Thursday, October 31, 2013

18 is not the new 19 - Destroying Mormon Culture

Growing up in the LDS Church, I learned quickly that I didn't like some things about the "sub-culture" within the religion.  I am told that many religions have them and while I am sure they do, Mormon culture at times drives me absolutely, 100% nuts.  Recently the Church announced that male missionaries can go on missions at age 18 instead of 19.  Female missionaries can go on missions at age 19 instead of 21.  I can make a guess as to why the two sexes go at different ages but since there isn't any "clear documentation" I won't guess.

I proudly served my mission in Alaska.  I left when I was 19 years 3 months old.  It took some time to get my paperwork squared away.  Especially since I had been gone for a semester at school and didn't start the paperwork until I got home.  I was the first missionary to leave from my ward in over 10 years (military ward with locals).  I remember how people looked at me the minute I didn't leave at the second I turned 19.  For some reason there is a stigma on missionaries if they don't leave the second they should.  People think they are in the repentance process yadda yadda yadda.  They judge them.  I don't get it.  There is a reason you can serve for years after the age of 19 and now 18.  Some people just are not ready -- AND THAT IS 100% OK!!

And for missionaries that go out on missions and quickly return for whatever reason other than pure laziness, the same stigma is attached to them too.  "They must have screwed up on their mission." or "They must not have a testimony."  Enough already!!

We are not cookie cutter Mormons.  We are not a cookie cutter world.  We are all very unique, Mormon or not, and very individual so to think that people will go from the birthday cake to the Missionary Training Center is so ridiculous and hurts these young people when we judge and expect them to be ready on their birthday.

I had a companion on my mission who spent 6 years in the Navy before serving his mission.  He was a nuclear engineer something or other on a submarine.  He was older............almost an old man when he came out on his mission.  He wasn't ready when he was 19.  But he turned out to be the hardest working and most obedient missionary I knew.  He was a legend in my mission.  I wish I knew were he was today!!  I often think that my first Mission President put me with him because he was so mature and I so wasn't.  I would love to mention him by name personally to give him a ton of credit for making me into the missionary that I was.

And while I am on the topic I wish to share a story that I am not sure I have shared on this blog.  It is regarding this type of situation and one where I struggled greatly and the rumors and stigma of coming home early really didn't help build me up to return to my mission.

The personal ridicule I received when I came home early from my mission was ridiculous and especially for the reason.  I was already upset with myself and the Lord undeserving to then be judge was difficult.  I was sent home at 17 1/2 month.  I was stinking already on the home stretch.  I clearly needed surgery* and people were talking about how I was "unworthy and screwed up morally" on my mission and was sent home.  I needed surgery and the military doctors in Anchorage told me therapy would take a long time and the Church didn't want my companion to sit around.  My Dad offered to take all his vacation (6 months) and come to Alaska and sit with me while I recovered.  But the Church sent me home.  Doctors told me I would need 9 months to recover.  I was devastated.  I came home from my mission the day before Thanksgiving 1996.  As a knife to the chest, the LDS Church told my Mission President that if I returned I would not return to Alaska but to California.  I took that as a challenge and told my Mission President I would be coming back to Alaska or not at all.  This was childish but I felt like my Father had called me to Alaska and that is where I should serve!

That is right.  A bloody knee.
I went back on my mission February 4th, 1997 with my brace on my leg to Alaska**.  I also got a second mission call letter when I was back on my mission.  9 months turned into literally a little over 2 months.  It was one of the personal miracle I experience in my life.  I also worked hard.  Before returning I would walk on my crutches to physical therapy so my physical therapist could literally torture me with electricity.  I walked both ways because I wanted back on my mission and I was willing to do whatever it took personally and physically.  It was a difficulty two months for me though.  I struggled with fully understanding why I was home or why I was in the situation I was in.  I was also punishing myself for a really bad decision.*  Looking back there is some clarity to it all but not full understanding.  I do think that it instilled in me part of my drive (I am sometimes told this is stubbornness) and definitely made me want to serve and finish my mission even more than before.  I also think that while I was still anger and upset, it matured me in a sense.  This situation also taught me to be obedient.  The last part of my mission was a pure gift from my Father.

Scouting teaches us that everyone is different and we should love them for it.  The Church teaches this too.  We just sometimes fall down which is OK.  So who cares when a missionary goes on a mission as long as they go??!!  18 is not the new 19.  19 isn't the new anything.  Missionary work is important at any age.  So lets stop judging them by the date that they leave!!

I semi-recently had a friend come home from a mission much earlier than expected.  I don't care why.  I just care if he is OK.

* At 10 months on my mission I was serving in an awesome place called Homer, Alaska - the Halibut Capital of the World.  I was tracking a very small mobile home park.  My companion and I were approached by a dog on a really long chain.  My companion was on my right and he shifted away from the dog and to my left.  I kept my eyes on the dog the whole time as he walked beside me.  I watched him look over at my knee, grab my knee cap with his teeth and tear my ACL.  I reached down to kill him but...........  Painful.  Outright painful.  I was transferred to Anchorage where I could get free medical care two months after the bite.  My Dad was serving in the military and I was allowed on base to get the care I needed.  It took the doctors, Mission President, the LDS Missionary Medical Department and my parents 7 months to decide what was going to happen after MRIs, x-rays and multiple knee draining(s) with really large needles (the one I remember the most is when the doctor took almost 100 cc's of fluid off my knee).  There was a small incident that I cannot leave out in this whole situation -- a horrible choice I made.  After being bitten by the dog, my Mission President and my parents told me NOT to play basketball.  The doctors did too.  I disobeyed and this ensured that I needed surgery.  I believed I was invincible because I was a teenager and because I was a missionary.  Trying to take the ball to the hole against an Elder that is 6 foot 6 was not my most shining moment especially when I CHOSE TO DISOBEY to my Mission President and my parents.   I was grateful that it took that long to decide to send me home because I was happy to be serving a mission minus the discomfort of hurt knee.  While I was disobedient  I have learned a lesson from this and being one who is hardest on my own self this is part of the reason I went home upset mostly at myself for making a really dumb choice.  I still have the cut up pair of pants I was wearing when I was bitten by the dog in a picture frame on my book shelf.  A great reminder for me.

** My Mission President really went to bat for me.  He told the Missionary Department I wouldn't come back unless I got to return to Alaska.  They told him I was going to California.  He called up a member of the Quorum of the 70 he knew and asked him to work some magic.  Bingo.  I went back to Alaska.  My Mission President was and is a great man who really stuck his neck out for me.  I still am appreciative of this today.

The last transfer I was able to help coordinate with my awesome Mission President along with his wife and Steve and Colby.  
Rant concluded.

UPDATE (11/06/2013) - Article on study of early returning missionaries.  


Eric the Half-bee said...

Fish, thanks for sharing this. I've been concerned that with last year's announcement, we'd see a surge of young men who were entering mission service, not because they were ready, but because they'd had a birthday. On the other hand, I've seen the preparation at the local level take a good turn in order to meet the challenge.

One of the best missionaries in my mission (the now-defunct Guatemala City North Mission) was also older, about 25, I think, when I met him. He had a maturity that the rest of us Callow Youth could really look up to. I think he'd finished his degree before serving. Like I said, we didn't question why he waited, we looked to his capable leadership. There was also a Zone Leader who had done a six-year enlistment in the Army before filing his paperwork. May have come in handy when encountering Guerillas in the highland jungles. Age and experience makes a big difference. And I entirely agree, it's not about going as soon as eligibility dictates, but when a man or woman is ready. Check out this treatment on the same subject by Orson Scott Card (and take your kids to see the movie based on his novel, Ender's Game!)

Eric the Half-bee said...

...Which is not to say that before 2012, young men weren't serving simply because they'd had a birthday...