The other night I was reminded that, when I arrived in Bolivia, I had to surrender my passport to the mission president for “safekeeping” in the small safe in the mission office.
The safe was in my companion’s office, and the passports were all there, sorted by country in alphabetical order and held together in stacks with rubber bands. The vast majority were the navy-blue American, but we had missionaries from such places as Chile, Mexico, Canada, New Zealand, Germany, and Zimbabwe.
Once I began working in the office, I realized that the “safekeeping” reasoning was just an excuse. All it would have taken was a break-in after hours or someone to sneak in during office hours to steal all those passports (the safe door was often left ajar all day).
In fact, one missionary did sneak in and retrieve his passport. His companion started having paranoid delusions, and when he couldn’t get any help from the mission president, he just hopped on a plane and left.
But in general, missionaries are not allowed to go home unless they have committed a grave sin. In such cases, at least in our mission, they were shipped off immediately, though sometimes a disciplinary council was held before they headed to the airport.
Another reason for going home was physical or mental illness. During my tenure as travel secretary, I sent more than a few people home for health reasons ranging from typhoid to septic strep and meningitis.
But going home voluntarily was another matter entirely. You couldn’t just go home because you wanted to go. For one thing, you had to go to the mission office to get your passport, which meant that you had to meet with the mission president, who would do just about anything to convince you to stay. And of course, if you aren’t honorably released, you have to pay the airfare home.
One of my companions had what he called “a nervous breakdown,” but I’d say it was serious depression and a sort of psychotic break (it’s a long story, and one I don’t care to revisit). He desperately wanted to go home, but the mission president believed his psychological symptoms were just an act so he could go home. Soon, my companion’s mother, bishop, stake president, and young men’s leader called him on the phone and told him how much he would regret leaving and how disappointed they would be in him. So, he stuck it out, somehow, but I’m convinced he was suffering from major depression the rest of his mission (he once told me, “I barely made it out alive).
Another missionary arrived in Bolivia and informed the mission president that he didn’t want to be there, was only there because his girlfriend wanted him to serve a mission, and by agreement with her, he was only going to stay 3 months. As the 3 months approached, our mission president tried everything he could to get this guy to stay. Because he was going of his own accord, I was told not to do any of his visa papers, which meant that he would be delayed at least 2-3 weeks to do the paperwork himself. Nothing worked, from delays to guilt trips to pleading, and the guy went home on his own dime. And this was for someone who hadn’t wanted to be there from day one.
In short, it’s not easy to leave a mission. Perhaps the greatest mission exit story is “The Great Escape” by my friend Joseph.
But I wonder, why make it so hard to go home?