As a missionary, I was so, so hungry.
I served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, Mormon) in a country where the local culture called for a siesta: a long lunch break, possibly including a nap. Accordingly, my strict missionary schedule provided us with a two-hour lunch break—which was delightful—and balanced that by disallowing a dinner break—which was unpleasant indeed. I never had a car on my mission, and many of the towns I served in did not even have paved roads, so we rode mountain bikes. All day. Every day.
I was hungry. So much exercise! So little food!
As a “greenie” (our term for new missionaries), I was baffled about how others in our mission survived for up to two years of service without starving. Eventually, I learned that most of the male missionaries indulged in a very late dinner after they finished up proselyting at 9:30 pm, just before the mandatory 10:00 bedtime.
My female companions did not attempt such a rushed, late-night meal. I couldn’t figure out how the men were managing to squeeze a meal into their bedtime routine. For women, at least, with long hair that needed to be washed with buckets of water (most of our apartments lacked showers with running water), there was no time for food within that rigid schedule.
I doubt that any women were involved in fashioning our mandated schedule. All women were excluded from missionary leadership positions, even more so than today. This was before 2013, when the LDS church created a new middle management position for women. Now, Sister Training Leaders do meet with the men in leadership, although they are outranked by District Leaders, Zone Leaders, Assistants to the President and the Mission President, all of whom are required to be male. During my mission, women were not invited to any leadership meetings at all.
But honestly, if any male leader had bothered to ask, I believe most of the women in my mission would have supported a schedule with a daily fast from noon to bedtime. Another missionary rule, not at all unique to my mission, is that missionaries are assigned companions of the same sex that they live with and work with all day. Missionaries may not do anything alone, not even run over to the corner store for fifteen minutes to buy a snack. If there is one thing I learned by being forced to spend all day every day in close proximity to another twenty-something year-old woman, it’s that women are good at counting calories and radically opposed to consuming them.
“Do you know how many calories are in that?” my companion would helpfully ask me if I dared to reach for second helping at lunch. Sometimes, I would try to talk a diet-conscious missionary companion into taking a quick break to grab a snack on the run, which would lead to an informative lecture about how fat I was going to be when I got home from the mission if I kept this up. How I yearned for 20 minutes of personal time to eat a sandwich away from the watchful eyes of a live-in dietary consultant!
My companions’ fear of food was only enhanced by the male missionaries, who felt it necessary to tell us, quite often, that they would never marry a returned missionary because “sister missionaries get fat.” My companions who did gain weight told me that the mission president would instruct them to lose weight during their quarterly one-on-one interviews. They didn’t mind; after all, they agreed with him that they were too fat, and losing weight was a top priority for them, although it was hard to see what more they could do to accomplish that beyond the current regimen of never eating dinner plus several hours of daily exercise on a bike.
At one point, even the inanimate objects in our kitchen joined the universal effort to keep us skinny.
“We just haven’t had the best of luck this week,” I wrote to my parents. “Earlier in the week, our house flooded. A couple days later, our stove, which had allegedly been repaired, started shooting flames. For now, we’re on a sandwich-only diet until the elders at the office buy us another one.”
Those were veggie sandwiches, by the way. Pre-packaged lunchmeat did not exist in my mission area. If you wanted meat, you needed a stove to cook it.
When my parents read my next letter, dated 10 days later, they panicked and called the mission president.
“I have to push myself every day to keep an optimistic attitude. It’s difficult because not only am I discouraged, emotionally, I am physically hungry! Remember how I wrote a while back about how the stove exploded and the sink flooded the house? We’ve been without a stove and sink ever since! At first we went out to eat a lot, but I am sick of spending so much money on food and my comp is flat broke. We are now eating cold sandwiches every day. On Sunday, while I was studying, I ran across the scripture 2 Nephi 9:50-51. It applies so much to us that I copied it and stuck it on the wall accompanied by a drawing of a huge sandwich.”
2 Nephi 9:50-51 reads:
“He that hath no money, come buy and eat….Feast upon that which perisheth not, neither can be corrupted, and let your soul delight in fatness.”
My concerned parents called the mission president only hours after the procrastinating office elders finally delivered a new stove to our apartment, so he was able to assure them that it had all been taken care of already.
The mission president brought up my parents’ phone call at our next one-on-one interview. Why had I tattled to my parents? What’s wrong with eating cold sandwiches? He ate sandwiches every day, he informed me.
Ashamed, I accepted the rebuke without pushing back.
It wasn’t until later, when I told another missionary about the conversation, that it even occurred to me that the scolding I received might not have been completely merited. She pointed out that even if the mission president always ate sandwiches for lunch, those were fancy sandwiches with meat on them. And for breakfast and dinner, he enjoyed hot, filling meals.
The mission president had a dinner break.