Friday, October 19, 2012

Lamentations & Lemualtations on the Missionary Age Change

I have so many thoughts boiling in my mind about conference this year. Usually (well, the last 3 times or so) conference humbles me, endears me to the brethren and calms my angst. Not so this time. It was rough. It may have crumbled another entire wall of my faith. I feel troubled about the missionary age change, with the disturbance coming from several different places—the muses of my angst are Envy, Wrath, and Disillusionment.

Others have written eloquently about the policy change, some positing that it is most advantageous to the Church, based on statistics and trends in missionary numbers; some have lauded the age change as a "feminist triumph," I’ve seen other thoughts expressing amazement and gratitude for what they see as revelation and God’s hand moving on the world, “hastening the work.” Since I don’t claim to have the information or knowledge necessary to speculate on the age change from any of those stances, I just wanted to express myself through memoir.

There is a place where my Self remembers being a wistful 19 year old, longing for the next two years to rush past so it could be my turn, in deference bidding goodbye to boyfriends and peers, suddenly strong and wise-seeming with the importance of their calling. They belonged, I didn't, my inclusion in the experience was contingent on “making it to 21” still single and then I could be considered for service. It didn't belong to me. I was a guest in a man’s room. Fill up places where “we can use you if you show up, but we won’t invite you.” I felt pure jealousy for how much I would have DELIGHTED to go when I was 19—to really feel shoulder to shoulder in the Army of God instead of an awkward interloper.

Winding back, I was a girl who always said I would serve a mission, who piped up for gender inclusive language in seminary, who studied the old "discussions" with my high school boyfriend. My mother had served as well as many of my aunts, older female cousins, and my grandmother as a mission president's wife in her early twenties, and I eagerly imagined myself as part of their glorious sister missionary legacy. My religious zeal combined with a heightened awareness of what I perceived as discriminatory traditions in the Church left me petrified that perhaps God might be sexist. This made me terribly insecure, and because of that insecurity I engaged in an awkward, constant game of whack-a-mole with those around me. I was the mole. "I'm going on a mission!" I would chirp as I popped up. Immediately I would be struck with the well-aimed hammer of righteous patriarchy. "You should only consider a mission if you CAN'T find a husband first," my young women leaders insisted. "And you have to really TRY." "A mission is a priesthood duty," my bishop frowned across his desk during my birthday interview. "If you're still single at 21, then you can pray and see if it's the right thing. God would never reveal that to you at this age." "Girls who look like you don't go on missions!" teased my seminary teacher. "Some hot RM is going to scoop you right up when you're 19, you'll see."

Participating in the famous EFY Medley felt like another hammer. It was a Janice Kapp Perry delight--the girls sang "As Sisters in Zion" and the boys sang "We'll Bring the World His Truth." This came after a long day at EFY in which we were divided up as boys and girls--the boys received mission calls and taught lessons in companionships, and we girls attended several workshops on modesty. All day I felt stung by the gender distinction; to be a good man, you go out and preach, you know the scriptures, you testify of truth. To be a good woman, you make sure your clothing isn't too tight and your shoulders are covered, so you don't distract the men from their important work. Being asked to raise my voice with "As Sisters in Zion" and officially marking myself separate from the "real" future missionaries crushed my spirit. I felt completely consumed with humiliation. I was envious of the boys singing solemnly, sure of their position as Stripling Warriors, sure of the duty-bound adventure that lay before them. Although I understand better now that the mandatory service requirement for men comes with its own pressure and anxiety, at the time all I could see was that they were chosen, while my part of the song was merely about "being a girl." "But you get to be a MOTHER!" my counselor cried when I tried to choke out my frustrations, "It's the nearest calling to Godhood! Why would you want anything else?" I couldn't explain, I wasn't cognizant enough to reply with what now seems obvious, "But boys get to be fathers...AND all of this..." (If, by the grace of God, any one person is even able to have children--whether or not I became a mother was dependent on myriad factors out of my control, whereas any young man deemed worthy could serve a mission simply by virtue of what he was). I wanted to badly to feel that God knew my name and to feel that despite my weaknesses He saw my heart and my eagerness to be a "good soldier of Christ."

Maybe the jealousy isn’t clean though, because if we truly examine my motivations, some of them were rooted in the shadow parts of my heart. Did I want to declare “glad tidings of great joy” to the world? YES. Did I zealously believe that the Savior had restored truth to the earth? YES. Did I truly believe that any individual’s life would be bettered and made richer, deeper, sweeter by accepting the gospel and converting to the one true church? Yes absolutely. I believed in the Healer and that He wept when we fell like little sparrows. But there were other motivations that I didn’t recognize at the time that were “strong with me.” A desire to please my immediate and extended family, which always celebrated sister missionaries as a special triumph. I knew a mission would be a connecting point with my RM mother, with my grandparents (especially if I went to Argentina, which is another story). It was such a revered part of my family’s culture, I wanted a piece of it. There were feminist motivations, although I would not have labeled them as such at the time. My spirit recoiled in rebellion when anyone used the phrases “when you young men go on missions, and when you young women get married,” “as a young woman, your focus should be on marriage” “your home will be blessed by marrying a returned missionary” “you’ll be blessed by your husband’s missionary experiences.” I thought, no, no, no, I will have my own stories of light, my own humbling dark night anguish, my own mission stories and slang. My own call. My own adventure. My own coming-of-age experience on the mountain with God.

I recognized that returned missionaries commanded a certain reverence and respect, especially from those who had never served. I wanted what they seemed to have, both in inner confidence and respect from others. The home far away from home, the people who seemed strange at first and then you realized that they were you, that their story was your story, of a child searching for its Father. I knew I would be more listened to, that my insights would carry more weight, if I could say "When I was on my mission..." I wanted that, why wouldn’t I? I feel confident saying that there must be others who, mixed with varied intention, go after the fairy gold of personal glory/self discovery whether they are aware of it or not. In many ways I believe missionary service is a way to self-actualize within the church. That this was offered freely only to men always bothered me. My husband's companion told us after our wedding, “I could never have married a returned sister missionary…then I wouldn’t be the hero at family home evening!” I didn’t see anything wrong with having two "heroes"…despite the discouragement and the attempts to bar up the way, I planned whole-heartedly to serve a mission and never deviated from that goal. I never entertained the thought of getting married or even considered myself truly "available" until after my mission.

When I was 17 years old I wrote a letter to the current prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley. I wrote from my soul, describing my fervent desire to serve a mission and the discouragement I had encountered from my leaders. I quoted section 4 of the Doctrine and Covenants, "Therefore, if ye have desires to serve, ye are called to the work" and explained that I truly felt "called," but was treated "like I'm trying to go to a party I'm not invited to." I suggested that no one should be condemned for merely expressing intent to serve a mission, and that it was unlikely that harm could come to any who prepared to serve, regardless of whether they "made it to 21." I remember writing something about how I wish there were more encouragement for sisters aspiring to serve, that perhaps there were not many who needed that, but that it would mean the world to those who did. Although I know it's embarrassingly naive of me, I had been hoping for a kindly reply from a man who I saw as so dear and kind. He was inspired...maybe God would tell him about me, maybe tell him to pass along something from Above to put my heart at ease. I imagined President Hinckley replying, "Of course your leaders should encourage you...and if you still want to serve when you turn 21, we will welcome you, we will rejoice in you!"

I promptly received a reply from church secretary F. Michael Watson. He explained that due to the large amount of mail President Hinckley received he could not answer every letter personally, and then paraphrased from a talk President Hinckley gave in October 1997 (his address during priesthood session):
"We do not ask the young women to consider a mission as an essential part of their life’s program. Over a period of many years, we have held the age level higher for them in an effort to keep the number going relatively small...some of them will very much wish to go...if the idea persists, the bishop will know what to do.
We constantly receive letters from young women asking why the age for sister missionaries is not the same as it is for elders. We simply give them the reasons. We know that they are disappointed. We know that many have set their hearts on missions. We know that many of them wish this experience before they marry and go forward with their adult lives. I certainly do not wish to say or imply that their services are not wanted. I simply say that a mission is not necessary as a part of their lives."
That was in the winter of 2002. He might as well have written, “hang on another 10 years, sweetheart, and you’ll be ‘almost’ invited to the party.” I’m not even sure how to articulate that, but the stinging hurt of feeling like a door slammed in my face instead of being welcomed in by loving arms still resides somewhere in my being, like a physical pain. They hadn’t understood, they hadn’t tried to understand. Encouraging words would have cost them nothing, lost them nothing, but they would have meant everything to an anonymous super-zealous girl and still they withheld them. I felt God in it not at all (and it was mine to feel). I had reached out, tentatively, “Please tell me I matter? Please tell me my contribution will matter?” and it was as though they had responded, “You do not. It does not.” When I told my mother I didn’t want it, she fixed me with a steely glare and said “Don’t you ever say that again.” Although shamed, I stubbornly repeated, “I’m done. They didn’t see me.” She chastised me, something about how dare I base my testimony on what others say or do, why did I need the approval of others anyway, whether I served a mission was between me and God. Okay, sure. But it did matter—especially when sustaining a living prophet was such a enormous part of why my life was supposed to be so blessed, so enlightened, so lucky. Apparently he didn’t sustain me back? And I was supposed to sustain him even harder for his lack of support, which was indubitably the Right thing for me? Oh thank you, thank you for reminding me of my Divine Role! I cried. It hurt, it burned. I felt like a naughty child that had been slapped on the wrist. Of course within minutes I apologized to my mother and God for my hasty words, even muttering a quick repentant prayer in my heart—I knew, I knew, this was another one of those things that fell under “we just don’t understand everything right now,” and my lack of humility was disgraceful. I swallowed it, swallowed my pride and my humiliation, swallowed being subordinate once again.

And now it’s 2012 and the story has changed. Thousands of individual stories have changed. I read about roommates embracing each other in the dorms of BYU, running outside to weep and celebrate together. Seconds after the announcement, facebook statuses popped up like beaming faces about “Modern revelation, right there!” and “We thank thee oh god for a prophet!” Bittersweet for many who wrote, “I would have gone…I would have…” All over an announcement that if suggested by anyone else, 10 minutes before, would have been viewed as heretical. In a matter of minutes the generation of sisters I served with was on the other side of a great moment in history. My mind was reeling with the possibilities of how much this would change, how much it would have changed my own life. It seemed bizarre, like fan fiction, how could this actually occur? It was like the Berlin Wall had come down. Did God hear your prayers, or was this "get 'em while they're young"? Was this about God seeing and knowing and wanting you out in the white field now, or is the "hastening of the work" somehow connected to the simultaneous hemorrhage of members? (And why not make it 18 for both men and women? Why not make the length of service the same as has been in the past)?)

Watching the PR after the announcement stirred up those old feelings again as I watched Elder Holland becoming tearful and giddy about the prospect of more sisters being able to serve. It would have meant so much to me to hear that when it still applied. I felt he was extending the warm welcome that I had wished for so badly. So my experience of being reprimanded, what meaning should it hold for me today? I can imagine that in 20 years or so it will seem completely antiquated, one of those awkward stories no one wants you to tell. "Oh, but that was back then! When are you going to let it go?" It frustrates me that I was forced to accept something that even today would not be considered acceptable. Was it Right because it happened when it did, whereas it would be Wrong if it happened today? Was it inspired?

I feel I served in one of the most egalitarian missions (especially after speaking with many others). My president was respectful, supportive, and loving to each of his missionaries and his wife was equally brilliant, inspiring and good to us. I loved that she had served her own mission, as well. But in so many ways I still felt completely "not invited to the party". Each transfer my president invited a different companionship of sisters to attend the zone leader training. I remember my companion and I felt very honored by this when our turn came, but we had no capacity to speak for or represent specific needs of the sisters—our attendance was merely a cursory nod to the fact that there were women serving in the mission as well.

I think it’s interesting that elders and sisters receive the same calling (I’m not aware of any different wording or distinction in assignments when calls are issued other than length of service) and do the same work—finding, teaching, preparing investigators for baptism, they attend the same meetings, tract the same streets, work together with members and investigators, but leadership positions are given exclusively to men. In my experience, with the exception of talks and testimonies at zone conferences, all of the trainings are done by elders as well. This seemed to reinforce the concept that the mission “belonged” to the elders while we sisters were associates, kind of like Logan and Shannon in the Babysitters Club. The SLC temple square mission gives precedent that APs, zone and district leaders do not have to be priesthood holders, but I don’t know anywhere else in the world where sisters are given these assignments. Contrary to what some might say, I would wish for sisters to serve in these capacities not because I am power-hungry, or because I want to demean men, but I want it the same way I used to long for the stories of women to be told in the scriptures. I wanted to hear their voices. I wanted to hear about their visions and experiences with God. Because my heart was truly there, at the time. I was so happy to finally be a missionary, my whole being vibrated to the tune of tension and heartache and energy and joy in that work. My experiences felt so full, vibrant, and significant to me. And there was always this nagging feeling that those voices weren’t included because they didn’t matter. I am hoping that the age change will create some changes in this aspect of the mission experience.

Largely, my experiences with elders were incredibly positive. But there was a stigma against sisters that persisted within and without the mission. When I was a greenie, my companions sometimes pointed out “hermana haters,” venerable, stern elders who refused to shake hands or make eye contact with sisters (there's no way to know, but I have this hunch that sexual frustration may have been involved). I never made friends with these elders but their coldness seemed to support the idea that our presence as sisters was intrusive, unwanted, even disgusting. I had so many elders who became dear friends and comrades, but every once in awhile they would remark that they’d never want to marry a returned sister missionary “because she would know too much.” Another elder once told me “I’d rather be gay and marry a dude than marry a girl RM.” Would a sister, or any woman in the church, ever make the comment, “I don’t want to marry a returned missionary because he ‘knows too much’?” It seems absurd to me, as if they are really saying, "I want a girl I can be better than…I want a girl who won't challenge me."

Guys I dated both before and after my own mission never seemed to think twice about letting me know that they couldn't stand the sisters in their missions. "There are two kinds of sisters," they would tell me. "The kind that are there for the right reasons and really work hard and are so amazing...and the kind that just went because they weren't married." I also heard about how the sisters had been, invariably, too lazy, too competitive, too dramatic, too bossy, or (shudder) had "asked for blessings all the time." Elders, I was left to assume, were never guilty of any of those things, and were always there for the right reasons, then? Right? Why not just say that some missionaries were great and some missionaries were hard to work with? Why single out the sisters for general criticism?

I’m so happy for the age change as far as it may reduce those stigmas and entitlements.This is the part of the culture I feel sure will change quickly, and for the better. The shape of the land of dating will change--there will be less male= wise teacher, female = avid learner. The "old maid" stereotype of sister missionaries will be obliterated (you can't be an old maid at 19, right?). Opening the doors to more sisters and younger missionaries in general will create a different environment in the mission field, hopefully one that is more unified and truly shared. I'm excited for that. I'm so excited for anyone who whole-heartedly and sincerely wants to serve a mission, and glad they have more supportive words from the brethren to fall back on than I did. I'm excited for more men and women to have that coming of age on the mountain, to find themselves at home in a place they never expected, to deeply feel on behalf of another person, to wrest the weight of their own privilege, to find out they can do hard things. The Church is already in such a different place than when I was growing up, when I served my mission, and even when I was dating at BYU. It's dizzying to realize that the whack-a-mole game doesn't exist anymore, at least not exactly the way I experienced it. Maybe the board broke, like the Stone Table in Narnia.

But I hurt for the girl I was, and I hurt because my heart tells me that really despite what the flood of witnesses tried to convince me of, the pain I went through was arbitrary. I'm not sure what to do with that.