The local LDS mission is aware of my existence, and they appear to have classified me in the category of "mostly harmless," which is just the way I like it.
The fact that I go out of my way to chat with the missionaries whenever I see them baffles my fellow apostates, most of whom can't stop complaining about how the church found them again despite 20 years of "inactivity" and/or keeps refusing to honor their "do not contact" request. Personally, I don't understand what the problem is since I can easily think of 10 or 20 things off the top of my head that I could do to offend or upset the mishies to the point where they would call up the mission president and have him draw a big black X over my house on the mission map if I wanted him to. But since I don't want him to do that, I'm studiously avoiding doing those 10 or 20 bad things.
Why do I like to chat with the mishies anyway?
Everyone knows that apostates like me are supposed to hate the church and everything about it with a fiery passion! The crazy thing though is that even though I think the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction, for some reason I don't hate the church or its members. Even though they may not be too thrilled about it, in some ways they'll always be my people.
I live in France. I've chosen to live here, this is where I want to live, and in fact I've gone native to the point where I've practically become a French person myself. Still, when I see a pair of LDS missionaries walking down the street, I see something familiar from back home in the old country. And I know that I share a common background with them that we don't share with anyone else walking down that same street.
Those of you who live in Utah are constantly reminded of Mormonism
So a subtle distinction like whether a given person believes it's real or not seems like a big deal to you. But here in France, Mormonism is so freakishly rare that it makes sense that all of us "cultural Mormons" should stick together.
Also, I have to admit that I find the whole mission thing kind of intriguing. I would never be brave enough to go around wearing a badge like that myself, and there's no way in heaven or Earth I could do that thing of staying in the presence of an assigned companion constantly twenty-four-seven (I'm way too ornery and disagreeable for that).
Seeing these young guys reminds me of when I was a young student learning to speak French and visiting France for the first time. Learning a new language and culture is an extremely fun and valuable experience, and it's one of the cool aspects of Mormonism that they systematically send out their young adults to live in another part of the country or another part of the world.
The last pair I talked to happened to both be from the same high school as each other. They took pains to explain to me that that was not typical -- which of course I already knew -- but I couldn't help but find it kind of impressive that some random community in Utah would set aside the resources to make it a priority to send its youngsters all over the world like that. Certainly my old high school back in Minnesota didn't do that.
Then the mishies themselves complete the effect
All of the LDS missionaries I've talked to here in France have consistently been bright, confident and charming, with interesting things to say about their impressions of France. This surprised me at first since I've been a bad Mormon and then an ex-Mormon for my whole life, so you can imagine that I had some negative stereotypes in my mind of what mishies are like. On the other hand, I've heard rumors that the church intentionally sends the smart ones to Europe, so I may be getting a skewed sample.
But as long as the church keeps sending them, I'll probably keep chatting with them.
Published in the Utah Valley Monitor October 13, 2005.