The Sister Missionaries: the Story

So, a while back—years and years ago, actually—I requested a Book of Mormon on a whim from one of the official Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints websites. I never received it. Months later, I received a call asking if I had ever gotten my copy, and I said “No”… The person on the other end of the line assured me she would send me one. So I waited. (Actually, I didn’t so much wait as forget all about it.) I still never received a copy. I thought that was kind of unlike my impression of Mormons, but whatever. I let it slide and didn’t think anymore about it until one late night this past January.

January 19
At roughly 2:30 AM, I was for some reason browsing the web and fell upon the LDS website again. I decided, “What the hell—why not?” and requested another copy with a note in the comments section that said something like, “I requested a Book of Mormon more than a couple of years ago and never received one. I’m not expecting much here, but just thought I should let you know that your missioning or whatever you call it is pretty lacking as far as I can tell.” Then, I closed my computer and crashed because I knew I had to get up later that day and take three (out of four) of my family’s cats to the vet. (Luckily, I didn’t have to do this alone; my sister helped.)

On the way to the vet and while we were waiting, I told Bunny (my sister) what I’ve just related here: that I wasn’t expecting much but the book was free, so why not? If missionaries came by, she asked me then, would I talk to them? I was actually expecting them to send me a copy via postal mail, not bring it to me by hand, but I said, “Yeah, sure I would, if I wasn’t on my way somewhere.”

Well, the gods have an interesting way of testing my resolve, that’s to be sure. That very afternoon, as we were unloading the cats to take them inside after returning them from the vet (they were all just fine, by the way), three young women drove up in a red car. I didn’t pay any attention to them until they got out and began to approach us. “Vee-anna?” one of them asked. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Instead, I smiled and corrected the pronunciation. “Oh, sorry! I’m really bad with names,” she said, and then, “We’re here on behalf of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. You requested a Book of Mormon, right?” I answered that yes I had, but I wasn’t expecting such a quick response, especially considering what had happened last time I’d requested a book (that is, nothing happened at all). When she asked, “Is now a good time to chat?” my sister looked pointedly at me, and I said, “Yeah, sure, come on in. We just got back from the vet with our kitties.”

The young women crowed about loving cats (and other animals people generally have as pets) while we all went inside and Bunny offered them tea or water, but they politely declined. (I later learned that Mormons aren’t supposed to drink coffee or tea—“hot drinks“, whatever that means—and they all already had water bottles with them.) After we’d let the cats out of their traveling carriers, we all settled into the living room (the three of them on the sofa; Bunny and I on chairs opposite them). They introduced themselves as Sister Farnes, Sister Foster, and Sister Beers, and we introduced ourselves by our full names (thereby, you’ll notice, automatically creating a level of inequality because they knew our names and we only knew their surnames).

They seemed very earnest and happy to see us and presented me with my very own copy of the Book of Mormon. (Bunny declined a copy of her own, even though they offered, by saying that she could read mine if she wanted to.) They also gave me a copy of The Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a pamphlet that is an extremely brief, completely positive view of what Mormons profess to believe (Jesus establishing the church, “the great apostasy”, Joseph Smith‘s restoration, the priesthood, and the Book of Mormon). I promised to read it and, after some chit-chat, we set a date for a tour of the nearest LDS church, just up the hill from where I live.

January 22
Bunny and I were semi-excited about the church tour because we hoped to see the building’s interior without being under pressure to actually sit down for a church service. She and I drove less than a mile up to the church from our house to meet the sisters, who had brought an older lady with them, Sister Bradley, who we realized halfway through the visit we actually already knew because she lives a stone’s throw away from our house (literally).

Anyway, we all headed into the foyer of the church and into the Sacrament Room, which is basically a sanctuary, complete with pews and pulpit. Then, we headed into a small room off to the side for a lesson. Bunny and I noted later that we were both disappointed in the “tour”, as it had only included one room and we hadn’t seen any of the rest of the church, even though we’d seen bits and pieces through doorways as we’d walked by.

I had marked up “The Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” pamphlet pretty good (writing on every page, including answering all the questions in the back which were intended for self study) and we talked about my reading the Book of Mormon and praying to know it was true. I had read a few pages, but hadn’t really prayed one way or the other. I knew at that moment (though I should’ve realized it sooner) that the sisters goals for the lesson(s) and my goals were completely different. We talked a little about the pamphlet, but time was up (I quickly learned that the sisters kept meetings strictly to an hour) and we parted with a promise to meet again.

January 30
Just over a week later, Bunny and I went back to the church for another lesson about “The Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” and the Book of Mormon. I asked questions like,

Did God send prophets after Jesus before Joseph Smith?
Why is Jesus the Son of God and not just another prophet?
How does the Book of Mormon contribute to the supposed restoration?
How is the living prophet chosen?
Did Jesus really give his apostles authority to act in his name?

among others. I was curious to learn more about this faith that Mormons seem to feel so strongly, skeptical that I could (or would ever want to) feel the same. The sisters assured me that if I prayed for the Holy Spirit to tell me if the Book of Mormon was true, I would receive a positive answer. (I asked what would happen if I asked and received a negative answer and was told that, if that happened, the response was obviously not from God because God isn’t capable of lying.)

February 09
By February, I’d received another pamphlet, “The Plan of Salvation“, and Sister Beers had been transferred to another area, leaving Sister Foster and Sister Farnes with me. I dutifully took the pamphlet when it was offered and Bunny and I continued to bombard the sisters (who brought with them an older female chaperon-type person to every meeting) with questions about why women aren’t allowed to hold the priesthood (“because women received all of God’s other blessings and men were only left with leadership” or some bullshit like that) and why there are, practically speaking, no women in the Book of Mormon (“because the writers wanted to protect women from future slander”, which is also bullshit). I also mentioned that I was distraught by the Mormons’ apparent rejection of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) people and was immediately corrected with, “No, gays are welcome in the LDS church, but they must follow God’s laws, just like everyone else.” Which means GLBT people have three options if they are Mormon: (1) ignore God’s “obvious” law and “live in sin” OR (2) attempt to follow the laws, most specifically the one in which God commanded Adam and Eve to go forth and multiply, and marry someone of the opposite sex and have children OR (3) remain celibate for life. So that’s either sin against God, sin against oneself, or never have sex and go to heaven without a partner (and heaven knows the Mormons are big on eternal, celestial families). Never having sex might not be a big deal if you’re asexual, but GLBT people are, by definition, not asexual.

February 15
In the evening on the day after St. Valentine’s Day (the sisters said they celebrated by eating ice cream, which is apparently not usually on the menu for Mormon missionaries, even ones living in the rich suburb where I live), Sisters Farnes and Foster met with Bunny and me at the church in the same room in which we’d had our/my first lesson. We started each lesson with a prayer spoken by one of the sisters or their lady friend-of-the-hour and requested that I pray the closing prayer with all of us on our knees as a way to humble ourselves before God. I noticed that every time anyone prayed, everyone else (except me) crossed their arms and hunched over a little, as if bowing their whole bodies instead of just their heads. My very casual, informal study of body language has shown that actions like crossing one’s arms over one’s chest or stomach is a defensive, closed off posture, not one open to receiving much of anything, much less receiving God’s inspiration, blessing, or anything else. But whatever.

I asked why women aren’t allowed to “hold the priesthood” and why, in the first twenty pages of the Book of Mormon, there are only six mentions (much less stories or parables or whathaveyou) of women… (The first two, if you’re interested, are of Sariah—Nephi’s mother and Lehi’s wife—pages 4 and 10, the second two are about Ishmael’s wife and daughters pages 12 and 13, and the last two are about a virgin “exceedingly fair and white” on page 20.) The answer to the first question (why women don’t hold the priesthood) was “Women were given all of God’s gifts—including the most important, to bear children—and there were no gifts left for men except priesthood authority”… which, if you’ll notice, is gender essentialist. The answer to the second question (about women in the Book of Mormon) was “We [as young Mormon women and missionaries] were taught that women were so precious in Nephi‘s time that the men who wrote the Book of Mormon didn’t want their wives and daughters to be put under the same kind of scrutiny they knew themselves would be under when the Restoration occurred. The old prophets and scribes were protecting women by keeping them out of the scriptures.”

My perspective is a little different. Assuming that the Book of Mormon’s stories are true (which I don’t believe), I think that people record what’s important to them—hell, even I record only what’s important to me, and I write professionally—so if the people in the Book of Mormon (or the Bible, or in any other book or media) decline to take note of the women in their lives, it’s because they don’t think women or the things women do are important. The sisters assured me that, no, women are actually being protected when they’re apparently excluded from scripture, and anyway, what woman really wants to hold all that authority and responsibility? (I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to laugh or cry when Sister Foster said that, actually.)

February 26
By late February, Bunny had become irritated with my patience with something she considered to be nonsense and told me that she wasn’t going to attend any more meetings. Which was fine, since I’d grown more comfortable with the sisters and was able to handle them by myself. On my dad’s birthday, I met with the sisters in the late morning because none of us could find another time to meet (and it was okay with my dad, I suppose, because we didn’t have anything planned for his birthday until later in the day). I didn’t tell them the significance of the day, though, because I had realized that the unequal dynamic between me (one person) and the sisters (two people plus a chaperon) had only gotten more unequal at every meeting, and I didn’t want them to know even more about me when I knew barely anything about them.

We talked about “The Plan of Salvation” pamphlet and I asked questions like,

How do Mormons know that their plan is the correct one?
Why don’t we remember God from our pre-mortal life?
Was God once human?
Was it God’s plan that people be born with original sin?
Are all wrong choices equivalent to sinning?
Is it possible to make a right/good choice and still sin?
If I can be saved after death, what is my incentive to convert in life?
What happens between bodily death and resurrection?
What are the “degrees of glory” and why are there three levels in heaven?
What if my feelings/thoughts/impressions from the Holy Spirit conflict with the LDS church’s teachings?

Now, Mormon missionaries aren’t Biblical (or Book of Mormon) scholars, and they only know what they’ve been taught by their church. In fact, Mormons are only allowed to have “faith-promoting” discussion with other church members and they are discouraged from reading/watching/consuming any material about their faith that’s not specifically condoned by the church. In answer to many of my questions, I got, “Well, I don’t know, but I know that if you pray for the Holy Spirit to tell you the Book of Mormon is true, it will be revealed to you” or some variation on that theme. I… wasn’t super impressed with such answers, and I was quickly realizing that I could read the Book of Mormon from cover to cover and still not know what Mormons actually believe.

March 31
In the afternoon on the last day March, the sister missionaries and I finally met up again, after more than a month of missing each other (and my never calling them back). I’d seen an eye doctor the day before, and excitedly told them that I’d be getting new glasses in the next couple of weeks. We chatted for a short while until…

Eventually, the sisters asked if I’d been reading the Book of Mormon (I’d read a few pages) and if I’d prayed to God to know it was true. I tried to explain (again) that I didn’t think praying really had anything to do with it since once you ask for confirmation of something, you’re already assuming it to be so. And that people usually do what they wanted to do anyway, and praying about it is just an excuse for them to say “God told me so” when they’d been thinking that way all along. Such talk, of course, doesn’t go over well with Mormons (or any other Christian-type religions, really) and they said that, no, of course the Holy Spirit is real and true, and it will never lead me or anyone else wrong if I ask in earnest and with an open heart. I told them that I think that kind of prayer (asking for something) is kind of selfish and often doesn’t work out, so I have a hard time doing it with any kind of sincerity. (After all, when you ask God for something when you want it desperately, the answer still may be “no”.)

Let me be clear, though. I pray. I pray often, even. (A skeptical cynic like me? *gasp* Shock and awe, I know.) I believe that prayer is a kind of meditation or therapy and I have no problem with it on that basis. But I almost never pray asking for things from the Judeo-Christian God (or any god). I don’t even have a problem with other people asking for things from God, but I’ll admit I don’t have much sympathy when they don’t get what they want. And if I’m supposed to ask God to give me what he thinks is best for me—especially when the Mormon version of “what’s best” is me married to a patriarchal man, three-to-five kids, and no job but serving my husband and taking care of the kids—then you’ve got another thing coming. (Or worse; what if God thinks the best thing for me is more trauma? I can barely keep my shit together as it is.)

April 07
We met again a week later and continued the lesson(s). As you may imagine by now, the sisters and I rehashed many topics as they pushed for me to read the Book of Mormon (and pray to find out if it is true) and I read the Book of Mormon, read the church’s history, read through the official websites, and tried to make my own way. I also read other, non-Book of Mormon books about the LDS church, including What the Mormon Missionaries Don’t Tell You, by Gerald Paul; Questions to Ask Your Mormon Friend, by Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson; Letters to a Mormon Elder, by James r. White; and the historical fiction novel For Time & Eternity, by Allison Pittman. I often asked (well, tried to ask) the sisters about things I learned of the church’s history, but their direction of study was very strict and they always answered any question they didn’t know the answer to with “I don’t know, but if you read the Book of Mormon and pray to know it’s true, the Holy Spirit will reveal it to you.” (More about the Holy Spirit in my next post.) This response, as you may imagine, sounded fine the first time (if not a bit of a cop-out—but at least they were being honest, right?), but after weeks and weeks of it, it began to sound pretty canned, even when they were being authentic and enthusiastic. And, since I’m not great with follow up, I fell out of touch again. But, it turns out it wasn’t completely my fault this time because…

May 07 and 15
Apparently, I later learned, the sister missionaries were emergency-transferred to another ward/stake—I still have no idea what an emergency transfer entails, so don’t ask—and two elders (young men) came to my door on two separate occasions to talk with me. I wasn’t home either time, but family members were, and they informed said elders of my absence. That could of been the end of it, I’m pretty sure, because I wasn’t being very responsive (not to mention I hadn’t read any of the Book of Mormon in months), except…

June 12
I wanted to attend at least one Sacrament Meeting (church service) and the first chance I had to do that was the Sunday after finals. (My last final was June 6th.) The meeting I attended was in the afternoon, 1-4 pm, and I stayed for the entire shindig: the service, Sunday School lessons (for me it was an investigators meeting), and Relief Society (also), in that order. The sisters met me there, though they certainly weren’t expecting me, and Sister Farnes again had a new companion (it was she who has been the only constant in my entire studies with them). Aside from not passing a plate for an offering, the service itself was basically what I expected—it was boring and I didn’t agree with the theology. Also, there wasn’t a single woman leader, which really irked me.

We sang an opening hymn from the hymnal (“There is Sunshine in My Soul Today“), which my mother later said she used to sing at her church when she was a kid. Then the bishop made some announcements; we sang “Again, Our Dear Redeeming Lord“. And then all these boys in white button-down shirts and ties began passing out the Sacrament (aka the Lord’s Supper aka the Eucharist). I haven’t >_> partaken in the blood and body of Christ since I was… probably 12 or 13 since I think it’s kind of a ridiculous tradition and it’s also cannibalism, so. I didn’t this time, either, but I was surprised that they congregation around me just ate/drank as soon as they got their Jesus pieces, when I was used to waiting and partaking all at once on the direction of the pastor.

There were two “youth speakers” (both guys in high school) who had both been “assigned” (their word, not mine) the topic of the restoration of the priesthood, in which they both said essentially the same things (Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Smith, Aaron, and so on and so forth). One of them said, “It’s strange and amazing, actually, that God told Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery to give the Aaronic priesthood to the most unlikely of people—twelve year old boys.” I nearly laughed out loud because I, of course, could think of plenty of people less likely than said (starting with, you know, twelve year old girls, for example, or Native Americans, or—heaven forbid—slaves) to receive any special dispensation from Joseph Smith, of all people, (sorry, special dispensation from God) but I managed to contain myself and not make a scene.

Sister Farnes told me afterward that every time she looked back at me (I was sitting in the pew behind her), I was writing notes and she was really pleased I was taking an active interest in the Word of God. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that, though I was actually paying attention and taking notes, I really just had a crush on her; it certainly wouldn’t have been an appropriate admission at the service, in any case. There was a high council speaker, and then we wrapped up the meeting with “On This Day of Joy and Gladness” and a benediction.

After the Sacrament Meeting, everyone moved off into Sunday School classes: children into their (co-ed? I think?) class, boys age 12-and-up into a Priesthood training/meeting/lesson, girls into… whatever class girls go to since they can’t join the Priesthood (fts, I say), and me into an investigators meeting. There was me, both sister missionaries, one of the ministers (father of someone I knew in high school, Becky Mitchell), another minister I didn’t know (an Asian guy whose name I don’t remember), and a well-meaning mother who went along with me because I knew her daughter (Rachel Hill) in high school, too. Small world, apparently.

They again made sure to ask about my reading the Book of Mormon and praying for it to be true. We talked a little about the Sacrament Meeting and the topic of the speakers’ lectures, the Aaronic Priesthood. Someone asked me if I believe that God speaks directly to us. I said that yes, I believe in theory that God can speak directly to me, but that I would be skeptical of anyone who told me that they had a direct line to God. We talked about the Prophet and the Apostles (all white men, of course) and how the Prophet talks directly to God and learns his (God’s) will and leads the people without failing, misinterpreting, mistaking, or lying. I refrained from mentioning that this sounds even creepier than the Pope because I knew by that time that my comparisons to the Catholic Church always raised everybody’s hackles. The Sisters promised to lend me two videos about the Prophet and the Apostles after the Relief Society meeting (which they did: Special Witnesses of Christ and On the Lord’s Errand: the Life of Thomas S. Monson).

After Sunday School, I went to Relief Society with the sisters and my friend-from-high-school’s mother. The woman giving the lecture actually lives up the street from me and was very surprised to see me there. She spoke about how everyone has a talent, whether we realize it or not, and how we can utilize our talent (once we find it) for our families and for the glory of God. I… was sort of not impressed with the emphasis on children and “raising a family” and obedience to one’s husband (because he’s the priesthood holder of your family and you can’t get into the highest level of heaven without him—I mean, wtf; really), and not in the least because I don’t have a husband or children, nor do I even want them.

At the end of the lesson, two women put on a little sketch advertizing the following week’s food storage seminar (Mormons are big on saving and storing food for emergencies) which was going to focus on canning and vacuum sealing. One of the women dressed up as a homeless-esque person who hadn’t been “saving for a rainy day” and who was now in dire straits, going hungry because she didn’t prepare. The other woman—instead of focusing on helping the first woman get back on her feet, as I would expect in a church setting (love thy neighbor and all that)—pointed out that if the first woman had been following God’s laws and tenets correctly, she wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place. My first thought was, “Wow. Way to totally overlook the fact that she’s supposedly starving.” And my second was, “Homelessness and hunger are not a ‘situation’ in the way you’re making it sound.” I was really distraught by the sketch, actually, because it basically made fun of homeless people, people who delayed preparing for the worst (or never restocked, or whatever), and—by implication—people who were/are not Mormon. I’m not explaining it well, I don’t think, but my verdict was: do not want.

June 15
I hadn’t managed to watch the videos the sisters had lent me by this meeting, but we did talk about the service, Sunday School, and Relief Society. And, of course, about reading the Book of Mormon and praying to know it’s true. I hadn’t read any “scripture” in months by this time, but since meetings with the sisters are strictly one hour and are always chaperoned by an adult who is supposed to “keep things on track”, I never really had a problem just asking questions about things I (still) didn’t understand or agree with and by the time the conversation just got good, it would be time to go… again. The one-hour-lesson rule was really irritating for me since I never felt like we got really deep into the true issues. Also, it didn’t help that I ended up knowing more about the church’s history than they did.

June 22
I was better prepared for this meeting since I had watched the videos they’d lent me and we were able to talk a little about them (the videos). I told them that Thomas S. Monson seems like an inspiring guy, but that I don’t think he’s a prophet any more than I am myself. (Which, I suppose, is not technically denying his prophet status since—who knows?—I might think that I’m God’s gift to humanity, right?) They were respectful, but they didn’t agree (obviously).

The sisters had, with my permission, set up a meeting with two elders from another ward/stake/district/precinct/whatever-it’s-called who were serving a church in Glendale specifically aimed at young people (early twenties to late thirties in age). I knew immediately that, although the two young men were polite and seemed nice, I wouldn’t have been so interested in the first place in chatting with/about Mormons for so long if two guys had come to my door (instead of the sisters) to give me the Book of Mormon I requested. Also, it meant that I was the only non-Mormon in a room of six people (two elders, two sisters, a chaperone, and me). I tossed around the idea of attending a service at this young-people-focused church, but I haven’t gotten around to it at the time of this writing, so.

August 03
More time passed, and I finally I made an appointment for August 3 with the sisters (Sister Farnes had yet another new companion by this time) and then promptly forgot about it. I wrote it down, but I didn’t realize until after the meeting time was over that I’d missed it. I think it’s a sign that my interest in being courted by Mormons (hahaha, so to speak) has significantly waned. When/if they call again, I think I’m going to try to bring the relationship to a close.

tl;dr version: I met with Mormon missionaries for a while (a time span covering more than six months so far) and they haven’t converted me yet. They’re very persistent and I am (in some ways) very headstrong, so I doubt anything will change.

Viannah E. Duncan

Viannah E. Duncan is a writer and activist hailing originally from Los Angeles. She lives outside of Baltimore, Maryland, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. She has a cat, Cleo.

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