Sometimes it is okay to go home.

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This is what I (and my house) looked like on my very first day in Boston.

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.

 

Rachel

Rachel is a PhD student in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University. She co-edited _Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings_ with Joanna Brooks and Hannah Wheelwright. She is also a lover of all things books and bikes.

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21 Responses

  1. galdralag says:

    Thank you so much for this post, Rachel. Over at ZD we have been discussing this and similar issues. Missions are not always good, and some trials are not of the sort that should be quietly endured.

    One of our readers, a 20-year-old who is thinking about putting in her papers, recently sent in a list of questions about missionary service. Your advice – that it’s okay to go home – is so important. I will be linking this post for her. (If any of you have advice for prospective feminist sister missionaries, please come and offer it: http://zelophehadsdaughters.com/2013/02/10/questions-from-and-for-our-readers-feminism-and-serving-a-mission/)

    I have high hopes that the influx of sister missionaries, and conversations and blog posts like this, will have the effect of changing some of our LDS cultural taboos. We don’t have safe spaces for people to process damaging and negative missions, and we should.

    • Rachel says:

      You are welcome, Galdralag. Thank you for addressing this, and similar issues at ZD.

      After my own (hard) mission, I thought a lot about what I would tell others who were choosing or preparing to go, and I realized that I couldn’t honestly answer that it was the best thing for everyone. I have also tried to be very honest about the things that were hard for me, instead of just telling them, “It was hard.” One of them was simply the pressure. I would tell every person considering going that the choices their investigators make are not their fault–they have agency too. So while they are responsible for finding and teaching to the best of their ability, they are not responsible for outcomes. They just give people choices. I would also recommend that they make their own goals with the Spirit, rather than letting District Leaders, Zone Leaders, etc., make their goals for them. (I will hop over to ZD, and post those things there as well.) 🙂

      I’ve thought even more lately, what I would tell my own children (son or daughter), because I do hope that they will go, but I also hope it will be a welcoming environment for them To go.

      I sincerely think that things are getting better, and that they will continue to get better. I just think of the differences it would have made in my own mission to serve near more sisters, instead of only having 9-16 spread throughout.

  2. Jessawhy says:

    Rachel,
    This is a wonderful post. It is full of love and understanding.

    It’s been so long since I went away anywhere that it feels foreign. But I still remember that feeling of being alone and scared. It’s ironic that the wonderful feeling of homecoming can only be found after the pain of being away.

    I’m very sad for people who encounter abuse and terror on their missions. It breaks my heart that there are women (and men) who have been deeply and permanently scarred from these experiences. I hope the church puts more procedural checks into place to help ensure that this doesn’t happen in the future.

  3. escc says:

    Thank you for your lovely post. As a person who felt completely trapped in my mission, you highlighted the feelings I had (and many others, too) in a really expressive way.

    I think every person should be told “It’s OK to come home” because that assurance not only provides the literal opportunity to walk away from a bad situation, it also gives a person the courage to make it through. I remember on my mission (after a couple of abusive situations) contacting some friends and telling them I wanted to go home. All of them encouraged me to stay (I think that isn’t so much their faults as it is what’s been ingrained into people culturally) except one who told me I could come home if I want. However, I will never forget that she warned me that if I did come home early, it would probably be worse for me than if I stayed. She, herself, had come home early from her mission for medical reasons and said the judgement from members was more painful than she could describe.

    The sad thing is, even now, I find myself defending myself and my bad mission experience by telling people, “I stayed the whole time” or “I served a full 18 months.” There’s such a stigma that I feel like the only way people may even entertain the thought of someone being honest about not enjoying their mission is to preface it with letting people know you did the “whole thing.” That is something I’d like to see change. Whether someone serves for two years or two days, they are qualified to know whether or not it was an unhealthy environment. Looking back, I can see how I should have walked away the day I arrived. My first interview with my mission president (25 minutes long for me, 2 minutes for the Elders) in which he “expressed his concerns” over my independent nature and personality (and he’d never met me before!) should have been my first clue.

    I’d tell anyone in any situation, mission or not, to trust your gut. If it feels bad, it’s bad.

    • Rachel says:

      ESCC, you are very welcome. Thank you for chiming in about some of your own experiences and feelings. I also really love your sentence, “I think every person should be told ‘It’s OK to come home’ because that assurance not only provides the literal opportunity to walk away from a bad situation, it also gives a person the courage to make it through,” because it matched my own experience so well.

      While it might sound counterintuitive to suggest that we tell individuals they can come home so they will stay, sometimes that is exactly what we are doing. More than anything, it makes the individual feel like they have a real choice in the matter, in addition to real support. Knowing that the choice was mine, in the grad school matter, as well as, “if it got bad enough,” I had options, helped me push through.

      I also like it, because it relies on autonomy, agency, and personal revelation, which principles I value.

      It is both interesting and sad to read about the way you’ve learned you “need” to preface your explanations, with “I stayed the whole time,” for others to believe you. It is for reasons like that that I wanted to write this post.

  4. KC says:

    It must have broken your mother’s heart to put you on that plane as you were sobbing! It is wonderful that she told you that you could come home. Sometimes we need to know we have a safe place to go if we get overwhelmed. What an amazing mother you have!

  5. X2 Dora says:

    I wish there were more procedural checks for the whole church, and not just for missions. My experience has been that stake presidents are given tremendous leeway in the running of their stakes. And to be fair, most do the best they can, with what they have and are given. However, SPs have a monopoly on the administration of the church in the area over which they preside. All correspondence to church HQ is rerouted through the SP. Even Area Authorities are reluctant to intervene when conflicts arise. Thus, unless the abuse is so egregious that it absolutely cannot be ignored, some bad apples are allowed to stay in positions of authority, an continue to ecclesiastically abuse those in their care. As a good friend often says, “The church is truer in some places than in others.”

    • Rachel says:

      I think you (and your friend) are right. One of the things that makes me sad about that, however, is that I believe having lay leaders is one of the most beautiful things about the Church. It is so unfortunate that it can sometimes be one of the ugliest.

      I do think checks are good things.

  6. Caroline says:

    Wonderful post, Rachel. I hope this gets around to many 19 year old women contemplating a mission. They need to know that leaving a mission can be an honorable, wise choice.

    • Rachel says:

      Thank you as always, Caroline. I hope so too. Missions can be such wonderful things, but that makes support all the more necessary when they are not.

  7. April says:

    The policy of sending correspondence back to local mission presidents or stake presidents is extremely flawed. As pointed out here, if someone needs to address concerns about the stake president or mission president himself, it leaves them with no avenue. And of course, if your concern is about a churchwide policy, the local stake president or mission president has no authority over that policy, so how is it helpful to contact him? I can understand that it would be administratively difficult to answer correspondence from a worldwide church, so personally, I am fine with using public media such as this blog to advocate for churchwide policy changes. However, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that it is worth the resources to make some sort of hotline or email form available to members who need to address concerns about inappropriate or even abusive behavior by their local priesthood leader.

    • Ziff says:

      Amen, April. A thousand times, Amen! When the general leadership of the Church refuses to receive any communication from the rank and file, it suggests that they believe that there can be no systematic problems with the Church at a general level, or that if there are such problems, they can’t be bothered to care.

    • Rachel says:

      I know that neither the Nauvoo nor early Salt Lake days were perfect, but the smallness of the Church seems so appealing to me. Mostly because I cannot even envision a situation in which I could sit face to face and have a genuine conversation with a General Authority.

      I agree that having some way for members of the body of Christ to reach their leaders would be preferable, as well as fruitful, for oh, so many reasons.

  8. spunky says:

    This is beautiful, Rachel, thank you for posting it. I think it can also be applied to almost anything- a bad marriage, even in the temple, for example. It reminds me of Joanna Brooks’ Book of Mormon Girl where she says, “You can’t go on like this.” Sometimes we need to leave something that is unreasonable or unhealthy. There is nothing wrong with that, even if it is college, grad school, a calling, a mission, or even (temple) marriage.

  9. Suzette Smith says:

    Wonderful! I love this idea of giving “permission” to come home – and I hope I use it throughout my life as I send young people (or older people) out into the world – or on hard assignments.

    The other piece of advice I would give a new missionary – trust YOURSELF and follow YOUR own instincts. Let the Lord talk to YOU. On my mission, I followed my President, Zone Leaders, and Companion too willingly. I wish I would have trusted my own thoughts (or just thought) more. A combination of listening to others and listening to self is a good approach. I would have been happier on my mission if I’d “owned” it more.

    Suzette

    • Rachel says:

      Suzette, I think that advice of trusting yourself more is the Best advice. My companion and I received phone calls from Leaders (District, Zone, etc.) on so many nights, telling us what our goals should be. I would be frustrated even then, because I felt like they were taking my agency away, and that it was my area, so we were entitled to revelation for it, and could make more realistic goals with our own knowledge and inspiration.

  10. EmilyCC says:

    My husband came home early for some unresolved issues. His ward was lovely and compassionate and did everything exactly right.

    In the eyes of the ward family, it shouldn’t matter why a missionary comes home. Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about judging the mission president or the missionary. It’s a crucial time for a missionary to decide whether they want to be a part of this church. It is a time to only show love and acceptance.

    Thanks for a beautiful reminder of why, Rachel.

    • Rachel says:

      While I think it can be fruitful to call attention to times when things were not done right, I also love hearing of the times when they were. Bless that ward.

      You are welcome.

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