Recently returned missionaries love to talk about their missions. It’s their conversation topic of choice. In fact, if the conversation isn’t about their mission, RMs will inevitably turn the discussion in that direction.
FRIEND: Say, it sure it hot today.
RM: Hot? This ain’t hot. On my mission you could fry an egg on the sidewalk it was so hot.
FRIEND: Boy, I sure love rocky road ice cream.
RM: Dude, on my mission we had the rockiest roads. Potholes everywhere. It was awful. The government had a poor municipal infrastructure, you see? Road maintenance was a joke.
McDONALD’S EMPLOYEE: You want fries with that?
RM: I went two years without fast food, buddy. You think I’m going to skip the fries? When I was in Mongolia all we had was crackers and yak’s milk. And trust me, that gets old pretty fast. We baptized a yak shepherd, though. Did you know yaks have shepherds?
Fortunately most returned missionaries grow out of this phase. Usually after a year or so, they catch on that nobody cares. Except for their mothers of course. Moms always like a good mission story.
But some returned missionaries persist in telling their stories. And in order to maintain their ever fading audience, the stories become just a hair more exaggerated, just a touch more fantastical.
And the more fantastical they become, the more often they’re told by others. And pretty soon the true story is replaced with whatever will make the story more interesting. And so urban myths are born.
I heard plenty of these when I worked in the MTC. New missionaries would come in thinking they were going off to war.
“How many times were you robbed?” they’d ask. “Will I get worms as soon as I get there, or does that take a while?” Or my favorite, “How long did it take you to learn English again?”
I wanted to close my eyes and shake my head. “You are not going to die,” I’d tell them. “And you probably won’t get robbed. You probably won’t get worms. And when you come home, you’ll speak English just fine. You’ve spoken it all your life. Why would you forget how?”
The expression on their faces was always one of mixed relief and disappointment. “I won’t get robbed?” they’d think. “Then what am I going to tell the guys back home when all of this is over?”
Of course, sometimes these things do happen. Missionaries do get robbed. And sometimes missionaries do get sick. But most don’t. Most go about their mission and perform their duty unharmed.
Because we all know missionaries are protected. They’re the Lord’s servants, and He watches over them.
Then why do some missionaries get hurt? If they’re protected, why do some — albeit a small minority — blow out a knee or break an arm or, in the rarest of cases, die?
Well, there are many reasons. The most common, I think, is that the missionary was doing something he or she wasn’t supposed to be doing. Missionaries have very strict rules. No rock climbing. No swimming. No dangerous activities.
And those are just a few of the world-wide rules. Each mission often has additional rules that are pertinent to that geographical area.
And every rule exists to protect the missionary and preserve the work of the Lord. So when missionaries disobey the rules–even the seemingly insignificant ones like curfews–they’re only putting themselves in harm’s way.
But disobedience isn’t the only reason. Sometimes missionaries come into the field with a preexisting condition. And sometimes that condition worsens in the field.
And sometimes terrible things happen and there’s no explanation why.
One of my companions, for example, got skin cancer while we were serving together. It was a terribly frightening thing.
And this guy was amazingly faithful and obedient. But he had to go home. It broke his heart, but he had to go home.
Another of my companions was diagnosed with diabetes while we were together. He too was an exemplary servant.
So, yes, bad things happen. And sometimes we don’t know why.
But these are the exceptions. Missions are not as grueling and as terrible as many of the urban myths would lead us to believe.
Missionaries don’t have to sleep on the floor, for example. Nor do they live in abject poverty. The church takes very good care of its missionaries, giving them decent housing and lodging.
Their apartments won’t be as nice as home, of course. But they will be sufficient. They will be comfortable. And if the missionaries have to work in a very poor area, which is often the case, you can bet that their apartment will at least be one of the nicest ones around.
So I always chuckle when members treat missionaries with pity, like the missionary is carrying out some terrible undeserved sentence. “You poor dears. You probably haven’t eaten in days. Here, take this goulash home in a tupperware container and spoon feed each other.”
If the missionaries haven’t eaten in days, it’s nobody’s fault but their own. They’re grown men or women. If they’re hungry, they’ll fix themselves some food. They have money. The church sees to that. If they don’t have money it’s because they squandered it.
Now, am I saying that we shouldn’t feed the missionaries? No. Nor am I saying that we can’t be nice to them. I’m simply saying that we shouldn’t baby them.
The church is not in the business of making missionaries’ lives difficult. The opposite is true. The church does all it can to help missionaries feel comfortable in their new environments.
But the church doesn’t baby them either. Missionaries get what they need and that’s it.
We had a missionary in our mission who constantly wrote home saying he didn’t have enough money. His loving mother responded by repeatedly sending him cash.
The guy was loaded. American dollars were pouring out of his ears. But to hear him tell it, his mission was only one step above wasting away in some cold dark dungeon. He was poor, neglected, and suffering.
It’s usually these guys who come home and start many of the urban myths. They feel like they have to prove to everyone that their mission was the most difficult in the world.
Put two of them in the same room, and the conversation will go something like this:
“We didn’t have hot water in our apartments, you know? We had to take cold showers.”
“Well on my mission,” the other will say, “we had to eat cow stomach.”
“Oh yeah? Well on my mission we had to wash all of our laundry by hand.”
“Oh yeah? Well at least you had water clean enough to wash clothes with. On my mission the water was so dirty we had to boil it, strain it, put it through a filtering system, reboil it, and add chlorine.”
“Boil it? You mean you had heat? In the part of the world where I served my mission, fire hadn’t even been invented yet.”
And so it goes, on and on until human survival in such areas becomes completely impossible.
The fact of the matter is, a mission is a wonderful thing. It’s difficult, yes, but you won’t need a machete to go tracting. You won’t live in a dense tropical jungle. You won’t have to fight off bears. You won’t get leprosy.
You’ll have challenges, yes. But that’s part of the experience. Those are there to help you learn to be reliant upon the Lord.
We go on missions to bring people to Christ. Those are the stories I like to hear. Like the ones about a family who overcame an obstacle in order to accept the truth. Or the ones about a single mother who found in the gospel a relief for all of her pain. Or the ones about a young boy who, despite his friend’s teasing, started going to church.
That’s what a mission is. Don’t let the urban myths fool you.
Besides, cow stomach isn’t that bad.