Benjamin and Bernard

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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.

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