Missions, Medicine, and Sensational Journalism

So an article appeared two days ago in Slate, detailing all the problems Mormon missionaries are apparently having with getting medical care while they’re out in the mission field. Not surprising, you might say. A lot of those missionaries are going to third world countries, and the access to top rate medical care would naturally be more difficult there. But you’d be wrong. The article isn’t about that kind of trouble; it’s about mission presidents refusing to let their missionaries go to the doctor or to the hospital, even when those missionaries have lost 75 pounds or more.

Before I really launch into this, I want to put up a disclaimer. I’m fully confident that some of these problems do indeed exist on missions. Any time you have 80,000+ people serving under 406 different mission presidents, you’re going to have a grab bag of results, plain and simple. (One of the best pieces of advice I got before my mission was “If you can think about it, a missionary has done it, and is probably doing it right now.” It helps not to go into a mission with rose-tinted glasses. They are far from perfect.) So I don’t mean to disparage individual stories or even call them into question. If the Slate article had been content to simply describe the problem that has been seen among some missionaries, I’d have been all for it. I’ve seen personally some examples

But it didn’t just describe the problem. It decided to make that problem as sensational and shocking as possible. Any article on Mormon health issues that manages to drop in facts like women not having the priesthood, missionaries not being allowed to masturbate (because it leads to the “gross sin of homosexuality”), and then claims the church refused to be interviewed for the article (implying a cover-up) leads one to question just what sort of an agenda the author of the story has. Or how anout this gem of a quote:

According to one former missionary, you can walk into any Mormon church in the country and hear of how a missionary overcame certain death with the help of the spirit. One tale recounts the story of a missionary who was run over by a bus. The wheels of the bus ran over this missionary’s head, the story goes—but he emerged unharmed, protected by the spirit.

Do I doubt that someone has been telling stories like this? No. But what I do doubt is that the story is told as frequently as the article claims.

And that’s my beef with the article as a whole. It went looking for stories about missionaries who had medical horror stories on their missions, and then it presents those stories as being representative of the whole. Cherry picking doesn’t make a case. It leaves you open to being criticized and ignored, which is exactly what this issue doesn’t deserve. As I said, missionaries need quality health care. They need to be listened to, and they need access to doctors when they ask for that access. (And even when they don’t ask, as far too many missionaries do seem to believe they’re invincible.)

Missions are difficult things to discuss as a whole. They’re hard to really put a label on, because each person’s mission can be so different. It’s not just a matter of different countries or languages. Different mission presidents can have a huge impact, as they determine the “rules” for the mission. In Denisa’s mission, for example, she wasn’t allowed to take any pictures on any day but p-day. My mission had no rule like that. There are strict missions, and laid back missions. Missions that focus on numbers, and missions that don’t. Missions with approachable presidents, and missions where the president is aloof.

And then there are the missionaries themselves. You have all sorts of layers of leadership and interaction with other missionaries. Assistants, zone leaders, district leaders, trainers, companions. Each one of those individuals can really affect the feel of your mission. And let’s face it: some people do not respond well to getting authority over other people. The more authority you’re spreading around, the more opportunity you have for abuse of that authority. (Especially when the ones who have it are 19 year old men from a wide range of backgrounds.)

So any article that tries to take isolated cases and make blanket statements about situations is overstating its case, regardless of what the claim is. Better to look at statistics as a whole and see what’s going on. (Then again, if those statistics aren’t readily available, that does tend to make things look shady.)

The bottom line for me is that missions can be difficult. We should do what we can to make them less so. Increase the communication channels. Make sure every missionary gets heard. It’s not a form of indentured servitude, and there should be ways to check and make sure that’s being avoided in each and every mission. Can it be perfect? I doubt it. There are too many moving parts. But it can be better. It can always be better.

And as for the stigma from coming home early, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Guilt is a terrible motivating factor to use over people, and it’s one that gets used far too often in religion. God is love not guilt. People will come home from their missions for a variety of reasons. Church members need to realize two basic principles:

  1. They don’t know the whole story about any missionary and why he or she came home.
  2. It doesn’t matter why they came home. They should be supported and accepted. If you’re that missionary’s parent, bishop, or stake president, perhaps you know enough of that story to be able to help him or her come to grips with what he or she should be doing from here on out. If you’re not one of those people? Keep your mouth shut and be supportive and loving of the decisions they make. (Come to think of it, that really applies across the board–not just to missionaries who come home early. It applies to people, period.)

And I guess that’s all I have to say about that for now.

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