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.