Flight Risk

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?

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8 Responses to Flight Risk

  1. Urban Koda says:

    After getting stuck with a rather unpleasant trainer for a couple of months, I started wondering if I was being punished for a couple of un-confessed sins. It took a great deal of fasting, but finally I spilled my guts to the President and go through 8 weeks of humiliating repentance process.

    After all was done though, my ‘unpleasant trainer’ made a comment about how I had lied to the mission president to try and get sent home…

    For the next 10 years I wondered if I had truly been forgiven because I hadn’t been convincing enough.

    But back to the topic at hand – it took real effort to get sent home on my mission to. I wonder if it isn’t a similar thing to my leaving the Church reflecting badly on my parents. It’s my choice, but they think it’s tied to them. If a missionary goes home, does that then reflect badly on the mission president?

  2. Goldarn says:

    In my mission, we had a house-cleaning where a LOT of missionaries got in trouble for things from swimming to sneaking out to go dancing at night. A couple of ZLs got smacked down to co-senior companions (we had a lot of co-seniors in my mission, for some reason). One guy (IMO for his bad attitude more than any sin he committed) got reassigned stateside after living with the office elders for a couple of months. Nobody got sent home, nada, zip, no one.

    I would agree that it’s very hard to get sent home from (most?) missions. But it’s incredibly hard to quit, too. And I’d bet someone could get the church to pay for a early flight home by just camping out at the mission office until the MP gave in.

  3. Goldarn says:

    I should point out, with my last comment about getting sent home, that yes, the “dial-a-testimony” hotlines (what we called it), where they try to get everyone from your Mom to a GA to emotionally blackmail you into staying, was in full swing in my mission, too, and I don’t want to dismiss that as irrelevant. A mission is a horrible thing to do to someone who doesn’t want to be there.

  4. ff42 says:

    I don’t recall getting my passport (Germany 81′-82′) taken from me. Anybody know when that policy started? (Or it could be a case of 30 year old bad memory).

  5. Odell says:

    In the Argentina Cordoba Mission in 1985 through 1987 all passports were kept at the mission office for safekeeping.

  6. Mormon thought insists that anyone who keeps the commandments and prays for a testimony will receive one–therefore the notion of sending a boy on a mission to gain a testimony has evolved. And sometimes it works–which leaves the missionaries who don’t experience a conversion isolated and suspect.

    Too bad the concept of agency doesn’t extend to allowing young people to develop their own spiritual beliefs.

  7. bull says:

    In the final week before I went home President Hammond tried to get me to go knocking doors with an elder who wanted to go home. He thought that maybe if he worked with an outstanding elder like me he would catch the spirit of the work. Somehow I politely declined. I was thinking, and this is probably what I said to the president, that if he didn’t want to be there he shouldn’t be there. I’d seen too much damage done in the mission by missionaries who didn’t have testimonies or who didn’t want to be there. I still think that was the right attitude. Wonder if it was the same guy you are talking about.

  8. bull says:

    I was told that they needed our passports so they could do immigration paperwork. I actually got might back mid mission because I had to do some paperwork myself. Damned if I didn’t nearly lose it when I set it down at the market.

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