“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.