Sometimes it is okay to go home.
When my mom dropped me off at the Salt Lake Airport to fly to the East Coast for the very first time, where I was moving (for grad school), not visiting, I was sobbing. The (simplest) reason? I was terrified to go.
My mom then did what any good mom would do: she hugged me. And as she hugged me she told me words that I don’t know if any good mom would do: that I could come home. That I could go for a week of vacation, and I could come home. She wouldn’t be mad.
Then, after I got there, my little brother called me and said, “I heard about what Mom told you, that if you need to, you can come home.” And then he encouraged me to stay anyway, though he also knew that it was hard for me and brave for me. He used the tender phrase, “I’m really proud of you for going, and I hope you stay.”
Reflecting on it now, I understand that I needed both of their words—my mom’s permission to come home, and my brother’s permission to remain. On the very lonely days (of which their were many), I could remember that my mom loved me, and that she wouldn’t think I was a failure if I needed to be with my family and friends in a place that was familiar. Somehow that knowledge of her unconditional love (paired with my brother’s trust in me), was exactly what I needed to stay.
But what if it wasn’t? What if I took my mom at her words, and came home, after a day of crying one-too-many times? Would she have kept her promise to welcome me home with the same loving arms that reluctantly sent me away? I believe so. I really do. I think my brother also would have welcomed me, with an understanding that I had genuinely tried.
What would these words of farewell and homecoming look like in another setting? For instance, what if my mom told me that I could come home, not when I embarked on my two year masters, but when I embarked on my year and a half mission? Would she still have been a good parent? What about a good member?
I think so. Especially if her words were said in a larger framework. Something like, “Many times the best thing is to stay,” with an acknowledgement that beginnings are always hard, and that most things do get better — including the hardest things, like grad school, and missions, and marriage. But, “Sometimes it is okay to go home. Sometimes that is in fact the best thing, or the right thing, for you personally, with direction and inspiration from God.”
There are a variety of reasons why this latter point may be true, but the one most fresh in my mind is also one of the saddest, and it has nothing to do with unworthiness or sin (at least not on the part of the missionary). Instead, it has everything to do with unrighteous dominion of an ecclesiastical leader, and abuse of a Sister by her mission president. The individual being hurt did not see a way out, or have recourse to address the issue, as the white handbook clearly stated that any letter to a General Authority would be returned to the missionary’s president. This sister stayed in a dangerous situation for 18 months, because she wanted to be obedient, and didn’t want people to think that she returned with dishonor.
It a) broke my heart, and b) made me realize that we as a people need to speak and act with greater charity — the same kind of charity exuding from my mother and brother, who would love me if I came home from my first foray into increasingly higher learning, as well as if I stayed. And I desperately, desperately needed to know that.
I wish that someone told the sister that it was okay to come home, and that they would love her anyway, (or alternatively, that there was a way for her to change missions/someone she could talk to that could have protected her from abuse). I see the attitude that says, “Stay at all costs,” as damaging, and quite akin to the attitude that keeps individuals in any unsafe situation (whether that be a harmful relationship, or workplace or school environment).
Missions can and should be beautiful — albeit still hard — things. My own was both. And while my beginning was immensely difficult, I am grateful that I stayed. I am also profoundly grateful that the lowered missionary age is welcoming more and more sisters into full-time missionary service, as I believe approximately one million good things will come from that.
Still, I know that my missionary situation (with a wise and compassionate Mission President, extremely supportive member families and companions) is not identical to other missionaries’ experiences. While I did see (and hear about) some instances of abuse, they generally came from other missionaries, and rarely influenced me directly.* Consequently, what was right for me (staying) may not be right for someone else (possibly leaving). And even with ample support, I still felt great pressure (and sometimes great guilt), even though I was striving to do my best.
Most importantly, it is never our place to judge others. Rather, it is our duty (and joy) to love. This means everyone, not more and not less.
What other words of love might be appropriate to tell a young woman or man embarking on a full-time mission?
How could we as a community support those individuals who may not have had positive experiences during what they hoped would be their “best (one and a half to) two years”?
*There were a few notable exceptions to this, that require a brief explanation of my mission. When I arrived, it was the single highest baptizing mission in North America. But unfortunately, those positive numbers masked several negative truths. The first is that baptisms were not always brought about ethically, and that some Elders bowing to the previous Mission President’s pressure to reach “high numbers,” would bring their investigators to three different Sacrament Meetings in a single Sunday (to ostensibly obey the rule), baptize them that evening, and never hear from them again.
The second is something I did experience personally (exactly one time), that was a carryover from the previous era. It is that some Elders (including some Zone Leaders), would “find” people to teach in care homes for persons with mental disabilities, and pressure the missionaries in the given area to baptize them. Regardless of any accountability. One set of Zone Leaders did this to my companion and I. The woman they “found” was a sweet woman, but she was not responsible. The Elders interviewed her for baptism, against our will, and said she “passed.” I contacted my (as mentioned very good Mission President), and he sent one of his counselors to give her a second interview. The counselor determined what my companion and I knew all along: the woman did not need baptism. The third was evasive: extremely low retention rates.