By: Jacob Cutler //
They live in your country, your city, your neighborhood. They try to speak your languages and observe your customs. They ride bikes in dark suits or conservative skirts and blouses. They stop you in the streets, in the park, or in the grocery store even if you are making it clear that you have no interest in talking to them.
They knock on your door, wake up the baby, interrupt dinner, and disrupt the only sliver of time you have managed to dedicate to unwinding. They always—always—just want to share their message about Jesus. And they all say this with that toothy smile that someone, somewhere, must have taught them because they all have it. They are door-to-door salesmen of their salvation, in all the most unpleasant ways.
You might say they’re obnoxious, intrusive, insensitive, and misguided. Why can’t they mind their own business and stop talking to strangers about personal things? Don’t they know that religion, like politics, is off limits, especially while you’re waiting in line at the post office? Can’t they see that you already have beliefs that matter to you in deep and lasting ways? Shouldn’t they understand that even if you wouldn’t mind the message, or might even enjoy the message, right now really isn’t a good time?
Maybe they should. In fact, they probably should. It’s tricky to generalize but within the over 80,000 of them that are out there I think it’s safe to say that there is room for more understanding, more thinking, more tact.
But I also don’t think that Mormon missionaries are oblivious, I don’t think most are naive. They aren’t robots permanently set to the “preach” setting. In my experience, they understand quite a lot.
They probably realize, for example, that their door-knocking is excessive when they start carrying a golfball or domino to save their bruised knuckles. They likely see that they’re out of place in your neighborhood as soon as they figure out that the six weeks of language training they might have received in their Missionary Training Center didn’t account for the syrupy accent or rapid pace of your conversation. And they almost certainly realize it again when they sit down to their first meal as a missionary and they aren’t even sure how to approach the plate because they’ve never seen Banku, Menudo or Boshintang.
They know you aren’t asking for a conversation while you’re waiting for the bus. They see the signs, the body language, the refusal to look in their direction. They know you don’t want to talk to them because a lot of the time they don’t really want to talk to you either. You’re just as much a stranger to them as they are to you and they’ve already been talking to strangers all day, bothering them politely with impolite questions about religion. And maybe the last one of you, an old Italian-American man or mid-thirties Spanish intellectual perhaps, yelled so squarely in their faces that they are wondering if anyone is going to listen at all today and if it wouldn’t be best to head back to the apartment. They understand this. But they try to talk to you anyway.
They do it despite the awkwardness that inevitably comes with hundreds of forced conversations. They do it despite a fear that only rarely comes from something so dramatic as a gun to the face but fear that also never really goes away completely, even by the end of their 18-24 months. They do it and they do it with that toothy smile. And no, the smile wasn’t taught to them, not formally at least. It is a smile that is usually sincere, usually real. But it is a smile that certainly isn’t permanent because a mission isn’t all smiles for the missionary.
They are just kids after all—late teens, early twenties—and like most teenagers, they probably just emerged from being the center of the universe. They often feel like losing the tie and taking a few days off. They miss dating and get tired of wearing skirts and nylons every single day. They would love to talk with their families more often than the forty-minute phone call they’re allowed on Christmas and Mother’s Day. They wonder what’s playing at the movie theatre, who’s winning the Super Bowl, or what songs are filling the Billboard Top 50. And sometimes they worry, while standing on your doorstep, that it won’t be a smile that first reaches their face because even though they volunteered to come here, they didn’t know that tears would so regularly be pushing at the corners of their eyes.
Tears because they miss home, or because learning a new language on the run is hard, or because two years is so long when you feel so alone. Tears because they’re with a companion that they didn’t pick who is lazy or ornery or strange to them because companions come from every corner of the globe. Tears because they work so hard but can often wonder if it is making any difference. And tears, big salty serious ones, that may not have come on your doorstep but instead come when all of these things hit them at the same time while they’re brushing their teeth, tears that bleed into the white foamy mix of toothpaste and saliva that they can’t stop from dribbling down their chin, tears amplified by the embarrassment of being unable to compose themselves even though they know this companion that they just met (who’s not really that bad and is being very gracious despite the mess of it all) is probably feeling really awkward at the sink next to them.
And then other tears come because they care about you, even if you are strangers and they don’t understand you completely. You seem to represent every idea, every background, every look and every sound on the planet and that can get confusing. You are sometimes friendly, sometimes annoyed, or sometimes indifferent, and the latter is by far the most difficult for them. You might be strangers but many of you have problems that are real and deep and dark and they want to help but their type of help can’t be given unless you want it and oftentimes you don’t want it and that’s frustrating to them. But they share their message, and with that smile, because you matter to them and that fact also brings a joy that is every bit as real as the tears. This joy comes because they’ve never done anything so rewarding and so fulfilling and so exciting and so very selfless.
So yes, they might cry, but they laugh too. They laugh because you are fantastic, interesting, inspiring, and perplexing people and they get to meet you all day long. They laugh because sometimes you cease to be strangers and instead become friends so close and so valued that they’ll never forget you after they finish their mission and go home. And they laugh because some cities, say Chicago, have streets covered in ice during the winter and it’s funny when their companion, who might be a loud pleasant athletic kid from L.A., comes across some particularly slippery ice in a very busy area of the city and happens to go down, all 6’7’’ of him flailing with outstretched arms. And it is even funnier when, after realizing that a dozen people are watching him lie on the ground moaning melodramatically, he inexplicably attempts to save face by getting to his feet and moonwalking across that same patch of ice.
They laugh and cry and ride bikes and knock on doors. None of them are perfect and some are better than others. Some really can be obnoxious, intrusive, insensitive, and misguided. Even the good ones can be that way occasionally. And that’s too bad. It isn’t okay. But they won’t stop sharing their message even though they’re not perfect at it. They’ll keep up with all of it—the ties, tights, tears, and toothpaste down the chin, the fact that they bother you and sometimes offend you—all the way up to the end of this big crazy world because they believe that what they are bringing to you is at least a little more happiness and a little more hope.
// Jacob is a writer and filmmaker based in Utah. He served in the Illinois Chicago Mission from 2005 to 2007. His work has been published by, or is forthcoming in, Esquire, Iron Horse Literary Review, Epiphany and others.