"When I was on my mission": The Secret Shame of RM's

Because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has had more missionaries serving than ever before, we also have more returned missionaries (RM's) in our congregations than at any other time in our history. As the massive influx of new missionaries from the era of the age change are coming home, and dealing with the post-mission adjustment, that struggle has never been more visible.

So why is it that there is still such a cultural stigma against RM's talking about their missionary service?

To give you some examples of what I mean...

 Or any of these...

It's obvious to me that anyone who rails against RM's like this has either never served a mission, has forgotten what it was like when they came home, or simply doesn't understand the problem they're perpetuating by shaming RM's into silence like this. And every time I see it happen, I desperately want to say something because of what my experience was like.

My Experience as an RM

My mission was not unique, as far as missions go. I was called to serve in the Brazil São Paulo Interlagos mission. I waited for a visa, like a lot of others who went to Brazil. I had companions I loved, and companions I learned to love. I struggled with unfamiliar language, customs, culture, and food. The stories I could tell would be familiar on the surface, similar to others told before and since.

But my mission was not ordinary to me. The lessons I learned are precious to me, beyond anything of earthly value that I own. I paid for the experiences I gained in drops of blood, sweat, and tears--each of which were numbered to the Lord. I learned  about effective leadership, goal setting, time management, and how miracles happen when these three things come together. I learned about the love of God for all of his children, and the way he shows that love to perfect strangers. I saw the power that came into my life when I consistently applied the Atonement of Jesus Christ into my ministry, and focused on developing Christ-like attributes. I gained a lifetime's worth of church service experience in eighteen short months.

I can't see this picture and not think of my mission scripture, Isaiah 62: 1. Nothing makes me a better wife, visiting teacher, friend, neighbor, beehive advisor, or human being than when I'm thinking about my mission.

Nothing I could have ever done, and have done since in the Church, has pushed me so completely beyond my limit--day after day--as my mission did. And the few things that do are merely continuations of the work I began on my mission. The exact line in my experience where my mission ends and my RM life begins is integrated so completely, I can't see it anymore. Because of that, I don't see my mission experiences as some sort of off-limits section of my life, to be filed away under "M" for Mission. I just see my life, to be learned from in hindsight like any other season of my life. But I maintain that there is no better teacher over a lifetime than a mission.

I had no comprehension of how much I would miss my mission once it ended. I vividly remember sitting in front of an international market my first week in the States, crying my eyes out because I felt so disconnected from everything around me. Speaking in English was hard. Reading food labels in Spanish trying to find Brazilian ingredients was hard. Moving back in with my family, who'd practically disowned me because of my mission, was hard. Entering a singles branch I hardly recognized because all my friends had moved on was hard. Trying to pick up my relationship with my fiance, a recently returned missionary, when our relationship had existed only in letters and emails up to that point, was hard.

And the realization settled over me that no matter what I did or said, I could never show anyone how much I was hurting, because I could never make them understand how much I loved so many things they would never see.

All I wanted was some beans and rice, and for life to make sense again. In Portuguese, the word for that kind of bone-deep longing is saudades. And I would carry that longing inside of me, incomprehensible as a foreign language to everyone around me, for years to come.

"When I was on My Mission..."

The lonelier I felt, the more I tried to make someone--anyone--understand what I was feeling. But the more I talked about my mission, the more people shut me down. "When I was on my mission," was a magic phrase that could end any conversation, and make me completely invisible at any Church function.

I was unprepared to run face first into the cultural stigmas of being an RM who talked about her mission. The ridiculous assumption that if someone mentions any aspect of their missionary service, it's because they think they're better than anyone and everyone else. To have my intentions misinterpreted so completely, and thrown back in my face. To be told, "Your mission is over, and it's time to come home"--as if I had somehow missed the plane, or was still living out of a suitcase on the floor.

How could the same community that had been so enthusiastic to see me go on a mission, be so indifferent to who I had become now that I was home? How does a mission go from being "the best two years" while I'm putting in my papers, to a collective eye-roll the day after I give my homecoming talk?

If talking about or continuing to learn from the mission experience, including in Church settings, is going to be culturally forbidden, why bother sending missionaries at all? Because as someone who has been an RM longer than the eighteen months I served, I can attest that the experience is designed to stay with you for much longer than that. It's not an experience that can easily be compartmentalized, especially at the behest of peers who honestly should know better than to ask it of someone.

Maybe it's the convert in me, the one who wasn't taught or baptized by full-time missionaries because there weren't any in my stake at the time I joined the Church. I love mission stories. I love being around missionaries. And I never feel more alive and engaged in the Church than when I'm talking about or participating in missionary work. So the idea that RM's have some sort of obligation to shove their light under a bushel for the sake of members who don't share that zeal is truly baffling to me. It becomes even more baffling when you understand that such an attitude isn't limited to the twenty-something crowd in the Church.

I'm sorry, but that second sentiment is pure foolishness. Remembering and internalizing my missionary service, drawing strength from those roots publicly and privately, that is a spiritual experience. And just like any plant, I have to continue to stretch those roots deeper into the soil. This can only happen as I learn from the experiences I had on my mission, and grow into what's going on around me now that my mission is over. And as I take in spiritual nourishment, inevitably every ounce of that nourishment is going to pass through every portion of my roots, including the experiences that came before. Everything I do in the Church, every way in which I build up my testimony, ultimately goes through my experiences as a missionary.

That reflection is part of my current spiritual journey, a reflection of the very real and active spiritual life I enjoy to this day.

To ask, expect, or even shame me into not talking about my mission would effectively kill my testimony. It would turn back the flow of revelation, such as I experience it, and quench the Spirit. And as leaders across the Church struggle to understand how RM's could ever fall away from what they once treasured so deeply--don't wonder. While the answer to this question is individual and multi-faceted, I can shed some light on at least one critical place where RM's are stumbling.

Anyone who really treasures their mission, who gave their entire heart and soul to that experience, how can they ever stop talking about it completely? Granted, every person should seek to have great spiritual experiences after their missions. But you show me a person who outright refuses to talk about his or her mission, who belittles others for the joy they found in their missionary service, and I'll show you a member who is in need of rescuing. Those are the Church members who are in the throes of an unresolved conflict, possibly even a crisis of faith.

They're the ones who need to check themselves, not the ones rejoicing and trying to share their light with others. The only people I've ever met who resent the light are those who are too embarrassed to admit that they're perishing in the dark. And yes, that too is something I learned on my mission. Incidentally, during the curious visits I made to an excommunicated stake president.

But that's another story.

Missions are Forever

Two weeks ago, in gospel doctrine class, I talked about my mission. We were studying King Benjamin's speech, where he admonishes members of the Church not to neglect the petitions of the poor. Because we live in an area with a great deal of panhandling, I questioned how it would be possible to give to every person who ever asked for money. And I remembered when I'd once asked the Lord the same question, after reading the same set of verses as a missionary.

São Paulo has an interesting panhandling culture because of the sheer number of people who live there. Many of them gather around metro stations. On a single trip to the mission office, depending upon the distance, it was possible to see as many as 20 different people begging for money or food. In situations like that one, where the money that is provided to me really isn't my own, how do I view the imperative from King Benjamin to "not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain"? (See Mosiah 4: 16-18)

It was only as I told the story to our Sunday School class that I remembered how the Lord answered me all those years ago.

On one particular trip on the metro, a man came into the rail car we were riding in and began to ask for money. I didn't understand much of what he said, but I remember the prompting I got as I thought about the question I'd asked earlier regarding King Benjamin's counsel.

Look at his shoes.

As the man continued petitioning all of the passengers for money, I noticed he was wearing brand new, shiny, black work boots. And the incongruity between his story, the shoes on his feet, and his overall clean appearance was readily apparent to me, especially in comparison to the more obvious want I saw in so many others he was asking for money. I couldn't know exactly what that man's circumstances were. But as he got increasingly aggressive in his approach to get money from people, I couldn't take my eyes off of his shoes.

And I realized, as I recounted this story in Sunday School, that you could tell a lot about a person's real poverty (or lack thereof) by the shoes he has on his feet. When King Benjamin said to provide for the poor, he didn't necessarily mean in terms of money alone, nor was he speaking to the imperative to help anyone else but the genuinely impoverished. King Benjamin and the Lord both intend for us to gauge the petitions we receive from others, and our ability to give, with wisdom and inspiration.

When I was on my mission, I learned the answer to this question. Now that I'm home, I'm continually taught by the Spirit, using hundreds of experiences just like these--whose true import I didn't understand at the time I had these experiences. And while many said they appreciated my story, nothing made me happier than when the octogenarian RM who served in Brazil many decades ago, and still greets me in Portuguese every Sunday, told me he'd had similar experiences on his mission. And for a rare moment, I knew he understood me perfectly.

I felt the love we shared for a place and a people that many in that room would never see.

I love this brother. He has served in every leadership capacity you can imagine, and is a well-respected member in whom you could truly invest any sacred trust. He has given a lifetime of service in the Church--including as a bishop. If that sweet, adorable great grandfather continues to learn from his mission, and is still talking about it deep into his eighties, I think it's safe for the rest of us to do so without getting the lecture to "come home already."

Maybe what isn't needed is for more RM's to "come home" from their missions, but for today's RM's to bring more of their mission home with them--enough to share, and space to share it in, to last a lifetime and beyond.

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