I pull up to an apartment complex I’ve never been to before and text Mel. Or Melissa, as she was then in my phone.
Hey Melissa! I’m here, I think…
I’ve never met Melissa before, but have been assigned as her Visiting Teacher. It’s the assignment every Mormon woman age 18 and over is given. Typically you are given a partner and are assigned two other women in the congregation who you are supposed to visit once a month. It’s sort of a buddy system, a way to make sure everyone at church has a friend.
But Melissa is “inactive,” meaning she doesn’t regularly attend church. I am given nothing more than her name and this information before I am supposed to visit her. I have no idea how long she has been inactive, nor any clue what she currently thinks of the Mormon church, but must bother her anyway. I also haven’t been given a partner this time, so I will go on my own. I know how this will go, I thought when I got the assignment. I’ve tried this before. I have texted strangers, using excessive smiley faces and exclamation points, attempting to at least bring by cookies or flowers in order to make my cold call slightly less awkward.
I did not expect Melissa to respond when I first reached out — I mostly texted her as an attempt to get rid of the guilt. I wanted to know I had done my due diligence as a Mormon, could report 100% visiting teaching success! But I was pleasantly surprised when she texted back.
Hey! I’m inactive and so is my sister. But you can come over if you want.
In my experience, “inactive” Mormons often try to avoid visiting teachers, which I understand. We can be a pesky bunch. They’ll say they moved, or they broke their foot, or their dog is in a coma. But Mel’s candor had been refreshing, and it made me like her already. Now here I was waiting outside her apartment to meet.
She comes to the door and greets me warmly. She has dyed black hair and turquoise sparkling eyeshadow, is wearing a long sleeve athletic jacket zipped all the way up. She invites me in.
I walk into the living room, where there are boxes stacked so high and deep that there is barely room to sit. She seems embarrassed, but I try to assure her I don’t mind.
We sit down and begin with the small talk. She shifts nervously, tugging her jacket higher on her neck and lower down her wrists, and after a few minutes I realize she is trying to cover up tattoos that peek out. I want to tell her that I don’t care about her darn tattoos, I just want to be her friend, but how do I do that? How do I get away from the fact that I am a blond Mormon, born and raised in Utah, as stereotypical as we come?
She tells me about her family. How she and her sister have been on their own since their early teens. “Our family is dysfunctional, like so bad…I won’t get into it,” she says. She’s had health problems so severe that for the last two years she has barely been able to leave her house. I ask about her sister.
“Oh, she’s in her room. She wasn’t very happy about you coming over.”
After a few minutes, she asks nervously if she can share something with me. She pulls out a speech given by a Mormon Prophet from the nineties that she has printed from the internet. She shares a few favorite quotes to me, and I am confused. I was not planning on sharing anything ‘spiritual’ with her–she is supposed to be inactive.
We discuss the talk, and eventually she tells me she is too ashamed to go to church, it causes too much anxiety, but she still reads scriptures and church talks from home. She says no one from church has been to see her in years.
I ask her why she let me come over and she giggles before telling me it was because I used the word “y’all” in my text. “I pictured some Texas girl in a sparkly pink cowboy hat or something, and that you’d come over and be like, ‘howdy y’all!’ I think I just wanted to find out.”
I laugh and remark that I must have disappointed her with that expectation.
“No, not at all. It’s nice to talk to someone.”
I leave, surprised at the reversal of roles that just happened, and struck by how easily I got along with Melissa, whom I now know goes by Mel.
The next time I visit, her apartment is clean. No boxes, no clutter. I comment on how great the place looks. “Oh the missionaries came over!” she says. “They’ve been calling for months and we finally let them. They insisted on spending a day to help us get everything sorted.”
The next time I come over, her sister Jen is friendly with me. In a few weeks, Mel starts coming to church. I can tell she is nervous, she walks with her head down and I wish she wouldn’t. After a few months, she stands up and shares her testimony in front of the whole congregation. She thanks everyone for their friendship and apologizes for not having been there for a long time, and I wish she knew she didn’t have to. In due time she makes new friends at church, gets to know the Bishop, receives a temple recommend, goes to the temple.
All because of the word y’all.
My experience with Melissa was a reminder to me of the power of Visiting Teaching, in my mind the simplest and most “Christian” tenet of Mormonism: it is the one-on-one loving of and caring for each other. It was also a reminder of how harmful labels can be, even those given with good intentions. I made a snap judgment of her because she was “inactive,” assuming things that turned out to be so far from the truth. She is a human and I am a human, both complicated and in need of a friend, and that is the point of Visiting Teaching.
I think of Sherry, the other woman I visit teach. Sherry moved to the states from China two years ago. She moved here with her son, and after attending a Chinese Christian church for a few months, met the Mormon missionaries and got baptized a month later. When I go visit Sherry, we commiserate about working in HR, about working in general. She tells me about life in China. She shows me how to use WeChat.
I think of all the women I have visit taught over the years, all so different from me.
Then I think of my dear friend Jill, who I didn’t meet until we became visiting teaching companions, even though we’d been in the same ward for six months. It took one visit for us to realize that we were sort of the same person, in the strangest of ways. It’s so funny to think back on, now that we text almost every day. “I’m so glad Mormonism forced us together,” she wrote on a birthday card. And so am I.
Often within the church, I think we see Visiting Teaching as a cold, impersonal program–it is, after all, an assigned friendship. But I wonder, how else could it work?
How else would I have gotten to know Melissa or Sherry or Jill or Gabrielle or Elizabeth?
If left to my own devices, I probably would not have immediately picked them as friends, nor them me. I will probably pick the girl who looks most like me, because in my superficial and insecure mind, I assume she and I will have the most in common — she poses the lowest risk.
It is the assigning of friendships, this forcing together, that I think is the point. Interacting with people you wouldn’t normally, being exposed to different personalities, and if you do it right, growing to be genuine friends.
In a few weeks, Mel will tell me she and her sister are moving to a different area of LA, which means they will be going to church in a different congregation. I will no longer be assigned as her Visiting Teacher.
I text her a few weeks after she has moved and don’t get a response. I begin to panic. Does she have a friend there? Will the missionaries find her if she needs help?
Can they assign her a Visiting Teacher who says y’all?
Eventually I do hear back and can relax–all is well. I go to see Melissa and Jen, in a beautiful new apartment, happier than ever. We hang out and eat the chocolate covered strawberries Jen has made for us.
She talks to me about a new book she has been reading, a scholarly interpretation of the Book of Mormon. She lends me a spare copy.
As I leave, I tell her how happy I am for her having found a good place. I mean it in more ways than one. I don’t know if I will continue to visit Mel every month. Though I hate the reality of it, I now have three new women to visit, and unfortunately I do not have unlimited time.
I probably will not visit Mel every month for the rest of my life, but becoming friends with her strengthened my faith — not only in God, but in the power of friendship. Mel and I are and will remain friends due to one simple reason: we were forced together by Mormonism.
*Melissa and Jen are not Melissa and Jen’s real names.
*Featured flower image from here because flowers are lovely.