A Dressing Down

The day I talked to my dad was a special stake conference: Elder F. Burton Howard of the Seventy was coming to speak to us. I was excited, as I had not seen a General Authority since leaving the MTC. His office in Sao Paulo had been calling me every day for a few weeks, asking if there were any possibility of a general strike in the country. There was essentially one labor union in Bolivia, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), and when they declared a strike, the whole country shut down. Every day I assured them that there were no signs of a strike. A few days before Elder Howard’s arrival, I heard from one of my contacts at the airline that there could possibly be a short-term strike, so when Brazil called, I had to tell them it was a slight possibility. Up to that point, Elder Howard had planned to tour all of Bolivia and hold conferences with the missionaries in every large town. With that one phone call, Elder Howard’s office canceled all meetings except for the stake conference in Cochabamba. I had to do a lot of work to cancel airline tickets and hotel reservations.

The day after stake conference we had a missionary conference with Elder Howard; all the missionaries in and around Cochabamba were there, perhaps eighty of us. I’ve spoken to a couple of mission friends who were there, and what we remember was a nearly hour-long harangue in which this tall, lanky American with a scarred left eye yelled at us for our lack of commitment to missionary work. We were, he said, lazy and disobedient to the rules. At one point, he leaned out over the podium, glaring, and said, in English, “I don’t make the rules; that’s just the way it is.” He also told us we shouldn’t be discouraged or depressed (I was a little of both) because “you are where the Lord wants you to be.”

My companion and I went home that night feeling devastated. We had been working so hard; we both had been sick and had some days forced ourselves to get out of bed and do the Lord’s work. But it was clear that what we had given wasn’t enough; the Lord expected more from us. We sat in our bedroom, nearly in tears, talking about what we had heard. It didn’t take too long for us to decide that Elder Howard was right: we weren’t doing well enough, and we needed to be more committed. By the time I wrote in my journal that night, I had decided that this conference had been “Awesome!”

Office work wasn’t difficult but was tedious a lot of the time. As mission historian, I had to keep the records and files up to date; the mission president told me to go through the files of every missionary and purge the ones who were no longer in the mission, unless there was something important in them. As travel secretary, I would sit at my typewriter filling out government forms and then take the forms and the passports to the immigration office when someone went home. The passports sat in a small green safe in Elder Dannelly’s office. At the time, we said that the passports were there to keep them safe and secure, but we all knew the real reason. Once when I was cleaning out missionary files, I learned why we had the passports.

My first mission president had a practice of assigning problem missionaries to what he called “castigo” (punishment) areas. These were generally small towns out in the middle of nowhere; with no phone, the missionaries couldn’t call the president and bother him. Needless to say, many of these small branches collapsed when the only missionaries they saw were those with problems.

One missionary, whom we’ll call Martin, who had shown some signs of mental instability early in his mission, had been sent to Puerto Suarez, a small town in the jungle on the Brazilian border. One night his companion had awakened to Martin chopping up the furniture with a machete.

“What are you doing?” his shocked companion had asked.

“Just rearranging the furniture,” said Martin, smiling.

In the morning, the companion, Forte, called the mission president, who told him to get on a train to Cochabamba immediately. Martin refused to go, and twice he tore up the train tickets. A couple of days later, the mission president received a phone call from Forte, who said that someone needed to go out to Puerto Suarez to check on Elder Martin.

“Why can’t you check on him?” asked the president.

“Because I’m home in Utah,” said Forte. “I couldn’t take it anymore, so I went home.”

The mission president sent one of his counselors out to Puerto Suarez. No one had seen Martin for a few days, but they said the last time they had seen him, he was dressed in all white and wandering around the town, shouting the scriptures at people.

At the missionaries’ apartment, everything was torn up and destroyed. They found Martin in the bathroom, his hair and eyebrows shaved. He had slit both wrists and jabbed a pair of scissors into his neck, and he had written “Marty’s Mormons” on the wall with his blood.

Miraculously, he was still alive. Drugged and wearing a hat, he arrived in Cochabamba, and one of the president’s assistants escorted him to Salt Lake for psychiatric treatment. I gathered that since that time, passports had been kept in the office.

As I read through the files, I read of missionaries’ health problems and mental problems–some of which were truly horrific–those sent home for confessing to homosexual feelings, and those sent home for fornication. I read the files of Elders Bons and Drennan, who had suffocated in their sleep when their heater had burned up all the oxygen in their bedroom. I learned that many of the mission “urban legends” were actually true, like Martin’s story and the story of two missionaries who had decided to hitchhike across Brazil to go to Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, a distance of some 2,500 miles. They had made it halfway across Brazil but had run out of money and had to call for the mission president for help.

One interesting item in the files was a book about Freemasonry. I had some vague notion that the Masons were some kind of mysterious secret society, but that was all I knew. What was this book doing in the mission office? I opened the book to an illustration of the “Five Points of Fellowship,” which was identical to a part of the Mormon temple experience I had just had. I flipped through the book and saw many other similar illustrations of tokens and signs and handclasps, all of which I had not expected to find in a book about Masons. I threw the book away with the purged files and tried not to think about what I had seen.

A few days later a large group of American missionaries arrived in Cochabamba, President Nichols having stopped the practice of welcoming them in La Paz. I always felt a little sorry for them because, while I had stayed in the La Paz Sheraton, they would spend their first night in a low-budget “hostel,” where they would have their first experience with electric showers and uncomfortable beds.

The mission president had all of the new missionaries come into the office for their initial interviews, and then I walked them down the street to the Plaza Colon, home of the mission-famous Sabor Sabor ice cream parlor. My tastes had clearly changed in ten months. I devoured a ham and cheese sandwich and a banana split. The hermana next to me, who was wearing a designer business suit, nylons, pumps, and a string of pearls, leaned over and asked, “Is this safe to eat?” Little did she know what she was getting into. The next time I saw her, she had been transformed: gone were the suit, pumps, and pearls. Now she was wearing the standard sister missionary uniform: a man’s white shirt, a plain skirt, tube socks, and tennis shoes.

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3 Responses to A Dressing Down

  1. Ray A says:

    Interesting stuff, Runtu. Those who haven’t been on missions would not believe what sometimes goes on. In the 1960s missionaries in Oz went surfing and to wild orgiastic parties with young girls. Elder Spencer Kimball came out and cleaned up the mission, sending home quite a few. Of his visit to Australia, Elder Kimball noted in 1972:

    “Just twelve years ago, in 1960, it was my privilege to organize four stakes in Australia and New Zealand, including the Hawkes Bay Stake, which was all Lamanite–the first in the world–and now we’ve got enough almost to organize a stake right here in this congregation. It shows how the little stone, rolling through the whole world, will fill the world, as it’s already begun to do”

    Yep, those missionaries were obviously “rough stones rolling”. 🙂

  2. bull says:

    My general impressions of Abrea and Howard were that they were first class pompous dicks. And I was a fairly red hot missionary. It makes my blood boil to think of how those guys treated a bunch of young men who were sacrificing so much as volunteers. They had no idea, and if they did they showed no sign of giving a damn. In Abrea’s case I kind of wrote it off as Latino macho, insensitive culture. In Howard’s case I came away with the sense that the man didn’t have one ounce of Christian love or consideration. They man simply had a stick up his ass.

  3. runtu says:

    Yep, bull, you were there at the conference I mentioned, I believe.

    Ray, that is a great story. Sounds like mine wasn’t the only debauched mission. 😉

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