Sunday, February 24, 2019

Excerpts from Bruder: The Perplexingly Spiritual Life and Not Entirely Unexpected Death of a Mormon Missionary



As I mentioned in my last post, BCC Press has recently released a rather unusual mission memoir by yours truly, in both print and ebook formats (available on Amazon). Of course, they want me to promote it in any way possible, but since I’m really bad at self-promotion, I guess I’ll just let the book mostly speak for itself. I’ll trot out a few excerpts here, which should give you some idea of what sort of book this is, with minimal connective text from me. So, here goes.

From the Vorwort (foreword):

I need to confess up front that this story didn’t turn out quite the way I thought it would. About thirty years ago, when I first had the idea of writing an MMM (Mormon Missionary Memoir, a genre that has become as common as crabgrass in the LDS literary lawn), I pictured this narrative as a triumphant, majestic, remarkable retelling of the most glorious two years of my life. But that was thirty years ago. I was incredibly naïve. I hadn’t had enough time to let the mission experience percolate for a few decades. I hadn’t lived long enough to see it through the long lens of real life. Oh, I knew the plotline all right. And I could remember the cast of characters much better than I do now. But I was so close to the story that I couldn’t see it in any sort of context. I couldn’t comprehend the broader implications of the experience. It has now been forty years since that distant summer day when the Salt Lake Mission Home swallowed me whole. . . . I think those forty years have given me enough perspective to finally make a semiserious attempt at this admittedly atypical MMM. . . .
I can honestly say that my life is still being shaped by Bruder Terry and what he experienced all those years ago. Little did he know how complicated some of those innocuous experiences he had would turn out to be.
So this is his story. I will tell it as best I can, but you must realize that I am not the person who stepped onto that America-bound plane in Hamburg, Germany, thirty-eight years ago. And that is why I will refer to that person in the third person. He is gone. Has been for a long time now. But wisps of his memories still float by at times, like bubbles on the breeze. I can see them for a moment, but they are both distorted and impossible to grasp and to hold.
One thing you need to know is that in spite of the stultifying sameness of dress imposed upon male Mormon missionaries (females get cut a little slack in this department), no two missionaries are alike. Beyond this, there is another level of diversity: between missions—all 406 of them. My youngest son recently returned from serving in Ukraine. At the same time, his cousin was serving in Florida. Reading their weekly emails was an exercise in head scratching. You never would have known they were doing anything remotely similar. Their experiences were as different as a root canal and a birthday party. And when the cousin’s brother was sent to Uruguay, the sense of disconnect seemed to triple. So any mission memoir is going to be a very, very, very idiosyncratic narrative. Of course, any memoir is only as mesmerizing as the mind and writing facility of its author, but I am just arrogant enough to believe that I can turn virtually anything into a fascinating read. So, what better challenge than the rigors and tedium and conformity of a Mormon mission?. . .
Also, please forgive me if I don’t keep this story completely in the 1970s or in Germany. There were many things Bruder Terry didn’t understand then that I do now. He had no historical or cultural context for some of the things he experienced. He also had a very simple understanding of LDS theology and history. Some commentary is therefore inevitable. Actually, a lot of commentary is inevitable. But remember, I’m trying to understand him and his experiences just as you are. So please allow me to mind-wander. And if I were to write this story ten years from now, it might be far different than it is today. But this is how I remember it now.
And why, you ask, would you even want to understand a Mormon missionary in Germany in the 1970s? First, because what Bruder Terry experienced in Germany all those years ago has a lot to do with many of the issues facing Latter-day Saints today. And second, because it’s a pretty good story, disjointed and introspective as I present it, and everybody likes a good story.

From chapter 3, “Old World, New World”:

“Right now I think I’m more tired than scared,” Bruder Terry lied. “I’ll save scared for tomorrow.” He was tired. Jet lag was creeping up on him, but cold fingers of fear gripped him through the curtain of weariness that dulled his mind.
What would tomorrow bring, though, after he had slept the jet lag off? Today he had his fourteen traveling companions with him. He had spent two months with them and felt comfortable if not exactly confident in their company. But tomorrow, tomorrow would come too fast. Today had come fast. Flying toward morning out of Chicago, he had seen the sun rise over Ireland just four hours after nightfall. He had slept fitfully, crumpled up in a plane seat like a heap of new clothes. On waking he felt wrinkled, rumpled, and a bit stale. And now Ireland was far behind.
His mind wandered back briefly to an encounter they had had in Chicago. During their layover, a strikingly handsome man in a Lufthansa pilot’s uniform approached them.
“Where are you going?” he asked in a foreign accent.
“Germany,” they had answered.
“Wonderful,” he said. “I’m a German, and I’m a Mormon. Are you flying on my plane? It’s a Lufthansa 747 that’s only about half full.”
“No,” they had told him. “We’re on a Pan Am 707.” And, as it turned out, the plane was full. No elbow room in sight.
“Too bad,” he said. “Well, good luck, elders.”
Years later, I would realize this German Lufthansa pilot was none other than Dieter Uchtdorf, who would become a Mormon Apostle and would go on to serve as second counselor in the LDS First Presidency. He left a very positive impression, but remembering that encounter, Terry squirmed in his seat. He was tired of sitting. The Lufthansa pilot, he thought, would probably have invited them into the cockpit to show them around. This was, after all, 1975. But on the Pan Am plane, they were just ordinary pieces of human cargo. Uncomfortable cargo at that.
The crowded 707 circled now above Frankfurt, slowly passing through thick banks of clouds. Bruder Terry was fortunate to have a window seat and sat pensively, watching the passing shrouds of grey mist. What would Germany be like? He had wanted to see that enchanted land for years. Now he was directly above it, and clouds heavy with rain concealed the countryside from view. Would he be disappointed? Suddenly the wing dipped, the tattered edges of a rain cloud passed swiftly upward, and there it was—patch-work fields and dark green forests. “This is really Germany,” he thought, mentally pinching himself to see if it was real. An apprehensive thrill shot through him. “What will the people be like? Will I be able to convert anyone? Maybe myself?” It was more than an idle question.

From chapter 9, “Going to the Gynecologist”:

Like a painful zit, their troubles came to a head at zone conference on February 20. It was an eventful day in more ways than one. They took the U-bahn out to Pinneberg to meet with all the missionaries in the northern portion of Hamburg. At one point during the conference, one of President Scharneman’s assistants made a rather audacious promise. He even introduced this promise by saying that the Spirit had authorized it. Now, this was a promise that I’m sure no General Authority would sanction. In fact, there are all sorts of doctrinal and logical problems with this promise. It was completely out of order. But Bruder Bradford made it nonetheless. With his hand raised to the square, he declared, “I promise you in the name of Jesus Christ that if you will work fifty-five hours each week in the month of March, someone you are teaching will be baptized.”
“Now wait just a minute!” I still want to yell after all these years. “You can’t make a promise like that. It cuts against the grain of free will (or ‘agency,’ as Mormons call it) and a whole host of other gospel principles. You simply can’t make that promise. Can’t, can’t, can’t! Especially in Germany, where baptisms are about as common as palm trees.” But when Bradford spoke this promise, an odd thing happened: what Terry assumed was the Holy Ghost hit him like sucker punch and confirmed to him, in what he felt was an unmistakable way, that Bradford did indeed have authorization to make this promise. Terry knew it was true. KNEW. As improbable as it seemed, he knew that if he and Carlson worked fifty-five hours each week for the next month, one of their investigators would be baptized. How, he had no idea. They didn’t have any likely candidates. But he figured he could leave those little details up to the Lord. Apparently almost everyone else felt the same thing Terry did, because when Bradford asked them to raise their right hands to the square and promise to work those fifty-five-hour weeks, everyone in the zone quickly raised his or her hand. Everyone, that is, except Bruder Carlson.
Terry couldn’t believe it. The wind went out of his sails as quickly as if he had floated into the Doldrums. How could he? Terry thought. Terry hadn’t seen a baptism yet on his mission, but here was a guarantee, a 100-percent sure-as-sheep-dip guarantee. All they had to do was work fifty-five hours. Heavens, they were already doing that. This was like promising to brush your teeth before going to bed. But his companion wouldn’t promise. Terry was so angry he could have strangled Carlson.

To make a long story short, Carlson did eventually make the promise, and he and Terry did work those fifty-five hours each week. But nobody got baptized. Of course, no time limit was specified. That baptism might have happened twenty years later. But that’s not the way Terry understood the promise. It should have happened while he was there, or at least soon, which is a relative term. Just in case, though, I checked with the Church membership department when I worked at Church magazines. They didn’t have a record for any of Bruder Terry’s investigators. Bruder Terry also knew a young man from a different ward who later became stake president in that area. I contacted him, and he sent me a list of all the members in area where Terry was assigned. No names matched the ones in Bruder Terry’s appointment book. I guess it’s possible that someone he and Carlson taught once or twice moved away and joined the Church, but I’m quite sure that none of their real investigators were baptized. Certainly none joined during Bruder Terry’s mission. So what can I conclude? Well, . . .

Maybe something else was going on that day at zone conference. Maybe in the enthusiasm of the moment, Terry felt something powerful and interpreted it wrong. That’s certainly possible. My experience over the years is that spiritual feelings are devilishly hard to decipher. I’ve been certain about what I felt were spiritual communications from time to time, but time and experience have proved me wrong as often as right. So at this point, I have no idea what to make of Bruder Terry’s experience that day.

By the way, the rest of this chapter, which explains why two male missionaries would visit a gynecologist, is pretty good, just too long to include here.

From chapter 22, “Leaving the Mortuary”:

If life were more like an adolescent fantasy novel, Bruder Terry would have been scheduled to go home the day after the amazing evening at Ortmanns’. Unfortunately, life is more like, well, life. Serendipity is the huge exception, not the rule. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be serendipity. So instead of going out on a high note, Terry slipped back into the harsh reality of missionary work in Berlin. In spite of how difficult things were, though, he felt like he was on a greased slippery slide. The end was coming too fast, but he felt like he still had years of work to do.
The final month of Terry’s mission was filled with all sorts of conflicting emotions and experiences. Now, as I read through his journal, it strikes me that he was feeling pretty high levels of anxiety on several fronts. The Work was hard. Some days they had no success finding people to teach, and often their appointments fell through, but they did find several possibly promising investigators. Again and again after a Discussion Terry would write, “He could be good” or “She could be good”—even Frau Herschel, who answered the door one day without any pants on and another day was wearing a see-through blouse with no bra, which made it rather hard for the missionaries to concentrate on the Discussion. “She needs to repent a lot,” Terry observed, but he also wrote in a fit of complete irrationality that “she could be good.” Unfortunately, this hopeful assessment was seldom true. In some ways, he sounded like a Golden [the Hamburg mission’s term for Greenies], jumping to overly optimistic conclusions about people instead of seeing the long and more realistic view. Perhaps this was because he had no long view anymore. He was slated to leave on July 7, just over a month after the glorious Discussion with Ortmanns. So he viewed everyone as through a pair of near-sighted spectacles. This undoubtedly distorted his vision. . . .
Speaking of emotional states, Terry was apparently struggling more than I recall from this safe distance. Frankly, after the mission was over, I think I developed a good case of selective memory (which my wife claims never went into remission). I remember, of course, that the end of Bruder Terry’s mission was no triumphant exit that would make a fitting end to a Church-produced missionary video, but his journal sort of surprises me. It repeatedly recorded heartfelt laments about how hard it was to stay enthused, how much energy he expended trying to force a spiritual experience that never came, and how inadequate he felt. A follow-up Discussion with the Ortmanns was emblematic of his frustrations. He wanted so much to duplicate the magical experience he and Holmes had had—both for the Ortmanns and for his struggling companion—but the Discussion fell flat. He tried too hard, and when no Spirit came, he was exhausted and depressed for a couple of days.
Two factors probably came into play here regarding his frustration. First, over the past two years, he had actually had a handful of rather mind-boggling spiritual experiences. He probably assumed he should be having these sorts of happenings on a weekly or even daily basis. But he was young and had very little life experience. How could he know that the Spirit was capricious and came only occasionally and unannounced? Jesus even admitted as much to Nicodemus. Second, although he worshiped the ground President Randall walked on, I believe the standard this young president set was so high that when Terry understood he wasn’t even within the same zip code of that ideal, he felt he was a failure. Repeatedly, his journal bemoans the fact that he had so little faith. In his mind, the proof of faith was success. He remembered the baptism goal he had set the year before, the one encouraged by President Randall, who tied faith directly to results, baptisms. And what did Terry have to show for his faith? An elderly lady and a young Donny groupie. He supposed he could also count half of a lonely middle-aged man. Terry had found Alfred Kraft, but someone else had baptized him. And that was it. He had come nowhere near the thirty baptisms he had idealistically plucked from the air as a goal under the spell of President Randall’s magic. Unfortunately, the spell didn’t endure away from his presence. And since Bruder Terry had had so little measurable success, he translated that into the conclusion that he had no faith. The fact that he was still a mere district leader while several of his good friends in the mission were already zone leaders or assistants made him believe he had underachieved, an inevitable and sad conclusion in the palpable mission (and LDS) environment where leadership positions were seen as evidence of righteousness and faith. Rather than focusing on the few true high points, Bruder Terry wallowed in the troughs. And this pattern persisted right up to his last week. As the end drew nearer and he realized he would not see another baptism, he focused on leaving Bruder Williams with a pool of potential converts, hence the repeated naïve exclamations “He could be good” and “She could be good.” In the end, he left Williams nobody within a light-year of baptism.

Well, that’s a small taste of what Bruder is all about. There’s a lot more, of course, and the Nachwort (Afterword) delves pretty deeply into what I think now about both Bruder Terry and the Church he represented. But, as I asked earlier, why would you even want to understand a Mormon missionary in Germany in the 1970s? I’ll let Steve Walker, emeritus professor of English at BYU, give another answer: “Bruder may be the best missionary memoir ever. I’ve read every one I could find, and this compelling volume is the best I’ve found. I like the vividness with which Terry lays out the day-to-day realities of missionary experience like a smorgasbord for those who haven’t yet tasted it, and even more appetizingly for those of us who thought we already had.”