Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Mormon Encounters: Part 5 - The Missionary Sisters

Entire Mormon Encounters series
Part 1: First meeting       Aside 1, Aside 2 
Part 2: Reading the Book of Mormon
Part 3: Going to Mormon Church
Part 4: Mormon Battalion & General Conference
Part 5: The Missionary Sisters
Part 6: A Talk Among Friends
Part 7: Adam & Free Agency
Part 8: To the Investigators
Part 9: To the Missionaries
Last week was especially hectic for me since I had an extra work that needed to be done by a fast-approaching deadline. I stayed up late into the night with it and spent a lot of time in a zombic state with nothing in my head but a whole lot of math work. That was such a case on Thursday evening. I was bent over a notebook, so intent on working out the equations on the computer screen that I barely registered the strange giggling sound waffling in through the window from the terrace below.
Lord Voldemort kept his soul in a locket, a book, a cup and other things. I keep my brain in a hippo...
Quick! What is the sum of the interior angles of an octagon? Scattered scratches on the window. More giggles. Impish neighborhood kids! Got the angles sum, now have to subtract from it the known angles to find the unknown one. More pebbles skipping off window followed by more giggling. Is somebody shushing out my name from outside? What the heck??? I'm supposed to be a curious cat after all. Got up and peeked out through the blind. Lo and behold! The Mormon missionary ladies were downstairs, all bent over waving and giggling in the dark!

Sisters Sanftmütig and Begeistert are the names I had bestowed upon the merry twosome without their consent (though I suspect that they would be much less thrilled if their real names were used instead). Neither were the original missionaries who approached me as I walked the roommate's dog nearly 2 months ago. The nimble Sister Wendig was shipped off elsewhere after just one meeting and replaced by the quietly mild-mannered Sisters Sanftmütig. I'm afraid Wendig is not quite a right name for her. I ran into her at the Mormon Battalion on the 1st of October and now think that Nächstenliebe would be a more fitting moniker for the good lass.

After a few weeks steady Sister Stetig also got moved to another part of town. In her place now is the exceedingly enthusiastic Sister Begeistert. As much as I liked Sister Stetig, I must say that Sister Begeistert is quite more fascinating and easier a person to hang out with -- especially for her rather strange habit talking to me in dreams. And so, for the past month or so it has been the pairing of Sisters Sanftmütig and Begeistert who drop in to see me once a week, twice if we have church date. (Mormon missionaries always travel in pair. Their rules dictate that they never let their Siamese twin companion out of sight except when either is using the restroom, in which case the other is expected to stand guard at the restroom door).

The LDS Mission seems to break up the missionary pairs every 2 months or so, so I guess I'm expecting Sister Sanftmütig to be replaced soon. That would be quite sad... I really like the lass. For a theatrical artist that she is in real life, she has been so restrained and respectable as a missionary. Not that artists aren't respectable, of course, but they don't usually voluntarily confine themselves into set rules and convention either. From what I've seen and inferred so far, the Mormon church is nothing if not rules-fanatic. The detailed rules may vary a bit in various LDS (Latter-Day Saints) missions, but the general ones seem the same.

('Mission call' is another of the many curious Mormon mislabeling of things. They talk about being 'called to serve a mission', but the fact is that they themselves had to send in a mission application asking to serve. So in reality it is they that called themselves and not the church. This is the same sort of thing as the notion that Brigham Young's god connection protected the Mormon Battalion from having to fight the Mexican-American War when in fact it was the battalion's lateness that made them miss all the fighting).

Even though I'm not a Mormon, having hung out with them for a few months has made it clear to me that obeying rules and commandments is a big part of the Mormon lifestyle in general. With the missionaries, though, they go the extra marathon with it.

An excerpt from Elder Don R Clarke's recent speech about missionaries at the LDS Church News.
Many of the missionary rules seem sensible enough (including safety-oriented ones like obeying the laws or tactful ones like respecting other religions), but many more are confoundingly tedious to the point where they betray explicit mistrust of the missionaries' judgment. So the LDS church trusts these young men and women to know the 'gospel' and be able to accurately communicate it to others, but it doesn't trust them to be able to maintain their devotion and church commitment without being nearly completely cut off from all non-church-based communication (no tv, radio, newspaper or any non church reading material, no call home except for Christmas and Mother's Day, can only write to immediate family once a week and nobody else, etc), or to know what to eat and when to go to bed? That is a strange message to send to investigators...

Anyhow! I had forgotten that the sisters said they would come back to see me after their evening appointments to give me the answer to a question I had asked earlier. It was well after 8PM, though, so I sprinted right downstairs to see them because I knew that they were supposed to be back at their living quarters by 9PM at night. It could be considered almost rebellious that these gals stopped by to see a gentile (what the Mormons call all non-Mormons, even if they are Christians) so late in the day with their curfew looming in less than 25 minutes. I told them they had better scoot and not get in trouble on my account, but they replied that they would only be in trouble with themselves if they break the curfew... So it seems many of the rules are self-enforced. Discipline is a good quality to me, as long as it is voluntarily self-imposed and not a cultural imposition upon individuality. I was very glad to hear that the sisters still retain enough spiritual independence to not follow rules just for the sake of following them.

Taken from what is written on and between the line? Why must intelligence be guided by 'faith'? (It makes as much sense to me as to say that the hen coop must be watched over by a fox).
When meetings started back in September the sisters would show up with a preplanned 'lesson'. I don't know if those first few lessons were anomalies or if they were the standard operational model for them, but if they were they were quite thrown off track by my many unorthodox questions. I suppose they would have been quite well prepared to defend their dogma against the usual problems that Christians have against their religion (all the while maintaining that their religions were the same, but with improvement, so to speak). But I was asking them to define what they meant when they referred to a 'god', and why such a god would have need of using certain humans as 'prophets' instead of communicating directly to everyone. Invariably their answers would be 'God is our Heavenly Father, and he loves all of us including you,' and that 'the prophets are tools for God to communicate church-wide messages that aren't meant for individuals.'

It doesn't matter if it is Sister Stetig or Wendig or Sanftmütig or Begeistert or even Sister Garten (the Elina Garanca-look-alike sister trainer who accompanies the usual pair of sisters once a month or so) I asked the questions to, they always answer the same way, in near verbatim, every time.  :-? thinking

I should say, though, that I really like my current pair of missionary sisters. Both being artistic in real life, they are quite more tolerant of my rules-lessness than some others. After a couple of meetings with these two our 'discussions' have become decidedly informal. Not only do they insist on helping me wash the dishes after our lunch, a few weeks ago they actually cooked the lunch for me when they turned up on time for our appointment for the first time ever (I had taken it for granted by then that the Mormon missionary clock perpetually runs 20-30 minutes late except for church services). Sister Sanftmütig took command of the stove and churned out her first ever oriental lunch, a beautiful wok of fried rice, while Sister Begeistert helped with the garnish and most of the after lunch clean up.

If you are expecting a pair of Mormon missionaries for lunch or dinner, there are a few dietary requirements they feel they have to comply to. They won't drink coffee, tea, alcohol, or any other beverage that has caffeine in it. Surprisingly hot cocoa is allowed -- I suspect because they don't realize that the theobromine in cocoa beans is a close relative of caffeine and has similar though milder stimulative effects (narcotics and tobacco are also banned by the LDS church). When the sisters visit with me they drink mostly water or lemonade or clear caffeine-free lemony soda.

At any rate, both sisters are in their early to mid 20's and very idealistic. Sister Begeistert told me she was born into Mormonism, though 'didn't really have a testimony' (she had doubts about the Mormon faith) until she decided to serve a mission after spending some time doing volunteer works in a remote part of Africa. I really love it when she talks about her experience there. I've had fascinations about British East Africa ever since I read Beryl Markham's West With the Night (it is one of my all time favorite books), and would love to visit the place one day myself. Like the other sisters when they are about to talk their way out of their dogma, though, her sense of theological rationalization would kick in and she would try to tie whatever she is saying into something testimony/faith-strengthening. In this particular case, she blurted out that helping teaching English to the African kids made her realize that she should serve a mission because 'teaching them the gospel is the best thing I can do to help them, better than teaching them how to read or write, even.'

Naturally I was alarmed by the sentiment. I greatly admire her selfless goodwill toward others, but teaching the kids how to read and write would enable them to read for themselves the Book of Mormon, along with other mind-stimulating books which would free them from having to always take other people's words for things.

I should also mention, though, that even though both sisters are in the midst of a very unnaturally church-oriented period of their lives, I find it remarkable that they remain receptive of the concept of following their conscience above all else. They have not tried to pressure me into making more commitment or to say any prayer with them ever since I made my protest on ground of personal integrity. They respect my sense of spiritual integrity even though I'm reasonably sure that their trainer/mission senior wouldn't be thrilled with that sort of courtesy.

In the constant atmosphere of passive-aggressive social pressure to toe-the-prophet/church-leaders'-line that definitely exists in their church (certain things are more easily perceived when viewed from the outside), I hope that they would be able to keep exercising their 'free agency' (Mormonese for 'free will') even when pushed to do or say things that don't sit well with their conscience.

If you would like to know how the Mormon missionaries think, don't take my words for it. Many active missionaries actually keep blogs! Proselytizing missionaries (the young pairs that go out trying to teach people their gospel rather than the older ones who man the Mormon churches and historical sites) work six days a week. The one free day (they call it 'prep-day' or 'p-day' for preparation) they have each week is reserved for cleaning, shopping, and writing to their immediate family (they aren't allowed to write any other aside from their mission seniors. And they are only allowed to use their church email and can only access church sites). A few of these guys and gals email their family, who then post the missive on their blog for them.

My missionary sisters wouldn't approve, but I've had much fun reading through many missionary blogs -- the ones serving in the area and others serving elsewhere. Like it or not, the thoughts they dispatch home help me to better understand where they are coming from (along with the strategies they are apt to use, of course)... along with driving home for me what Karl Marx must have thought of when he wrote that 'religion is opium for the people' (Die Religion ... ist das Opium des Volkes).

I am liking the Mormons a lot, but the more I look into it, the more Mormonism repulses me. Even these nice and obviously well-meaning missionaries are showing signs of a serious case of mis-prioritization when the well-being and/or spiritual integrity of the people they are trying to convert runs up against church practice. Have a look at Sister Christensen's description of a baptism she recently witnessed. (Sister missionaries aren't holder of the Mormon priesthood, and though they were the ones who successfully converted you, they have to step aside to let the boys do the actual rituals like baptism as they watch).
"she was baptized. to say the least, it was one of the most uncomfortable baptisms i've ever had to watch, and i was reeeeeeeally nervous she was going to back out because she just COULDN'T GET ALL THE WAY UNDER.. but she didn't. she finally got all the way down. ................... huge sigh of relief from EVERYONE present. but seriously. (she's way afraid of water... and to add to that she can't lean back because of a surgery she had... so she was literally ON HER KNEES and president was literally trying to push her under the water and she was blowing bubbles and almost crying...oh my gosh. BUT!!!! SHE DID IT!!!! hahha. and afterwards she shared her testimony (i did'nt think she'd do that either!) and it was more like a prayer, but it was so sweet! and she said that she just felt sooo different and so happy and she couldn't stop crying." (christensen missionaries blog
The end justifies the means? The lady has hydrophobia and a seriously bad back, and yet these people were so bent on baptizing her with water that they nearly ended up waterboarding the gal... I'm sure the good sister and her colleagues present justified the act to themselves with the thought that water baptism is absolutely necessary in 'saving' someone's soul. But what would that really say about a religion that values literal application of rituals over someone's inner spirituality? I can get baptized 10 times tomorrow, but if I still don't believe, then what of it all??? It's the same deal as when I was pushed to say prayers in order for the praying habit to somehow grow into faith. If a doctrine is not worth believing in, then there is no virtue in trying to force a square idea into a round reality!
"Martha and Jacob dropped us. =( We were both kind of crying. She did it over phone so we made one final appointment and went in with our guns blazing. We told her exactly what we're offering, and she knows it. She said she would go to church one more time, and that she likes the Book of Mormon. The reason she dropped us was her husband and his anti-Mormon family. It’s not over yet, we're not going to give up on her, just give her some time to see her life without the Gospel." 
And yet another's:
"Sister Panga came out of her house holding the Book of Mormon and the restoration pamphlet. She explained that she and her husband had been fighting and that she wanted to work it out with him. She explained that he did not approve of her listening anymore. Our hearts just dropped. Our last visit she had been asking questions and told us she had talked to her husband. He had met us on a pjeepney before and said it was okay for us to visit. I just thought what had changed in those few short days. She wanted to give back the Book of Mormon. We testified. No change she insisted that we take the book back, because her husband told her to. She was kind about it and asked us to respect her decision. Sister Canoneo told her she could hide the Book of Mormon. Sister Panga was afraid if she kept the book that her husband would find it and be angry. We testified that one day her husband's heart would change and if ever that happened not to be shy to give us a call. Sister Panga did this in a very dignified manner and we were not annoyed or mad that she gave us back the Book of Mormon, but rather saddened and our hearts hurt. Walking away we just sang at the same time "magpadayon ta!" (we will continue) and laughed. The storms of the mission can either get you down or lift you up. I'ts a choice and we decided to count our blessings rather look at the disappointments."
(Apologies for the length of the quotes, but I wanted to make sure you can read them in their original context).

These aren't isolated incidents but illustrate a recurring theme which I hope sufficiently explains my perception of a relatively subtle strain of snobbiness amongst many Mormons (and Christians and other religious zealots, for that matter). They regard themselves as people who know 'the truth', and gentiles as those who remain ignorant of it. Therefore they know better, and a gentile's decision to reject their dogma will not be received as credible. The church must be prioritized over everything, family included (note how one of the missionaries even tried to get the investigator (Sister Panga) to sneak the religious book into the house to read on the sly behind her husband's back. Suggestions like this makes it hard for me to dismiss the many stories I've heard from reading posts and articles by ex-Mormons who complain of the church's interferences in their family life.

When the missionaries say that they gave a 'testimony' or 'testified', that means that they made more assertions about them knowing the BoM and Joseph Smith and the LDS Church to be true. It is one of the most annoying things that they all do when they are trying to convert you and have ran out of any logically coherent thing to say. They will repeat the testimonies to you over and over as if their ability to be exceedingly repetitive constitutes positive and unquestionable empirical evidence of their religion's truthfulness.

The missionaries may lay off on you for a bit, but quitting on you altogether isn't quite likely... because they know 'the truth' and really want to save you regardless of what you think. This is one of the things that irritates me the most about religions -- it gives its zealots a free pass to disrespect other people's decision and space, and sometimes to do some really unholy stuff in the name of a god, a cause 'greater' than themselves. Granted the intention is good, but as a wise saying goes; 'the road to hell is often paved with good intention.'

And that brings another of my favorite quotes to mind;
"The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false face for the urge to rule it."
(H.L. Mencken)
(As a side note, there really ought to be a study done on how many of the people who 'drop' their missionaries say that they are only dropping out because their spouse wouldn't allow further contact. What a convenient excuse! And the spouse is almost never there to confirm or deny it!).

Frankly I would really love it if Sisters Begeistert and Sanftmütig (and also Sister Garten, for that matter) will remain friends with me even after they are done with their mission and even though they fail to convert me to their religion. I know that there is a constant social pressure on them and other Mormons to not socialize much with non-Mormons who aren't likely to convert and with ex-Mormons (whom they call 'apostates'). To be sure, this sort of 'only associate with others who share your own belief' mentality also exists in other religions. I had my fair share of such thing preached to me in Baptist and Evangelical Christian churches, though I never managed to follow it very well even when I was a strong believer. With the Mormons, though, it is quite much more heavily emphasized. As for me, my investigation (so to speak, since the Mormons refer to me as an 'investigator') into Mormonism ends when I relocate next month or when both of the current sisters get transferred elsewhere, whichever comes first.


knotty said...

Aw Smorg...

I'm sure these sister mishies are delighted that you're letting them visit and having lunch. Their time with you is probably the highlight of their week. But I am also relieved that you are wise to what's going on.

Anonymous said...

No coffee :o!
That is as good a reason as any to not become a Mormon.

So, I'm not the only one that gets the maths haze.

Best regards and wishes from a very green Melbourne

Smorg said...

Hiya Knotty: I hope the mishies have a good time whenever they visit, too. They are really quite a remarkable pair of young ladies. :oD

Thanks for your relief, though. I know... the Mormon folks can be delightfully tempting even when the Mormon religion & organization aren't. I don't think these two will want me to convert just to please them, though (at least I hope not, because I won't).

They dropped in again yesterday and decided to hang out anyway even after I told them I'm having my first flu of the season. Hopefully they didn't take any of the flu back with them.

Hiya Andrei: No caffeine indeed! Well, I don't drink caffeine much myself (usually just what's in tea and diet sodas) since I don't like the headache I get the day after my coffee...

The thing that really turns me off about this church tho. A couple of Sundays ago I was with them in church when one of the Mormons asked the other about the contact info of some inactive member that had moved out of the area. They wanted to track him down so they could pass the info on to the church in the area he moved to (so that his new Mormon neighbors, so to speak, could... er... keep an eye on him).

Can't tell you how much that creeped me out. :oP

Thanks a bunch for stopping by, maties. Hope your weekend has started well!

Anonymous said...

There's a lot to absorb in this post! but first reaction - I get the hippo on the head but what's that looking over your right shoulder???

knotty said...

Hey Smorg,

That spying thing is real. When my husband and I were engaged, we lived together for about six months. LDS mishies stopped by.... they were elders. I didn't know anything about the church and didn't want to alienate my husband or his kids (who are LDS). So I let them in. I had no desire to convert, but I wanted to be nice. It was really hot outside. I gave them some water.

When I told my husband about it, he was very upset. That's when I found the Recovery from Mormonism site. He asked me if I had "outed" him. I had no idea that the Mormons kept such close tabs on each other. It creeped me out, too.

Nowadays, my husband is way out of the church and his kids have disowned him, in part because he left the church. That's what turns me off the most about Mormonism... even though I know there are many good people in the church. In our case, though, it was used as a means of destroying my husband's relationship with his daughters.

Smorg said...

Hiya Eyes: Ack! Sorry, matie, I didn't mean to neglect you. I just missed your comment in between the longer ones!

Oh, that, I think is my camouflage baseball cap hanging off one end of the chair's backrest. :oD It turns out a bit exotic with the color change, ay?

Anonymous said...

ah ha, just a baseball cap you said? i was wondering exactly like Eyes! THanks for the type up, very interesting reading for me.

deep down i worried Smorgy, they'll send a whole army of girls, and sooner or later, you will.... :-p

Smorg said...

Hey An: Thanks, matie. A whole army of girls wouldn't work for me if they're all nuns, I'm afraid. That's a big turn off. ;o)

And if I waver, I'll just recite Kipling's The Cat That Walks By Himself to myself and that ought to snap me out of it...

Anonymous said...

I read this
'Sister Canoneo told her she could hide the Book of Mormon. Sister Panga was afraid if she kept the book that her husband would find it and be angry. We testified that one day her husband's heart would change and if ever that happened not to be shy to give us a call.'
and it is wrong on many levels. First they tried to get the woman to sneak around her husband, that's marriage interference. Then they testified that her husband will come around, but then follow it with 'if'. If they knew the husband would really come around then why 'if'? They didn't know, but they didn't care if they oversold themselves in their attempt to persuade her.

And we would think a pair of religious missionaries would have some idea about ethics, wouldn't we? Thnks for illuminating series!

Ronan by the beach