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.