Kirby: How an old dog taught a Mormon missionary a new trick
The best LDS missionary companion I ever had was this guy. Not the one on the left. That's our district leader, Brent Merrell, of Vernal.
I mean the other guy. Red pants. Long tongue. He is seen here welcoming Merrell to the San Jose de Carrasco district of the Uruguay-Paraguay Mission in 1975.
Yeah, I know, he's a dog. But he also was called to be a servant of the Lord.
Popular post-mission claims to the contrary, my mission was not the best two years of my life. In fact, the first 18 months were easily the worst. Ever. It was my fault. I wasted all that time trying to be someone I wasn't.
Six months before the end, the mission president decided what I needed was a little time to myself. I was sent to a little, nothing beach town east of Montevideo on the Plate River. The only other missionary for miles was my junior companion, Carl English, from New Jersey.
Missionary work in San Jose was tough. Not only was the population largely transient, but also no one was interested in interrupting their time at the beach to talk to a couple of idiots on bikes.
I understood completely. We beat on their doors to ask if they were interested in us. If they weren't, we weren't interested in them, and we left. That was the only contact they had with Mormons until the next set of missionaries came along and did the same thing.
It was pointless. To the people in San Jose, we were just tall, rich, blond North Americans who came around to pester them about the gospel. They didn't like it, and they didn't like us.
They let us know by slamming doors in our faces, calling us names and even throwing things at us. It was bothersome at first, then it got tedious.
One day, a starving brown dog came up to us on the street. I patted his head and he followed us home. He was covered in sores and ticks, and starving. I gave him something to eat.
When I opened the door the next morning, the dog was sleeping next to our bikes. I let him in, cleaned him up and gave him a name. A week later, he was sleeping on my bed.
Lurch earned his keep. He followed us everywhere, sometimes running alongside us for 10 kilometers or more. He figured out right away that we always came back to the bikes, so he would stand guard until we returned.
He was a great bodyguard. English and I didn't get bitten by dogs, attacked by cows or robbed the entire last six months of my mission.
One day, out of boredom, I put a pair of gym shorts on Lurch. Then a white shirt. And a necktie. And a name tag. He looked fabulous.
English wasn't too keen on taking the new elder out to work, but it was too good of an opportunity for a guy like me to pass up. I told him the Holy Ghost had inspired me. He couldn't prove that it hadn't.
It was great. We knocked on doors. People flung them open and stopped so short that it was possible to read their minds: "Great, it's the %&*@ Mormons again. Wait, one of them is a dog."
I could talk to them as long as I wanted. They knew something wasn't right, but they didn't want to look stupid pointing it out. They waited for me to explain, and I never did.
If you had to be stuck with another missionary every minute of the day and I did Lurch was as good as it could get. He was pleasant, never said much and was fully committed to the work without being an insufferable prig.
Not everyone was happy about it. Our district leader showed up at the apartment. Dressing up the dog like a missionary was giving people the wrong idea about the restored gospel.
A vigorous theological discussion ensued. He cited mission rules as his authority to banish the dog. When I countered with the possibility of one of us being badly injured in the service of the Lord, he left fuming.
Complaints about the dog elder went all the way to the mission president, who was truly inspired. When the district leader was transferred a few weeks later, I took it as a sign.
Even so, we eventually had to release the dog as a full-time missionary. After the third or fourth fight with a cat, English couldn't afford to let Lurch wear any more of his shirts. So we reduced the dog's missionary apparel to just a necktie.
Although we never baptized anyone because of Lurch, we did manage to gain a few "converts." Thanks to him, people in San Jose stopped calling us names. When they heard we were in the neighborhood, they would even come out and talk to us. We made friends.
It wasn't hard to figure out why. We had stopped being the stereotypical thing they thought we were. We might be insane, but at least now we were interesting.
As time ran out, I wrestled with what to do with Lurch. I wrote to my parents. My father checked on it. The amount of money to ship a 50-pound dog to the states was astronomical.
I took a note from myself. Lurch would hate it in my parents' small backyard in Salt Lake City. Just like me, he would hate being forced to become something he wasn't. He was meant for a life off the porch.
My companion promised to take care of Lurch until his own eventual transfer. After that, it would have to be up to other missionaries and the local Mormons.
English walked me up to the highway that final day. We locked Lurch in the apartment. A block away we could still hear him tearing the place to pieces trying to get out. One of the hardest things I've ever done was to keep walking.
I still think about him a lot. In my mind's eye Lurch is always running along the beach, necktie and tongue snapping in the wind.
Sometimes the only thing you can change in people is the way they see you. Toward that end, Lurch is still capable of catching people off guard, including me.
Last month, the LDS Church History Library acquired the photo of Elders Merrell and Lurch. They wanted to archive it. They sent me the paperwork to fill out regarding where and when it was taken.
In a box in my office is an old necktie. Filthy and torn nearly in two by a barbed-wire fence, it has reminded me for decades of the importance of being myself despite the risks.
Robert Kirby can be reached at email@example.com or facebook.com/stillnotpatbagley.