“Where are you headed on your mission?”
In the airport security line, the sister missionary turned around to face me, pulling a lock of blonde hair off her face and behind her ear. She was in a modest black skirt with grey top. Her tag read “Sister Jensen, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
“I’m going to Montreal, and I’m so freaking excited!”
I laughed, her enthusiasm contagious. “I’m excited for you! Congratulations!”
“How about you, where are you going?”
I gave a soft, tight-lipped smile, and looked down. “I’m headed to Philadelphia, actually. I went on my own Mormon mission there nearly 20 years ago. I haven’t ever been back.”
She held up a hand for a high-five, and I gladly gave her one. “Well, heck yeah! Now you’re going back! Good for you! Gonna see all those people you converted?” She did an awkward little hillbilly-like dance, conveying her good humor.
“Ha, actually, it’s a different life now. I’m no longer Mormon, and this time I’m going back with my boyfriend.” I craned my neck, indicating the handsome fellow standing behind me in line.
Sister Jensen made a sober face. “Oh. Oh! Well, um, good luck!” She rushed off, having been called forward by the next available agent.
I was overcome by a strange sense of nostalgia. In January of 1998, I had entered this same airport in a white shirt and tie, with my own name tag reading “Elder Anderson, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” clipped to my shirt pocket. I wheeled behind me a suitcase full of clothes and toiletries, scriptures and supplies, things I would use for the next two years as I lived with strangers and attempted to convert those around me to what I believed, at the time, to be the true religion. At the time, with only two weeks training under my belt, I had just turned it all over to God, hoping he would make me successful and reward my efforts with great numbers of baptisms.
Just a few years ago, in this very blog, I took time to go through my mission experiences in several different entries. I recounted my efforts to cure my homosexuality through missionary service, my bizarre and tragic experiences with companions, my converts, and my life lessons. But here I was, prepared to actually physically go back to the city I had once lived in for nine months. Then, I was 19 (and looked 14), away from my family for the first time, full of naiveté and self-doubt. Now, I was 39, confident in my own skin and full of life experience, out of the closet and with a fantastic partner at my side. And I was beginning the trip in line behind a brand new sister missionary. The irony made me smile.
The plane ride was smooth. I got a middle seat in the 20th row, and was comfortably nestled in between my boyfriend and an elderly woman who kept hacking, complaining about not being able to smoke on the plane, and sipping on a Bloody Mary and a coffee the flight attendant had brought her. We landed in Philadelphia around 4 pm, gathered our things, and caught a car into the city without incident.
When I lived Philadelphia for those 9 months of my mission back in 1999, I stayed in Germantown, in a crime-ridden area filled with poverty, though the house I stayed in was blocked into the nicer city area where it was safe. This time, we’d be staying in an Airbnb in Washington Square, what they now referred to as the “Gayborhood”, a place with mostly safe streets, thriving businesses, and gay bars. It was sure to be a very different experience.
After checking in, the boyfriend and I went through a long walk in the area, and so much felt familiar, although the city was as different as I was. The skyline, the moisture in the air, the sheer diversity of the people around us, the long flat stretches, the century-old churches int he middle of large blocky brick buildings, the row homes, the garbage on the curbs waiting for pick-up, the people just stacked on top of each other. A million flashes of memory hit me. Trying to maneuver a couch up and down flights of narrow stairs while helping someone move, ringing every doorbell on a particular building while hoping someone would answer and invite us up to teach, tables full of counterfeit products on street corners ready to be sold, navigating busses to subways to trains in order to get anywhere. This city had been so overwhelming to me at the time, so monstrous and impossible. Now it felt both familiar and foreign, like a place I’ve been yet just like every other place, its own history and people here all along, moving forward without me.
In nearby Washington Square Park, I stood in the middle to survey my surroundings. Behind me stood a statue of George Washington behind an eternal flame, making the grave of an unknown soldier to honor those lost in the Revolutionary War. Arrayed around that were benches and tables, pathways, and trees filled with birds. And across the park, a sea of humanity. A beautiful white man with a gorgeous black woman, cuddled tightly on a bench together, clearly in love. A gay man in a pink tank talking loudly on his cell phone while walking several dogs. An older black man with a thick beard mumbling to himself as he looked into one garbage can, then the next, trying to find some treasure. An Asian man reading medical textbooks. A heavyset woman wrapped head to toe in a burka and hijab, the symbols of her religious devotion, the colors of the robes flashing black and red. A well-dressed elderly black woman with tight grey curls laughing loudly, showing half her teeth missing. A handsome man instructing a white couple on how to do burpees in the main pathway. A lithe black woman with a baby strapped to her chest watching the water spilling in the fountain.
A sea of humanity, and one that included me, a formerly Mormon missionary who once stood in this park doubting himself, yet who had now returned to see it with new eyes.