Read this personal account on Exponent II, link here, here, and here. Edited for length. The full account can be read here.
From the mission call itself to incompatible companionships and experiencing bullying from the mission president and his wife, much of my full-time mission was weighted with loneliness, misunderstandings and mistrust of others. I continue to doubt the call itself even until today.
Yet when I shared some of my unpleasant surprise at the call and fear over how I would be received in such a physically and socially isolated mission as a woman of color, I received feedback from friends that I found helpful and hopeful. They told me it was possible that I could be reassigned if I shared my thoughts and feelings and they were then considered valid enough by men in authority, so that I could be reassigned. I contacted my bishop, stake president, and the church mission department in Salt Lake City and wrote an e-mail to the mission president as well in an attempt to be heard, seen and then reassigned. This e-mail was answered by phone and only served to validate my fears; fears that I would serve around others who would not see or hear me when I needed them to the most.
In the mission field, I would be highly isolated from my support system and have fewer resources than before with which to manage a huge influx of new stress, anxiety, expectations and prejudices. In many ways, I would be alone. After this phone call from the wife of the Billings mission president, I grew even more disheartened because her words and reasoning were very dismissive and demeaning. She questioned my worthiness and desire to serve a mission because as she stated, “Sometimes sisters don’t take missions very seriously and think they can just leave and do what they want.” I was already marked. Then despite my continuing feelings and thoughts of uncertainty, insecurity and that many things just weren’t right … I prepared myself as best I could and entered into the Provo, Utah missionary training center.
Following a frustrating and seemingly endless MTC stay of one week; I arrived at the Billings airport. I was met by the mission president and his wife at the bottom of the escalator. The president told me, “There are stupid people everywhere but if you’re sensitive and look for things everywhere, you’ll find them.” This was his response to my saying that I was worried someone might say or do something ugly to me because I am a person of color in my previous email.
I became the subject of malicious gossip that was reported to the mission president and that I learned about only when he called the phone (kept at all times by one of my companions). He immediately threatened to send me home for noncompliance of rules, began to yell into the phone and call me names that had never before been used to describe me, like “selfish”, “contentious” and “unrighteous”. I was to later learn that he called my previous companion and did the same. We were both verbally abused and had our spirituality and ability to have the companionship of the Holy Ghost called into question.
He accused me of flagrantly disobeying mission rules all in an effort to get reassigned. “Anytime I hear that you have had a disagreement in a companionship, I will know that it is your fault. You shouldn’t be having any disagreements. One more and I will send you home.” These words were yelled at me through the telephone by the man who was supposed to be my mission president, the man whose primary job is to take care of and support missionaries. His firm intent that disagreements were equal to “disharmony and contention” was unlike anything I had ever heard — especially with a master’s degree in Marriage and family therapy.
However, eventually I bowed to the pressure and lost much of my vitality, character and spirit. I did this with the desire to please a man who could not be pleased by me because I believe he never wanted me to enter “his” mission at all. I became a shadow of myself who spoke little of myself, friends, family or home because by my last companionship, I had already seen how this information could be used as ammunition for a passive aggressive companion who would rather get rid of me when uncomfortable than have an open discussion about differences in our personalities, lives and beliefs. My conscious decision to withdraw and shut down from relationships with other missionaries beyond acquaintance type interactions increased the mistrust that many of them had for my differences. Yet it confirmed what I already knew; I could not go on much longer in the Billings, Montana mission unless things started to change.
A short time later I was told that the president was in the building and wanted to meet with me. He told me he had bought me a plane ticket home and I was leaving in one day. He then let me know that sometime after hearing I would be coming home, my brother called him on the phone and they spoke. He admitted to sharing details about some of my challenges in the field. This made returning home even more daunting as people in my family, home stake and general sphere of influence were aware of personal details of this vulnerable experience without the benefit of my perspective and voice. He continued to belittle me even as I was on my way home, feeling shocked and humiliated.
I gleaned many lessons on misguided church leadership, ineffective bureaucracy and the encouragement of passive aggression within Mormon culture. I have witnessed how full-time missions are brimming with politics — social climbers trampling on others to gain favor from mission presidents, abuse of power and using spirituality as a guise to belittle and demean others. No attempts were ever made by anyone, in the field or at home in attempt to preserve my testimony or church membership. Along with this experience of invisibility is the hero worship of full-time returned missionaries. However, this missionary glory does not extend to those of us who return early
I would eventually be released early for medical reasons. Coming home early opened a new phase of my life and has permanently changed my identity in many ways. It is a circumstance that continues to bring feelings of humiliation and thoughts of failure especially because of the public nature. My feelings were increased by the lack of a final temple visit in Billings, never getting officially released by my stake president and never receiving my missionary plaque from my home stake.