Missionary Misadventures: Olympics

The ’96 Olympics in Atlanta brought out crowds like we had never seen and we had to capitalize. We called our display “Big True”, an 8 foot tall display of Arnold Friberg’s illustrations of the Book of Mormon. We set up this wall of images and used it to strike up conversations with the crowds of revelers. We thought it a great tool.IMG_5937

A Black man wearing a tunic and kufi walked by, paused, and then began looking closely at each individual image. He stood back a moment, then turned and looked me in the eyes.

“Excuse me, but where are all the Black people? How do you have images of hundreds of biblical people and not one Black person?”

Every one of the other missionaries took a big step backwards. They all looked down at their feet. No one was prepared, nor wanted, to field this question or deal with this man. A crowd of Judases.

He was looking right at me. He wasn’t smiling. Why me? Judases.IMG_6011

“Um… Well… You see these are images from the book of Mormon which happened thousands of years ago in the ancient Americas. It’s the story of two groups of people, one brown and one white. The two groups found it hard to get along. Eventually the brown folks killed off all the white ones, because the white people were wicked, leaving only the ancestors of the American Indians. The Black people didn’t show up till a couple thousand years later when the Europeans brought them over against their will.”

My companions looked at me in terror. The man looked at me, back at the images, then smiled and asked, “How much to buy one of those books?”

The other missionaries told me it was the worst answer they had ever heard.
I’m not convinced it wasn’t the best answer I had ever given.

Missionary Suiting

There is a clothing store in Salt Lake City that specializes in outfitting newly minted missionaries.   I was nearly 19, had received my “call”, and with more than a little hesitation my mother and I paid Mr. Mac a visit.

Pre-mission Brohammas circa 1994

Up till this point I had never owned a suit my mother did not make herself, owned one tie since I was 12, and had worn the same Payless “Sunday” shoes since I was 15.  The paperwork in my call included a required clothing list that would take a considerable investment, as I owned nearly nothing on said list.  Mr. Mac offered a “new missionary discount.”

Two dark suits, two pairs black/brown dress shoes with matching laces and no contrasting stitching (the Dr. Marten clause), 5-7 white dress shirts long and short sleeve, dark socks, conservative ties, belt.  It seemed an understandable and easy list but looking from the paper to the racks of jackets and back, I was lost.

An old gentleman approached and asked where I was called.  “Atlanta” was my reply.  He nodded and got to work stacking items on a table, not even glimpsing the list I brought for reference.  “You will want light weight because it’s hot.  One suit navy, that is a must, and the other you can play with a little. I suggest a charcoal with some sort of color stripe; you can pick a color you like so you don’t get bored.  This one looks nice, what color do you like?  Do you know your size?  Step up here and we’ll measure.  Now what color do you want?”

Not really understanding anything I was looking at, why this man had just ran a string up the inside of my leg, or having previously considered what color of pinstripe I liked in a charcoal suit, I said, “Can I get double breasted?”  This was the only suit lingo I knew.  I believe I had heard the term in a mob movie once and while not knowing what it meant, I knew I liked how the characters looked.  That was when I was 13.  I had been holding that term since then for just this instance.  The man looked at me sideways, told me he would grant the request for the navy and might he suggest a green for my pinstripes in the charcoal?  I shrugged a yes.

We placed two, two pant suits on the table and an assistant began stacking plastic wrapped white shirts next to the suits; four oxford button downs, four broadcloth point collars.  Five short sleeve, four long.  I paid no attention; to me they were just a bunch of white shirts.  I do not know what brand wingtips were grabbed.  They had thick foamy soles and I learned a new word “cordovan.”  I had been told by returning missionaries to get “Docs” (Dr. Marten’s), but ever the one to keep a rule, I was afraid of contrast stitching.

I drew the line at ties.  I knew a girl who worked at the outlet mall who was sure she could beat the discount.  I figured suits were all the same; because to me they all looked the same, so what really mattered was the tie.  I did not trust this guy.  He was old and because of this deficiency he could never know what was cool.  I didn’t either but I was sure this teenage girl at the outlet was the expert.

We moved my new wardrobe past the checkout and into the car.  There was no excitement over the new clothes, they were a technicality.  There was neither anticipation nor appreciation for the wardrobe or the man who had assembled it, I simply did not care.

As my mother and I drove home I think she was talking about luggage.  I’m not sure, I wasn’t listening.  With stacks of new shirts and suits, I was looking at the example photo my call included of what an appropriate haircut looked like.  Since the day I was old and brave enough to voice an opinion, I had never sported such a look.  I knew the trip to the barber was coming, I had been anticipating that haircut for years.

I looked down the list again.

It was as if  an eraser had been dragged across everything I had ever known of style.

Saying goodbye to family at the airport

It was a long list.  It was a list of clothing more expensive than anything I had previously owned.  Yet at the end of it all, all I could see, was nothing.

Then there was that haircut…

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.