Guest Post: Stung #MormonMeToo

by Summertime

When I read the news articles about Joseph L. Bishop, the former Provo Missionary Training Centre president, my stomach began to churn and I immediately was brought back to my last night in the MTC. When I was supposed to be eagerly anticipating travelling to the mission where I would be serving for the next 18 months, I was instead reporting unwanted touching and sexual harassment to my MTC teacher’s supervisor.

Ever since I could remember, I wanted to serve a mission. Both my parents are converts and I grew up on stories about the missionaries that brought them into the Church. I started accompanying the sister missionaries when I was 10 years old as they tracted and met with prospective members ( a practice that would likely be frowned on today). My father worked as a travelling salesman and when sisters missionaries were not assigned to our area, we would make arrangements with sisters in other areas for me to stay with them for a day or two while my father made his sales calls. I told everyone I was going to be a missionary and I resented having to wait until I was 21 to serve. I also fought back when I was teased that it was only the ugly young women who were left over and unmarriageable who went on missions.

After graduating from Ricks College, I returned home to work until I received my mission call. My parents were not well off and there were several children in our typical Mormon family. There was no mission fund set aside for me, despite my lifelong goal of serving. I did not think that my branch was obligated to support me while I served, but I knew that they had supported other missionaries with limited means. I was deeply wounded when my branch president told me that he wouldn’t submit my papers unless I paid off my student loan and earned a fixed amount of money first. The branch and stake were supporting elders who were already serving and there was no money to pay for a sister missionary to serve. So, my timetable was adjusted and I worked for 9 months in a minimum wage job, where I was harassed and bullied every day, by an assistant manager who took bets on my first day regarding how long I would last. I limped along until, finally, a miracle happened. My former bishop from Ricks let me know that a contact of his was looking for a missionary to support and he had given me this gentleman my name. I was so grateful that I could now serve and fulfill my dream.

I quickly adapted to the routine at the MTC because I was already so familiar with mission life. What I wasn’t able to adapt to was the teacher assigned to our district. There were 4 sisters and 8 elders in our group. As sisters, we quickly realized that we were not going to have an easy ride with our male teacher. He ruled our classroom with an iron fist and did not tolerate any opposition. He constantly berated us for the smallest perceived infraction in our appearance and would frequently comment, for example, on how much of our stockings were showing under our regulation length skirts as we shifted in our seats or climbed the stairs. We discussed during meal times and after class how uncomfortable we were with all the attention he was directing towards us. The elders in our district also began to notice the imbalance in the attention our teacher was giving us.

A new challenge presented itself in the form of the call centre, which was a relatively new innovation for the MTC. I dread imposing on people, and the prospect of making cold calls to follow up on referrals received through the 1-800 numbers, shared during Church television commercials, was a living nightmare for me. The minimal training and pressure to perform made the task especially distressing. During one particular session in the centre, I became increasingly concerned about how much time our teacher was spending with my companion and how close he pulled his chair next to hers. After a few difficult calls, I turned off my computer and took off my headset. I was done and nothing could convince me to continue. The teacher walked over to my station, pulled his chair close to mine and reached under the desk and touched my upper left thigh. I felt like I had been stung. I quickly stood up and walked out of the call centre. A few of the elders followed me and seeing how upset I was, asked what had happened. When I explained, they became angry and became animated with how they would retaliate. I told them that I would be fine and somehow made it through the rest of the days of our training in the midst of the persistent singling out from the teacher.

That unwanted touch played over and over in my mind and I was at a loss as to what to do about it, but I knew for certain that it was uninvited and unwanted. The MTC was a foreign environment with an unfamiliar hierarchy. Our teacher had bragged that his supervisor was his best friend and I wasn’t sure that making a complaint would make a difference. I felt ripped off and angry that at the start of my mission, a goal that I had waited years to attain, I had been violated in this way.

Finally, on our last night in the MTC, after speaking with my companion about it again, I went to the reception area, where just days before, I had entered as a new missionary, and asked who I would speak to about a concern about my teacher. The person at the desk called my teacher’s supervisor, his best friend. My heart sunk when I saw him, but somehow through my tears, I was able to share what my companion and I had experienced. He thanked me for telling him and after he left, that was it. No one followed up with me and no one offered me support. I never heard anything more about it.

When I met my trainer in my first area, I told her what happened, and she accused me of making it up. Then I gave up, buried my feelings and tried to be the best sister missionary I could. I tried so hard to become the perfect missionary that I damaged my health, and was almost sent home early, because I was a liability for the Missionary Health Department. When I finished my mission it was a relief and nothing close to the best years of my life.

I have made my peace with those 18 months so long ago and I suppose in that time I have forgiven that teacher. But if there is a flyover shot of the MTC during the Mormon Report, between General Conference sessions, I become nauseated and tears come to my eyes as the film of that moment 18 years ago replays in my mind, in perfect detail. The sting is still there.

Summertime supports women in finding their voices professionally and unprofessionally.

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9 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Summertime, it’s pretty awful that your teacher abused his position like that. The MTC should be the last place you have to deal with unwanted sexualized touches. Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. Amelia Christensen says:

    Unwanted touch can be so haunting, and particularly sickening when it’s someone in a position of power. Much love to you.

  3. Ziff says:

    I’m sorry about the betrayal you experienced, Summertime, and that when you gathered your courage to report it, nothing at all was done.

  4. Wendy says:

    I’m so angry that this happened to you! And I’m so sorry that your dream of going on a mission sounded like it was more of a nightmare. You deserved to be safe. I believe you.

    (And that teacher should have been terminated and expelled from BYU if he was a student. You should have been invited to write a formal complaint and the matter should have been investigated. It’s very likely one of many sisters that he violated. 😡)

    • ST says:

      As I look back now, I realise that it never occurred to me that the MTC would have an HR department overseeing it or management that I could appeal to. There is so much unspoken and untaught that leaves sister missionaries vulnerable. It wasn’t as if they didn’t know where to find me to follow up.

  5. JNB says:

    Summertime, I am so sorry that you were subjected to such horrific and debasing treatment by people in power there. I went to work there as a teacher after my mission, and was also treated poorly by my (all male, college student) supervisors, and ended up resigning after a male co-worker brought a photo of me in a bathing suit to work one day (we co-workers went hot-tubbing in the snow in park city for fun after hours in the wintertime) and hung it up on the chalkboard where all of our missionaries saw it, because he was angry with me one day–a textbook case of sexual harassment that management both refused to acknowledge as such and then turned on me as my fault and wrote me up for, saying that I was being difficult, negative, and disruptive and creating drama between teachers that disrupted the learning of the missionaries (I got to see the write-up before I quit). This is why I believe you, 100%, and stand with you. You are not alone, and I hope that your story both raises awareness and fosters change for the next generation of female missionaries and MTC employees. Kudos to you for speaking out. Your story and mine are not the only ones–I encountered several other women on campus with stories just like ours in subsequent years. When college boys manage an entire multimillion-dollar center like that, with zero female leadership for balance, of *course* this sort of thing runs rampant and unchecked.

    • ST says:

      Thank you. It was quite a shock when I served to realise how disturbing it was to interact with the Church as a corporate entity, which I had always been raised to believe was perfect. I figured that any gaps would be compensated with inspiration to know what was actually happening. Sadly, this isn’t the case. I still struggle with feeling so helpless when I was in such a vulnerable position and lacked the courage to stand up for myself as much as I wanted to.

  6. Lmzbooklvr says:

    I believe you. I’m deeply saddened this happened to you, and I worry as I approach sending my daughter out.

    • ST says:

      Thank you. I think my biggest piece of advice for sisters, that I share frequently, is don’t take anything from the leaders or the elders that feels off. If they don’t believe you or mistreat you, find someone who can be trusted and break all the MTC/mission rules needed to find the safety that you need.

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