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.