For a few years after I returned from my 2 year Mormon mission in Russia, I would jolt awake in the middle of the night with a gasp. With my heart racing and my brow covered with beads of sweat I would look around the silence of my dark and familiar room then relax, knowing that I had not been called back on a mission to Russia; it was only a dream. I wasn’t going back. They couldn’t make me go back. I wouldn’t go back. I had this dream dozens of times.
Ten years ago I was a child, 18 years old without money, means, direction or passion. I was mediocre and frightened of the big, bad world where sin and evil and debauchery waited to drag me down to the devil. In high school I never quite lived up to my potential. Achievement and success were always just out of my grasp and I had no guidance in attaining it, except from church leaders who told me simply to “be obedient”, “follow the prophet”, “magnify my Priesthood calling.” Worldly success came second to building the Kingdom of God on Earth.
I never wanted to go on a mission until I was 18. I had been accepted to college, but with no way to pay for it I felt lost, stumbling around in a fog of confusion, and at the same time painfully restless. I wanted to learn a new language, see a new country, meet new people. On a late spring day in Mesa, Arizona I made up my mind to turn in mission papers. A mission would be a safe escape from my life, a reason to leave Arizona with a purpose and a clear goal. I didn’t fear punishment from God for not going, nor did I make the choice because I was commanded to. I made the decision because I honestly believed it was the right thing for me to do, to bring light and warmth to people who didn’t have the pure love of Christ in their life.
I went with pure intentions, thinking I was a part of something bigger than me, and more important than anything I could possibly do. When I got to the MTC I had heavy blinders covering my eyes for weeks until that voice of reason, the voice that had been repressed and silenced began to shout at me. My eyes were opened! I saw the politics, the back biting, the two faced hypocrisy from young men who would shake your hand with one hand and pick your pocket with the other, and from the old white men in suits who knew it. I went as a volunteer, asking for little and received even less.
I was abused mentally and emotionally and on a few occasions almost duked it out with fellow missionaries. I was given tasks and assigned goals impossible to achieve and was told that if I didn’t, it was because of my lack of faith, my disobedience to God or the mission rules, my sins. If ever I succeeded it wasn’t because of anything I did, it was thanks to God. If I failed, it was always my fault. Guilt and fear are powerful motivators. I was assigned roommates or “companions” and endured a cold, self-isolation and verbal and mental abuse from a few self-righteous, arrogant, judgmental boys who thought they were endowed with power from on High. I had no recourse to move out into a healthy environment.
“Sometimes the Lord tests you. Sometimes we live with difficult people. It is your responsibility to seek comfort and strength from the Lord” is what my Mission President told me, omitting the fact that, no, I don’t HAVE to live with anyone I don’t want to. I don’t HAVE to endure verbal abuse from anyone at any time, ever. And as an unpaid volunteer, I should never have been forced and threatened the way I was under the pretense that the Church was looking out for me and had my best interest at heart.
I lived in squalor in some cities. Sometimes I had no heat, once a roach crawled into my mouth while I was sleeping but I was lucky that I always had hot water. I washed my clothes by hand in the bathtub. I ate poorly since there was little more than bread, rotten potatoes, soup, questionable meat, concentrated fruit juice, and cheap Russian candy at the stores. My youthful, adventure seeking nature was satisfied and I thought those experiences were fun. Unhealthy, but fun.
It was not the “best two years of my life” as the worn out bromide goes. But I’m not convinced that I would give it up or trade my experiences either. For despite the negatives and ugliness, there were many positives and much beauty. I got everything I wanted: a new country, a new language, new people, just not in the way I expected. Oh, to be a young man in post Soviet-Russia! I lived in buildings commissioned by Stalin, I had picnics in Birch tree Russian forests, I slept in cold, crowded trains and woke up in Moscow, I picked fruit on Russian dachas with feeble old women, I fished in the Volga, I watched Communist parades and saw important historical locations of the 20th Century, like the birthplace of Lenin and Stalin’s secret bunker. I learned a culture that can’t be learned from textbooks and I lost my faith.
I would never be a missionary for the church again. That experience comes, thankfully, only once in a lifetime.