Friday, September 18, 2015

Mormon mom explains how people should treat missionaries...

Yesterday, I happened to see an article on Huffington Post by Mette Ivie Harrison, a Mormon woman whose daughter just served a mission.  The article was about how people should treat missionaries they run into while going about their daily business.  To be fair to the author of the article, I thought a lot of what she wrote made pretty good sense.  She comes from the perspective of a person who loves her faith and wants to share it with others.  She's proud of her daughter, who served a mission when she didn't "have to".  Of course, no one "has" to serve a Mormon mission, but I have it on good authority that a lot of young male Mormons feel like they have to do a mission or resign themselves to a lifetime of shame and perpetual virginity.

I'm sure her daughter came home from her 18 months of "service" and told her mother about things people did that she found rude or ignorant.  So Mom helpfully writes a piece for Huffington Post about who Mormon missionaries are and what they do.  The first thing she writes is that the missionaries are typically very young.  Males are 18 to 20 years old and females are 19 to 21 years old.  She refers to them as "babies".

I'm not sure I would call anyone between the ages of 18 and 21 a "baby".  I would sure hope they weren't like babies at that age.  But I can sorta see what she means.  The older you get, the younger so many other people seem to be.  It really is true that people who are very young adults tend to be somewhat ignorant about life because most of them haven't yet really done much living on their own.  I don't think that it's a bad thing for young people to go away from home and learn to survive.  On the other hand, while you may see your young adult child as a "baby" away from home for the first time, the rest of the world will expect them to be adults and act accordingly.  Mormon missionaries typically live by strict lifestyle rules, so it's not like I'd be expecting them to be out drinking, partying, or plundering.  My point, really, is that your "baby" is not a baby to other people.  To other people, they are fellow humans and what they are doing is not necessarily special.  In fact, many folks will see them as pests.

Harrison explains that many missionaries pay to go on missions rather than saving for college or a new car.  While I understand that Harrison and others in the LDS church think that a mission is a more honorable expense than college or a car, those who don't believe in Mormonism may see it as more of a waste of time and money.  I might think of a Mormon mission as being more valuable if missionaries had time to do things other than proselytize, attend church, and read the Book of Mormon or the Bible.  While a lot of missionaries learn another language on their missions, many do not because they serve in places closer to home.  They spend their days tracting, knocking on doors, and maybe, if they're lucky, doing some kind of service project or chore that actually helps someone.

Many missionaries have died or been injured while serving.  I'm not saying it happens often, but I have read enough news stories and personal accounts of missionaries whose health ends up permanently damaged by their time in the mission field.  The same could be said for Peace Corps Volunteers, of course.  But Peace Corps Volunteers have access to competent medical providers and most of them are older and somewhat wiser than the "kids" on Mormon missions.  At the very least, the vast majority of Volunteers have college degrees and some professional or volunteer work experience.  They aren't usually people right out of high school whose parents still think of them as "babies".

Harrison goes on to write:

Mormon missionaries have VERY little training in theology or religion. Since they're only high school graduates, you can imagine. Sure, they've been in Sunday school all their lives and they've taken a four year course in high school called "Seminary" (most of them). They also spend a few weeks at a Missionary Training Center (MTC) where they are taught the basic lessons to offer investigators. They're not interested in sparring with people about religious history or doctrine.

And yet, people are supposed to address the male missionaries as "elder" and the females as "sister" and listen to their lessons on Mormonism.  Forgive us, Mormon mom, but can you see how ridiculous that seems to people older than 21?  Especially when you flat out explain that these "babies" who have been sent out to teach people about Mormonism don't actually know that much about what they're teaching.  You said it yourself.

Now... I grew up Presbyterian and I went to church almost every Sunday and took Sunday School classes for years.   I took a confirmation course and went to vacation Bible school.  And I will be the first to tell you how little I knew about what I was supposed to believe.   I can't imagine trying to sell Presbyterianism to people when I was 19-21 years old.  And I think Presbyterianism is probably a more attractive product than Mormonism is, simply because we get to choose our own underwear and drink coffee, tea, and beer.

It wasn't until I worked at a church camp for Presbyterian kids that I learned anything about the structure of the church services I was forced to attend or the Bible.  And even that wasn't much because I honestly wasn't very interested in it.  My guess is that a lot of Mormon kids are more like I was than many people would want to admit.  There are exceptions, of course, but a lot of young people in the LDS church are simply doing what is expected of them.  I doubt most of them have a burning desire to go door to door trying to convert people to their religion.  Indeed, I don't even think missions are about conversions.  They are about getting young people to invest in the church and stay Mormon in the face of many temptations to stray.

Understanding that these young folks on missions are mostly doing them to make their families proud, have an adventure, "find themselves", check off a requirement for landing a spouse, or live up to other peoples' expectations of them, I have a hard time really "respecting" what they're doing; because most of them don't know that much.  And most of them could be spending their time and money much more wisely elsewhere.  But since it's their time and their money, I will refrain from saying to them what I believe to be true.  I would only hope the missionaries would show me the same respect and not try to waste my time by trying to share their message... which Mormon mom expressly writes in her article they mostly don't even fully understand themselves.

I think most of what Harrison writes is a plea for people to be kind to missionaries.  I don't think that's an unreasonable request.  I have only run into Mormon missionaries once and I was kind to them.  I offered them water, a brief respite in air conditioning, and I even listened to their message.  However, I quickly found out that being nice to a missionary can lead to having them try to turn me into a project.  While I can tell them "no", a lot of people just flat out don't want to bothered by religious people, especially when they are in their own homes, minding their own business.

The comments on Ms. Harrison's article are interesting.  I notice that few people are neutral when it comes to articles about Mormonism.  A lot of ex-Mormons turn up and do battle with current true believers.  Some people leave comments about how they don't like to be bothered.  Some sing praises about the church or express respect for what missionaries are doing.  It's a fact that I don't like Mormonism for many reasons.  That doesn't mean that I hate Mormons or can't treat them with kindness and decency.  I don't need to be told how to treat missionaries because I treat them the way I'd treat anyone... with common courtesy and basic respect.  I would hope they'd treat me the same way.


  1. Mom gives a ringing endorsement of Mormonism - our mishies are young and they really don't know much about their faith (because if they REALLY studied it like you would study a subject in college, they'd realize what a damn fraud it is, but I digress . . . ). But this is what our church sends out to proselytize to people. Unlike Christian denominations for whom being a missionary is actually a professional job that you train more than 6 weeks for and you spend YEARS in the mission field not 18 months being moved from location to location.


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