Guest Post: Redeeming My Soul, Part II

sabraby Sabra

Although I was only a full-time missionary for a few months, this would be the first of many companionships. They ran from the trio that questioned my worthiness and “attitude” (an always strategically chosen word when used to describe women of color) because I chose to pray standing up over kneeling at times and didn’t wake up with the alarm clock one morning. Only one of these two sisters spoke about this; the other one admitted to being a strict conflict avoider, refusing to discuss, explore or resolve tensions at all. She expressed, “I think if you’re an adult and don’t hear the alarm it’s not my responsibility to wake you.” I found this sentiment to be conflicting with the concept of “companionship”. I was learning that each missionary has their own idea of what a missionary, companionship and the mission rules are supposed to look like. So my adherence to the rules I’d learned in the MTC, missionary guide and rule book were not completely in line with any of the companionships that I had.

This made the lack of support from the Billings mission leadership, family/friends, and companions at many times beyond what I could endure by myself. The inconsistency within companionships sometimes got me into trouble as a companion would see my differences with them as something to report to the mission president rather than to discuss openly and honestly with me. 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. I’d learned just how normal and healthy disagreements can be. However a lack of disagreements can be a confirmation that one person in a partnership is not engaged, involved or feeling safe enough to share their perspectives and thoughts. I didn’t want my fear of being sent home early and dishonorably to keep me from being myself and sharing opinions that could make a companionship, lesson or planning session better. Wasn’t I sent there for a reason? How could changing myself to be something that I’m not allow the situation to become what it was meant to be?

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.

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. Although I was extended an “honorable” release, I have to wonder how honorable the intentions were of those who extended it. I no longer question the integrity of the release on the side of heaven, but I do question it on the earthly side that showed little concern over losing a missionary and possibly a member and family.

Part III will be published tomorrow.

Have you ever had a trying experience when you felt alone and forsaken? How did you deal with your feelings? How did you re-build or replace your trust in certain others?
Sabra’s bio: A native Texan,  I love Christ’s gospel, eating and beauty products. I love people and have served them in the capacity of a mentor, tutor, teacher, volunteer, intern, therapist and advocate over the course of 5 years. 

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9 Responses

  1. Lindsay D says:

    How horrible to have such a toxic relationship with your mission president and to feel like you’re living with informants. I wonder if things would have been any different if you’d not contacted him before your arrival. Your experience illustrates perfectly why I find myself so unwilling to “draw attention to myself” by expressing concerns or providing unsolicited feedback to the priesthood leaders in my ward. What if it forever marks me as a dissident, one not to be trusted? If someone like me with strong opinions who normally has no issue speaking out feigns complacency in a church setting, what chance is there that even a small minority of others will speak up? The deck is stacked against us from the start. I don’t have a testimony of patriarchy.

  2. The mission rules of not being allowed to choose your destination or your companions and being forced to spend every hour of every day with the same person, with no break time, are problematic for lots of people, as is having only male mission presidents, APs, zone leaders and district leaders. It would be great for the Church to reconsider these rules so that missionary work can better accommodate people who would make great missionaries but who would thrive better under different policies. Until that happens, the peace corp and other volunteer program are okay alternatives to missionary work, but for people who really want to preach the gospel, I understand that these substitutes are insufficient.

  3. Emily U says:

    I’m so sorry your mission experience was negative in these ways. I didn’t serve a mission, and don’t know if I could have tolerated one. It sounds like your companions and mission president judged you before they knew you, and nothing is more frustrating and isolating than that.

    As to your question about feeling isolated and re-building trust. For sure I’ve had that, although not in such a poignant way as your mission experience. My therapist friend talks about having permeable barriers that provide protection but also let in the good. I think it’s a constant process to build and maintain that kind of filter.

  4. Caroline says:

    “However, eventually I bowed to the pressure and lost much of my vitality, character and spirit.” I think this is so sad. How tragic that your companions and mission president couldn’t see that your unique vitality and character could have been the keys to reaching and helping people that they could never have reached or helped themselves. There needs to be more room in missions (and the church) for people to be themselves and to be loved and appreciated for it.

  5. Ziff says:

    I’m sorry, Sabra. This sounds really tough. Particularly your mission president’s stubbornness and his insistence on fitting every interaction with you or bit of information about you into his preconceived idea of you as a troublemaker.

    Thinking about your questions at the end of the post, particularly about rebuilding trust, this may be fatalistic or cynical or I don’t know what, but with some people, I just don’t trust them again. I’m assuming your mission president would fall into that category. I mean, it’s pretty clear that he wasn’t going to be worth sharing your real self with (or safe to share with).

  6. Molly says:

    Sabra, thank you for sharing these two posts (I’m really hoping for a third). You wrote about your experience with such clarity and insight, and my heart ached for you and by extension those who injured you through their ignorance, presumption, and self-righteous bullying. I’m sorry the experience has caused you so much grief, particularly returning home. I identified with your description of lonliness while in the mission field so much. I held such a romantic view of “the field” before I served. It was a shock of cold water to live it and realize how soul-crushing it can be at times. I cannot imagine living it with such lack of support and downright animosity. Such unchristian behavior from those who were called to preach His gospel. I hope you can find peace with your experience. Thank you for letting the rest of us catch a glimpse of what you’ve been through. I know I will be thinking about your posts for a long time to come.

  7. Jenny says:

    I have some close friends who have experienced similar bullying on their missions and had to make the same choice you did to either lose the essence of who they were or to submit. It’s a real problem that causes so much unnecessary pain. I’m glad that you are willing to share your story. I also hope you are finding peace in your own life after this. No one should ever be treated this way when they are devoting such a huge commitment of time and finances in service to the church.

  8. Liz says:

    This whole thing makes me so sad. The inflexibility of mission life (combined with a particularly nasty administrator in your mission president) can be so harmful for so many. And while I realize this wasn’t the point of your post, the whole dichotomy of having a “senior” and “junior” in a “companionship” mirrors the “preside” and “equal partnership” rhetoric that we see in married couples, too, and I think they’re both problematic for exactly the same reasons. It sets up a dynamic that is conducive to bullying and/or abuse. I’m so sorry, Sabra. I’m so glad that you were released to go home early, but I’m so saddened by your experience.

  9. Rachel says:

    This continued tale is so heartbreaking, too. I had a few of the same types of problems in companionships, too, especially in my first area. I simply wanted to know if the way my companion did things was just the way she did them, or the way our mission did them. Did I have to do them that way, too? Anytime I tried to figure this out, she thought I was showing a lack of humility, when I was mostly trying to survive. (Her ways were not at all my ways, or the type of missionary I could be and would ultimately become.)

    With your going home part (and all of the parts before), I’m sorry that you didn’t receive the support that you needed and that you deserved.

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