“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.

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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.

Brotherly Love

Philly

Philadelphia overwhelmed me with its contradictions.

I wasn’t there as a tourist. I was there as a resident, of sorts, as my work had brought me there. But I was there in extremely restricted and complicated circumstances, as a Mormon missionary. Now halfway through my missionary service, I had spent my first year in four different cities, scattered throughout Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. But now I was in a truly enormous city for the first time in my life.

As a teenager, I had spent a bit of time in Salt Lake City, and I had briefly visited Seattle and Honolulu. But they had been nothing like this. Philadelphia sprawled out in every direction. On one of my first days in the city, my companion and I took an elevator to top of one of the highest buildings in the city, where tourists could walk to the four different sides of the roof deck and look out over the sprawling expanses of buildings, streets, smoke, cars, and people, with logos that read ‘north’, ‘east’, ‘south’, and ‘west’. I felt small, minuscule, forgotten somehow, and I had no space in my brain that could compare a city of this size to green Missouri countryside or the Idaho potato fields I had been raised among.

Philadelphia felt heavy as I walked through it. It was home to so much history, and in the following months I would tour some of its most sacred spaces, feeling great reverence in Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence had been signed, and underwhelming, mild curiosity at the Liberty Bell, which seemed to have no significance whatsoever. Center city Philadelphia contained beautifully manicured lawns, high-rise apartments, marble store fronts, and fancy restaurants to cater to the busloads of tourists walking the streets. Yet just a mile in any direction, the streets were suddenly teemed with diversity, crime, and poverty.

My companion and I lived in Germantown, in north Philadelphia, on the top floor of an old lawyer’s home. It was a small space, with a bedroom, a living room, an old kitchen, and a bathroom, with a small deck that overlooked a high-rise apartment building. The owner of the home, our landlord, was Edmund, a 50-something black attorney who had turned his home into apartments. He was friendly, curious about the rotating cast of young white boys occupying the top apartment where we hanged a picture of Jesus on our door. New roommates came and went constantly, every few months, but we were generally clean and quiet and he seemed to enjoy having us there. Our home was only a few blocks from the Wissahickon, a beautiful stretch of Fairmount Park that contained dense trees, public recreation, and parts of the Schuykill River dividing it. The homes and businesses around us were old and opulent, with lawns and fences and porches. Most of the families were white.

But once we crossed Chelton Street, just a block away, the inner city revealed itself. The first day I walked into this poverty stricken area, I noticed the businesses were run-down, covered with graffiti, with bars on the windows. Overweight and mentally ill beggars sat on the benches and street corners, one woman I saw daily asking, “Hey white boy, nickeldollardimequarterpenny for me?”, her words running together. As we walked the residential streets, drug paraphernalia had to be stepped over on the sidewalks, bugs scampered about, and children in diapers sat outside on couches on porches, no adults in sight. Nearly everyone in sight was black or Puerto Rican.

We knocked doors, as usual, wanting to teach all we could about our religion, often times praying that no one would answer because the stench inside the homes was so bad. When we were invited inside, we learned to always turn down food and beverages, seeing roaches scamper over our feet, mice rush past, and even human feces on the floor on occasion. We received threats on our life walking those streets.

Two days per week, we had to commute to the local Mormon church for meetings. We walked from our home four blocks to the nearest train station and rode that for four exits, then got off and caught a subway up three stops, then walked two more blocks to get on a city bus that dropped us off on the corner down from the church. The branch itself was in an old Jewish funeral home, converted into a local chapel, and the congregation was a mix of Utah transplants, men and women in the city for school or career, and local people of color who had joined the organization. The branch was rich with diversity, but nearly everyone in leadership was white and from Utah. When we brought someone new to church, we had to make sure they could arrange for their own transportation to the building, and we had to explain in advance that the church would not be able to help with financial burdens like rent or food until someone had been a member for a lengthy period of time.

Walking the streets of Germantown could be frightening. We had to avoid small groups of men standing on street corners, as they would almost assuredly mug or assault us, something we narrowly avoided many times. We had to be in by dark each night, which in the winter was by 5 pm, leaving us to entertain ourselves with board games and church magazines and music, leading to some very long and boring nights with no television or entertainment. We saw dozens and dozens of churches, visiting some along the way, and I began to learn for the first time what life outside of Idaho was like in real depth. Episcopalians, Catholics, Methodists, Jews, Seventh-Day Adventists, Lutherans, Apostolic Christians, Muslims, Hari Krishnas, Buddhists. Wealths of belief systems in and out of the bounds of Christianity. In one church, full of beautiful black people, a church choir clapped and sang as the congregation danced and praised with hands in the air, feet moving in joy, as the pastor healed members of the audience with hands to foreheads. In another, the Church on the Move, a white pastor prayed as a man with a full drum set serenaded him, and he begged God to inspire the people of the congregation to give generously to the church coffers so his would could expand. In a branch of the Hebrew Israelites, we were offered bread pudding and lemonade and given seats on the front row, while the pastor gave a passionate sermon on the devil white man’s day in hell when the black race, the true children of Moses, rose out of captivity to claim and inherit the Earth. We walked past churches with names rich in character, like the Bread of Life, All Glory to God Church, and one small Apostolic branch on a street corner named St. James Chapel Fire-Baptized Congregation Holy Church of God of the Americas.

In a city park one Monday afternoon, we were stopped by a group of black teenagers playing basketball, and they invited us to join. My companion and I were both severely uncoordinated and politely declined, but the young men took the chance to question us, noticing our missionary tags curiously.

One young black man in a white tank top and camouflage shorts, was shocked beyond belief that I was halfway across the United States on my own without my family, yet not in college.

“Man, I ain’t never been outside Philly, and you from god-damn Idaho? Damn, cracker.”

I’d been called ‘cracker’ on the streets a number of times now, and learned that for many it was a term used innocently, just a cultural word for white people, but for some others it was a term of derision, with anger and resentment buried behind it as subtext. This young man used it the first way.

“So what you gonna do after this, college back at home or something?”

“Yeah, I’m going to go to college in Idaho, not far from where I grew up.”

He dribbled the ball a bit. “Man, ain’t no one in my family been to college. If I keep out of the gangs, I maybe get a job for a few years, but I won’t even finish school. Most my friends end up in jail. I mean, you got to steal to survive around here, and just hope you ain’t get caught.”

I talked to the young man a bit more, learning he already had a child with a girl who was 16, and that she was raising the son he didn’t see very often. He asked me more questions, about my mom, if I had a girl or not, and what this Jesus stuff was all about anyway. And I provided him with canned answers about the Book of Mormon, offering him a copy (which he rejected), inviting him to church sometimes. Feeling elevated with self-importance, I gave him a small speech before we walked away.

“You have to realize that you can do anything you set your mind to. It’s the American dream, to work hard and raise yourself up from your circumstances, to leave a clean and honest life, and to find truth in God. You can go to college, have a career, provide for your son. You can do whatever you set your mind to.”

The young man dribbled the ball once more, then turned away, rolling his eyes. “Man, you don’t know nothing about life. Have fun in Idaho with your college.” Then he turned back. “They have any gangs there?”

“No.” I admitted.

“Any of your friends in jail?”

I thought hard. “Um, one kid that I knew in high school was.”

“Growing up, you have food every night?”

“Um, yeah.”

“And your moms, she had a job?”

“Yes.”

“And you finished high school, had a job or whatever, and then came to do your missionary thing before you go back to college, right?”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

He dribbled again. “Enjoy what you got. But don’t pretend to know what I got.”

And then he went back to his game. That young man would cross my mind nearly every day during my nine months in Philadelphia, and frequently once I enrolled in a social work program in college, began doing therapy, and had children of my own. I still wonder what became of him, and I still wish I could go back and apologize for my arrogance and assumptions. Philadelphia had only started to teach me about the world, and I had a lot to learn.

Bloody Baptism

The first time I was knocked unconscious, I came to in the baptismal font.

So this is what they mean by seeing stars, I thought. I had visions of childhood cartoons pass through my brain, especially violent Looney Tunes cartoons, where the charming villain characters, like Sylvester the Cat and Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam and Wile E. Coyote, would get bashed in the head and then look dazed while yellow stars twirled around their heads comedically. Except this wasn’t so funny.

Stars.jpg

My vision was black with little sparks and flashes to it as I came to. I knew it was only seconds, but time stood still, and I couldn’t remember what had happened.

It was Sunday morning, and I was in the baptismal font. I could remember that much. Elder Fowler and I, mismatched missionary companions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had a baptism scheduled for this very morning. We had been working an inactive Mormon family who had a 9 year old boy named Wesley, and we were baptizing him after church today. It was kind of a celebration service for me. After four months in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, and two particularly trying months with Elder Fowler, who was the single most bizarre person I had ever known, I was being transferred to the big city of Philadelphia soon, and it was wonderful to close out my time with a baptism.

Elder Fowler and I had only had one other baptism, a man named Glenn together, a Pennsylvania Dutch man with a wife and three teenage children, who worked in a hardware store in Shoemakersville, forty miles north of us. Glenn had been a dream to teach, and he had been baptized swiftly, but he had quickly quite coming to church after his baptism, citing family problems and work commitments as excuses for his inattendance, and he had asked us to stop calling him weeks before.

I realized I was on my hands and knees as I started to come to. And then I realized there was something splashing, a dripping sound. I held my hand up to my head, which I suddenly realized was badly aching, and felt something wet there. My vision cleared a bit more as I pulled my hand down and realized it was bright red with thick blood. I was bleeding, my head was bleeding. I rushed to my feet and then was beset with terrible dizziness and fell back to my knees. I almost passed out a second time, and the world spend worse than before. Standing that fast had been a huge mistake. Don’t panic, I thought. Stand slowly.

I breathed evenly. My sense of self started to return as I pushed myself back into a sitting position. Church had started, and the ward congregation would be singing hymns in sacrament meeting right now. In fact, if I tuned in I could hear them. I had come to the other side of the church and into the baptismal font to prepare it for the after-church baptism. Once the faucets were turned on, the font would take a little over two hours to fill with waist-deep water so that Elder Fowler could baptize Wesley. Before turning on the water, I had taken some wet paper towels and had wiped out the bottom of the font, cleaning up small patches of dust and dirt so that the water would be clean. Then I had gone to turn on the faucet. I had dropped a paper towel, had bent to pick it up, and then while standing up again I had hit my head on the sharp jagged edge of the box around the faucet. That was what had knocked me unconscious.

My vision cleared completely and I could see small pools and drops of blood around me, and I looked down to see them on my white shirt and on my blue tie. Blood was trickling down the side of my face, but not profusely, just slowly and steadily. I got to my feet, with my hand on my head, and took several seconds for the dizziness to clear before moving. The font had a small set of stairs on either side of it, each leading to a bathroom where those being baptized could change after they had been submerged. Without thinking I made my way up the closest stairs and entered the room at the top, happening upon the girls’ bathroom.

Amy, a teenage girl in the ward, stood there popping a zit in the mirror when I entered, and she gave a small scream at my reflection behind her, a bloody missionary. She turned to face me.

“Elder, are you okay?”

My head was throbbing and I muttered the only words I could think of. “I–I need a mom.”

Twenty minutes later, with a different shirt on, some T-shirt from the back of someone’s car, and a rag held to my head, I rode in the passenger seat of Brother Miller’s car, sitting on a trash bag in case I bled more. My head was still bleeding, but only lightly now. We made small talk as he drove me thirty minutes into a larger city, where there would be an emergency room. There, I presented them with my missionary medical insurance card, and the doctor took a look at my injury an hour later. Three hours after that, I left the hospital with part of my head shaved and four brand new stitches in my head.

That night, I took some pain meds and laid down as Elder Fowler used his hand puppet, Chihuahua, to tell me about the baptism. He cooked cinnamon rolls to try and help me feel better, and played his favorite music, the soundtrack from Mary Poppins. I wrote letters home and laid there in the apartment thinking of how only a year had passed so far on my mission, and yet it felt like a small eternity. I still had another year to go, and I still had to be knocked unconscious one more time.

I sat there, my head whirling to the sounds of spoonfuls of sugar making medicine go down, and I wondered what God wanted me to learn this time, a thought that had been occurring to me more and more lately.

Talking Truth with Ruth

can

“Elders, take a seat,” Ruth said, indicating a red lawn chair and a wooden folding chair that sat next to each other in her haphazard living room. I took the wooden chair, having learned months before, the hard way, to avoid sitting on furniture that was upholstered, as it was more likely for bugs, like bed bugs or lice or, worse, scabies, to have made homes for themselves in upholstered chairs and cushions. Elder Fowler sat next to me, tall and strange as usual, looking like he would rather be napping. He wore a bright yellow Tweety-bird tie.

Ruth moved about the room a bit, checking things at random, looking under a couch cushion, opening a drawer, then scampering into the kitchen to check cupboards and crannies. “I swear they were here again last night, messing with me like usual. It happens every Tuesday.”

Elder Fowler tucked his fake plastic thumb back in his backpack, having just completed a poorly executed magic trick for Ruth at the door, something she had delighted in. I watched Ruth open the fridge, where her rows of plates, cups, and silverware were stacked. She then looked in her oven, where she had rows of canned food, all of the labels removed from them, lined up. She rarely purchased perishable foods, but when she did, she kept them in a cooler in her small garage, freshly packed with ice. Her kitchen drawers were mismatched collections of pens, tools, books, and papers. She kept her keys and money under the couch cushion, keepsakes in her dresser, and her clothes folded into cardboard boxes in her garage.

“They come in every Tuesday at least,” she said, still checking her spaces for accuracy. “Last night, they changed my alarm. I’m positive I set it for 6 am, yet when I woke up late this morning, I checked and realized it was set for 6 pm. They didn’t want me to wake up on time.” She closed a cupboard too loudly, poked her head into the garage, and then rejoined us in the living room, plopping onto the sofa. “I’ve told you how sometimes they move my things around. They will hide my remote control, or place the pen I was just using in the fridge. I don’t know why they keep messing with me, and I also don’t know how they are getting in. I keep the doors locked firmly. Always.”

Elder Fowler and I had met Ruth a few weeks previously, and had been visiting her a few times per week since then. He and I were a mismatched set, a missionary companionship that never should have been. I was the Idaho Mormon kid, secretly gay and suffering through it in silence, trying my best to be a good rule-following missionary; he was a tall and obese Arizona boy from a single-parent household, likely also gay, although he never told me, with an incredibly strange worldview and bizarre habits that he regularly showcased for others. He had strange habits like making Catholic sign of the cross on doors before he opened them, singing Mary Poppins songs in evening bubble baths, kissing a purple hippopotamus that he wore around his neck for lunch, and speaking to strangers with a strange hand-puppet he called Chihuahua. When we knocked on doors, he would use Chihuahua to speak. “Hello, we are the missionaries from he Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” he would say with his two middle fingers meeting his thumb as a flapping mouth while his pointer and index fingers stood straight up in the air like ears. When the doors closed in our faces, he would drop the ears straight down, making a puppy whimper noise.

Ruth herself had ordered a copy of the Holy Bible by calling a phone number set up by the church on television, and we had been sent to deliver it to her. When we had asked if she would like to learn about our Church, she had eagerly invited us in.

Ruth was in her early 80s, and she had a vibrant and complicated life. It was clear to see that early dementia had set in, but it didn’t stop her from living loudly. She volunteered at the local senior center, walked animals at the shelter, read avidly, and kept in touch through hand-written letters with many loved ones. She was Pennsylvania Dutch, and proud, and had loved religion all of her life, through her rocky but happy childhood, through her two difficult marriages, through her career stops-and-starts, and through the raising of her two children. She regularly visited different local churches, and she found solace and refuge in her relationship with God.

Some version of me felt special for teaching her, having planned out her destiny already. She would be an end-of-life missionary success story for me, something to write home about and tell my family about. I would be the one to help bring the truth to this good woman who had searched for it her whole life. Teaching her made me feel special, gave me a sense of goodness. It made me feel like my work  mattered, like I wasn’t wasting hours every day knocking on doors only to have them closed in my face repeatedly.

Ruth talked far more than she listened. Our lessons with her, which might normally take an hour with someone else, would instead last for 2-3 hours. She asked questions about God and church and Mormon belief structures about family, scriptures, and the afterlife. Just as we would begin to answer, she would spout her own theories on life and religion, sharing openly about her decades of life experience. She’d been born just after World War I, and had lived through the Depression, through the Great War, through McCarthyism and Viet Nam and Civil Rights, through the hippie movement, through Reagan, through the Gulf War. She spoke on gender inclusion, on race, on being a grandmother. She was delightful, and eager, and just the right amount of crazy, and she was fascinated by us, two 20 year old boys who had set everything in our lives aside in order to live in the Amish and Pennsylvania Dutch city of Kutztown, Pennsylvania and deliver Bibles to people in the hopes that they might want to join our church. She laughed about the fact that a woman in her 80s was being asked to call boys six decades her junior ‘elder’, and she often smiled as she said the word.

That day, we taught Ruth about our beliefs on the restoration of the gospel, about how after the death of Jesus Christ, God had taken away the truth of religion from the Earth, leading men to form religion based solely on their understandings of the truth. We taught how Christian religions had formed, divided, and expanded over hundreds of years until God had seen fit to restore religion in the early 1800s to Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church. We taught how while all people are inherently good, they can only receive the full truth of God by being baptized Mormon and following the Mormon teachings.

Ruth stayed uncharacteristically silent through much of our lesson that day, taking it all in. I watched her settle down from her agitated state into her deeply thoughtful self. After Elder Fowler, who used Chihuahua through part of the lesson, making Ruth giggle, finished his part of the presentation, the room was silent for a moment. Then Ruth leaned forward, speaking.

“So you are telling me that out of all the religions I have ever experienced, from Methodist to Catholic to Presbyterian, and all of the wonderful times I have had in my life with the Bible, you are telling me that it is all completely fabricated and wrong, that all along the only true religion in the entire world has been the one you two were just lucky enough to be born into?”

I smiled, my heart swelling with the holy spirit. “Yes, that’s correct. You’ve had a wonderful life, and now God has sent us here at this time in your life to help you find the true and everlasting gospel.”

Ruth gave a skeptical look. “But if I hadn’t called that phone number on my television for that free Bible, then we would never have met.”

“Yes, that’s true,” I said, as Elder Fowler watched, silent. “But God works in mysterious ways. And as we talked about the first time we visited you, if you can gain a testimony of the Book of Mormon through prayer, then you can know that everything we are teaching you is true, and then we hope you will be baptized.”

“Elder Anderson, I was already baptized.” Ruth clasped her hands in her lap, sitting back again. “When I was a baby. My mother saw to that. I have no need to get baptized again. I’ll gladly visit your church, and would love to keep visiting and talking with you both, but I’m not about to betray my mother’s wishes by canceling my original baptism with another one. I admire your convictions, but I have plenty of truth already.”

There was a heavy silence for a moment, that Elder Fowler piped in. His voice went high-pitched as he muttered the world “Awk-waaaaard,” drawing out the last syllable.

Ruth laughed, delighted. She found Elder Fowler charming, constantly. He gave me an ulcer that pulsated every time he spoke. “Don’t you worry, elders. You’ll find other people to baptize. Then you’ll have success stories to write home to your mothers. Now, enough for today. Are you hungry?”

Without waiting for an answer, Ruth got up and stepped into her kitchen, indicating that we should follow. “Let’s eat.” She opened her oven, showing us the rows of canned food, silver and label-less. She didn’t want those who were “messing with her” to be able to know what was in each can. She explained that she had a system; she kept all entree items on the left, side dishes in the middle, and desserts on the right. She grabbed three separate cans and set them on the counter, then got a can opener from the top of her fridge, along with some paper plates and plastic forks from a shelf in the garage.

As she hummed, Ruth opened the three cans, revealing the contents of our lunch. Canned salmon, pink and fleshy, in oil for the entree. Sliced string beans in water for the side dish. And for dessert? Cherry pie filling. She scooped equal contents on to three plates, zapped them each in the microwave for one minute each, then sat back down to eat with us in the living room, asking questions about our lives before we were missionaries. The salmon was terrible. The scalded pie filling was worse.

A few weeks later, I left Kutztown, and was sent to live in Philadelphia for nine long months. Ruth and I stayed in touch, becoming pen-pals. She wrote long missives about her life in lined blue cursive, generally writing on random stationery she had collected over the years. I received a letter from her every week faithfully, and wrote one back, over nearly a year. It was a strange relationship, but one I enjoyed, a bright light in my boring daily existence as a missionary. Around ten months later, after I had left Philly and moved to Delaware to finish out my missionary service, I stopped hearing from Ruth. Several letters from me went unanswered. Then I stopped writing. Three months later, after my mission was over, I had returned to Idaho and had started college. Then I received a letter in the mail.

The letter was from Ruth’s daughter, a woman in her sixties. She informed me simply and succinctly, that Ruth had died from a heart attack. She wrote: “While I’m sorry I never had the chance to meet you in person. I want you to know that my mother spoke of you frequently in our conversations. She often slipped from confusion and lucidity, and she felt your letters gave her continuity in her final months. You brought her much joy at the end of her life, and we will be forever grateful.”

I set the letter down, blinking a couple of tears from my eyes. I had tried to bring some truth to one old woman at the end of her life. And instead, she had given truth to me.

 

Living with Mister Bean

BeanHe looks like Mister Bean, I thought.

The first time I saw Elder Fowler had been at a zone conference a few months before. He didn’t quite fit in with the other elders, and I think he liked it that way. He was a big man, around 6’4” and 280 pounds or so, with a strange face that he frequently contorted into bizarre facial expressions purposefully. He had the standard missionary gear on, white shirt and tie, slacks, and black shoes, but he wore characteristic ties, with bizarre patterns or obscure cartoon characters on them. During that first meeting, while the other missionaries ate sandwiches and chatted with each other, Elder Fowler sat over in the corner solo, blowing bubbles from a pink container, like a child would in a park. No one really interacted with him because, well, he was blowing bubbles.

I had been in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, for two months when I got the call that Elder Free would be leaving and Elder Fowler would be my new companion. My brain scanned itself, remembering the bizarre bubble-blowing, and I felt a sense of dread come over me. Living with a person like Fowler would not be easy. I had no idea what I was in for.

Living with a companion was difficult. We shared the apartment, the car, even the bedroom. We weren’t allowed alone time, ever, except to shower. Sharing space with someone like that, with no breaks, was trying even when perfectly suited for each other, but living with someone that was difficult to be around, with no breaks, with no reprieve, with no recreation… I knew I was in for a major challenge.

The first day in our apartment, Elder Fowler entered the apartment singing show tunes. He opened a bag, calling it his Mary Poppins bag (Mary Poppins was his personal hero) and removed a series of bizarre items that he placed around the apartment, things he would use ritualistically every day thereafter. He had a stuffed winged bat that he hung from the ceiling over his bed that he kissed good night before bed, three purple ceramic hippopotamus figures that matched the small plastic purple hippopotamus he wore on a string around his neck, a collection of cooking supplies (like a rolling pin and cookie cutters) that he would use to make elaborate baked breakfasts every morning (stuffed French toast, hash browns, cinnamon rolls, and thick pancakes), a small CD player that he played Disney soundtracks on, and a large bottle of bubble bath.

Elder Fowler was impossible to talk to. He avoided basic questions about himself, constantly engaged in banter that proved impossible to respond to, and he burst out singing frequently. He blew bubbles while he walked, made the Catholic sign of the cross (father/son/Holy Ghost) before opening any door (and he opened a lot of doors), tried doing terrible magic tricks for strangers, and had a laugh that ranged over several octaves in just a few strained breaths. He was generally silly, not happy but silly, and on a few evenings per week he would lock himself in the bathroom for a bubble bath, during which I could hear him splashing and singing. I looked forward to his bubble baths as they were the only breaks I had from him.

I was determined early on to be a good companion for Fowler. He casually mentioned how his other companions had teased him before this, and how he had a difficult time fitting in, and I certainly knew how that felt. Toward the end of our companionship, two months later, he soberly mentioned how he hadn’t counted on that aspect of missionary work, confiding how he had not fit in with peers most of his life and he had hoped that would go away on his mission, but how instead it had only intensified, leaving him more isolated and lonely. I grew to admire how much effort he put into being an individual. He was almost definitely gay and struggling to change, just the way I was, and I empathized with him there, too. And so I was determined to be the nice guy, which meant no criticism, no telling him to change, no rude comments or angry looks. And I succeeded, every hour of every day, clenching my stomach tightly every time he made the sign-of-the-cross, every time he kissed the bat good night, and every time he had a conversation with his purple hippopotamus necklace.

Outside of the bizarre complexities of Elder Fowler, missionary work remained much the same, but with shocking twists that constantly tested my patience. We knocked on doors like usual, trying to find people to teach the gospel to. Fowler had unique approaches. When a stranger answered the door, instead of introducing ourselves, he would use a fake thumb with a hanky stuffed in it or a few face cards to try and grab attention with a poorly executed magic trick. At other doors, he would hold his pointer and pinky fingers up in the air, and use his other three fingers extended out from his hand to form a mouth. He would then talk through this strange hand puppet, flapping his fingers and thumb together as he spoke in a high pitched voice from the side of his mouth. “Hi there, I’m Elder Chihuahua of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints! We want to teach you!” When the person inevitably closed the door in our faces, Fowler would drop the pointer and pinky fingers straight down and make a dog’s whiny noise, indicating his disappointment.

After several weeks, Fowler began to relax around me a bit, letting his facade of strangeness drop from time to time. The weather grew colder as he grew warmer, opening up about his life a bit more. In the early days, when I asked questions about him, he would either avoid them or directly refuse to answer. Over time, he began telling me about his childhood in Arizona, about his father leaving when he was a kid, about his mother’s struggles to make end’s meet.

One night, as we hit light’s out time, after he kissed his stuffed bat and climbed into bed, he lay down in the dark and asked if he could share something personal with me.

“This isn’t something I share with many people,” Fowler said, serious, his voice low. “When my mother was working at her job while she was pregnant with me, she became very sick and weak and she fell. When she woke up, an angel came to visit her, and it was the angel who told her to name me. A lot of people assume my first name comes from the Bible, but it is actually not in the Bible. I’ve never heard of anyone else having my first name. Anyway, the angel told her that I had a great destiny in my future, and sometimes I don’t know what that means for me, but it’s a lot of the reason I chose to come on a mission, because I’m supposed to do something really amazing. I know it sounds a little crazy, but it is really special to me.”

As he drifted off to sleep, I sat thinking of my own upbringing, similar in many ways. My mother had talked at times of Heavenly visions, had told me I had a destiny to save souls, and I too had wondered why I didn’t fit with those around me, wondering if my destiny somehow caused me to be set apart from others. I felt a strange kinship with Fowler that night, isolated and divinely inspired all at once, and I wondered if we were more the same than we were different. Then I heard him whispering good night to his purple hippo again and instead clenched my ulcer tightly.