Guest Post: Redeeming My Soul, Part III

sabraby Sabra

The day I learned of the president’s decision to release me, I was volunteered to participate in a missionary panel for a youth conference. The idea of sharing intimate details of my overall disheartening experiences in front of a group of strangers and fellow Billings missionaries both terrified and irked me. However when asked to share “how I knew the call was right,” I had an answer that was true as well as acceptable to the group waiting anxiously for an answer I didn’t even know I had. I said, “I still don’t know, but I believe its right because sometimes when I’m walking with a companion, talking to people on the street, eating a horrific dinner including spoiled food and embarrassingly personal questions — I feel right, like I’m in the right place at the right time, doing and saying the right things. It’s not often that I get to feel that way.” A short time later I was told that the president was in the building and wanted to meet with me. After hearing this message and waiting for what felt like eternities I came face to face with him for one of the last times as he instructed me to open our talk with a prayer and then told me he had bought me a plane ticket home and I was leaving in one day.

Then, something that I had never expected but prayed fervently for almost every day after he called to threaten my old companion and I: he admitted that he was wrong about me. He all but retracted his earlier statements and said he was only, “rebuking me sharply but now engaging in an outpouring of love, as is mentioned in Doctrine and Covenants.” I must admit that I daydreamed about the day that he would know he was wrong about everything, every bias he held, inflammatory remark he made and misinformed belief he acted on and see me for who I really was. This meeting was bittersweet as I greatly desired to return home but I also wanted to stay in Billings, prove how worthy I was to be a full-time missionary, member of the church, and child of God. I mistakenly believed, like others, that starting and finishing a mission has everything to do with individual and spiritual hardiness or worth. From the MTC and interactions with people in the mission field, it seemed true enough.

At the mission home shortly before being taken to the airport, the president once again questioned my original mission concerns and asked me in a patronizing tone if any of them had come to fruition. I confirmed that in 10 weeks of service, yes some of them had. 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. What had he told them? What did they think they knew? What did they actually know? How would I be received? How could I ever overwhelm his influence with them so that the truth, my truth would be known and believed? It was enough that the mission experience itself was tainted by the president and missionary gossip but now my life upon returning home would be as well.

However, 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, especially when we don’t engage in telling lighthearted mission tales.

It is possible that throughout everything the Lord and my Heavenly Parents were all watching. They knew who I was, who they were sending me to and how things would end. Yet they still extended me this mission call and prompted me relentlessly for almost a decade. Perhaps this was to solidify my role as a truth teller, advocate and survivor of hard things, people and places. Someone needed to tell this story and they knew I would.

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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7 Responses

  1. Marian says:

    Horrifyingly believable. These type of power moves occur all through church leadership structures, but seem to reach a zenith in the mission field. Every time I see a brother (and his wife) begin to move up through the rankings I begin to worry about the irresistible temptation to wield unrighteous dominion. A dear friend has been called to be a mission president and I worry about this kind of result from how the system, organized and run by all too falible men, will push them, husband and wife, to be people they might not ever have imagined.

    Dear sister, take heart, have courage, the gospel is true. We have to tolerate and endure the unrighteousness we are surrounded by, even when doing the Lord’s errands. Your story has influenced me and so you have accomplished something good on this day. One by one we work out the days of our salvation.

  2. Corrina says:

    Sabra, thank you for telling your story. I am so very sorry that you experienced such awful things during your mission service. I admire you for still trying to find the value from it all. It makes me mad how your questions and concerns were never understood or validated. My biggest fear of going on a mission was the possibility of having an anti-sister mission president–luckily, I had one of the best mission presidents a sister missionary could have. I imagine what a firecracker and agent of change you would’ve been in my mission. Thank you for your service, and I hope that you know you have an army of women here who value you and the courageous efforts you have put forth.

  3. Liz says:

    I wish your mission president could read this series of posts and realize just how dehumanizing his behavior was. I shudder to think how many other missionaries could have had similar experiences at his hand, even though I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that he was doing what he thought was right. Still, what terrible things we humans do to each other with the best of intentions!

    I’m so glad that you have spoken up and told your story. I feel privileged to have read it.

  4. spunky says:

    Wow. The communication skills of your mission president and his overall attitude is shocking. He strikes me as very judgmental, and probably focused on the number of baptisms. I’ve heard quite a few horrific tales of bad mission presidents, sadly enough that your words did not surprise me.

    I was intrigued by this phrase in your essay: “I still don’t know, but I believe its right because sometimes when I’m walking with a companion, talking to people on the street, eating a horrific dinner including spoiled food and embarrassingly personal questions — I feel right, like I’m in the right place at the right time, doing and saying the right things. It’s not often that I get to feel that way.”

    I am guessing you were in a poor area if the members had to eat and serve spoiled food; I am also sure that the mission president was not aware of this. But here’s my thing, and I feel dumb asking– but what are questions that are “embarrassingly personal”? I did not serve a mission, so I am asking as a person who has the missionaries over for dinner. We usually ask them where they are from, what they did before and what they plan to do career-wise after the mission, and basic small talk….I hope! So- what are questions that members should not ask missionaries? I guess I can’t imagine asking someone new to me a question that is too personal, or in any way embarrassing— so I am now paranoid that I have unknowingly done this. I’m not asking for *you* to tell me what they asked (egads!), but for former missionaries in general to chime in and offer advice on what *not* to ask a missionary about. (With that in mind, because DH and I did not have children for a long time, many church members found it completely normal to ask about the functionality of my uterus, often at our intorduction. So I feel some of your pain.)

    Thank you so much for contributing to the Exponent!

  5. Jenny says:

    I love your conclusion: “It is possible that throughout everything the Lord and my Heavenly Parents were all watching. They knew who I was, who they were sending me to and how things would end. Yet they still extended me this mission call and prompted me relentlessly for almost a decade. Perhaps this was to solidify my role as a truth teller, advocate and survivor of hard things, people and places. Someone needed to tell this story and they knew I would.” I have felt similarly that some of my worst experiences in the church were necessary so that I could see that there was a problem, and so that I could speak out about it in the hope that other people won’t have to experience the same kind of pain I felt. Thank you for speaking out.

  6. Brooke says:

    Thank you for sharing your voice and your story. It is a horrible and a beautiful thing. The thought that lingers with me, which I love, is that you see yourself as a truth teller and advocate.

  7. Rachel says:

    I am 99% positive that there is a group dedicated to telling stories of those who have returned home from missions early, but can’t find it right now. (Does anyone else know it’s name?) Your brave, vulnerable story from your brave, vulnerable mission belongs there. Your voice is a powerful voice, and it deserves a loud, long reach.

    Some time ago, another member of the Exponent community experienced ecclesiastical abuse on her mission. It prompted me to write this: http://www.the-exponent.com/sometimes-it-is-okay-to-go-home/

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