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.

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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 Nyoka. 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, Nyoka 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 college, Nyoka 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, and they never heard from me.

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 about the world.

“Give me whatever you got!”

Hoodie

After Elder Borne went home from his mission, another round of depression hit. I felt like I was on autopilot. The missionary work felt fruitless, and empty. Knocking doors, teaching lessons, helping people move their slimy and dusty furniture up and down narrow flights of row home stairs, making phone calls. I was on autopilot, unhappy and unfulfilled, and the one missionary I had been given the chance to train had gone home. I resented him. I envied him. And I’d blown my chance.

A new companion was sent in to replace Elder Borne, Elder Donner. He was tall, lean, and handsome, extremely intellectual and logical with no sense of humor and a vast sense of entitlement. He was critical, judgmental, and verbally aggressive, expecting to get his way with everything. Instead of being friends, we either argued bitterly or just didn’t talk at all.

There were some bright spots in those days. I continued calling home regularly, against the rules, and enjoyed my connection to my family. I continued getting vast amounts of mail from loved ones back home, everything from cookies to cassette tapes of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and I spent time every evening writing letters back home and reading library books. I loved volunteering at the local Baptist Church, preparing and serving food to the homeless. And I had also grown to love our local Mormon branch, a mix of Utah transplants (almost all white) and local converts (almost all black). I liked the people on the streets and the daily interactions I had with the locals. Philadelphia was a city full of culture, and I loved culture.

But the streets were completely unsafe. I’d been in the city for 5 months now, and I wasn’t accustomed to that. We missionaries had strict rules in the city. We had to ride busses and trains and subways to get to various destinations, but we were expected to be in by dark every night. That had been more difficult in the winter months, having to be in our apartment by 5 pm, with nothing but board games and church magazines to entertain us. In the summer months, we could stay out until 8, making things much easier. After the sun started to set in the city, things got dangerous. Men would congregate on corners and threaten those that walked by.

In my time in Philly, I had had several run ins with men intent on hurting me, but had somehow avoided harm, sometimes very narrowly. Once we knocked on a door and a man opened it with a baseball bat, looking very ready to use it, sending us running. At another door, a man inside said he had a loaded gun. I had once seen a man assault a homeless man on the street just feet from me, driving his head into a jagged brick wall, sending blood cascading outward. Another time, four men whistled at us on the street, telling us we better run if we knew what was good for us. Once at a bus stop, six men were walking toward us, hands in pockets, and called out ‘are you ready for us, white boys?’ just as the bus pulled up. We believed somehow that God had been protecting us from all of these dangerous experiences, but in truth we were two small 19 year old boys from small Mormon towns walking the streets of a dangerous inner city without protection or training. It would take me years to get angry about this.

And then, it happened. On a particularly bad day between Elder Donner and I, we were finally mugged. It happened on a Monday afternoon. Elder Donner and I weren’t speaking that day. It was our day off, our preparation day, and he had wanted to spend it sleeping at home while I wanted to go out and do something fun. At an impasse, he had violently kicked a door in our apartment open, sending it crashing against a wall with a loud bang, while yelling “Fuck you, Anderson!” And I had responded by just leaving the apartment. Several minutes later, he had followed.

It was sunny outside and only about 3 in the afternoon. Both of us still full of tension, we walked down the street about 10 yards apart. I wore my usual white shirt (with yellowed armpit stains), black pants with belt, green tie, and missionary tag, identifying me as an elder for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I had a backpack on my shoulders containing a few stray copies of the Book of Mormon and the white missionary rule book. That was all I had, except my bus pass. No wallet, no cash.

As we walked past a city park full of kids and families on a busy street, I saw a black man with a thick beard see us and cross the street toward us. He was in blue jeans and a black hoodie and he had his hands in his pockets. Immediately suspicious, I began to walk faster, peering over my shoulder to Donner. “Hey, hurry up,” I muttered, and he picked up his pace.

The man walked quicker. “Hey, wait up guys, I wanna talk to you for a sec.” I started walking more quickly, and noticed the man had three friends joining him, popping up from positions on the other side of the street. Then three more. I recognized this as a familiar tactic used on the streets, one I had seen and heard about before. One man would try to get someone isolated, seemingly innocent, and then the target would be suddenly surrounded by several men, nowhere to run. The corner of the street was still too far away and I had no time to get there. I stopped in my tracks as the men lined up next to us, four standing around me, three around Donner, still yards behind me. The road had sloped up and there was a waist-high concrete wall behind me now, the edge of the park where the kids were playing.

“Where you goin’ in such a hurry?” the man with the beard said. He smiled, showing several gold teeth, and took his hands out of his pocket. “This can be real easy for you. Just give me whatever you got!” His smile widened, but his eyes looked fierce.

I couldn’t believe this was happening. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Elder Donner sliding off his backpack to reveal the contents of it to the men. I put my hands out in front of me, palms up, placating, and laughed awkwardly. “I don’t have anything, really, I’m just–”

And then the first blow hit me. The man swung his right fist, clocking me hard on the left side of my jaw, right where it met my neck. One second later, he swung his left fist, clocking me square in the left eye, hard. Instinctively, I fell to the ground in a squatting position and pulled my arms up to cover my head protectively, my head between my knees.

The man didn’t wait and continued punching, downward, hitting me in the shoulders, neck, and back of my head several times. As I fell forward, blacking out, I heard one of the other men yell, “Hey man, let’s go!” And then I was out.

A few seconds later, I came to, opening my eyes and watching the world go from black to white slowly. Elder Donner was bent over me, making sure I was okay. He hadn’t been touched. Several people stood up around us, concerned parents from the park, and two older women who had been driving by who had stopped their cars to check on us. They were all black. It began to don on me how brazen it had been for these men to attempt this robbery on a crowded street. Then it sunk in how lucky I had been to have been hit with fists instead of a knife blade or a gun shot.

I immediately pushed myself up and stood, then leaned back the wall dizzy. I hadn’t felt like this since months before, when I had hit my head and fallen unconscious in the baptismal font. People were asking if I was okay, someone yelled for the police to be called, one of the women was muttering loudly about the streets not being safe anymore, another father comforted his children, saying it was all okay. I focused my eyes, and then just started walking. A few people called after me to wait for the police, to make sure I was okay, but I just kept walking.

Donner rushed after me as I turned the corner. “Anderson! Stop! Where are you going?” But I just kept walking, crossing the street and heading down the block. My brain was dazed. I wasn’t in pain, not yet, but I could still feel the impact of where the fists had hit me: my eye, my jaw, my neck, the back of my head. The words kept playing in my head. “Just give me whatever you got.” Over and over. Hadn’t I already given everything I had? But no grief, no pain, nothing, just walking. Somewhere in the back of my brain, I realized I was in shock, but I just kept walking, tuning out Elder Donner’s words of concern.

“Just give me whatever you got.” I didn’t have anything. I didn’t have anything left to give.

Two blocks later, I knocked on the door of Anita, an older white woman I had taught a few months before, a friendly lady who had liked the missionaries. I’d recognized the door and knocked on it instinctively. She answered and looked surprised. “Elder Anderson! How nice to see you!”

She let us inside as Elder Donner explained in a panic that I’d been mugged, punched, hurt. I didn’t speak as Anita rushed to her freezer to grab a bag of frozen ice to place over my eye, which had began to swell. Instead,I picked up the phone and dialed the number for our local branch president, a man I’d known for months and trusted.

“Just give me whatever you got.”

The phone rang, and Brother Clements answered.

“Hello?” he said, simply.

And I dropped the phone, the reality of what had happened finally sinking in. My eye, my jaw, my head… my heart, my spirit, my faith.

“Just give me whatever you got.”

And then, finally, I started to cry.

Cinder-fella

t-shirt

“Chad, what are you wearing?”

I looked down at my clothing choices. “What’s wrong with this?” I was in jean shorts that were a bit too big, white socks with white tennis shoes, and a long-sleeved large button down plaid shirt that hung on me like a tent. The shirt had fit me when I was 75 pounds heavier and I’d never really taken the time to purchase new clothing.

Three of my gay friends made tsk-tsk noises as they looked me over, turning me around. “You are way too handsome to dress like this. What are your shirt and jean sizes?” I told them, and two of them left, leaving me there confused.

I had only been out of the closet for four months, and I had only been to a gay club once, in Spokane, Washington. There had been a line down the block, and I had been extremely nervous to be seen in a club where someone might recognize me since I had just started coming out to my family and wasn’t out publicly or professionally yet. When I was fourth in line, a very drunk gay man walked out with his friends and began rating each man in line by his hotness.

“Oh, you’re ugly, back of the line. You, you’re just okay. You definitely need to to to the back of the line.” And then he had stopped on me. “Oooh, who is this?” His finger had traced over my chest. “This one we can definitely let in the club. Excuse me, someone get this man inside!”

His friends had dragged him down the road as he looked back, making the ‘call me’ sign with his fingers at his ear. I had been both flattered and horrified, strangely happy with the compliment while furious with the others being body shamed. I had a lot to still learn about the gay community.

But now I was in Seattle and it was Pride weekend. I had made new friends who planned to take me out for my first official gay club night dancing. Though I had already decided not to drink, I had agreed to ‘dress up and go out’, as one friend had put it. But they hadn’t liked what I was wearing, and I was feeling like one of those men in the Spokane line who hadn’t been deemed hot enough to enter by the drunk man.

Soon, the two friends returned with a bag from a local clothing shop, and they pulled out a pair of jeans and a blue T-shirt, both with tags still on them. They had bought me clothes! I felt immediate embarrassment wash over me.  They pulled the tags off and ordered me to change, ignoring my protests.

I took off the baggy shirt and too-big shorts, and ignored their taunts about my baggy blue boxer briefs. Then I tugged the very snug jeans up around my waist. One friend catcalled, complimenting the way the jeans made my ass look, and I blushed. Then I pulled the stiff material of the T-shirt around my frame. It was tight, and confining, and it hid nothing. I had never worn something so tight. I turned around with a look of horror on my face.

“I can’t possibly wear this.”

The men just ignored me told me to make sure I had my ID, and walked me right out of the apartment, grabbing my arms so I couldn’t protest. And then soon, we were in a club called the Cuff, and it was packed full of people. I was inclined to find some seat on a wall and just stay there, observing the people in the crowd for the next several hours, but my friends pulled me right on to the dance floor. And for the first time in my life, I started to dance. Not the guys hands on the girls hips gentle sway Mormon kind of dancing, more the hands in the air swaying hips drop it low kind of dancing. My reluctance and stubbornness left and I found myself laughing, having fun, celebrating life.

It was subtle at first, but I began to notice other guys in the club who noticed me. I had noticed hot guys my entire life, slyly so I wouldn’t be noticed. But this was a completely different sensation: men that I noticed were noticing me. Tall, muscular, well-dressed men. Not every man, not by any means, but one here and one there. There were smiles exchanged, a few introductions, and a few gropes. I started getting a bit more bold and flirting back, offering compliments and wider smiles. I was heady with pride and joy, all of it bolstered by the too-loud bass lines of Rihanna and Nicki Minaj songs blaring through the club.

I ended up spending most the evening dancing with a tall beautiful man with thick hair and a wide smile. He was a math teacher on vacation from British Columbia, and he thought I was handsome, and I definitely thought he was handsome. We made out for a while, which drew a celebratory ‘whoop, whoop’ from my friends behind me.

And then the clock struck 2, and the club was closing. The Cinderella ball was over. My fairy godmothers walked me home after I waved one last goodbye to the prince. My tight t-shirt ball gown was still much too tight. The city bus pumpkin coach delivered me back to the hotel. And while I hadn’t left any glass slippers behind, I had certainly discovered a new fairy tale world to be a part of.

Tattletale

Tattletale

After I started calling home, I couldn’t quit. I knew it set a bad precedent, and a bad example, but it started taking my loneliness away and it gave me a voice again.

I had been in Philadelphia for three months now, and I had been a missionary for 15 months–I still had nine months to go, and I wanted to be done with it. I wanted to be home. I was weary of the schedule and the pace. I was exhausted with trying to fit in all the time and never succeeding. I was sick of the immaturity of the other elders, of having no sources of entertainment, of the crippling heat, of the monotony of daily scripture study and half-hearted prayers, of the constant rejection. I’d had a brief period earlier in my mission where I had been more relaxed about the rules, and I felt that same spirit of minor rebellion returning. I got a library card and began checking out books to read, a source of pure joy. I signed up for a monthly subscription of my favorite comic books, to be delivered to me in the mail. These small sources of feeling like a part of the outside world took a lot of my anguish away.

And talking to Mom and Sheri again seemed to help stave off my depression. At first, Mom was reluctant to have me call home so often, but she seemed to realize that though it was against the rules, it seemed to help me focus better. I told them about my day-to-day life, teaching setbacks, struggles to fit in, and work to convert many with very few successes.

At the same time that I began to relax around the rules within myself, I also projected a public self that was extremely rule-abiding and stalwart. I began to fudge the numbers a bit when I called them in, saying we had taught 5 discussions instead of 1, reporting that we had knocked doors for 25 hours instead of 15. Being Mormon had always created a small sense of superiority in me, an ability to feel like I was better than those around me who weren’t doing as well as I was or who weren’t as righteous. I didn’t recognize this prideful streak as arrogance or as judging others, but it came across that way regardless.

As a district leader over ten missionaries in the North Philadelphia Zone, I was responsible for calling the other four companionships every evening to get their numbers, and for conducting weekly district meetings with spiritual and inspirational messages. I then took the information and called it in to my zone leader, who called it in to the APs, or assistants to the president, and the president then collected the information from them for the entire mission.

My old companion Elder Benjamin, one of my favorites, was in my district, along with his companion Elder Cramer, a tall good-looking elder. I began to notice a trend in their evening reports, calling in in a huff and then rushing off. Wondering what was going on, I began calling them after curfew to see if they were there, and discovered there were multiple days in a row when they weren’t answering. I began leaving messages of concern, and they began creating stories as to why they weren’t in on time. Finally, after weeks of this, Elder Benjamin spoke to me one-on-one, telling me they had been going out at night and had even been flirting with local girls. He realized they’d gone too far when they’d invited the girls back to their spartan missionary apartment one night, one decorated with old furniture and pictures of Jesus and the prophets on the wall, and he’d realized that they had come close to going too far with the women. He asked me not to turn them in as they worked things out. Instead of turning them in, I called the APs directly and said they needed to go check on these two elders, which they soon did, resulting in a transfer.

At the same time, I felt I was failing to set an example for my greenie, Elder Bourne. I had been able to tell within minutes of meeting him that he was struggling with his attractions to men, and I thought that perhaps he had, like me, come out on a mission to try and cure himself. At this point, I had convinced myself that I wasn’t gay, and I thought of my attractions to men like others thought about alcoholism–so long as I didn’t drink I wouldn’t fall on a downward spiral, but the temptation to drink would never quite go away. Elder Bourne was also struggling with depression, and it seemed to be getting worse. Out of a sense of concern for him (and also because I was nosy and arrogant at the time), I began reading his mail, during his long morning showers. I had only read one other companion’s mail, over a year before, when I had felt a desperate need to be liked and had wondered what he thought about me.

Elder Bourne’s letters home were full of false enthusiasm. He was making up stories about baptisms he was having and great successes he was achieving in the mission field, telling others how great his life was going and how many people he was teaching and converting. I saw an immediate parallel; while I altered the numbers in my reports to make myself look more successful, Bourne altered facts to send home. I recognized so much that was the same between us, and I so easily could have offered up compassion and understanding.

Instead, I tattled on him, and then lied about it.

I learned from one of his letters home that Elder Bourne and Elder Benjamin, while on splits, had gone to see the new Star Wars Episode One: the Phantom Menace. And despite all my own lies and judgments, despite my own struggles with depression, despite my willingness to excuse my own rule offenses, despite even my compassion for Elder Bourne, I felt an overwhelming arrogance and a need to prove myself as a good missionary, and I convinced myself that the right thing to do was to turn him in. I made up a story about how a concerned member had seen the two missionaries at the movie and had called in to report them. And I felt that I had no choice but to call the mission president to turn them in.

Both Benjamin and Bourne knew that it was me, that I had lied, but I continued to deny it. Elder Benjamin asked me directly about it once, asking why I wouldn’t turn him in for something so serious as having a girl over but then turn him in over the movie. I only denied it, unable to answer the question myself.

Elder Bourne’s depression increased, and one day he confided in me that he had considered throwing himself off of our balcony in the hopes that his leg would break so that he could be sent home. The mission wasn’t working for him, it was hurting him, and he couldn’t keep it up. On top of his depression, his mom had taken ill at home, but he didn’t just want to go home a failure. In a moment of compassion, I told him that God wanted him to be happy and not a missionary more than he wanted him to be unhappy and a missionary. Secretly, I wished someone would have said the same to me.

Elder Bourne feigned a leg injury and went home, telling everyone it was to address his health. I felt both happy for him, jealous of him, and furious with myself for not being a better trainer. I knew I would never get a chance to train another new missionary. My own depression increased. Things were about to get much worse.

I never saw Elder Bourne again. Years later, I heard that he had come out of the closet, after his mom died, and his sister had also come out just as mine had. He had moved to California and was, from what I heard, very happy.

 

Phoning Home

Columbine

“Elder Anderson, now that you’ve had time to settle into the city, we are going to send a new missionary in for you to train. His name is Elder Bourne, and he’s from Salt Lake City. He’s very enthusiastic and excited to be a new missionary in Philadelphia.”

My heart thudded with this news. I couldn’t believe it. I was going to train? Training a new missionary was a new responsibility, and if God was seeing fit to give me a new responsibility, that meant he trusted me, that I was doing a good job. I felt a pride in my spirit that I hadn’t felt in some time. I’d been in Philadelphia for two months now, and I had been a missionary for 14 months. I’d just had two baptisms with my companion, Elder Shoney, and I was the district leader over my small section of missionaries. The mission president was taking notice, and this meant I would have to keep up the good work. I needed more success, more baptisms, so that I could get more responsibility. I needed to prove I was a great missionary.

I would miss Elder Shoney. He had proven to be an incredible companion, more like a brother. We bickered sometimes, but always stayed great friends. We laughed a lot, worked hard, and had zero drama, a nice change from my past companions, some social misfits, others arrogant, others just so different from me that we had no connection. And now I had a new missionary coming in, Elder Bourne. With memories of my own entrance into the mission field just a little over a year before, I got a ride in to the mission home to pick him up, feeling proud of myself.

Elder Bourne was unlike anyone I had ever known, an experience I was having more regularly the longer I was a missionary. He was my height and very handsome, but in a strange way I wasn’t at all attracted to him. I’d been attracted to companions in the past, and it had been difficult to focus, and I was grateful that wasn’t a problem here. He was blonde and blue-eyed with a wide smile and pearly white teeth. He was well-dressed, his clothes not the bargain bin variety that time were, more like hand-tailored specially made suits and shirts. He had a lot of money in a personal account that came from his family’s fortunes, and he spent regularly on fancy groceries and products. He imported his hair gel from Austria, mail-ordered his cologne from New York, and only wanted to shop at specialty stores. He found our apartment, one of the nicest missionary apartments in the city, to be dirty and cluttered, and he had a look of ‘ew’ on his face for the first few weeks as he adapted to the area.

Bourne was friendly enough, and conversation came easily. He sang show tunes around the apartment, made his bed with the blanket he brought from home, wrote his letters on specially hand-crafted stationary his father had sent him, and cooked specialized foods for himself. We had little in common and little to relate over. My shoes had holes worn in the souls, my white shirts had yellow stains in the armpits, my only new tie was one I’d purchased on consignment, and I did my shopping in the dollar store.

Still, Elder Bourne and I fell into a routine. We had conversations about his family back home and about the homes they owned in cities around the world. Bourne claimed he had been on Broadway, but when I searched his name on the Internet one day at the library, I found no evidence of that. He had a need to be liked, and he skewed facts about himself in efforts to be more popular, working hard to be a chameleon no matter who he was spending time with, adapting himself to their interests and likes.

Within the first five minutes of meeting Elder Bourne, I could tell that he was interested in men. I could also easily tell that it bothered him internally just as much as he bothered me. He spoke openly of a male best friend he had back home, and it was easy to see he had feelings for him.

I was gay, too, of course, but I had gone numb at this point in my  mission. I no longer cared. When I noticed a cute guy, I didn’t feel guilt and shame afterwards. I had stopped begging God for a cure, and I had stopped assuming I would find one in missionary service. Having someone else in the apartment who liked men might have been a comfort or a temptation at another time, but I was suffering from mild depression and was so caught up in the daily monotony of missionary work that I took little time to do anything. I had started reading books from the library instead of church books to fill my time and my mind. I enjoyed exploring the city and seeing different walks of life, but I no longer took much pleasure in things. Missionary work felt like a long, thankless job, day in and day out for hour after hour after hour. Yet at the same time, I began struggling with masturbation again. I felt morally superior even arrogant with my own principles, yet I was emotionally bankrupt. I began keeping a detailed journal about my thoughts. I began writing poetry again and long prose stories about my family and upbringing. I had an entire interior world that was struggling to escape me on paper, but I didn’t share it with anyone anymore. I wrote dozens of letters to people, that being my sole connection to the world outside this one, to anyone who wrote back, from high school friends to cousins to women in my ward that  I barely knew.

One day, while walking, I began to see signs about something called Columbine. Local churches and restaurants put up posters or marquees announcing their support and prayers for the survivors of Columbine. I had to ask several people before discovering about the mass shooting, and I felt helpless, cut off from the news of the world completely, unable to watch television, research on the Internet, or even read the local newspapers without breaking major mission rules. The church wanted the missionaries focused on teaching, not on the “things of the world.”

That day, I stopped at a local store and purchased a calling card. At home that evening, after my companion fell asleep, I quietly slipped into the next room and dialed my number at home. It was two hours earlier there. My insides twisted up, knowing I was about to break a major rule. Missionaries were only allowed to write letters home, and to call home twice per year, on Mother’s Day and Christmas. These had been my sole contacts with my family for over a year now. But that night, I called home, and suddenly wanted more than anything to be there.

The phone rang twice. “Hello?” It was my mother’s voice. I immediately dissolved into tears.

“Hi, Mom, it’s Chad. I want to come home.”

“Blacker than Black”

Rowhome

“Come on, now, elder, I’m black, but I ain’t that black. In that picture, I’m blacker than black! That’s ridiculous!”

I looked at the framed photograph and couldn’t help but laugh. I was 20 (but looked 15) and stood there smiling, wearing a white jump suit from shoulders to ankles. Next to me stood 13 year old William, 18 inches shorter than me, wearing the same head to toe jumpsuit. He had a huge grin on his face, his teeth sparkling white. But William’s skin, normally a deep mocha brown, appeared as dark as coal in the photograph, largely offset by all the white in the jumpsuits as well as the camera’s flash. In the photo, the two of us stood in front of a painting of Jesus Christ.

Clarice reached over, pulling the photo out of my hand to look at it herself. “Boy, let me see that.” She scanned the photo and then cocked her head back, laughing raucously. “Boy, you is right! In this picture, you is black!”

Clarice’s laugh was a wicked witch cackle, and it made the rest of the room start laughing. She didn’t have her teeth in at the moment, which made it all the funnier. She began gasping for breath, laughing even harder, slapping her knee over the photo.

William grabbed it again, laughing, playing along. “Come on, now, grandma! Quit it now!” But the laughter went on for a full minute before we started to get our oxygen back.

Clarice patted her grandson’s back, affectionately, puling him in for a squeeze. “Boy, you is beautiful just the way you is. Now why don’t you go out and play some ball, let me talk to these elders here.”

William scampered outside, grabbing the ball on the way. My companion, Elder Shoney, grinned, standing up. “Hey, I’m gonna go play with him for a bit, is that cool?”

I smiled. “Yeah, of course. I’ll be out in a bit.” Honey knew I didn’t care for basketball, and liked to take chances to play with William when he could during our visits for a few minutes. After a string of difficult companions in my last area, Elder Shoney was a breath of fresh air. He was hilarious. We got along like brothers, which sometimes meant we argued like brothers, but he was a great first companion to have in inner city Philadelphia, where I was now living. He had me in stitches constantly.

Clarice sent her other two family members out of the room, leaving just she and I. She was in a comfortable house dress, a dark green that was beautiful against her clay-colored skin. Her hair was grey and thin and scampered about on her head haphazardly in a way that suited her. She wore no makeup, and her lips and cheeks sank in a bit since her teeth were out, making her look a bit older than her actual age. Clarice was in her mid-60s, and I had never known anyone like her.

We had been knocking doors in inner city Philadelphia, in Germantown, a section of the city that was divided into rich and poor. Clarice had a beautifully kept home, a three story row home that was tightly packed between other homes. There was no space between the buildings, no yards, just a driveway and a sidewalk out front, where they had placed the makeshift basketball hoop. She and her neighbors had lived in these homes for decades, and they were close, having regular barbecues and get-togethers. Crime was rampant in the neighborhoods around them, but they watched out for each other.

Clarice had graduated high school on time but had never planned on college, something that she felt was for boys in her generation. Instead, she’d gotten a job, had gotten married, and had had three children, two sons and a daughter. Her family became her entire world. As her husband struggled to make end’s meet, she kept working, raising her kids, and keeping them safe and in school. Once they became teenagers, life became harder as she say them struggle with choices. The streets of Philadelphia were full of drugs, violent crime, and gangs. But they were also full of happy families trying to get by and keep their heads down, as Clarice phrased it to me once. Clarice’s kids were grown now, and she was a grandmother, and her husband had died a few years back. But when her own son ended up in prison ten years before, Clarice had agreed to raise his only son, William, as her own, as William’s mother wasn’t fit to raise him herself, according to Clarice. She had had William since he was 5, and she was doing a fine job. William was a great student, a respectful young man, and impeccably mannered.

When two white missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints had come knocking on her door, Clarice had been surprised to say the least. She told us she didn’t often see white people in her neighborhood, and especially not young men in white shirts and ties. Her curiosity led to her inviting us in, and we told her all about our church. She liked the idea of William having some nice Christian influences, so she invited us back, and soon we were teaching the both of them regularly. Other family members lived in the home, but while they were friendly toward us, she had no interest in learning about the church. Secretly, we hoped that by converting Clarice and William, we could convert the whole family, perhaps the whole block, and then move on from their. Elder Shoney and I talked about how maybe this is the kind of missionary work we were called out here to do, maybe we could convert hundreds starting with just a few.

A few weeks prior, Elder Shoney and I had baptized the two. They had had dozens of family members and friends there to witness the event. Shoney baptized Clarice, and then I baptized William, and the room had erupted into applause, something that was generally not done at baptisms. It had been a happy, wonderful day, perhaps the most happy of my mission, as I had felt like I was making a big difference.

I glanced at the window, seeing Shoney scampering about outside with William and a few of his friends with the basketball. Clarice took a long sip of her iced tea, and we made small talk for a few minutes before she got to the point of what she wanted to discuss.

“Now listen, Elder Anderson,” she smiled, “I wanted to go over a few things. That boy, he’s mine, he’s my whole world, and he’s gonna have a future. He’s gonna go to college and he’s gonna have a whole life. Now becoming Mormon, joining up with your church, I’m hoping that gives him some nice friends, some nice people to keep him safe and on the right track. But I have to be honest, I don’t plan on him being any typical kind of Mormon.”

Clarice leaned in, her voice lowering. “I don’t plan on him being no missionary. And I don’t plan on teaching him to give ten per cent of his money over. And to be honest, we ain’t going to be going to church every week. I want him to have influence of nice young men like you and Elder Shoney, but we ain’t going to be doing all the rest. Is that gonna be okay?”

A dozen answers flashed through my brain, all about obedience and how we are supposed to do everything God asks, sacrificing our own interests to show our faith and dedication. The word sacrifice flashed in my brain in neon lights. It was the only answer I had for myself.

But I closed the shutters on my brain and gut, and instead answered from the heart.

“Of course that’s okay, Clarice. Of course.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AOL Chatroom

AOL

The sound of dial-up Internet filled the room, computerized burps and wails, a strange music that symbolized new technology. I was a junior in high school and my family had just purchased our first home computer. After some cajoling, we had begged mom to let us purchase a monthly subscription to America Online, and she had finally agreed.

The computer connected directly to our home phone line. When we got online, no one could call in, just ringing busy, so we had to restrict our time on the computer. We were paying $40 per month for 500 minutes per month online. Each minute we went over, we were billed more. Internet was available in the high school library as well, but we had to sign up for times in advance.

The feeling of being online was sheer excitement, like the crest of a roller coaster. I could create an Email account and correspond with friends! I could create my own personalized MySpace page, where friends could add me and see my posts! I could search for my favorite comic book characters and read about their history! I could play games on my computer against other people! I could research encyclopedia entries for high school essays! If I was super careful, I could even look at dirty pictures online!

But somehow, most exciting of all, I could join chatrooms and talk to other people around the world.

I could still remember the T.I. Basic made by Texas Instruments that we had had as kids. We purchased a book that would allow us to type in coded computer games, like Hangman. It would take an hour or two, typing the lines of careful code, making double sure not to confuse Ohs for Zeroes, or hyphens for dashes, because a simple mistake would cause an error in the program. And then we would play for a bit, turn the computer off, and lose the game until the next time we decided to type it.

Then in junior high, we got our first Nintendo and could play Super Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt, with amazing graphics! But the Internet represented something completely new. We were being wired in to other people around the world, and we had 500 entire minutes to do it!

After creating my own individual AOL account with the name ‘hellochadman’, I created another account on Yahoo, and I could join chat rooms in other places. And so in the evenings, with my sister Sheri looking over my shoulder, we began chatting with people from around the world. We could chat in groups or in private.

“Idaho kids here, anyone want to chat?”

Within the first few days of chat, we had met Soleil, a 15-year-old girl from New York City. She was funny and witty and sarcastic, and both Sheri and I would chat with her regularly in the evenings. Soon we began exchanging Emails, and eventually letters with pictures enclosed. We chatted with a lot of people, but Soleil was our favorite. After a month of chatting, she called us both on a Sunday afternoon, using expensive long distance rates.

Soleil’s real name was Dana, and she was a gorgeous Italian-American girl from Brooklyn. We had led very different lives. I told her about my huge family of seven kids, my upbringing in Missouri, and my enduring faith in the Book of Mormon, even sending her a copy of one in the mail. Dana was Italian through-and-through, and she came from a very loud Italian Catholic family. Her father didn’t have much to do with her, and her mother had died of cancer, so she and her brother were being raised by her grandmother Rosemary.

We corresponded with Dana off and on for several months, and then I stopped doing so so much, with AOL Chat being much less magical than it had been before. Sheri continued her correspondence, almost obsessively, Emailing, writing letters, and even making plans to visit Dana in New York some time.

And then I graduated high school, and then I went on a Mormon mission. I wrote Dana a letter to tell her, and she promised to write me and stay in touch. I had only been a missionary for one month, living with my trainer in Allentown, Pennsylvania, when I got a call from my mission president, saying to call him back immediately as it was an emergency.

I was baffled, and worried that something had happened. The mission president explained that a woman from New York City named Rosemary had called him, explaining that her granddaughter Dana had run away from home and that the police were looking for her. Rosmarye told the president that Dana had a “missionary boyfriend” that she might be running off to see. The president asked me if I was inviting a girl to my apartment, or if I knew where she was. I was flabbergasted, and he believed I didn’t know anything, giving me permission to call Rosemary directly.

I called Rosemary, the Italian Catholic grandmother, in New York City, that day, and she told me with relief that they had just found Dana, that she had run off with some boy to “Alabama or some place”, and that the police weren’t looking for her anymore. She apologized for inconveniencing me and the call ended.

Two days later, I got a letter from Rosemary in the mail,and of course I wrote back. Thus began a weekly letter exchange with the most unlikely of people. In letters that we both looked forward to, I told Rosemary all about my missionary work, and she eventually agreed to let her local missionaries visit her, though they had no success in actually converting her. She told me about her life in New York, falling in love and having children and watching them grow, losing her husband, losing her daughter to cancer, and raising her grandchildren. She was passionate and funny, vibrant and full of life. She’d send me photos of herself, having written on them in blue or black ink, ‘Here I am. Ugly, Fat Rosemary.’ She was delightful.

Toward the end of my mission, Rosemary died of a heart attack, and Dana sent me a letter telling me about it. Dana had stayed with the guy in Alabama, marrying him and having a handful of children by her early 20s, but she eventually divorced him when he proved to be abusive. She returned to New York and remarried, and I lost track of her after that.

And now, in a cardboard box in my apartment, I have a stack of letters from Rosemary, an Italian grandmother that I never met.