Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Mishies and Me: Cultural Mormon nostalgia

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.


Anonymous said...

I don't know if the missionaries selected to go to France are "smarter" than those sent to other missions, but I think that the combination of culture, language barrier (most of the mishies I met only got really fluent towards the end of their missions)and being in a minority position in a foreign country may have had an influence on them. When you tract for weeks without contacts you tend to appreciate anyone who will talk to you. I think you get a certain sense of humility too.

Having served in England, there was a very arrogant culture among the US mishies which was in stark contrast to those in France... maybe the ones in France develop a less Utah-centric perspective and realise that there is more to the world than the LDS viewpoint.

Just my deux centimes... or cents..


Anonymous said...

As I am still only weeks away from coming out of the closet with my TBM spouse about the church, I am still getting over the "hate" I sometimes have for the church. I have realized that evangelical christianity is not my route to happiness, because it causes me to stereotype the world much like the LDS. And I have always enjoyed having the mishies over for dinner as I like hearing about their lives and their stories, so I will need to "get over it".

Hey I am from Minnesota originally, grew-up Lutheran though. I was from a little suburb of St. Paul. I miss it there but not the weather.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Arizona Expositor!!!

Well, here in "Outer Blogness" there are plenty of people in a similar boat, so you've picked a good place to go to work things out.

I feel the same way about Minnesota!!! Except I also don't miss the mosquitoes. ;-)