Kirby: I survived a Mormon missionary training center
On an April morning in 1973, my father pulled the family Plymouth up to a curb in downtown Salt Lake City and ordered me out.
Him: "Good luck. Don't come home until 1975."
Me: "OK, let me get my suitcase ..."
The old man shot the car away from the curb like I might change my mind. Had I known what was coming, I probably would have.
At that moment I was just one of a nearly 1,000 white shirts being funneled into the old North Temple mission home, 30 seconds into what 40 years later I still consider the worst two months of my entire life.
It didn't take long for me to realize I was out of my element. Less than 24 hours after walking through the front door, I penned this spiritual lament in my new missionary journal:
"Monday, April 23: Everyone talks about their mission calls and how happy they are to be here. I like my call OK, but I [deleted] hate this [deleted] place."
Some of what I was feeling was my fault. In the days before the missionary bar was raised, it was possible to go from being a petty criminal to a servant of the Lord in a matter of weeks. I know because I did it.
Lack of preparation aside, a large part of how I was feeling about the mission home wasn't my fault. It was place versus personality and not all environments are suited for all people no matter how you try to correlate the two.
I wasn't opposed to being correlated per se. By the time I walked into the mission home, I'd already been in the Army and in jail. I'd been correlated plenty.
But neither of those had prepared me for the emotional claustrophobia of religious groupthink. It's one thing to order people to stand in a line and another to try and make them feel unworthy for not liking it.
One of the first things said to me as I entered the mission home was, "Elder, the Lord would be very disappointed in your haircut."
Since even then I didn't believe it was possible to disappoint an omnipotent being, I figured this was just a self-important way of telling me my hair was too long.
Fine, I'll get another haircut. But why drag God into it?
Pointing this out was not appreciated. Neither was any other expressed lack of enthusiasm for the wonders of gang spirituality.
Whether it's beads, khakis or white shirts, few people are more brainlessly enthusiastic than kids with a mandate and a uniform. You can get them to do and feel just about anything, including unworthiness.
What followed was two months of eating, sleeping, studying and emoting in unison in order to be validated. It wasn't me.
It wasn't a few other guys either. I watched them become sullen, then livid, and once or twice, self-injurious, for their failure to adapt in a highly cloistered and artificial environment.
They weren't the wrong people, just in the wrong place. The great fear was that losing yourself in the Lord's work meant becoming something you weren't.
I survived the missionary training center and was sent to South America. On the day I left, I wrote:
"Toosday, June 26: We took our luggage down to the van for the airport. I did 66 days of this crap. That's one 6 short of the mark of the beast. It's a sign, I think. Good riddance."
The rest of my mission went better. There was still a lot of work to do. One of the toughest jobs there is in life is to be yourself when you're stuck in the middle of everyone else.
Robert Kirby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/stillnotpatbagley.
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