Joseph Smith on the Subway

When we arrived at the platform there was only one other person waiting.  He was a middle aged white man with glasses and a well trimmed beard.  I stood a comfortable distance away and we all waited silently for the train.

“Mormons huh?  I used to be one of those.”  The man offered without looking at us.  I knew a set up when I heard one but I’ve always been that silly fish that takes the bait knowing full well there is a hook in it.  “Really?  What happened?”  I returned.  “You need to read the Doctrine and Covenants,” he answered and before anymore could be exchanged the train arrived, the doors opened, and he went for a different car.

As I stepped onto the subway car I became immediately aware that this was not to be like other commutes.  It was standing room only.  Not just crowded but that uncomfortable squish where parts of you touch parts of other people and the jostling of movement ensures you never grow accustomed and or comfortable.  While my view was mostly armpits and shoulders I noticed the other odd thing; everyone was white, and everyone was male.  I noticed all this but had no time to react before the doors shut and we sardines were encased for the duration.

“Ya know, Joseph Smith was an adulterer.”  I heard a voice state matter-of-factly.  From a different direction I heard another man say, “Smith was a liar who believed in witchcraft.”  I looked around to identify the voices and saw that all eyes were on me.  I looked around for my companion to find that he had somehow managed his way to the back corner of the car and was standing facing the wall, so much for back-up.

Another man, one right next to me, looking me in the face said, “Joseph Smith is in Hell right now.”

None of their statements were things I had not heard before but this whole scene was a bit overwhelming.  Looking at this man’s face I saw no clue as to his motivation, he appeared to have no emotion at all.  I looked down from his face to focus on a name tag he was wearing.  I do not recall his name but I do recall the organization, the Promise Keepers.  I looked around and noticed all these men were wearing similar tags.  Many had titles such as Rev. or Pastor before their given name and if I had to guess the average age was 45.

“How can you follow such a liar?” yet another voice called from the crowd.  I had been a missionary for almost a year now, I had just turned twenty.  Normally I would answer such questions with contradicting facts or questions as to the questioners’ sources.  This time I didn’t.  I stood there almost outside myself in shock.  Here I was, a kid, crammed onto a train full of middle aged men, most of whom wore titles earned by schooling or mid-career progression.  By their questions they obviously thought me uneducated and misguided.  The titles they wore and the event they were attending deemed these as men who had taken upon them the responsibility of helping others, and here they were, surrounding a sole young soul, and this is the tact they chose?

They continued on as if this was one of the convention’s role plays or exercises.  Each man individually took a turn trying his best one liner to destroy my faith.  Not a single one of them appeared to have taken the time to consider what I had done previous to putting on the tag I wore, what it took to wear it day-to-day, or what it meant to me to wear it.  They were just a bunch of old men publicly insulting the things closest to my heart.

I stood tall and listened.  I did my best to look at the face of whomever it was speaking while they took their stab.  When there was finally a lull I took my turn.  I suppose they expected some sort of religious retort, or possibly a parry of sectarian insult, I think this is what I expected of myself.  Instead of any of these things I simply said,

“I know what I believe.  You will not change what I know.  The idea that you, grown men, religious leaders, would choose to insult me, and insult someone you know full well I believe to be a prophet of God, is much more a testament to your own character than anything else.”

As if on cue the train stopped, the doors opened, and I stepped off.  I watched as my companion gloomily shoved his way out another exit and we continued on our way.  I was not then, nor am I now, particularly eloquent.  The words I said then were a surprise to me and I have since rarely achieved such punctuation and clarity.  I can’t even be completely sure those were my exact words.  There was no training for handling this sort of situation, there was no manual for antagonistic trainloads of convention attendees.  What I do know is that what came out of me that night either came from somewhere deep within, or came from elsewhere entirely.

I sometimes wonder if any of these men remember the scene.  I am curious if my words had any effect.  I simply stepped off the train and went about my business, and they sped off to somewhere else.  None of the things they told me that day had an impact on me, but them saying those things surely did.

Mission Stories

Bankhead Hwy, Atlanta Georgia, circ 1995

Planks asked how we were received.

Missionaries are always in pairs, sometimes in threes.  They do not choose to whom they are paired, nor do they stay with that person for the entire two years.  The rule book says these “companions” are to be within sight and sound of each other at all times, the restroom being the sole exemption.

There is scriptural basis for this practice “in the mouths of two or three witnesses shall every word  be established”, (2 Cor. 13:1) but there are also reasons practical.  When sending 19 year old males out into the world it is safer for all concerned that they have another with them.  It is also wise to have another set of eyes to witness what goes on; to later defend or quite often mock, the players in events that transpire.

Doorsteps were usually safe.  If large dogs were present and angry, we went elsewhere.  If inhabitants were present and angry, they would usually just curse us and our cause, and then we would go elsewhere.  The thing that was probably least safe was the commute to elsewhere.

While riding my bike along city streets I dodged three beer bottles (that I can recall) but was unable to avoid a bagel, two donuts, and one motorcyclist.

I was riding a good 50 yards in front of my companion, he was slow.  I was well over on the shoulder, a good five feet from the lanes of traffic.  It was a busy highway so I did not think to be alarmed at the motorcycle swerving over toward me.  I never saw it.  No, I take that back, I did see it as it sped away.  There was a passenger riding on the back, twisting around to watch me.  I could not see, but I’m sure the passenger was smiling.  There was no way not to see my companion’s smile when he finally came skidding to a halt beside me.

“Dude, that was the funniest thing I have ever seen!” He exclaimed as I stared up at him from the ditch.  “I totally saw it coming too.  That guy was riding the yellow line and the passenger leaned way over to get a good shove on your backpack.”  I asked him why he didn’t warn me.  He said there may not have been time but more importantly, he wanted to watch it happen.

I was luckier than another missionary we knew.  He was in a more rural part of Georgia with a different demographic.  Rather than a motorcycle his assailants were in a pickup, with a bat, and he received two broken arms.  He healed just fine.  I have no idea if his companion warned him.

I’m smiling as I type this.  I’m remembering Elder Reese and me walking down Campbellton Road.  We were on the sidewalk, he between me and the road.  A large town car, built before either of us were born, honked as it went by, the passenger leaning out the window screaming.  This was normal, I just kept walking.  Elder Reese didn’t.  He stood frozen and silent.  As I turned to look at him I saw he was completely wet from head to foot.  “It’s warm.  Is it…?” He couldn’t finish his question.  I sniffed him.  “It’s just beer, maybe Schlitz’s, I’m not sure.”  Relieved, he simply swiveled about and began walking back home to change.  I just chuckled as I caught up to him, taking my turn to walk on the side facing the street.