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.”

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