The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has released a series of videos intended to help keep its missionaries safe out in the scary world.
It makes sense, given that many if not most missionaries are barely out of puberty when they go. They have little worldly experience when it comes to crime, appropriate behavior between sexes, or even making their own beds.
I was 20 years old when called but still emotionally about half that. I knew it, too. Which is why I entered the mission home in Salt Lake City with a massive inferiority complex.
Here I was, suddenly surrounded by hundreds of future apostles and stake presidents, all of them firm in their knowledge of the gospel. Then there was me, a wretch who wasn’t long off a more than passing association with street drugs.
Within the first hour, I was ordered to get another major haircut, find a “less hippie-looking” necktie, and send a pocketknife home.
It wasn’t until I got to the Language Training Mission (now called the Missionary Training Center) in Provo, where, after spending an insufferable amount of time (72 hours) surrounded by the Lord’s elect, that I came to understand how much danger I was in.
There wasn’t a single person in my district who understood the real world better than the dumbest guy in my Army basic training platoon. We were children being sent to some of the worst places in the world and expected to take care of ourselves.
It didn’t occur to me that my own pre-mission life experiences — as unsavory as they might have been — would help keep me safe on a mission.
Uruguay in 1973 was a harrowing place full of murder, revolution, violence and anti-American sentiment. One July afternoon, a massive street disturbance erupted a few blocks from where we were knocking on doors.
In that moment, the Holy Ghost whispered to me for the first time in my life. It sounded exactly like the rattle and clank of armor.
Elder Lekker had never heard a tank before, but I had. So even though I was the junior missionary, we hearkened unto the spirit and went the hell home, where we spent two days listening to a city racked by gunfire.
My disgraceful gift of tongues also helped keep me safe. Having lived in Spain as a child, and Southern California for years after that, I had a language leg up on never-take-no-for-an-answer missionaries.
One night, I had to explain to an overly superior district leader what a man threatened to do after Elder Butz told him that Christ wouldn’t bless him if he wouldn’t listen to our message.
Me • “He says your mom is a whore and he’s going to cram dog [stuff] down your throat if we don’t leave right now.”
Elder Butz • “How do you even know that?”
Me • “I’m leaving. Bon appétit.”
Elder Butz • “Wait. What does that mean?”
I confess that I had to rely on other missionaries when it came to teaching the gospel according to us. I’m still grateful to the ones who had the patience to help me in that regard. But I’d like to think my own contribution also helped them.
One night, we came home to find our front door lock broken. Burglaries were common in an impoverished country, and hungry criminals knew where the money was. My companion started to rush inside to assess our loss. When I stopped him, he wanted to know why. I said it was because the bad guys were still inside.
Him • “What makes you think so?”
Me • “Because I would be.”
Sure enough, as soon as the cops showed up, we heard a clanging and crashing as whoever took off through the back door.
Except for bike wrecks, dog bites, intestinal disorders, and a couple of companions I would have killed had the Lord turned his back for a minute, I had a relatively safe mission.
Ironically, a lot of it was based on past experiences that might have prevented me from going in the first place.
Robert Kirby is The Salt Lake Tribune’s humor columnist. Follow Kirby on Facebook.