The Dog Remembered

lhasapooWhen we pulled up to the house, the dog was yapping loudly, a sentinel stationed on the back of the couch where she could see out the window. Her bark was familiar, the same anticipatory ‘oh my gosh I’m so excited my family is home they are home hooray’ bark as she jumped down the couch to the floor and back up repeatedly, pumped full of adrenaline.

“Sammy’s sure happy to see you!” Sheri, my little sister, nudged me from the back seat, and I grinned.

Mom turned off the car. “Welcome home, son.”

Two years. Two years I had been gone. I was still in my Mormon missionary clothes, and technically still a missionary, until I got a Priesthood release the following day. I’d just flown back into the Idaho Falls Airport and seen my family and friends for the first time. Now the adrenaline was wearing off again.

My house, it was the same. The same butterfly decorations were perched on the wall, the same flowerpots lined the driveway, the mailbox was dented in the same place. The pine tree we had planted was a bit bigger now. The yard was covered in snow, and the air was crisp. I got my suitcase out of the trunk and made my way to the front door.

Inside, it was the same too. It smelled like… home. Like the place I grew up. i didn’t know how to describe the smell except it was the smell of my home, my family, my adolescence. Two years had gone by, and suddenly I was assaulted by the smell of my home, and tears immediately brimmed in my eyes. The same photos hung on the walls, pictures of my siblings, one of my grandparents, one of the Mormon temple, all in the same order. My mom’s doll collection was on the back of the piano, the wallpaper remained half-finished in her bedroom, the same ceramic fish swimming toward a ceramic outhouse was on the wall in the bathroom. It was all the same. I felt a rock in my stomach. I was home.

Sammy barked violently when she realized a stranger was entering the house. Her bark shifted from an excited yapping to her guttural protective warning growl. I set my suitcase down at the bottom of the stairs and reached my hand up toward her so she could smell me. She growled, sniffed my hand.

“Hey, Sammy girl, it’s me, it’s Chad, I’m home.”

And then she remembered me.

I watched her shift from defensiveness to excitement. She jumped from the top stairs into my arms, knowing I would catch her. She scrambled in my arms, smelling my neck, licking my face, wiggling all over the place. I walked upstairs with her barely able to contain her, and then sat down. She whined and yipped, jumping out of my arms then back into them, on the floor, then up on my lap. She was bouncing and squirming everywhere, unable to stop moving. She licked and nipped and whined and barked and bounced and moved and squirmed. Over the next several minutes, tears leaked down my cheeks, and she licked them off, whining continually before finally settling down into my lap. She kept whining, a homesick pathetic sound, as she settled there, refusing to leave my lap for the next few hours. It’s like she was afraid that if she turned her head, I might be gone again.

Sammy was only six pounds. She was officially called a Lhasa Poo, a  mix between a Lhasa Apso and a toy poodle. She’d always been a needy dog, so clingy and whiny and attached. She’d follow you around the house, needing constant attention. If you were sitting, she was in your lap, and if you were walking, she was at your feet. If I was in the basement and she was hungry, she’d run all the way up to the kitchen and retrieve a single piece of food from her dish, then run back into the basement and eat the morsel in front of me before running back upstairs to get another piece. She cried inconsolably when left alone, and was always thrilled when you came back. When i was in high school, she would bed hope across the family in the order of our waking up, staying in bed with mom until she woke up, then snuggling with me until I did, then with Sheri, then finally with Kent, our step-father. She was loved, a full-fledged member of the family.

I sat on her couch in my home and rubbed her little head, thinking of how Kent had brought her home as a surprise years before. My mom hated dogs and didn’t want one, but he’d seen her as a puppy in a box at the grocery store and had picked her up on a whim. Mom had grown fond of her over time, but never liked having a dog. Kent had wanted to name her Tammy, but Mom had hated that, and we’d settled on Sammy, short for Samantha.

I moved my hand to her back, her tiny spine. She was only six pounds, a small pathetic little thing. I could still feel the place where Kent broke her ribs, the jagged edges along her back where the bones had healed improperly. She’d had major back problems ever since then, struggling on stars or with jumps on to the furniture, the injuries aging her much faster thanks he would have aged naturally. She had bad arthritis and joint stiffness now, and getting up on the tall furniture was becoming more difficult with age.

I rubbed her tummy, and remembered how Kent would try and starve her to punish us. He’d put her in the garage on freezing cold nights and told us anyone who took her food or water or who comforted her would be punished, told us that if we had been better then the dog wouldn’t have to suffer. My bedroom door was near the garage and I would hear her crying into the night. Some nights, I snuck her a blanket or food, and Kent would always catch me. Other nights, I just had to go to sleep crying.

Sammy was a loyal thing, a tiny creature who had been through as much or more than any of us in the family had before Kent left for good. My mom had sent me notes from Sammy on my mission, saying things like “Dear Chad, arf arf arf yap yap bark bark bark. Love Sammy”. Sheri’s letters would give me updates on Sammy’s tricks and interactions, and I had several photos of her in my family picture album.

I continued petting her and she melted into me, content and happy. I was home, I was here, in my house with my dog. She’d remembered me.

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Clark Kent

clark

I waited to be the last person off the plane, building up the sense of anticipation. It was December 14, 1999, and I was officially home, my two years as a Mormon missionary complete. Now I was standing in a tiny plane on the runway of the Idaho Falls Airport, and I knew my family and many of my friends were waiting inside.

It was a surreal feeling. I was confused and elated and exhausted all at once. I grabbed my carry-on bag and walked off the plane into the dry, frigid air. It was stark, different. The humidity of Pennsylvania was gone. The Idaho air was familiar. It felt like home as it chilled me to the bone. My skin felt dry, my mouth had no moisture, and my nose hairs froze.

Two years. I hadn’t seen my family in two years. God, that had been a long two years.

I stepped through the door into the airport, and felt the oppressive heater blast me and warm me at the same time. Around the corner, they were waiting. I took a moment to collect my breath. And then I walked forward.

The room erupted in applause. Waiting at the gate (this was long before the security regulations had changed), stood my family, friends, and family friends. My mother was crying, Sheri looked shy, some friends held banners and balloons. I dropped my bag while they all still cheered and heard cameras flashing as I wrapped my mom in a tight hug. I held her there, and spoke, softly.

“Hi, Mom, I’m home.”

She clutched me there for several seconds, then I turned to hug other family members. Kara was six months pregnant, and her sons and daughter had grown immensely over the past two years. Sheri was taller and she had cut her hair short, I hardly recognized her. Many of my friends had married. Everyone looked different, felt different. I was different. Nothing was the same. I was changed.

After the initial round of hugs, while everyone was still gathered, I surprised everyone  by standing up on a nearby table, one set in between stairs in the wait area. I got confused looks, but I cleared my throat to get everyone’s attention. I flipped my tie back over my shoulder, and began to unbutton my shirt.

“Chad! What are you doing?” My mother was scandalized. But I untucked my shirt and continued unbuttoning. A confused silence settled over everyone. I undid the last few buttons on my shirt, then spread it wide open to reveal a classic blue and red Superman shirt underneath. I posed heroically, hands on hips, as the room broke out in laughter. I was Clark Kent, revealing my Superman identity to the crowd. My mom broke out in giggles, cameras flashed, and I stood, posing there for several seconds.

I had done it. I was triumphant on my return home. I was a super hero, in my own right. A flawed hero, but I had done something hard, something impossible, something I had been expected to do no matter what.

I remembered buying the Superman shirt a few months before, planning this moment.  I’d been shopping on a street in Philadelphia, coming across a comic book shop. Comic books had always represented an escape from reality for me, an ability to leave the hard things of the world behind and get lost in a fictional colorful reality of heroes and villains. I’d seen the shirt in the window and bought it straight out. It fit me well, and could hide easily underneath my shirt and tie.

I buttoned my shirt again and received another round of hugs. The large group of people moved through the small airport toward the baggage claim, where I could get my two suitcases full of missionary supplies I would never use again. I was technically still a missionary, until I received an official release the next morning. My mom clutched my arm tightly as people walked together, asking random questions, ones I barely had time to answer as more were lodged my way. The questions felt empty, inane. There were no answers for any of them, even the easy ones. They swirled around my head, thick like cotton candy, ethereal like clouds. How could I measure my feelings, my experiences? There were no answers.

“Chad, how does it feel to be home?”

“Does it feel nice to see your family?”

“Did they have snow out there like this?”

“How was your flight?”

“How does it feel to finish your mission?”

“What were your favorite parts of your mission?”

“Are they really the best two years?”

“How many people did you baptize?”

“How do you like being back in Idaho?”

“When do you start college?”

“So now that your mission is done, should we expect a wedding announcement from you soon?

“Welcome home! How do you feel? Excited to be back?”

Here was this room full of people who loved me, who supported me. It felt wonderful. It felt… weird. I’d been alone in my own skin for months, struggling with depression and pain. There was so much I hadn’t told my family. The last two years had been heavy and strange, painful and desperate. I’d kept so much to myself. And now it was all over. It was so abrupt.

I got my suitcases, and there were final goodbyes, promises that people would visit soon, invitations to lunch and movies. We walked outside to the car, the same car my mom drove before I left. I climbed in the passenger seat. Sheri was behind me, Mom next to me. We drove down familiar stretches of road, ten miles from home. It was all the same. Every house, every business, the same.

But they were different. I was different. What would my world be now?

the Flight Attendant

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The plane was only half full, so there was plenty of room to stretch out. Elder Franklin took his own row, and I took my own row behind him.

It took a bit for my tears to stop. I had just said goodbye to my entire family, and I wouldn’t be seeing them for nearly two years. It was January 1998, and I had just finished my brief training at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. Now I was being sent out into the missionary field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

My family had gathered at the airport to bid me farewell. They stayed with me at the gate until I had to leave. Elder Franklin’s family couldn’t be there, as they were far away in California. Mom and Sheri, Kathy with her husband and six children, all in matching shirts, Susan, Kara with her kids, even Kareen and Dad had flown in from Las Vegas to surprise me. There had been lots of hugs and photos, letters handed to me, fun conversation and memories shared. And when the flight was boarding, lots of final hugs, handshakes, and kisses on cheeks. They were proud of me. I was sacrificing two full years to do missionary service. It felt wonderful to be doing the right thing, the thing that was expected.

I’d waved a final goodbye, walked around the corner to get on the plane, and burst into sobs. I was leaving everything behind. Everything I’d ever known. It was heartbreaking. But thousands of missionaries had done this before me, and I could do it now.

After the flight was safely in the air, the flight attendant walked by. She had long blonde hair, was tall and thin in her early forties. She looked haggard, like she hadn’t slept in a few days. She smiled at me.

“Hey, hon, you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m all right. Just said goodbye to my family.”

“Aw, I miss my family too. I got a couple kids back in Phoenix. Feels like ages since I’ve seen them.”

I smiled up at her. “How old are they?”

“Ten and nine. Two different dads, both of them gone. They live with my parents so I can work.”

We chatted for a few minutes. I told her I was from Idaho, that I was going to Pennsylvania for a few years to do missionary work. I was 19 but looked more like I was 14, and the flight attendant was astounded by the news that I would be gone two years. She soon had to tend to some of her flight duties, giving out drinks and snacks, but the plane was quiet, so she returned and sat down in the chair across the aisle from me.

“Two whole years, huh? I’m Lydia, by the way.”

“Yeah,,” I smiled. “It’s what God asks of his servants.”

“So what will you be doing that whole time?”

“Well, I’ll be assigned to an area. I’ll have a companion, a guy just like me. And we will go out door to door and teach people.”

“Do they pay you for this?”

“No. We do it because we believe the messages God has for people can save lives. He makes it so families can be together forever.”

Lydia couldn’t help but laugh. She read my tag. “Elder Anderson, is it? Sorry to laugh, I’ve just never met anyone like you. I’ve seen you guys on your bikes, but I thought you were college students or something. What you are doing, giving up two whole years, that takes some serious dedication. It’s admirable. Weird, but admirable.”

Not missing a beat, I responded with the lessons I had been learning over the past few weeks. We had had time in the MTC to teach a series of discussions to each other, or to people pretending to be an ‘investigator’, or someone investigating the gospel. This was my first real chance to teach the lessons.

“Most people believe in a Supreme Being,” I began, reciting the words I had memorized through practice. I talked about the love of God, not realizing how baffled Lydia looked for the first few minutes as I spoke. She sat, respectful, laughing awkwardly a few times. I asked about her beliefs in God, and she mentioned growing up Baptist. I kept talking, but she interrupted me.

“Look, this looks like this could take a while. But I have to get back to work. I don’t have a bunch of time to learn about your church. You’re sweet, though. I hope my boy grows up to be like you a bit.”

She stood, not waiting for me to continue, and walked back to do more of her job. While she did so, I reached into my carry-on and pulled out a copy of the Book of Mormon, then I grabbed a pen and wrote in the front cover.

Lydia, it was nice talking to you this morning. This book changed my life. If you read it and pray about it, you will know that it is true, and if it is true, then you know that the church is true. If you’d like to learn more, please call the number on the card I’ve placed here, and missionaries can come and teach you wherever you are. Remember, your Heavenly Father loves you. From, Elder Anderson.”

As the flight landed, I handed Lydia the book, and she accepted, with a confused look on her face. She thanked me and walked to the back of the plane without another word.

Elder Franklin was astounded. “Dude! Did you just teach a first discussion? On the plane, like before our missions even started? That was amazing! I’m going to tell everyone about this!”

We walked off the plane and I felt pure joy. I had brought truth to someone, a hard-working single mother of two, and if she just read the book, she could change her life. I wanted to share this truth with every person I passed, every person God placed in my path. I would be an instrument in his hands, and I had two years to prove to him how hard I wold work.

Later that day, I would meet my trainer, my first companion in the field, Elder Winward, and he saw how enthusiastic I was. He called it “greenie fire”, because I was green and excited. “Just wait,” he said. “That part fades fast.”

 

 

Delaware City

DelawareCityYears after I left Delaware City, it stayed in my mind. It was tiny, a town of less than 2000 people, but had been designed to rival Philadelphia itself. It was surrounded by water: ponds, rivers, and the ocean, and was covered in wildlife and lush vegetation. With lined streets containing antique shops, thrift stores, and other home businesses, it was picturesque, and unlike anything I had experienced before.

The nuances of the place stuck with me. Just off the coast of the town, on Pea Patch Island, there had been a prisoner of war camp during the Civil War, and the town was near where Washington had crossed the Delaware River. The country’s history extended into this small place. Years later, some ideas that formed during this time would turn into my published graphic novel, the Mushroom Murders (a book that would be lauded by critics, but never picked up much in the mainstream comic book industry).

As missionaries, we walked the streets of this little town, and other towns around it. I loved the mix of ethnicities there, and the rural feel of the town. People moved more slowly and were much friendlier. It was comfortable, and it felt safe. My companion and I had a car again. There were trees and bigger homes. After nine months in Philadelphia, it felt wonderful to be in a smaller community again, although the day to day pressures of missionary life stayed the same. No more endless walking, no more abject poverty, no more danger in the streets. Just green trees and quiet families.

My final companion was Elder Kelton. He was nice, from rural Utah, with an easy smile and a relaxed personality, handsome in a non-threatening way. Although I was the senior companion, I let him take the lead most of the time. I was content to do missionary work, but I was also content to relax and bend a few of the rules, so long as they weren’t the big ones. I knew there would be no more baptisms now at the end of my mission, and I felt like I had put in my time.

I grew reflective in those last days, walking the flat Delaware streets, breathing in the humid air. I thought of home, I thought of how much energy I had had at the beginning of my mission, I reflected on the different companions I had had. I flipped through journal pages, hundreds of them, and thought of the hundreds of letters I had written. I thought of the changes in my family, in my friends, in myself. I was pensive, deep in thought, and haunted. I wondered what life held for me now.

In ways, I couldn’t wait to go back home. I’d been so weary of missionary work for so long, and I wanted to go back home, to college and family and a future. But I dreaded it as well. Back at home, I had to face the reality that, while I was returning honorably, I had failed to do more, to be better. Eight baptisms, and all of them had gone inactive already. And I was still gay, still attracted to men. When I’d left, I’d felt so sure I could control it, heal myself, and it hadn’t worked. I’d have to return to dating women. I’d be expected to marry and father children, to go into debt while finishing my education, to serve in church callings. It’s the future I wanted, as it was the only future I had ever planned on, but I wasn’t sure I was capable of it all. Going home meant that future, yes, but it also meant sacrificing the freedom I had gained being on the other side of the country.

Elder Kelton and I didn’t talk much, except about our basic routines. We taught a few lessons, played cards and had meals with other missionaries, went to church. It was relaxed, and easy, and the time went quickly. Halloween. Thanksgiving. Those last days stretched on endlessly, and yet they flew by, and suddenly it was December 14. In January, I would be starting college, working at a job again, living a normal life.

Before I left, I had a final interview with the mission president. It was anticlimactic. He reminded me of a used car salesman. He asked me about my experiences, my converts, my successes. He asked me about my plans once I got home. He gave me some canned advice about being successful in college, trusting the Lord, getting married before long, and multiplying and replenishing the Earth while always serving nobly in the Church. He assured me God loved me, and asked if I wanted a Priesthood blessing. I thanked him, but declined, shaking his hand on the way out. I felt very aware of how God felt about me, and for now it was much easier to keep him at a far distance. The alternative was to open myself up the pain of disappointing him again.

On the final day, I got a ride to the airport. I packed my suitcase with all of my mission supplies. I threw away my old, tattered, yellowed clothing. I gave away Caliban, my fish, my small blue beta that had kept me company for over a year, who had moved with me to three different apartments. I mailed home the boxes of keepsakes, including old comic books, that I had accrued over my time there. And then I got on the plane, headed westward, like the Saints had once done, East to West, back toward home, family, and future.

On the plane, I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t want to eat. I took out a pad of paper to write, but found I had nothing to say. I just sat there. The woman next to me asked about my mission, but I only made small talk, not wanting to teach her about the gospel, she could learn from someone else. I felt empty inside, a careful combination of relieved and worried. The plane landed in Salt Lake City, then another soon took off for Idaho  Falls. The ground below was white with snow covered mountains. The plane landed, and I waited, making sure I was the last one off. My family was waiting.

I was home.

Catholic vs. Mormon!

Catholic

“Okay, elders, here’s the thing. I want to learn all about your church.”

Elder Shoney and I looked at each other with excitement, wondering if we had perhaps found a ‘golden investigator’, or someone who was easily converted to Mormonism, at a time in their life when they were searching for truth. An easy tally on our list of baptized souls, one more saved soul showing us that our work was paying off.

Ed continued. “But I have no interest in joining your church. I’m Catholic. I was raised Catholic, as was my mother and father and those before them. I’m not seeking to change that. But I do want to learn about your church.”

Shoney and I broke eye contact, suddenly confused. “If you aren’t looking for truth, or for a religion to join, then why would you want to learn about it?”

Ed was matter-of-fact. We sat in the backyard of his beautiful home, just down the block from our apartment. He had thick, bushy grey hair, and a lean muscular frame. He was in his early sixties and wore a blue button-down shirt with a red bowtie, purple suspenders, and black slacks. He leaned back in his chair, sipping his iced tea.

“Well, that’s simple, actually. I’m worried about the Catholic Church. I’m very involved in my local congregation, and I’ve come to realize that we are having difficulty retaining members. People aren’t coming like they used to. But when I read reports, I see that the Mormon numbers are growing consistently, and I want to know why.” He took another long sip, and then kept talking. “Obviously, you have this entire missionary program. The guys in white shirts and ties going out to teach the world about the church, drawing in converts, and thus money and numbers. I want to know how you do it. Now, you are welcome to try and convert me, but I won’t end up being converted. Still, I would love to learn from you if you like to teach me.”

We stepped off to the side to consult, and figured the Lord could guide our actions. What would be the harm in teaching someone who wanted to learn? The Lord could work miracles, and we loved teaching. (It definitely beat knocking doors all day, and it made our numbers at the end of week report look more successful and fruitful).

We returned to Ed, and agreed. We would teach him a series of six lessons. He grew visibly excited, and said he wanted to take two lessons per week, but he wanted permission to tape record them, so he could reference them later. We considered again, wondering if we needed to get special permission to be recorded, but we decided there was no risk and went ahead.

Ed was a delightful man who had drinks and snacks ready for us whenever we came over. He shared his love for his religion, and for religious history, and engaged in long discussions about Biblical stories and our interpretation of them. He loved our views on God, on family, on faith and repentance and baptism, and on the holy spirit. But the day we taught him about the Apostasy and Restoration, things grew slightly heated.

For this lesson, I brought a can of Pringles that I had filled with plastic cups, each labeled with a taped on sheet of paper. I laid out the cups carefully as I taught, building a small pyramid on the table in front of us in an elaborate lesson about Christ and his church. We discussed how with the birth of Christ, the prophecies of the Old Testament were fulfilled, and a new truth had to be established on the Earth. Christ taught among the Jews, Scribes, Sadducees, and Pharisees, teaching his new doctrines and setting up a brand new church. He called 12 apostles and gave them the power, or Priesthood, to administer in his name. He built his church on basic truths like baptism, faith, the Holy Ghost, and others, carefully laid out in the Bible. But then, Christ had been killed and resurrected, leaving the Earth. And then the 12 apostles were all killed or they disappeared. And with the apostles gone, the Church of Christ was left behind to be interpreted by men, who tried hard to follow the teachings in the following centuries but they ultimately corrupted the truths, split and divided into many different religions, thousands of them. Men were left without the truth of God, and without anyone who had the Priesthood to lead them. This was called the Apostasy.

Ed watched carefully as we explained. We began pulling out cups on the bottom row of the pyramid, and soon it all came crumbling down, showing that without the leadership of Christ’s church or authority, the belief systems came crashing down. Man couldn’t salvage the wreckage, not without the authority to do so from God. And then we told of the Restoration, how God and Jesus visited Joseph Smith in the 1830s to get him to set up the new Church, bringing their authority back, and letting him call 12 new apostles.

Ed took copious notes, even though he was recording the lesson. He muttered words like ‘fascinating’ and ‘wow’ and ‘unbelievable’ as we chatted. When we finally reached a stopping point, he turned toward us, instructing quietly.

“See, this is where our religions differ. After Christ and the apostles started dying, we believe the Priesthood, as you call it, passed on from Peter to others. Eventually the Pope took over and formed official positions within the church. The Catholic Church is centuries old, where as yours is a baby. But we both claim to have that truth or authority. The rest of religion is basically just driftwood, variations or amendments on the existing truth. In the end, it’s just us versus you,” he said, laughingly.

At the end of the lesson, we had lemonade and cookies and chatted about our families back home. Ed talked about his daughter, about the books he had written, and the stories he liked to tell. He was somewhat of a celebrity in certain circles. He shared some of his works with us, giving us copies to take home. As he walked us out that day, setting up a time to take us to dinner later in the week, he smiled and shook our hands.

“You know, growing up, I was given a pamphlet, teaching me about how dangerous Mormons were, about how they were a cult that would try and take your children. You guys aren’t so scary.”

Elder Shoney, who made me laugh regularly, quipped back. “And we were taught that your church is the great whore of all the Earth and the corrupter of all truth. And you definitely are that scary.”

We had a good laugh. Over the next two weeks, we saw Ed four more times, teaching him each time. And then the discussions were done. We went to his church once, he went to ours once, and then we bid him farewell. He shook our hands, thanked us for an enlightening experience, and said he had learned a lot.

“But you didn’t convert me. I still believe in the pope over the prophets. But only one of us can be right. Unless we are both wrong.”

He gave his characteristic grin, and then I never saw him again.

Farewell, Philadelphia

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Leaving Philadelphia was surreal.

I had only a few months left on my mission, and I was leaving the thriving, divorce, crime-ridden metropolis where I had spent nearly nine months, and moving back to northern Delaware briefly. In just one season, I would be back in the potato farm country of southern Idaho. I could barely compute it all.

I’d had special permission from the mission president to spend time online registering for college. In less than three months, I would not only be home, I would be enrolled in Ricks College, a Mormon school just a few dozen miles from where my mother and sister lived. I could get a job and commute back and forth to school. I wouldn’t be a missionary anymore. I still had a few months left, but I was itching to be done, beyond weary of the monotonous routines.

Leaving Philly was more difficult than I’d expected. I often walked the streets, wondering what it would be like to live here, as a college student perhaps, or what it would have been like to grow up here. There was no way to compare the high rising skyscrapers, extreme poverty, and thousands of homeless to the dusty long fields, middle class struggles, and dominant Mormonism of my home in Idaho.

I started saying my goodbyes a few weeks before I left. I visited the Wissahicken one last time. I stopped to get a cheesesteak from Sava’s Cheesesteak Stand and bid the Greek man with the thick mustache farewell. I knocked on doors, saying goodbye to people I had taught or become acquainted with, even the three people I had baptized, and spent some final moments with their families, knowing I would likely never see them again; they had already stopped attending church.

When I returned home, I planned to pursue a degree in social work. It felt like a natural fit. I’d used my compassion for others my entire life, trying to help them through difficult times, and as a missionary, that trait had frequently come in handy. I’d learned so much about the diversity of life, about poverty and racism, about the differences between men and women. There was such an enormous world outside of my Mormon bubble in Idaho, and my mission experiences had shown me everything from the Amish to the plight of the refugee. In my college entrance essay, I had had much to discuss, and I felt very ready to engage in new classes.

At my very first dinner appointment at a member’s home in Philadelphia, Cecelia, an older black woman who had joined the church five years before, had invited us over for a “home-cooked meal.” She lived in a humble apartment overlooking a dirty street outside. She’d asked me to set the table and I’d opened a cupboard door to see three large roaches scuttling away. Dinner had been macaroni and cheese baked into a pie, and a glass of milk. At the time, I had been horrified, confused, and a little nauseous. Now, I could eat at Cecelia’s house any time and not stop to think about it.

Knocking doors in north Philly had taught me much as well. I met single mothers who had six children by six fathers, their current husbands away in jail, living off of Welfare and food stamps with no way out and no way to get ahead. I saw children in diapers sleeping on lice-ridden couches on the front stoops of homes while mothers sat near by high on drugs. I stepped over used drug bags, blood, and human feces, and once a bullet casing. And after knocking on doors each day, I would walk back into my nice apartment overlooking a park and sleep in my bed with freshly laundered sheets. The opposing forces of these two worlds assaulted my senses on a daily basis, and I began to understand what privilege is, and what poverty is. I began dedicating myself to the causes of social justice, and I kept a list of topics I wanted to explore in college.

On my final Sunday in the local branch where I had been attending for several months, Mary-Lou asked to speak to me. Mary-Lou was intimidating, a large woman with a permanent scowl, yet her entire face and demeanor changed when she smiled. She’d had a rough life, and she didn’t trust easily. Mary-Lou had been born a member of the church, and she was white. She taught our Gospel Principles class in the branch, and saw a rotating group of church visitors going through every week, making her job difficult as there were constantly new faces in the room. The branch had 10 missionaries in it, and she refused to let the missionaries in the room as they tended to dominate the lesson, and she wanted it to be the new potential members who were learning.

Before sacrament meeting began, Mary-Lou pulled me into her classroom and closed the door, then took a seat facing me. I watched her scowl turn into a soft smile as she spoke. “Elder Anderson, I know you haven’t had it easy here. You’ve had a few difficult companionships and I know you got beat up once. But I just wanted to tell you, it has been a pleasure having you here. It’s rare that I trust a missionary, so many of you are just so immature or full of yourselves. But you have a good heart, and you made a big difference in our branch. It has been an honor, and I truly hope we will see you again some time. Come back and visit us.”

Mary-Lou walked out of the room as tears leaked down my cheeks. I’d felt numb for some time, and she’d broken through to me. Maybe my efforts weren’t all in vain, maybe I had made some small difference.

the Esoteric Edges of Mormonism

Edge

“Hi, I’m Elder Anderson, and this is Elder Sanderson. We are missionaries for the–”

The woman behind the door stopped us, laughing. “Elder Anderson and Elder Sanderson? That rhymes! That’s adorable! You should get that printed on little cards or something.”

I smiled. I had heard it all before. And the rhyming names was rather adorable, come to think of it. We were a little bit like Bert and Ernie in a way, and I was definitely Ernie. Elder Sanderson was from northern California, and he was over 6’5” to my 5’11”. Where I was silly, uncaring, and a bit playful, he was straight-laced, intellectual, and a bit odd. He had a pair of thick glasses and he always kept his shirt and clothes carefully pressed. If it hadn’t rained for a week, he liked to wear his goulashes over his shoes, just to keep them nimble and functional. He read profusely and enjoyed long debates about church intellectual theory.

“Anyway, we are the missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and we were wondering if we might teach you a bit about–”

The woman was polite, but cut me off. “Look, elders? Elder. Cute. Anyway, never in a million years would I have opened my door for you guys. I normally turn off my lights and hide inside. I thought you were the pizza being delivered. Good luck and God bless, but I already have religion.”

She closed the door. Partly out of routine, and partly because I wanted to make my backpack lighter, I pulled a Book of Mormon out and tucked a card inside of it that had our phone number, in case she wanted to learn more. Inside the book was the photo of a teenage girl from my ward back home along with her hand-written testimony. I had a huge box of hometown photos and testimonies at my apartment, and I had been leaving one in every book I dropped off. No bolts of inspiration, it’s just what I was used to doing now.

We walked amiably down the block in the Philadelphia heat, knocking on the doors of large homes. We were in the safer, richer part of our area right now, since it was getting later in the day–I tended to avoid the unsafe areas except in the mornings ever since I had been mugged a few weeks before. I was talking to Mom every day on the phone, but I still hadn’t told her about it. I was healed now, though the black eye had hung on for about ten days afterwards.

My time in Philadelphia was growing limited. All said and done, I would have been there for nearly nine months, an unheard of length of time for missionaries who normally spent four months in an area, six maximum. I was ready to go. I should only have one more area to live in before I went home in four months, and as far as I was concerned, the time couldn’t pass quickly enough. I was exhausted with being a missionary.

There were a lot of things I would miss about Philadelphia. I had grown to love going out on Mondays to various corners of the city, generally with one or two of the other missionaries that I enjoyed (while the others all played basketball for hours, a game that often resulted in serious injury like torn tendons and sprains). I’d been to the orchestra, the art museum, through various shopping districts, along the waterfront. We ate at various places in the city, getting some of the best cheesesteaks in the world and savoring every delicious cold bite of Rita’s Water Ice (sugary gelato swimming in sugary slush). The city that had once felt so enormous now felt doable. In my basic little missionary life, I had grown in tune with the pulse of my section of the city, and I spoke its language and felt its rhythms now.

As we walked, Elder Sanderson shared some of his new discoveries. He leaned toward the esoteric and metaphysical side of Mormonism. Like many scholars, he believed in life on other planets and enjoyed reading theories about the movement of stars and planets, surmising from that where in the universe Kolob was, the planet that God lived on. He believed that Heaven was actually another planet, that Earth would once be transformed into a Heaven-like planet, and that molecules and atoms were actually God-particles that could be formed by one who held the right keys of the Priesthood. He read books that plotted out key places described in the Book of Mormon with places in modern geography, and theorized about ways to prove the Book of Mormon’s truth through scientific means. He loved equating science and theory with religious belief. I found his talk fascinating, but I didn’t have much to add, nor much interest in doing the type of research he did.

I knew another member who did the opposite type of research, searching for minutia to prove the church false. He delved into all kinds of anti-Mormon theories, obsessing over every sentence written, so he could then counter the arguments and prove the church right. He was a part of online forums where he spent endless hours typing up documents verifying the church’s truth. He talked for hours about why no horse skeletons were found in America even though the Book of Mormon mentions horses, why no Jewish DNA roots were among Native Americans though the Book of Mormon taught that they were descended from Jews, and on and on. He droned on one day about how Joseph Smith had used ‘god-sight’ to translate the Pearl of Great Price, writing what God had inspired him to write instead of what he had been actually reading, some funeral rites from a mummy sarcophagus.

Conversations like that just left me feeling weird. Mormonism was weird. On the surface, it was shiny and beautiful, faith and love and redemption and forever families. But underneath it got murky and strange, with baptisms for the dead and masonic secret temple handshakes and new names and polygamy and Adam theory. I just preferred to teach the truth I believed in, pure and simple, rather than these divergent theories.

It baffled me sometimes how much time Mormons spent talking and thinking about Mormonism.

We kept knocking doors until it was time to go home for the evening. I would sit in one room and read the latest library book I’d picked up, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Sanderson would read some “Adam was really God except not actually God” theory book he’d picked up. We’d make Ramen noodles, wash dishes, pray, lights out, and sleep. I missed the real world. I missed television and friends and video games. I missed my family and friends.

I walked up the stairs to my apartment, feeling the ground through the hole wearing through the bottom of my shoes, feeling the hole in my sock under one toe. My tie was a fraying, my shirts were yellowed and worn, and my backpack had a broken strap.

The best two years, they said. Only four months left.

Saved by the Reaper

Reaper

The Grim Reaper stood over us, his eyes glowing bright red, his scythe held tightly in his right hand. His voice was amplified, sounding loud and evil.

“Come on, elders, stand up! Don’t you want to be saved? Stand up if you want to be saved!”

Elder Shoney and I looked at each other, fear and confusion in our eyes. The crowd was gathered around us, and we were the only ones still sitting down, everyone else in the congregation had been ‘saved’ by standing up, and it felt like they weren’t going to stand up until we gave in.

Philadelphia was still new to me. I had been on my mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for over a year, but the city of Philly still felt massive. Elder Shoney had been here for two months and he was still a new missionary. A woman from a family he had been teaching with his previous companion had invited us to attend a play that her church, the Bread of Life Christian Fellowship, was putting on, a traveling play about Jesus that was going from city to city to help people be saved.

Though it was technically against the rules, Elder Shoney and I had a fascination for other churches, and we liked seeing how other people worshipped. We’d explored Catholic, Apostolic, Pentecostal, and Hebrew Israelite churches, as well as a church with a rock band called Church on the Move. The play sounded fun, so we decided to do it, and then invite others to attend our church in return.

The play itself had been corny, all about a preacher finding Jesus and hearing about his life, with funny comedy quips. It felt very much like a poorly done community theater production. But then suddenly it had turned very dark and uncomfortable. A man in a cartoonish Grim Reaper costume had come out, larger than life, with a white skeleton mask and black hood and robes, with skeletal hands that held a scythe. The Reaper had crucified Jesus on the stage, pretending to pound nails into his hands and feet as the actor had screamed out in pain. There were children in the audience who made frightened noises. Then the Grim Reaper had turned toward the crowd and said that they could only be saved if they accepted Jesus into their hearts right that very moment, and they could only show they had done that by standing up. If they did that, he said, they would be saved from that moment forward, even if they had been saved before.

And soon, every person in the room was standing, every father, mother, and child, all emotional, hands in the air, waving toward the sky, professing their love for Jesus. Everyone but us. The Reaper continued demanding we stand, and soon he invited the crowd to gather in a circle around us, to pray for us that we too might accept Jesus into our hearts. Nearly everyone there was black, and there we were, two 20 year old white kids from Idaho, in the center of the circle.

My mind was reeling. I felt like standing up now would be an absolute betrayal to my God and religion. Putting another religion before my own was one of the greatest sins possible. My beliefs varied greatly from these. I believed in being saved, yes, but through baptism in the true church and then consistent service, not standing up in a strange church meeting in front of a man in a devil costume. Nothing about this felt right. I sat there, hands in my lap, refusing to speak, and I saw Elder Shoney doing the same.

My mind flashed back to stories I had heard of pioneers in the early Mormon church, men who had been held at gunpoint and ordered to deny their church, men who had been shot and killed when they refused. We were taught that those men, who sacrificed their lives for God, were automatically saved in the kingdom of Heaven. Though not life-threatening, this felt like that kind of test, like I had to prove my faith and commitment to God no matter the cost, no matter how much pressure they put on us.

My mind automatically recalled everything I had been taught about Christian religions that were not Mormon. Sometimes we were taught that they were extremely corrupt, with one scripture in the Book of Mormon calling them “the great whore of all the Earth”, and other times we were taught they were well-meaning but ultimately incorrect, using “the philosophies of men mingled with scripture.” We were taught to “hold to the rod”, or the word of God, with all our might and to deny false teachings in any form. And now, here, our faith was being tested, strangely, in a bizarre way.

A kind black woman with a pair of thick glasses leaned down and touched my shoulder. “Just stand, elders, it will be well with God.”

And I remembered that the devil speaks in all ways, in kind and soft voices and in loud blaring voices, in soft temptations and in flashing neon lights. I said a silent prayer to God to give me strength to resist.

It was only seconds longer before the Grim Reaper backed off and moved on with the play. We hadn’t stood. And when the play was over, Elder Shoney and I had vacated the Bread of Life quickly. I walked down the street, feeling a sense of triumph, that I had resisted the temptation to make things less awkward by standing.

Then I remembered a story from the early days of the Mormon Church. Joseph Smith had been looking into all of the different religions that were preaching in his area, trying hard to decide which one to join. When he had prayed to God, God and Jesus had appeared to him and told him to join none of the churches, telling him that they all had bits of truth, but that none had all of the truth, and then they told Joseph he would set up the church that had all of the truth.

Now here was this church, the Bread of Life, professing to save souls. And yet Elder Shoney and I were knocking on doors every day, trying to do the same, invite souls to be saved through baptism. We were basically doing the same thing, asking people to stand up and be saved. I wondered inwardly then what made my church different from any of the other churches, what made me different from that kind black woman who had touched my shoulder, in fact what made me different from the man in the Grim Reaper costume. We all believed we had the truth, and we all wanted to help others. I began to realize that I had a lot of questions to ask God one day.

But for now, the God I believed in was proud of me.

Then again, the God that Grim Reaper believed in was proud of him, too.

Hugh and the Old Turkey Leg

HU.jpg

“You’ve taught me you pray, now let me teach you how I pray.”

Marcie pushed herself up from her armchair with great effort. She wore a billowy mu-mu covered in floral print and hefted herself to a standing position with a great exhale of air, the gust of which hit me in the face. It smelled like partially digested sausage and salsa.

Marcie stepped through the piles of magazines and boxes. She was just a few steps left of a hoarder, rarely throwing anything out and rarely left her home. In our first visit with her, she had told us how she’d grown up in this house, and had stayed here after high school to take care of her mother after her father died. A few years before, her mother had died as well, and now she lived off of her inheritance.

Marcie found a tape player in her kitchen and set it on the coffee table, running the cord to the nearby outlet. Elder Bourne and I looked at each other, confused. Just days before, we had knocked on her door, seeking to teach her about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She lived in the nicer part of our area, in north Philadelphia, which was divided into opulent old homes filled with mostly white people, and extreme poverty row homes filled with mostly black and Puerto Rican people. She’d gingerly invited us in, saying she loved religion and wanted to learn more about hers. Now we had just completed the second discussion, and she wanted to teach us about her religion.

As Marcie selected a tape to put in the cassette recorder, she explained. She had a habit of clicking her tongue, making a wet sound like she was gumming potato chips, as she spoke. Her hair was grey and pulled back into a tight bun, and she wore no make-up. On her feet were bright pink bunny slippers.

“Elders, listen {slurp}, I joined the Eckankar religion a few years ago {pop}. It is all about the worship of the Light and Sound of God. You pray {slurp} with words to God, but we pray with {slurp} sounds to revere God. This is the sacred sound of {pop} Hu.”

Elder Bourne, who already looked grossed out (he hated clutter and mess) choked on a laugh. “Hugh? Like Hugh Grant?”

Marcie giggled. “No, no, no. Hu. H. U. Hu. Here, listen. {slurp}”

She pressed play on the recorder and we heard a group of human voices begin to make a long sound. It was a collective chorus, unbreaking. “Huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu.” It went on. And on. After nearly forty seconds, a bell dinged briefly, and the chants continued. Elder Bourne and I made eye contact. What was happening? He started to laugh, and then I couldn’t help it, I started to laugh. The laughs came out of our noses in gusts as we tried to contain it. It was disrespectful to laugh at another person’s religion like this.

Marcie was unaffected as she dropped herself back into her chair. “Shh, listen {slurp}. This is an experience, a love song to God. It’s beautiful. We gather {pop} to worship this way whenever we can, although the primary Temple of Eck is in Minnesota {slurp}.”

At the words Temple of Eck, Elder Bourne started laughing out loud, and, at least somewhat offended, Marcie jerked the cord to the cassette player out of the wall, silencing the unending “Huuuuuuuu” chant. She muttered that there still several minutes left to the prayer, and we apologized profusely, and soon departed. Several minutes?!?

A few days later, Marcie called us and told us she wasn’t interested in learning more about our church, but she looked us up on line and discovered we did service projects as missionaries. She said she had an old room in her house that she needed to empty and wondered if we might help as she couldn’t do it due to her health problems. Elder Bourne begged me to say no, but I didn’t feel right doing so, so we agreed. Marcie promised us lunch, and we arranged to go back over the following Saturday morning.

This time, wearing jeans and t-shirts, we knocked on Marcie’s door, and she walked us upstairs to a room she called her dad’s old office. Inside were stacks of thousands of books, floor to ceiling, draped over old furniture, a dusty couch and desk. She provided us with medical face masks to wear as we began scooping piles of books into boxes, sending clouds of dust every direction, filling the air with it. The room had bene undisturbed for years. There were works of fiction, encylopedias, self-help books, romance novels. Marcie explained that her father bought books everywhere he could, though he rarely read them, and that he couldn’t bear to throw them away.

Hours later, we finished the task and reentered the house covered in dust. As we brushed ourselves off, Marcie explained that a friend would come with a truck to take the boxes to a thrift store for donations, and that she planned to turn the room backing an office again. She was busy stirring a pan and asked if we were ready for lunch.

We sat at her messy kitchen counter as Marcie prepared our plates. She set them in front of us, with a can of Sprite on the side, as she had heard we didn’t drink caffeine. There were scrambled eggs flecked with black speckles that we later learned were pieces of Silicon from her flaking old frying pan, a scoop of loose yogurt from a grocery store family size container, and gray-colored turkey still on the leg, something a Viking might have eaten.

“Someone from my church brought me dinner last week {slurp}. The turkey legs were leftover. They should still be good {pop}.”

We found a reason not to eat the food, claiming we were not feeling well from the dust, and Marcie, frustrated and disappointed, accepted our offer to help us clean up. She asked if we could at least stay for another prayer, and she held up her cassette tape, trying to be tantalizing.

Instead, we walked out the door. Elder Bourne promised he would never speak to me again, but I promised to buy him Burger King for lunch and I was swiftly forgiven. As we sat down at the table, he dipped his first fry in ketchup, and I muttered, “Huuuuuuu” over the table, only to wind up with a french fry flipped at my face.

Well-intentioned Racist

blackjesus

After I was mugged, nothing was the same. The next morning, my eye was swollen, but it wouldn’t turn black and blue for two more days, my jaw was tight and tender along the ridge where I had been punched, and the back of my neck and head, where I had been punched repeatedly, were stiff and rigid, leaving me unable to turn my head for several days.

Elder Donner tried talking to me about things, but I was furious with him and felt like it was all his fault, so I  just avoided the topic, going silent, which only provoked more anger from him. In another two weeks, I had already been told, he would be transferred, leaving me in Philly for even longer, but that was fine with me, I just wanted Donner gone. I stopped praying for a time, unable to open up the doors of pain inside myself.

I didn’t tell anyone at home that I was mugged and knocked unconscious. I knew it would make them worry, and I didn’t want them to worry. I could just tell them after I got home. The mission president knew, but he just made sure I was okay and didn’t need medical attention, and then I didn’t hear much more about it. It became yet another thing in my life that no one really talked about.

The day to day life of missionary work continued. I had been in Philadelphia for six months at this point, and I had grown to love many things about living there. I could easily navigate the busy streets and public transportation, and I had cultivated many relationships in the local Mormon branch that I attended on Sundays. I could seamlessly help conduct sacrament meeting, teach classes, or sit in on bishop council meetings. The members trusted me, and I had formed many friendships.

Culture often clashed in the branch, which was half made up of Utah-born Mormons who had moved out west for college (most young, white, and new parents) and local converts to the church (most black, and of various ages and cultures). Among my first sacrament meetings in the branch, the new branch president, a 25 year old dental student from Utah who was overwhelmed by his new responsibilities, stood up.

“Brothers and sisters, I am humbled to be called to this position. I’m grateful that the Lord has entrusted me with these new responsibilities, but I am humbled and scared as well. I have no doubt that I will be richly blessed in my needs as I devote myself to the Lord, who has blessed me so much in my life thus far.”

A row away from me, a tall, fit black man from Jamaica stood up in the pew and shouted, loudly, with his arms raised in the air. “Pass some of those blessings on to me, bruddah!” Several black people in the congregation clapped their hands, and muttered ‘Amen!” and “Praise Jesus!” as the white converts looked confused and horrified, Mormon sacrament meetings generally being starkly silent except for the sounds of babies.

I had learned to love the spirituality of those converts. Instead of silent distant prayers, they often joined hands and gave heartfelt passionate prayers. My prayers were consistent and patterned. “Heavenly Father, we thank thee for this day and for this food. Please help it to nourish and strengthen our bodies and do us the good that we need. Please bless the missionaries and the prophet. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen” felt very different than “Oh great Jesus in the sky, we praise your name! In your grace, we live, Father God, and we are thankful, yes, Amen, for all the many rich and powerful blessings you grant us with, oh Father God! We serve you, God, with joy and love and we pray, oh God, oh Father God, praise Jesus, that we may do thy work this day, yes, God, in the name of your only begotten son who died for us, God, Amen!”

These stark differences in methods of worship were jarring to me at first, but I grew to love them. There was so much heart and love in the prayers, in the methods. The spirit to me, in Mormonism, felt comforting at times, judgmental and starkly defensive at others. In Philadelphia, to those there, it seemed to feel like a celebration, a spirit of love and community, of gratitude and deeply felt resonance. It thrilled me.

During these dark months, I found the final convert of my mission, although I still had five months left. While knocking doors weeks before, Elder Bourne and I had found a beautiful young black woman named Juquaisha. She was 22 with rich mahogany skin, thick curly hair, and a lithe elegance about her. She was stunning, with her own sense of style, including horn rim glasses and African print dresses and turbans, though she often wore simple t-shirts and jeans. She lived with her mother Patrice, her grandmother Creshaw, and her mentally disabled uncle Jerome, and she balanced going to school with work and helping take care of her family members, while Patrice also worked full time.

Hanging prominently in their living room was a painting of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist, and both of them were beautiful, muscular black men. Next to that, a beautiful black Jesus with a crown of thorns, looking heroic and masculine. They shared their theories that Biblical figures were black, and I didn’t argue, though I had been taught they were white. I loved their ability to adapt the Bible to their own culture and heritage, and their arguments seemed sound and valid. We taught the family about our religion and perspectives, and they asked many critical questions, things I had given very little thought to in the past.

“So, elder, tell me how did Joseph Smith and the early Mormons treat slavery? What side did they take in the Civil War? What does the church teach about slavery?” And “Why has there never been a black leader in the Church? We know about Gladys Knight, but is that it?” and “We’ve read that the Church didn’t allow black Priesthood holders until nearly 1980. Is that true?”

I provided them with canned answers, based on my own understandings, but the truth was I simply didn’t know much about these topics, as they weren’t taught in my gospel education thus far. I taught them how after Cain had killed Abel, God had cursed Cain with dark skin, and that his descendants bore that mark. I taught them how, in the Book of Mormon, God did the same thing, letting the righteous Nephites keep their natural white skin while cursing the wicked Lamanites with dark skin. I told them that all people could be made righteous through following God, and that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young taught that all people with dark skins could become white in Heaven through righteousness. I taught them that while I didn’t know why God waited so long to let black men have the Priesthood, that God works on his own timeline and that he revealed that truth through his prophets when he felt we were ready for that truth. And I told them, truthfully, that I knew nothing about Mormons and slavery or Mormons and the Civil War. I taught them that God created all equal and that he was no respecter of persons and that he loved all of his children the same.

In a lucid moment one day, Creshaw told me, “Elder, you mean well and you have a good heart, but sometimes you’re a little racist, even if you don’t mean to.”

The family was justifiably skeptical, but I convinced them to come to church and see for themselves. They did, and they saw black members of the congregation and connected with them. Although the three older members of the family had no desire for baptism, Juquaisha had never been baptized, and she wanted a fresh start on her life. And so on a beautiful Saturday morning, I took her to the church and I performed my last baptism. When she rose from the water, the white Mormons sat silently while her black family and friends cheered raucously.

Busy with school, Juquaisha never returned to church, nor did her family. I visited them several more times while I lived in the city. I told Patrice about getting mugged and she drew me in for a long hug, telling me to be safe and that she’d pray for me. After I left Philadelphia, I never heard from the family again.

But they taught me many things. They taught me a new definition of family, a new way to worship, and a new perspective from which to view history. And they taught me that, as much as I knew about my church and its history, there was much more I had to learn.