a break on the downhill portions.

Elder Benjamin and I were fast friends, and it was a nice change after the last few companions I had had, the last one having been verbally abusive. Elder Benjamin was a dopey looking guy from New Mexico with a prominent forehead, giving him a Neanderthal-like appearance. He quickly won me over with his sense of humor and easy-going nature.

On our second morning as companions, I had walked out to the living room in our apartment, where Benjamin was eating cereal and milk with a spoon out of his chest cavity. He had had a surgery when he was younger that left a large collapsed area in his chest area. He was lying on his back and he had poured corn flakes and milk into the chest cavity, directly on his skin, and he was now eating it with a spoon. It was startling, and baffling, and hilarious, and I liked him immediately.

Elder Benjamin was relaxed about missionary work. He carried a frisbee in his backpack and we would toss it around the park during the hottest parts of the day, two white guys in white shirts and ties, just hanging in the park. Benjamin had a magical effect on me. All of the inner torture I had been placing on myself to fit in, to push myself harder, to not be gay, to be more spiritual, to baptize more people, to be better, to be different… it all went away and instead I just found myself living in Delaware with a friend. There was no sexual tension, no premises of worth or worthiness, just an easy-going friendship that blossomed unexpectedly and quickly.

Benjamin had a girlfriend back home who was attending Ricks College, and she turned out to be roommates with one of my high school friends. The two girls would send us care packages. We played board games, we listened to music, and we made friends with many members of the local Mormon wards who would invite us to their homes or take us out to dinner, and everything was easy. A few evenings per week, we would wear jeans and T-shirts and bike over to the local Barnes and Noble and just hang out reading books to get out of the heat, incognito, no one knowing we were actually missionaries. I read through stacks of old 1960s reprinted Spider-Man comic books. I felt relaxed, and the world felt wonderful for the first time of my entire mission.

One day, Benjamin and I went out knocking doors, but after walking a few blocks, we realized we were lightheaded and dehydrated. We called the mission president, and he encouraged us to just stay home that day as the heat and humidity had raised to unhealthy levels, and we were out on foot. So he and I started strategizing new ways to do missionary work that would keep us in air-conditioned environments. We volunteered at the local library a lot, and spent more time in member’s homes.

Benjamin and I came up with creative ways of doing missionary work. We started going through the records of people who had been taught by missionaries in the past and calling up people to see if they wanted to learn about the Church again. We made hundreds and hundreds of calls, over and over, for days at a time, crossing names off of lists as we found disconnected phone numbers and received many many rejections. Hours of phone calls over the following week proved completely fruitless. That is, until we reached Bernard.

Bernard was a rather pathetic man with a heart of gold. He was in his mid-forties and looked like he was 65. Bernard had grown up in rural Delaware, where he hadn’t finished high school. He’d married young, fathered a few children, then ended up in jail for the first time for drunk-driving and robbery, and he never saw his wife and children again. Bernard then spent the next several years in and out of jail, over and over, always ending up back there for the same reasons.

Five years previously, Bernard had been cell mates with a man named George, a Mormon man who was in jail for fraud at the time, and George had taught him all about Mormonism. When Bernard was out of jail the last time, he had met up with the missionaries briefly, learned about the Mormons, but he had gone back to jail for a few years, and now he was out again.

When we visited him for the first time, he was living in a small one bedroom apartment. He had a bare mattress on the floor, two folding chairs, some dishes he had purchased at the grocery store, bare walls, and one small guinea pig called Princess who had full reign of the apartment. He was doing temp work, mostly construction projects. He had no family, no friends, and he was just enjoying his freedom before he returned to jail again, which was inevitable in his own mind.

We taught Bernard, and he liked what we taught, and he agreed to be baptized in our first meeting. He came to church on the first week, and he saw George there, and there were huge hugs and smiles in their reunion. Bernard kept coming to church, and within a few weeks, he was interviewing with the mission president, who had to approve his baptism because Bernard had been in jail.

Bernard passed the interview, and after knowing him for only three weeks, he was baptized by George. I wrote home of my huge success story, seeing one former inmate baptize another, feeling like I was changing the world. Over a year later, when I returned home to give my missionary report, I told Bernard’s story first, considering it a major success. He was an easy baptism, a ready soul.

Then two months later, he went back to jail.

Elder Benjamin was my companion for two months only, then I was transferred to a new area, but we remained friends throughout my entire mission. Later, I learned how with other companions he had been going on dates with girls and breaking other serious rules. But he remained his happy self, and I was forever grateful for how he calmed me down, and gave me a brief amount of peace in two years of pain.

Emergency Transfer


When our mission presidents changed, everything else changed too.

My first seven months as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the geographic region of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, had been headed by President Wagstaff, a Washington-based Mormon businessman. Wagstaff had a dry wit, a soothing voice, and a way of speaking that could both inspire you and leave you beyond sleepy. I had had three interviews with him during my time there, where I sat down and told him of my mission, of my personal progress, of my worthiness and obedience in following the mission rules. He had a way of looking right into my soul and seeing me there, and he could tell I was in pain. He left me with counsel about taking care of myself and focusing on my relationship with God. He was kind and understanding and good.

And then his missionary service was over, and he was replaced by President Michie, a silver-haired salesman from Utah. Michie had a constant smile and a jovial joking nature. He turned everything into a joke and a competition. The first time I met him, he spoke to a large group of dozens of missionaries and, in order to inspire us to spice up our work, he told us he was launching “Operation: Cleveland.”

“Elders and Sisters, I recently learned that Cleveland’s missionaries are getting more missionaries than we are!” He spoke loudly from the podium. “That’s just unacceptable! Cleveland! What is in Cleveland. We are in Philadelphia, the birthplace of our nation, the home of the Declaration of Independence and the Liberty Bell! We can beat Cleveland!” He pounded a fist on the wooden desk in front of him as he spoke. “So we are launching Operation: Cleveland! The group of missionaries here who can get the most baptisms, the ones who beat the Cleveland average, will be invited to my home for a pizza party! You have one month to baptize as many people as you can!”

Even then, I was baffled, as saving souls through baptism somehow felt like selling used cars. But Michie had to come in and stake a claim, inspire others, rejuvenate with energy just like he was taking over as CEO of a company that had been struggling. It was worth trying out. After all, I had only had a few baptisms in my entire mission, and a third of my time was nearly over.

As so one day, I got a shocking call. I was being sent from Salisbury, Maryland, where I had been struggling with depression and apathy, and I was being sent north to Newark, Delaware, where some other companionships were being disrupted in an “emergency transfer”. Transfers were held every few months or so, but emergency transfers only took place when there was either a medical emergency or a missionary was being disciplined (sometimes sent home) for a serious rule breach. This was the latter.

It took me a few days to figure out what had happened. Two missionaries in Newark, Elders Schurr and Thomas, had been assigned two brand new missionaries to train. But Schurr and Thomas, who lived in different apartments, had been lazy and complacent about their missionary work, and the new elders were growing frustrated. So one night, when Schurr and Thomas had decided to go to a baseball game instead of doing missionary work, someone filed a complaint with the mission presidency, and Michie needed to shake things up. The new missionaries were moved out of the area, and two other elders were sent in to make repairs. I was now being sent to Newark to be companions with Elder Schurr while the new elder was being sent to Salisbury with Elder Black. I was surprised, but happy. I needed a change.

Elder Schurr turned out to be a massive jerk. He was short and squat with bright red hair and a perpetually angry expression. When left alone, he could relax and focus on whatever project he was working on (a puzzle, a video game, a book, all not authorized within missionary rules), but he seemed annoyed at general conversation, and downright mean when it came to missionary work. On top of that, he felt angry and humiliated by the emergency transfer itself, and seemed to blame me for it. He had four months left on his mission, and he had no wanted to go home now, but stayed, knowing he would feel humiliated by his family were he to leave early.

On our second day together, I woke Elder Schurr at nine am (he was supposed to be up at six) and asked if he wanted to study the scriptures together. “Do I look like I want to study the scriptures?” he asked me, then went back to sleep until 11.

Later that day, as we got into the car, I asked where we were headed, and he responded with, “If I wanted you to know where we are going, then I would tell you.” We drove in silence for a few minutes, then he pulled over the car and looked directly at me, anger on his face. “Look, I don’t like this arrangement at all. But you need to understand, I’m in charge here. We will do as I say, when I say it, and you won’t ask any questions. Just shut up and show up and we are going to be just fine.”

I stayed silent for a few days, internal and angry and feeling like I deserved the verbal abuse. It was easy to return to those patterns. In high school, I had had an abusive stepfather who spoke to me that way, cornering me, making me feel like things were my fault, calling me names and making demands. I quickly realized that speaking up, no matter how kindly or how good my intentions were, it only make him angrier, and the same held true for Elder Schurr. But after a week, it became unbearable. I wouldn’t play the victim anymore.

So I reported him. First to another elder, the district leader, who was unsympathetic, then to the zone leader, who seemed annoyed but took my complaint. And then a few days later, the APs came in to visit. The APs, or the Assistants to the President, were widely respected elders, our age, men called to the highest leadership position within the mission and thus believed to be the most worthy. They spent a day with us, splitting us up focusing on missionary work.

I spent the day with Elder Gonzalez, a ridiculously handsome Hispanic American elder, who was charming and friendly and happy. We knocked on doors, laughed about life, and talked about our families, and I felt hope again that the mission could be more than just monotony and failure. I admired Gonzalez, because he was friendly and handsome and a good missionary and he cared about me. I felt immediately drawn to him, and that only intensified throughout the day, and I felt so intensely lonely at the thought of being back with Elder Schurr soon and so far away from my family and failing as a missionary with few baptisms and at being so far from God and at still being gay despite all my efforts. I so desperately wanted to be held, to be understood, to be seen. Toward the end of the day with Elder Gonzalez, I turned to face him in the car and told him how much I trusted him and how nice he had been. When he looked back at me, my heart had thudded, and I realized I wanted to touch him, to kiss him even, my entire body and spirit wanted that.

But Elder Gonzalez got out of the car and walked inside, gesturing, “come on” as he did, and I immediately shifted into panic. What was wrong with me? Had he sensed that I was gay, that I was attracted to him, that I had wanted to kiss him? What was wrong with me?!? Even if he didn’t know, God did, and how was I supposed to open up to healing and to having the spirit and to being a good missionary if I couldn’t even control my thoughts? I was a missionary, here to spread God’s word, and I was acting worldly!

That night, the APs left, and Elder Schurr angrily told me that he knew that I had complained and that I better not do that again. He had put on a good show for the AP he was with, assuring him that he was a hard-working and happy missionary and that things were going great in the area. That night, I fell into a heavy sleep, tears on my pillow yet again, and I didn’t pray again. I knew I couldn’t hide from God, but I was simply in too much pain to pray.

I stayed nearly silent for two more weeks until Elder Schurr was transferred, unexpectedly, out of the area. I had been out 8 months then, my mission was one third over, and I was about to be made the senior companion for the first time. A leadership boost. Maybe Elder Gonzalez had seen something in me. Maybe God trusted me. Maybe I wasn’t as bad as I thought. Maybe I could be a good missionary after all.

Crab Claws and Salisbury Stake


“Just pull the trap up and get yourself a crab!”

I stood on the dock in the Chesapeake Bay and pulled the salt-caked rope up, up, up, yanking the crab-cage out of the deep ocean water. My companion, Elder Black, watched over my shoulder as we lofted the cage onto the dock. There were six crabs in the cage, all black and red colors, and they were hideous, alien and insectoid all at once. Briny and craggy and ugly. Brother Smith instructed us how to open the cage, reach inside, and grab it by the back of the shell to avoid getting pinched, and everything in me screamed not to do it, but I did it anyway, grabbed a crab and tossed it into a pot, and Brother Smith laughed heartily at my clumsiness.

Back up at the house, Sister Smith chatted with us, boiling potatoes and setting the table as she asked us the standard questions that all members ask missionaries. Where are you from? How big is your family? How long have you been out on your mission? Have you had any baptisms lately? And we gave our standard answers.

Elder Black was from Boise, Idaho, and he was a skinny man, prematurely bald, with an easy-going nature and an easy laugh. He was easy enough to get along with. He was going home from his mission in a few short months and he had little interest in missionary work any longer, but we went through the motions without ever getting particularly close.

We were living in Salisbury, Maryland, a far cry from Allentown, PA, where I had spent the first six months on my Mormon mission. The air was thicker, more humid, and the ground was impossibly flat. We had a car this time, and that was a blessing as I had been on foot before, but we could only drive a set number of miles per day, and we had a huge geographic area to cover. If we drove to the other side of our area, to small towns like Princess Anne, and then drove back, we wouldn’t be able to drive the next few days, as our mission president logged our miles. Mormons were scarce down here, and many had to drive over an hour each way to get to Church. The wards here were spread out, and they made up the Salisbury Stake, a term we had plenty of laughs at.

Elder Black and I were pretty isolated, with no other missionaries around except for one pair about 20 miles away. We didn’t get many breaks from each other. We played board games, had light conversations, and hung out in book stores sometimes in the evenings to pass the time. I had developed a habit of reading old Spider-Man comics there, and it let me escape the difficult reality of being a missionary in the hot humid weather.

We had had some bizarre experiences doing missionary work, with very little success. On the eastern shore of Maryland, I was faced with a completely new version of America, where men spoke in deep drawls and worked from home breeding dogs and growing apples, and where the small towns seemed to propagate poverty and a lack of dental care and bodily hygiene. Two Idaho farm boys walking around, skinny in their white shirts and ties, knocking on the doors of trailer homes on dirt roads, leaving Books of Mormon on doorsteps with our phone number written loosely on a card tucked into the book.

The days felt endless, and I had gone quiet inside. My prayers had diminished, as had my expectations. I just felt loose, and lost, and lonely.

Brother Smith got the crab pot ready on the stove, and then tossed the four crabs in the pot to boil. We could hear the ugly creatures scream as they perished in the heat, and I wanted to throw up. I hate killing animals, and I hate eating animals, and I have always had a particular aversion to sea creatures themselves. Brother Smith mixed his own Old Bay seasoning and generously applied it to the pot, moving the dead crabs around it it, and then we sat down, the four of us, for our crab and potato dinner.

The Smiths showed us how to use a small hammer and a special fork to crack open the shells, to shred the claws and extract the meat from inside and to pick the shell remnants out. Food didn’t come much fresher than this, but I didn’t want to eat. It would be rude not to, I told myself, and so I tore open the little carcass and pulled the soft white meat out, mixed it with potato and gravy, and swallowed it as quickly as possible, all the while making small talk at the table.

Having a dinner appointment with members was rare in this area. Usually I ate toast, cheap spaghetti, peanut butter sandwiches, cereal, or Ramen noodles, so this was a nice treat, but I could barely stomach the food. I made amiable conversation through dinner, and soon it was over.

That night, while I was reading in the bedroom, I heard Elder Black on the phone, talking to Elder Lynn, one of the other missionaries in our district, the ones who lived 20 miles away. He spoke softly, but I could hear every word.

“Look, I’ve got to have a break, man. Really. He’s driving me nuts. He’s a nice guy, but I’m going crazy here. Can we just trade companions for a few days? Let Elder Lunt handle him for a while.”

And so a few days later, I spent time with Elder Lunt, a clumsy elder in another area, another boy from Idaho, in a different city in eastern Maryland, this time on bikes. He was friendly and it felt nice to have a change of pace for a few days, but the emptiness didn’t go away.

After the two days was up, as we waited for Elder Black and Elder Lynn to return, Elder Lunt proposed playing a prank on our companions. We would hide the bikes outside and  then hide in the apartment. When our companions entered, they would think we weren’t home and then we could jump out and scare them. And so he hid under one of the beds and I hid in the front closet, closer to the living room. When Lynn and Black entered, they were talking softly. I could hear them, Elder Lunt couldn’t.

“Where are they?” Lynn was angry. “They were supposed to meet us here.”

Elder Black piped in, laughter in his voice. “Hey, man, let’s just enjoy it. At least let me enjoy it. That means I get a few more minutes without Anderson here. Seriously, he’s driving me mad. He talks all the time but doesn’t say anything at all. He’s super annoying. And I know he grew up with a bunch of women, but he’s sensitive and all feminine and sometimes I wonder if he’s gay. He’s not a bad guy or a bad missionary, I just can’t stand him. I bet Lunt is hating life right now.”

Just then, Lunt rushed out of the bedroom. “Surprise! Oh man, we totally got you.”

There was a painful pregnant silence as we drove home. Elder Black knew I had heard him, and neither of us said anything. I just went to bed, turned on my side and faced the wall, hot tears running down my cheeks. His words burned in my soul. Annoying. Feminine. Sensitive. Driving me mad. And that most dreaded word of all. Gay.

I realized as I lay there that I had stopped praying the past few days, and I considered praying and asking God for help. But h’=e’d been silent for so long, why did I think he wouldn’t be silent now? I kept myself silent in return.

The next morning I rose and made breakfast, all smiles and pretending everything was okay. And then two days later, I was shockingly transferred north because another missionary had broken a serious rule and a change had to be made. I was being sent in to clean up the mess.

When I said goodbye to Elder Black, he was stoic and kind. He shook my hand with a firm grip. He told me I was a good guy, a hard worker, and that I had a good mission in front of me. He told me to keep up the good work.

And then I got in a car and headed north to Delaware, the taste of crab still in my mouth.


Dear John…


Dear John

“Your companion is gay? Whoa, I can’t imagine what that must be like for you. That’s so creepy! If he does anything, what will you do? I would probably just punch him.”

I felt my stomach hollow out as I read those words on the page. My companion Elder Burke was in the shower, and I’d fallen into the habit of reading his letters from home while he was in there. I did this partly from boredom, partly because I can be nosy sometimes, and partly because I wanted to know what he thought about me, and this seemed to be the only way to find out.

Elder Jasons had been sent away just a month before, and I had now been in Allentown, Pennsylvania, for a Mormon missionary for five months total. I felt stunted. Though I had successfully baptized a few people, being a missionary wasn’t what I had thought it would be. Instead of heroic and full of success and spiritual experiences, it was heavy-laden and monotonous, and I didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere. Elder Burke certainly hadn’t helped that.

Elder Burke, my third companion in the field was a tall, athletic Utah boy, blonde and muscular with a huge smile and a receding hairline. He was easy-going to a fault, borderline lazy. He struggled to wake up for the day, every day, was reluctant to put any initiative into finding people to teach, and couldn’t really carry on a conversation. I avidly disliked him, not because he was a bad person, but because he wasn’t Elder Jasons, the companion I had felt so safe with and accepted by. Burke was kind, but I felt judged by him, and I was so weary of feeling judged. My sense of safety and acceptance was gone, and replaced by tense silences.

My attitude toward Elder Burke had turned sharp and annoyed rather quickly. I kept setting my alarm for the 6:30 hour and I would diligently rise and study my scriptures while he slept in until 9 or 10. I started writing more letters home, complaining about my lazy companion, and I knew my time wiht him would be fraught with long silences as we trudged the streets; somehow the long days felt even longer now, to the point of being unbearable. I started buying comic books again, something I had relied on at home to help me escape reality, and although they were against the rules, they helped my morale; reading the X-Men and the Avengers let my brain be inspired by story-telling and super-heroics, I just had to make sure and hide them, like other missionaries would hide a Playboy magazine, so that no one would see I was breaking the rules.

Elder Burke had a girlfriend back home, a cute blonde girl with red lips and a petite frame, named Heather. And Heather wrote him a letter every day. He literally got a letter from her every day, and two on Monday since there was no mail on Sundays, and they were drenched in perfume and lipstick kisses. In addition, she sent him packages weekly, filled with photos of her and products with her photo on it. He had a calendar with photos of Heather on every month, he had a pillowcase on his bed with a picture of her printed on it, and he had notebooks sent by her with pictures of her glued on every page. She sent homemade cookies and cassette tapes that were two hours long with her recorded voice on it, telling him about her day, her work, her family, and with constant reminders that she loved him and would marry him when he got home.

I was accustomed to Heather’s daily letters now. She wrote every letter in a different color, from pink to blue to black to green, and she would fill two pages top to bottom with the details of her life. Needless to say, she was constantly on Burke’s mind. He wrote her back once per week or so, and sent her a cassette tape back every other week, but he talked about her constantly, how he had this beautiful girl back home and he couldn’t wait to marry her so they could finally have sex and start a normal life. So seeing her suppositions that I was gay, something I was trying so hard to hide, so hard to cure, it felt like I was exposed, like my stomach was full of ice water suddenly.

I was a ghost of myself all that day, making no efforts to talk or to be open with Burke. He noticed the difference and asked me if everything was okay, and I reassured him that it was, that I just wasn’t feeling well.

But that night, I couldn’t sleep. I waited until Burke started snoring, and then I went out into the living room, turned on a desk lamp, and penned a letter to Heather herself. I introduced myself to Heather. I told her I was from Idaho and that I was a new missionary. I told her that I had been eating breakfast while Elder Burke was in the shower and that I had accidentally seen her letter sitting on the desk, and that I had read her words wondering if I was gay.

“I wanted to tell you that I’m definitely not gay. Sometimes people think that. I think it is probably because I grew up without a dad and because I had a single mom and five sisters growing up. I’m not feminine or anything, I just don’t like sports, and I like music instead. And when I was back home, I dated girls all the time.” I wasn’t reassuring her so much as I was reassuring myself. “I won’t talk to Elder Burke about this, but I just wanted you to know. Please don’t say anything to him about it because that would be awkward. You seem like a really nice person. I hope this finds you well.”

I closed my letter, placed it in an envelope with a stamp, and mailed it that night, wondering if I would come to regret it.

A few weeks later, I got a letter back from Heather. It was short and she was kind, telling me of course I wasn’t gay because I was out here on a mission, and that meant I was a good person. She hoped that Elder Burke was sharing cookies with me, and wished me well. I didn’t write her back.

She might have told Elder Burke about my letter, but he never said anything. He just started hiding his mail after he read it, carefully protecting it so I couldn’t read her words anymore. And I went farther in my shell, pretending things would be fine.

After Elder Burke and I had been companions for two months, with no baptisms, I was transferred out of Allentown, and sent to southern Maryland for the next part of my mission. I had been in Allentown six months, a full 25 per cent of my overall missionary experience, and I needed to leave, I needed a change of scenery. I was beginning to get the sense that my entire mission was going to be like this, hard work and not fitting in, homesickness and depression and hiding being gay. I had very little hope it would be any different.

Two months after I left Allentown, I learned from Elder Burke that Heather had dumped him abruptly with a ‘dear john’ letter. She had married another Mormon guy, a returned missionary she had met at college and had married after only knowing him for two weeks. Burke had burned all of her letters and photo-laden swag in a large bonfire. He had an empty, angry look in his eyes, and I felt guilty that news of their breakup had brought me excessive amounts of joy.

Missionary Back Massage


“Hey, elder, do you want a back massage?”

It felt normal to ask this, natural. I had grown up trading shoulder massages with my sisters during movies and shows, an easy way to express affection and feel better. But then I felt nervous waiting for his answer, and I knew it perhaps wasn’t entirely innocent. I didn’t have any ill intentions, but I also had to admit I was lonely, and I longed for contact with another human, especially someone who made me feel safe.

I was 19 and I was a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints serving in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I had been out on my mission for just a few months, just long enough to get my feet wet and barely long enough to know what I was doing. It had only been 8 weeks (11 counting the training at the beginning), and I had fallen into a steady routine of church, scripture study, walking, knocking on doors, prayers, unhealthy food, and exhausted sleep, with only one day off during the week to do laundry, write letters, go shopping, and clean the apartment. It was missionary service 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, and it was exhausting. It was pushing me in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.

I had no idea I would be this lonely. God was mostly silent, and I felt that was a direct reflection of my inability to keep my thoughts entirely pure, I felt. I mean, I tried. I was good at it most of the time. But occasionally they would stray, and I felt wretched; as a missionary, I was supposed to be above this. On top of that, in two full months, I hadn’t achieved a single baptism, even though I was teaching a lot of people, and I felt that was my fault as well. How could God work through me if I wasn’t worthy?

After two months of struggling to fit in, Elder Winward left, and my new companion Elder Jasons was transferred in, and it was a night and day difference. Jasons was hilarious and vibrant, where Winward had been driven and focused. Jasons followed the rules, but he kept things light and entertaining. He brought out a lighter side in me, he listened when I shared stories, he cared about my opinion and sought it out. When we knocked on doors, we could give each other challenges to use a particular word in our ‘door approach’, and they always came off clunky and resulted in peals of laughter.

“Use the word ‘cow’,” he challenged.

“Hi, we are the Mormon missionaries. We believe in a God who created all things, from the planets to the cows…”

“Use the word ‘cardiovascular’,” I challenged.

“Hello, ma’am, we are here to talk about God. He loves us beyond belief. He wants us to live well and be healthy, to eat right and have cardiovascular exercise.”

We must have looked like fools, but we had fun, and I had forgotten what fun was. Elder Winward had been quiet and contemplative, but Jasons wanted to play games and talk in the evenings. Winward had only wanted to play basketball on prep-days, but Jasons wanted to explore the area, hike, see museums, and have new food.

He wasn’t handsome, at least not classically, but I realized after just a few days that he was on my mind almost constantly. He had a dopey smile, a receding hairline with wispy hair, a blocky frame. But his face lit up when he smiled, and he laughed constantly, and his heart was huge. From a small Utah town, he had a slight drawl and some of our investigators called him Elder Hayseed.

In no time, reaping some of the work I had done with Elder Winward, we had three baptisms. Scripture study was fun. I began to feel more comfortable in my own skin again. Jasons made me feel like my best friend in high school had. (And I had started to fall for him, too.) When I realized I had feelings developing, I mentally flogged myself all over again, and knew God would curse me for that. But there was no escape, Jasons was always right there, just a bed away.

And so, on one week night, after we played a board game, I asked him if he wanted a massage. And he responded with enthusiasm. “Heck yeah, elder!”

Jason laid down on the floor, his head on a pillow, and I sat next to him and began to massage his shoulders, his neck, his upper back. It was simple, basic human contact, but just that basic human touch electrified me. It felt safe, and powerful, and connected, and amazing, and… sinful. We didn’t speak as I worked on him, but eventually he commented on how well I was doing and how he would have to give me a massage back.

My thoughts began to wander. I had heard about other companionships where the two elders had wrestling matches, where they walked around naked, where they took photos of each other naked, where they took baths or showers together. The elders would brag about these stories, joking, laughing, and always sure that everyone understood they weren’t gay. I had secretly longed for connections like that, for any connection. Yet now here I was, fully clothed, and offering a back massage, and feeling like I was committing the worst sin possible. I felt hot tears run down my cheeks, and I wiped them, but I didn’t stop the massage. I needed this connection. It stayed innocent, just hands on shoulders, but I felt like I was sinning terribly.

When I finished, Jasons sat up and I returned to the couch behind me.

“That was awesome, Anderson, thank you.” He gave his classic smile. “Your turn?” I sat back on the couch and he finally looked over at me, realizing I’d been crying a bit. “Whoa, what’s up?”

I breathed out, slow, steady. “I don’t think I better get a massage.”

“Why not?” he smiled.

“I, um, I probably shouldn’t have done that. It wasn’t– I was feeling–”

He waited several seconds and encouraged me to keep going. “It wasn’t what?”

“I–I’m attracted to guys sometimes. It–it was innocent. I didn’t mean anything. It just–I’m trying to keep the spirit and– I just shouldn’t have done that.”

There was a bit of silence, and I felt my insides clench up. I had barely told anyone in my life about my same-gender attractions, and I wasn’t sure how he would react or what the consequences of this would be.

Jasons, not surprisingly, responded with his trademark smile. “Oh! Well, that’s cool. Seriously, you didn’t do anything wrong and no big deal. Thanks for telling me. But yeah, no more back rubs is probably the right move.”

That night in prayer, I thanked God for Jasons’ understanding, and tears leaked down my cheeks as I fell asleep. He and I never talked about it again.

After Elder Jasons and I had been companions for eight weeks, he was sent out of the area on an ’emergency transfer’, implemented when someone is put into an unsafe situation. The two of us had taught and baptized a man named Richard, a man who had taken an unhealthy interest in us. While Richard was sincere in his desire to learn about the church, he also frequently indirectly flirted with us and showed up at our apartment sometimes. Richard had to be interviewed before he could be baptized, and in the interview he had to be asked a short series of questions, including if he had ever committed murder, if he had ever been on probation or parole, or if he was or ever had been gay. Deeply offended at the question, Richard wrote us a letter in which he confessed he was gay, and how he was attracted to us both, mostly Elder Jasons, and while he had hoped to find a congregation to belong to, he was also unwilling to associate with a church that hated gay people.

And so Elder Jasons, the one person I had told the truth to, was sent away because a man had flirted with him. I would see Jasons over the following months, from time to time. He was always friendly, always a friend. But the rest of my mission, I never felt as safe as I had with him. Having a friend, someone safe and funny and non-judgmental, had made a world of difference.

Then he left, and my demons remained.

First Conversions





Doug and Tina were unlike anyone I had ever known. Doug was a small man, slight of frame without an ounce of fat on him, almost skeletal in his appearance. His facial hair was scraggly and unkempt, his hair oily, his eyes sunken back a bit, and his years of smoking and drinking showed in his forty year old frame. He worked long hours at the meat counter in the local grocery store, up at 3 am and working until evening, and he liked his evenings at home quiet and uncomplicated. He was quiet, simple, and easily cheered.

Tina, his girlfriend, was his opposite in nearly every way possible. She was short and very round, with short styled hair and light makeup on. She dressed comfortably and was warm and friendly. She loved her life and radiated happiness. When she wasn’t home with her son, working hard to raise him as a single mother, she had a clerical job that she enjoyed. Tina laughed easily, remembered names, and longed for deep and sincere friendships.

The day Elder Winward and I knocked on their door in Allentown, Pennsylvania, wearing our full missionary gear, Tina’s young son Keith answered. He was four and he had a constant look of mischief in his eyes. He had a toy gun in his hand and he pointed it at us as he asked who we were. Soon, we were invited inside. Tina told us about herself and said she had been looking for a church to attend. We taught her a lesson about the Mormon Church and gave her a Book of Mormon, inviting her to pray about it and asking her if she would be willing to be baptized if she felt the holy spirit tell her the church was true. She had only known us for 30 minutes, but she agreed. We swiftly made an appointment to return.

I remember feeling so light and happy that we had found someone who wanted to learn. Missionary efforts over the first few months of my mission had been strained at best. We had taught dozens of people, talked to hundreds, and knocked on the doors of several hundred, but none had really gone anywhere. We had taught a group of teenage girls for a time. One of them, Dana, had opened up to us about her history of sexual abuse, her penchant for cutting her wrists with blades, and her escapes from reality with drugs; she had come to church with her mom’s blessing, but had not felt welcomed by the young women in the church congregation and had decided not to return. Another couple, Victor and Monica, had been eager to learn from us for a time, but had consulted with their pastor who told them to run from us and that Mormons were a cult, and they had angrily told us to never contact them again. We had had countless experiences with rejection, but still no baptisms. And as always, I felt like it was my fault.

The closest we had come to a successful conversion had turned out to be a gay man, Richard, a man who had hoped to find kindness and acceptance in the Mormon faith but who, in his baptismal interview, had been told that homosexuality was equatable with murder, and he had fled from the church after that, hurt and angry. (I never told Richard I was gay too).

But Tina, she was eager to learn. She came to church, she read the scriptures, she asked questions. During our lessons, Doug would join us slowly, reluctantly, more in an attempt to appease Tina than out of any real interest. She liked the messages of the gospel, of wholesome living, of eternal families, and of missionary service. During the discussions, when Keith would act up, either Elder Winward or I would leave the room, playing with him on the other side. Keith struggled in the primary program at church as well, and Tina patiently worked with him to get him used to church every week. She wanted that stability for her son.

Doug and Tina struggled to fit into the Mormon congregation. Both were smokers, they were living together and unmarried, they didn’t know all the protocols and traditions, and they had a rambunctious son. In addition to that, they didn’t have a car and needed a ride to church each week. After they started coming to church, the bishop pulled Elder Winward and I aside, asking us to please focus on teaching potential converts who could transport themselves to church, as providing rides put undue strain on members of the church who were already overburdened. Still, despite the struggle to acclimate, they kept attending church, faithfully, nearly every week.

Within a few months, Elder Winward was transferred to a new area. and Elder Jasons became my new companion, and he and I kept teaching Doug and Tina. She quit smoking and drinking alcohol, and she encouraged Doug to do so. Not wanting to live in sin, they chose to marry, and Tina beamed with pride that day with her new husband at her side. Soon after, she realized she was pregnant, and she felt wonderful about the possibility of new life and what that meant for her family and her fresh start.

When they agreed to be baptized, Doug had to have a special interview with the mission president, much like Richard had because he was gay; Doug had previous arrests from his younger days and had been in jail before, so he had to be cleared for baptism, and soon he was. The day of the baptism approached and Tina asked me, with tears in her eyes, if I would be the one to baptize her.

The day of the baptism, Tina gave me a gold chain with my initials and the baptism on it. She thanked me for helping her find the truth. Elder Jasons baptized Doug first (even though he hadn’t given up smoking completely yet), and then it was my turn to baptize Tina. I remember joining her in the water, I remember the smile she gave me and the love that was in her eyes. Later the bishopric would tease me about my “Hulk-like strength”, rather cruelly, due to the effort it took to get Tina down under the water. (She weighed over 300 pounds). My prayer had been sincere, eager, uttering the baptismal words that had been used millions of times before in millions of other baptisms.

After using her full name, I had uttered simply, “Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

And then she had been submerged. And that was all it took, a symbolic death and rebirth, a ritual to show dedication to Jesus Christ, a washing free of sins and the beginning of a new life as a member of the true church of God. After Elder Jasons left, I stayed another two months in Allentown with Elder Burke, and I regularly visited Doug and Tina, and saw Tina and Keith at church every week. They knew I would be leaving soon, and we all felt sad. Tina wrote my mother a letter back home telling them how I much I meant to their family.

And then in July, I was transferred to another area, in northern Delaware this time, only a few hours away, but I knew I wouldn’t get the chance to see Tina and Doug and Keith again. Shortly after I left the area, they stopped going to church, and when I expressed my concern to my mission president, he had sighed and said that was a problem he continually saw, that members who were baptized were more attached to the missionaries themselves than the church organizations, and that they often went inactive when the elders were transferred.

I wrote to Tina for a time, and she wrote back. Later that fall, I received a birth announcement from her. She had given birth to a healthy baby boy. And she had named the baby Chad. “Because of who you are and how you changed my life.” Honored beyond belief, I wrote her back.

I never heard from her again. It’s been 20 years, and somewhere in the world is a young man named after me that I have never met, and whose life I know nothing of. We fell silent then, and I kept knocking on more doors, looking for more souls to save.

Green in Allentown


It took me several weeks to learn the streets of Allentown, Pennsylvania, a place I would end up living for nearly six months. It was the largest city I had ever lived in, and I knew little of its history.  I knew it was old, that it had old ties to steel and industry, and that there were people of every color here. My upbringings in Missouri and Idaho had been around almost exclusively white people, though they were many Hispanics in my high school, but this was my first time being around a lot of people of color and it was a huge cultural adjustment.

Everything was green here, with a heavy moisture in the air that made everything feel thicker, denser. Breathing was different, even gravity was a little different.

After two weeks in the Missionary Training Center, I had entered this new world completely open to new experiences. I had sought to be healed from being gay while I was there, and I had been told that that wasn’t possible, and then I had felt selfish for asking in the first place. So now that I was here, I was determined to just trust God, do as he said, and hope that things turned out for the best.

I had been called to the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Mission, a geographic area of missionaries that covered south-eastern Pennsylvania, the entire state of Delaware, and the eastern shore of Maryland. On the flight east from Provo, I had offered a Book of Mormon to the flight attendants on the airplane, and one of them had accepted. I had a sheer, powerful determination to be the best missionary possible, and vowed that I would talk to everyone I could about the truth of the gospel.

There were dozens of cities within the mission that I could have been assigned to, and hundreds of elders who could have been assigned as my companion and trainer. I was beyond nervous. But the mission president, a kind man and the former president of a west coast aluminum company, had assigned me to Allentown, and so I knew that was where the Lord wanted me.

My first companion was Elder Winward, a handsome farm boy from Utah. He’d been out on his mission for about a year. He taught me how to be a good missionary through diligent study, unceasing work, and a positive attitude. He was a good man. But I needed to be liked a bit too much. I was so worried that he might find me different, that he might notice that I was gay, that I did everything possible to be good, to be righteous. I did all the dishes, cleaned the apartment, asked too many questions. I was too eager, too willing, too ready, and my nervousness showed. After just a few weeks, I had started to wear on Elder Winward, and there was nowhere to hide. I constantly felt like I was on his nerves, something I had felt around men my age much of my adolescence. And we spent the entire day working or studying, and there was simply no alone time, except to use the restroom or shower. I couldn’t escape myself or my insecurities.

Sharing a room had been the most difficult in the beginning. I was 19 years old and my bed was just a few feet away from another guy, 20, someone who was handsome and nice to me and strong in the Church. I didn’t want to admit having a crush on him, but I did. How could I not? He was right there, and he said good night to me, and then I could hear him breathing. He wasn’t gay, wasn’t broken, like I was, I was almost positive, as he had a pretty girlfriend back home, but he was right there and sometimes I just wanted to reach over and touch him, or maybe even be held. It was a strange sensation, realizing how lonely I could feel with another person in the room.

On occasion, my thoughts would turn sexual, and I would have to fight off biological urges. I knew that part was normal. I was still a teenager. That was something every missionary was struggling with. But I couldn’t imagine if Elder Winward had to share a room with some gorgeous teenage girl, what a temptation he would be facing, and that was what this was like for me. Keeping my thoughts and desires in check was not at all easy. I had struggled with this at the MTC as well, with the giant group showers, and the 19 and 20 year old men I had to share them with. How was I supposed to keep my thoughts pure? It had taken all of my focus, consistently, to not get an erection in that setting, there would have been no hiding it. And then I would feel ashamed all over again, every time.

The other big problem was I didn’t fit in, not just with my companion but with the other elders. I didn’t like basketball and sports, I liked to sing and read and perform and plan. And all they wanted to do with free time was sports. Sometimes we compromised and played board and card games, but the other elders grew crass often, talking about girls and girlfriends, sharing pictures of how hot the girls back home were, commenting on each other’s sisters. They talked about wet dreams, about working hard as missionaries so they could get hotter wives when they got home. And sometimes they made it even more uncomfortable. They would compare penis sizes, rate their manhood, talk about sexual prowess even though none (well, most) of them had never had sex. In the MTC, the elders in my district had even built a sauna in the group shower by hanging blankets at the entrance and turning on all the hot water, then had invited everyone naked. I had no idea how to fit in among guys that I had nothing in common with, but were subsequently attracted to, and so I found myself judging them instead, feeling like I was more worthy than they to be a servant of God.

Despite all the struggles, strangely, I enjoyed walking the streets of Allentown with Elder Winward. When I could feel the concrete beneath my feet (and the humidity in my lungs), I could distract myself from temptations and from not belonging and from wondering about my family back home (all of whom wrote diligently, which felt wonderful), and I could instead focus on my work. I liked knocking doors, a white kid who looked 15 wearing a white shirt and tie, and professing that I was a missionary for Jesus Christ, there to leave the truth. We had different ways of finding people to teach, and knocking on doors was by far the least effective, but it felt good to put in the hard work. We could seek out people who had seen a commercial on television about the church and had called in, and we could visit with those who were already members and press them into giving us names of friends and loved ones to teach. We kept track of numbers: hours spent knocking, number of lessons taught, number of people working on baptism. I tried seeing everyone as a child of God, someone with infinite potential that simply needed to be shown the right way back to the God, through his true church. We could change lives that way. Not just lives, but entire family lines, as converts brought their families and loved ones into the gospel, raised their children in the gospel, and then did the work for the dead for their loved ones who had died before. We were changing the world.

Every week, we called in the numbers, and I always felt ashamed. Two months went by with no baptisms, and I worried that it was my fault, my problem. I worked to keep the spirit in my heart. I listened to Mormon-approved music, I only read the scriptures, I prayed constantly, I refrained from masturbation and improper thoughts, I worked and I worked and I worked. I learned very quickly that I understood very little about the world outside of my own experiences. I had been raised in a very conservative Mormon bubble and I knew nothing of poverty, of racism, of inequality. I knew little of American history, of world history, of politics. I knew very little of religion even. As I talked to people, I didn’t know what a Methodist or a Presbyterian or a Muslim or a Hebrew Israelite or a Jew was. I couldn’t tell the difference between the cultures of Puerto Rico or Trinidad and Tobago or El Salvador or Chile. I knew nothing of slavery, of Civil Rights, or affirmative action, of lynchings, of segregation, of inner city projects, of the War on Drugs.

With no knowledge, with no world experience, I sat in the homes of those who let us in and I told them of the gospel of Jesus Christ as I understood it. I told them of the rules of the church, of the love of God, of baptism, of eternal families. And I found ways to avoid the hard questions. What about polygamy, doesn’t your church teach that men can have more than one wife? and Why didn’t black men get the Priesthood sooner than 1976, and didn’t your church teach that black people could be made white? and Wait, you believe that the Latin-American people are descended from unrighteous Jews whose skin colors were changed because they were unfaithful? Just read the Book of Mormon and pray and believe, I assured them, and the rest doesn’t matter.

I was giving marital advice, having never been married. I was giving advice on overcoming addictions, having never been addicted. I was giving parenting advice, having never been a parent. I had no training, no college, nothing except my own life experiences and scripture study to give me perspective. I believed that I was given spiritual insights by God to provide spiritual counsel to people twice or three times my age, and the advice equated basically to ‘try and be more like me and God will bless you.’

I wrote letters home, emphasizing only the positive. I told of God’s love, of my hard work, of my insights into the scriptures, and I ignored my aches and pains, those in my soul and spirit and heart, and I bore testimony of the mercies of God.

I wrapped myself up in the knowledge, the assurance, that it was all for my God. I ignored the experiences of others, and I ignored the cracking glass inside of me, and kept my eyes firmly on the horizon. Be faithful, baptize as many as possible, and maybe, maybe earn a cure for myself. It was all true, it had to be true. I was giving two years of my life over to the belief that it was true, so it had to be. There were no other alternatives.

Missionary Training


I remember lying in bed that first night at the MTC, feeling empty and eerie. I was in someone else’s bed, in someone else’s room. Across the room, someone I didn’t know was snoring. And this was going to be my new world.

It was 10:30 pm on December 31, 1997. In just a few hours, the rest of the world would be celebrating the arrival of a New Year with celebrations and resolutions. But I was a missionary now, an elder, and I was dedicating the next two years to God. I was tired, but my head wouldn’t stop spinning with memories and fears, hopes and wishes.

Just a handful of hours before, I had bid my family farewell. My family. My mother, my little sister (still in high school), and I had been through a lot together. My five older siblings had been out of the house for years, and we were the youngest two left with a single mother, our own separate little family unit, different from the home my siblings had known. We had survived the abuse at the hands of Kent together. I had been the Priesthood holder in the home, the protector, the man of the house. And now I was leaving them behind for two entire years. But I felt safe knowing I would see them in a few weeks again, when they came to bid me farewell on the day I would go to the Salt Lake City Airport and fly to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the central city of the area I would be spending the next two years in.

Only a few months before, I had received my missionary call. It was a moment I had prepared my entire life for. I had saved up money, read and studied the scriptures, prayed and stayed active in Church all through my adolescence. All in preparation for what everyone said were the ‘best two years’ of a young man’s life. I would serve for two years, then come home and enroll in college and get married and have children and stall a faithful Mormon for my entire life. That was the blueprint, that was the divine plan. That day, I had received the letter in my hands. I could be going anywhere. My best friends from high school had gone on to Munich, Germany, and Trujillo, Peru, and Cape Town, South Africa. I could be going to Russia (and learning Russian) or going to China (and learning Chinese). It could be anywhere. I gathered all of my friends and loved ones that evening and ripped open the envelope. Philadelphia. I had been a bit flummoxed, a bit disappointed to be serving in the United States, somehow wondering if I wasn’t a bit less worthy than the others because I was gay and that was why I hadn’t been called overseas.

My mom had beamed with pride and sadness as she sat next to me in the farewell family meeting. There were prayers and songs and testimonies and then I had hugged my family goodbye. Me and hundreds of others, all there on New Years Eve, changing our lives. Then I had wheeled my two packed suitcases, full of white shirts and black pants and scriptures and ties, along with a few toiletries. That was it. For two years, there would be no books, no magazines, no movies, no television. Just the scriptures. Just hard work and prayers to God. We elite young men and women (but mostly men) would spend two years bringing souls to God.

Ages passed in my brain over that next hour as I lay there in bed, watching the minutes creep by. I had graduated high school just six months ago, and I had waited patiently until I turned 19. I had worked at comic book shops and at a local Target to pass the time, delaying college until my return. I had said goodbye to my friends, leaving on their own missions and going off to school and getting married. I had kept myself worthy. I had avoided dating girls completely, and avoided thinking about boys. And now I was here, and I didn’t know how to feel, what to feel.

After finding my assigned room and bunk earlier in the day, I had met the other missionaries in my district. For some bizarre reason, my companion, Elder Franklin, and I had been placed in a group of missionaries who were all headed to Raleigh, North Carolina, and not with the rest of the group who were going to Philadelphia with us. I sat with the other young men in meetings and at dinner that first night, immediately realizing I didn’t fit in. Some of them were athletes (and so so handsome, but I didn’t let myself dwell on that), some were funny, some were quirky. They formed a brotherhood. But I was on the outs, I was the secretly gay one. I wondered if my entire mission would feel this way, me trying to fit in with the other guys, the normal ones, with me on the outskirts squirming in my own skin.

Elder Franklin was nice. A California guy from a good family, funny, class clown type. He weighed 317 pounds, and he jokingly referred to himself as Franklin 3:17, a loose reference to the family scripture in the Bible in the book of John. But where all of the other guys were sleeping in rooms with four elders in them, set in two sets of bunk beds, Franklin and I had our own room. I felt isolated and forgotten, homesick and foreign.

I watched the clock turn 12:00, and realized 1998 was here. The next twelve months would be one hundred per cent in the arms of God, doing his service, acting as an instrument of his hands. I would teach others diligently and dutifully of the atonement of Christ, the love of God, the life of Joseph Smith, the truth of the Book of Mormon, the sole truths of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was humbling, overwhelming, mind-boggling. How would I do this? How could I rewrite my very self for this? I turned on my side, away from the harsh red numbers of the clock, and shut my eyes tight. Tears leaked out onto my pillow. Ignoring the snores on the other side of the room, I muttered a prayer, my hundredth such prayer in just a day, and my first of the new year.

Dear God, I began. I asked for his guidance, his strength. I asked him to watch over my family in my absence. I asked him to keep the desires of my heart pure. I asked him to bless me with his holy spirit, to give me truth, to give me strength. And then I made that most frightening request, the one God had remained silent on for so long. I asked him to heal me. I didn’t use the word gay this time, God knew what I meant.

My eyes closed and I sang hymns in my head to help me fall asleep. I had a busy day ahead. A busy two years ahead.