I went on a Mormon mission at the advanced age of 20, a full year after guys my age were gone.
A year doesn’t sound like much, but I had crammed a lot into my premission life: trouble with the cops, military service and a moderate to severe drug problem. People like me know that it isn’t the road or the distance that matters, but how fast it’s driven.
A different me walked into the mission home. I had repented (some) and was surrounded by hundreds of other valiant missionaries, many of us destined to spread the gospel in places where we still didn’t speak the languages.
It was wonderful that a wretch like me was part of a huge undertaking to ready the world for the Lord to burn the sort of people I used to be. Yeah, I was really full of myself.
A quick read through my mission journal reminds me of how awestruck I was in the mission home, mainly by talks from church authorities whom I had only ever seen on TV. Apostles, Seventies, and once even the president of the church.
In my 20-year-old brain, these were the Lord’s virtual meat puppets. Everything that came out of their mouths was the opinion of God. I esteemed it a signal honor just to be in their presence and listen to them make me feel worse about myself.
Bear with me for a minute while things get weird. Suppose that in that moment someone I had been taught conversed with God had invited me into his office for a little one-on-one time.
Once in his office, he told me how much he loved me and how special I was. He even asked for a brotherly hug. That’s when he tried to reach down my brand new JCPenney suit pants.
What would have happened next?
It’s a fair question, considering the recent news of a former Missionary Training Center president being accused of sexually abusing sister missionaries more than 30 years ago.
While the disclosure of these incidents has forced some people to choose sides, I’m more interested in what kind of zap such an incident would have put on my 20-year-old brain.
For starters, would I have told anyone what had just happened in the leader’s office?
Hell, no. Not only would my past put my credibility in doubt, I was also the guy who brought a squirt gun to a mission home study group and used it on three really uptight elders.
Who would believe a guy like me over a church leader like that?
Would I have finished my mission? Probably not. The only reason I put up with the repentance process in the first place was to have a shot at becoming more like the person I thought he was but wasn’t.
Being molested by a person responsible for keeping me close to the spirit would have made me question the logic of abandoning drugs. At such a young age, that kind of irony can only be processed with a lot more of them.
Mercifully, nothing like that ever happened to me. I tolerated ecclesiastical abuse in much more subtle forms. Most of it came from other missionaries, whom I felt more than comfortable telling to go — well, you know.
On the bright side, nearly all my senior ecclesiastical leaders were beneficially inspirational, including the ones I didn’t agree with but didn’t yet know why. They all helped bring me out of the mire I had gotten myself into.
I count myself lucky that I never encountered a predatory church leader — until much later, when a few local ones crossed my path.
By then I was a cop who, despite an honorably served mission, had absolutely no love or mercy in his heart for such vile behavior.