Twenty years ago (almost to the day), I first arrived in Germany. I was a nineteen year old missionary, fresh from the training center and excited (and nervous) to be out in the country I had been assigned. Missions are strange things. I had grown up anticipating going on one, and yet I had never had a real idea of what would happen when I was actually on one. Go door to door and teach people willing to listen? The concept was admittedly fairly vague, as I imagine it is for most missionaries when they go out.
Part of that is because of how different one mission can be compared to another. Living for two years in Germany is going to be a very different experience compared to two years in Belize or two years in Tampa, Florida. Even within a country, it’s going to be different. Eastern and Western Germany were very different places at that time, and imagine the difference between serving in Maine or Louisiana. The people are different. The food is different. The general attitudes toward religion are different.
Set all those cultural and societal differences aside for the moment, however. Because even if every single country and city were identical, there’s still a huge factor that influences how your mission will play out.
The people you teach come and go, and they each make a different impact on your life. I still think about some of the people I taught while I was over there. I wonder how they’re doing, and what happened to them after I left. (This was in the days before social media. I’ve reconnected with a few of them, but not many.)
And then there’s the other missionaries you’re with. Each missionary is paired with a companion at all times. You’re always together. A few companionships are grouped together into a District. You meet with your District about once a week, sometimes more often. A group of districts are grouped into a Zone. You meet with your Zone once a month, give or take. Every now and then you’ll see the entire mission at once, but typically you just interact with the missionaries in your corner of it, for better or worse. (You don’t get a say in where you go, or who you serve with. It’s done by inspiration.)
But even setting aside all of that, there’s still one huge difference between missions:
The mission president.
He’s called to serve for three years, and for those three years, he runs that mission with a fair degree of autonomy. Yes, there are still principles and guidelines to follow, but he interprets how those principles and guidelines are to be followed for the missionaries in his mission. When I first arrived in Leipzig, I had no idea about any of this. In my mind, all missions were pretty much the same, just with different foods on the plate. (Seriously. I had been so worried I’d be sent to a place that mainly ate fish. This is how my nineteen year old brain worked. Bratwurst and sauerkraut? Bring it on!)
Now that I’ve spoken to many other returned missionaries about their experiences, however, I’ve seen just how big of a difference your mission president can have. Take Denisa’s experience in San Francisco and compare it to mine, for example.
- We were allowed (and encouraged) to take cameras with us everywhere we went. To let us remember the things we did and the places we went and the people we met. Denisa could only take pictures one day a week.
- We were allowed to listen to classical music, choral music, movie soundtracks and more. (Even Enya!) Denisa had a much more strict list of approved music she could listen to.
- We could do our laundry in our apartment any day of the week. Denisa was supposed to do it on one specific day.
- Denisa could call home on Mother’s Day and Christmas. We were allowed to call home on Father’s Day as well.
I know those rules seem arbitrary and perhaps even more than a little silly to some. Keep in mind that missions are designed to be quite focused. To allow the missionary to forget his or her old life and focus on serving others in her or his area. To not get distracted by ex-girlfriends or high school drama or even current events and pop culture. But the mission president really decides how best to make that happen for the missionaries in his area.
When I first met President Moss and his wife, I thought they were nice people. I had no idea the sort of impact they would have on my life. For those two years, they were basically the main parental figures in my life. Yes, I wrote home every week, and I had a bit of input from my parents through letters (and later, even emails, as technology caught up with me), but President Moss would sit down and talk with me every month or two. I’d turn to him and his wife for advice on what I should be doing. How I could handle struggles with my companion or personal life. He wasn’t just a leader. He was a counselor and confidant.
Those two years were formative years for me for obvious reasons. Nineteen and twenty years old? There was so much I still didn’t know. But beyond that, it was my first time really living the Gospel I had believed my whole life. Putting it into practice on my own. Seeing how I would live it personally. That’s kind of hard to describe, but I’m trying. What I mean is that up until then, I would look to my parents for cues on how the Gospel of Jesus Christ really was put into action. What does it mean to love your neighbor? To not lie? To keep the Sabbath day holy?
In Germany, I saw firsthand how other people were trying to do the same thing. People who were Mormon and were not Mormon. I saw the wide range of what the Gospel could encompass, and I had to decide for myself where I fit into that range.
Except I wasn’t by myself. I had my mission president to advise me. A large part of my accepting, introspective, analytical approach to living religion can be traced back to his example. I saw him speaking and interacting with people of all colors, backgrounds, and beliefs. He was always kind and generous to them. Inviting them into his home. Having long discussions with them. Helping them when he could.
For the last quarter of my mission, I was a Zone Leader, and then an Assistant the last two months of that. I had the chance to meet and associate with President Moss and his wife much more often. I grew to deeply admire and respect both of them for who they were, the sort of marriage and relationship they had, and how they lived their lives.
Sadly, I was a much better missionary than I was at keeping in touch with them. I attended a few reunions now and then, but that became pretty much impossible once I moved to Maine. For people who made such an impact on my life, I didn’t do a very good job at maintaining that relationship. I regret that.
I especially regret it this week, when I found out he was just diagnosed with cancer and has been given a grim prognosis.
I wanted to write him personally, but I also decided I’d like to state publicly how much I admire him and how grateful I am to him for how much he helped me in my life and, through his example, the lives of other people I have helped in turn.
My prayers are with him and his family.