A Tale Of Two Missions
Posted by Shawn L on February 22, 2008
My wife and I were out to dinner the other night with some good friends of ours who are also LDS. As I am wont to do, I shared with them an anecdote from my long-ago mission in Guatemala. Admittedly, the story, which detailed the unpleasant experience of being tested for intestinal parasites in a third world country, was probably inappropriate for a post-meal discussion (hint: it’s not a blood sample they want). It got a few laughs nevertheless. Once she recovered from yet another rash of embarrassment at my hand, my wife asked a simple question that has stuck with me: ”Was it worth it?”
I was taken aback and, I’ll admit, a bit hurt by the question. How could my wife even think to ask such a thing? Surely she knows how important my mission is/was to me, right? That it means much more than a few funny stories? But as I have mulled over her question in the past few weeks, I have come to realize that it stemmed from the fact that I tell two very different versions of my mission experience. And for each version, my answer is a bit different.
In this telling, my mission is a series of surprising, usually humiliating, and hopefully humorous incidents. I play the role either of a hapless victim of circumstance or a naive observer on unfamiliar cultural events unfolding around me. I know I’m biased, but this story is pretty darn amusing and always begins with, “you’re not going to believe this, but . . .”
In addition to the aforementioned parasite diagnosis, you’ll hear all about how I (i) was bitten by a dog in the most unfortunate of places (Nurse’s diagnosis: “I bet that smarts”); (ii) had to hang my head low in a certain area so as not to seen by a 17-year old girl who, whenever she saw me, would yell at the top of her lungs, “here comes Elder Larsen, the father of my baby”; (iii) soiled myself on the doorstep of some poor, wholly undeserving pensioner, and (iv) spent every P-day for months eating as much ice cream as I could stuff in my face in a desperate (and losing) battle to put on enough weight to keep my pants up. As a bonus, the story may include (depending on the audience) some of the unique Guatemalan curse words I learned from Elder Torres in exchange for a few in my native tongue. We made quite a pair, walking down the street cursing at one another with big smiles on our faces. Oh, I also can give you loads of information about appropriate dosages for Lomotil (a result of the pensioner incident).
The cast of characters in this tale is huge, including taverns full of angry and/or crying drunks, religious zealots shouting at me that I was going to hell, a clueless missionary companion telling me that we could no longer teach our golden contact because he was “becoming attracted to her,” another companion challenging me to a fistfight and then not speaking to me for days when I wouldn’t oblige him, and one very angry husband who chased me down the street with a machete.
This story is told for laughs and very rarely, if ever, makes any reference to spiritual matters. In fact, God doesn’t even merit mention in this version. I’ll tell parts of this tale at the drop of a hat. If you and I have ever spent any time together, chances are you have heard me prattle on in this vein.
This is much quieter account of my time in Guatemala. In this version of events, I am a scared but eager young man, full of energy and wholly lacking in common sense. Far fewer people take an active role in this story; they include my Mission President, a strict but ultimately inspiring Priesthood leader; companions from rural Indian villages who spoke even Spanish than I did, but nonetheless, left their dirt-poor families to serve a higher purpose; a young woman who, after the grisly murder of her brother, finally found peace in baptism; and the handful of members in a far-flung village who were able to take the sacrament only on the missionaries’ monthly visit. The two main players, however, are me and God, and it is our relationship that drives the narrative.
That narrative, the plot of Version #2, is far less showy than that of Version #1. There are no dog bites or chase scenes. Rather, it involves hours spent in quiet prayer and study; weeping while taking the sacrament passed to me by a 60-year old man whom, after nearly a year of lessons, I confirmed a member of the Church only two weeks earlier; waiting impatiently with a potential convert as he/we waited to get word back from Salt Lake as to whether he could be baptized despite his having killed a man years earlier; feeling heartsick over the decision of a family to forego baptism; spending hours crouched over planting coffee on the land of an inactive member; and thanking my Heavenly Father on a daily basis for the opportunity to serve with and among such wonderful people. This version is jam-packed with spiritual experiences, both positive and negative. It rarely, if ever, overlaps with the antics detailed in Version #1.
I tell this story only on rare occasions. Thinking about it now, I really can’t think of a good reason why that is. Perhaps it is because it’s so close to my heart, so deeply personal, that I am loathe to share it. Like a particularly meaningful journal entry, or a unique temple experience, keeping it to myself seems to help maintain its spiritual potency.
So, circling back to the question that started this all — “was it worth it” — the answer, of course, is “yes.” My reasoning, however, differs slightly for each version. With Version #1, the primary value of my mission was that it opened my eyes to a whole new world beyond what I had known. I am a better rounded and more accepting person because of the strange, often hostile, individuals I was forced to deal with on a regular basis for two years. Plus, as a fringe benefit, I am much more engaging dinner guest!
With Version #2, the tally of what I gained from my mission runs much longer and far deeper. It was in the streets of places like Jutiapa and Chiquimula that I learned what it means to be both a son and servant of God. Watching the emerging faith of new members like Vivi Monroy and Jose Miguel Sagastume helped me understand how faith faith looks and acts. And kneeling in earnest prayer with Elders Blunt, Elderidge and Curtis helped to understand how to transform myself from a mere observer into someone who is “anxiously engaged” in the Gospel. When I struggle with doubt or discouragement, these are the bedrock ezperiences that hold me up.
My wife’s innocent inquiry made clear to me is that it is this version of events — an accounting of my spiritual awakening and the genesis of my maturation in the Gospel — that my family needs to hear. In the end, Version #1 may entertain, but it is Version #2 that has potential to inspire. So, if you and I ever break bread together, friends, I will be more than happy to tell you all about that dog bite or how I once ate an entire jar of peanut butter in two minutes flat (Gato Gordo Creamy, in case you’re wondering). But, at home, you will likely find speaking in hushed tones to my children about Version #2.