“You can’t be what you can’t see”: Sister Missionary Edition

A week or so ago, I found myself eating watermelon in my parent’s kitchen with my six-year old niece. I was standing near the island. She was standing close by, looking at the fridge. After awhile, she exclaimed, “I see you as a missionary!” And she did. She saw this picture of me, standing with other people she knew and loved: 


A few moments passed, and then she added more reflectively, “I can’t believe an aunt of mine was a missionary.”

Sometimes I can’t believe it either, because I didn’t see sister missionaries when I was growing up. I had one aunt, too, but I never saw a picture, and I never heard any stories. There weren’t sister missionaries leaving or serving in any of my wards, and there weren’t any in my immediate family. I may have known about one daughter of one family friend, but she lived in a city a few hours from mine, and was ten years my senior.

How did I know I could be a missionary? How did I see something in myself that I didn’t see elsewhere?

Both of my parents told me that girls could be great missionaries, and while I am certain that their words played a large role, I believe that there is something else. That something is small, but not insignificant. And I wasn’t cognizant of until just a few days before my niece looked at the picture, when I was sitting in a Sacrament Meeting, flipping through my mom’s Children’s Songbook.

The pages opened to “We’ll Bring the World his Truth,” and I just paused. It was a song I loved when I was very young, but the need to pause came from something else, from the picture I loved even more. As soon as I saw it, I remembered how I used to sit at my family’s piano, just to look at all of the beautiful pictures, and to draw them. I distinctly remembered drawing that one, with that boy, and that girl, holding their scriptures tenderly, as they stood bravely in front of the entire world.

photo (28)

I read the words. Over and over they said, “We.” We have been born. We have been taught. We. We. We. And there is the last part of the chorus: We will be the Lord’s missionaries, to bring the world his truth. It felt deeply important to me that there is no distinction here. There is no note that says “We” means boys. And the picture! It shows all who will have eyes to see that this “We” can mean girls.

I flipped the pages again, backward and forward, but this time with greater purpose. I wanted to find the other missionary songs. I wanted to read the words, and I wanted to look at the pictures. “Called to Serve” shows a little girl too. Happily it also uses inclusive language. Verse two even specifies “daughters of a King.”

photo (29)

“The Things I Do,” on the other hand, does not depict a girl. It does not use inclusive language. Instead it uses, “I.” I’ll take my friends to church with me. will act with dignity. And then: “when the elders find their door, they’ll say, ‘Come in and tell us more.'”

photo (27)

Without even telling my mom what I was looking for, she leaned over and whispered, “Then when the sisters find their door, they said, ‘Come in, and tell us more.'” She pointed at the corresponding passage. I asked her about it later, and she explained that she has been singing it that way for years, for her children and her primary children.

I didn’t remember this re-envisioning, but it makes quite a bit of sense, really, as it was sister missionaries who taught her dad when she was two, making it possible for her family to be sealed together in the temple.

I left church that day immensely grateful for the Children’s Songbook, and the words and pictures that helped me see that I could be something more than what I saw in person.

I am also grateful for Caroline’s recent post, relating the phrase, “You can’t be what you can’t see” to the important Heavenly Mother Art and Poetry Contest, as well as her earlier reminder that “Everybody needs a God that looks like them.” And then there is Mrayne’s posts, “It Matters,” and “A God Like Me.” And probably many more, on this blog, and elsewhere, affirming that examples matter,  pictures matter,  stories matter.

What things have helped you envision yourself in roles where you want to be (whether spiritual or temporal)?

How can we better help our sisters and nieces and friends envision themselves?


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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24 Responses

  1. Em says:

    I think my earliest motivation for going on a mission (not what got me out the door, but what had me saying “I’ll do that!” in my teens) was the fact that I DIDN’T see girls. We were actually lucky enough to have sister missionaries for a short while, so I guess I did see it, but none of my lessons suggested that that would be a plan for me. I was just sort of defiant and I didn’t like being told that a boy could do something I couldn’t do. The ol family motto: anything you can do, I can do better. Sometimes sibling rivalry, and rivalry in general can work wonders.

    As for my other accomplishments, I did have people I could see. My mom has a PhD, so it was easy to see myself going to grad school. My sister-in-law runs marathons, so I could see myself running long distances. There are many women who set me examples of church service. I’m lucky to live in a weird little microcosm of having women I can see. And maybe it is silly, because I’ve never met Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, but the fact that a woman can be a historian, and LDS, and be married and have a family helps me to feel like I can do those things too.

    • Rachel says:

      Em, I love that you have had so many wonderful examples (and that you were able to use the Lack of an example as motivation).

      I also really hope you’ll get to meet Laurel one day. She is lovely. And inspiring.

  2. Caroline says:

    Great post, Rachel, and thanks for the shout out. 🙂

    I was lucky enough to go to a women’s college, so I saw women around me everywhere who were scholars. I saw many of them have families and also live this life of the mind, and I was drawn to that. I also was lucky enough to see young moms go back to school for their PhDs. Jana (from this blog) was a great inspiration to me in that regard. Knowing these women and the paths they chose gave me hope that I could pursue something similar.

    • Rachel says:

      Thank you, Caroline!

      I love that you have had so many shining examples, and am immensely grateful for the example you have been to me, in my dual desires of motherhood and PhD-hood. Your expression “the hope that I could pursue something similar” resonates so strongly with how I feel. Thank you!

  3. Jessie says:

    Neither of my parents served missions, but while I was growing up we regularly had missionaries in our home–my mom was one of those members who signed up to feed them a few times a month at least (as a missionary myself I realized that at least part of their interest in my family was the fact that my dad was inactive). Sometimes we had elders in our ward and sometimes we had sisters. When I was a senior in high school I had the opportunity to serve a ‘mini-mission’ with a pair of sisters in another area of my local mission–it was a fantastic experience and really helped cement my desire to be a missionary.

    A few years ago a girl in my ward was giving a talk about motherhood and how she valued the sacrifice of her mother who ‘gave up’ going on a mission to get married and have children. After sacrament meeting, my daughter who was about 7 at the time asked me “why did she say that? why can’t you go on a mission and then get married?” She was genuinely confused because I had served a mission and 4 of my sisters-in-law had also, so my daughter assumed the narrative was college, mission, marriage. Interestingly, the girl who gave the talk a few years ago is now on a mission herself 🙂

    For me, one of the areas where I didn’t have many role models has been in the field of education and employment. I grew up in areas where most people were employed by the military (primarily men) and then the women I knew who were employed were either doing fairly low-status work that was purely out of economic necessity or were teachers. I didn’t know anyone who worked in academia or who had a professional-level job or education until I went to college, so my career goals and aspirations were somewhat confused and unclear for many years.

  4. EmilyCC says:

    I recently started a job and have been surprised at the feelings that have come up. I come from a family with a lot of privilege (in fact my whole comment feels woefully self-indulgent). My grandmothers didn’t work while they had kids at home, my mom and aunts didn’t, and now, my sisters and cousins with kids at home don’t work full-time.

    I really enjoy my job, but it’s been disconcerting to realize that I have few immediate models of how to be a “working mother.” (And, I’m very grateful to the working mothers who have taken the time to give me tips on how to do this.)

    I wonder how angsty I would feel if I had had more models of working mothers when I was growing up.

  5. Melody says:

    If I’m honest, I have to say I found few models of strong women around me growing up –maybe my best friend’s mom who was extremely energetic and invested in the arts. She was always running the show for any performance-related activities at church. None really in my family.

    I became a working mom out of necessity during and after divorce, but I’ve been a feminist for as long as I can remember. My oldest child, my daughter, served a mission, as did her brother. That seemed very natural in our family. My personal sense of strength as a woman, even my sense of spiritual strength and equality within the church (in spite of obvious day-to-day inequalities) comes entirely from within. I credit God for this. S/he made me this way and I’m eternally (literally) grateful.

    Rachel, this post makes my heart sing. Thank you so much. It’s the last thing I’m reading before bed and it feels so nice. G’night now.

  6. This is beautifully written. What a wonderful mother you have and a great example you are! I am so glad your missionary photo is up on your niece’s refrigerator!

    • Rachel says:

      Kate Sherwood, thank you for your kind words. I do have a wonderful mother, and I am also glad that she has that photo up on her fridge, for my nieces and nephews to see when they come visit. Representations are powerful.

  7. April says:

    I decided to serve a mission when I was 7 and a female returned missionary was invited to do a sharing time about missionary work. She wore a lovely Chinese style dress that she got from the country where she served. (maybe Taiwan or Hong Kong?).

    When I was primary chorister, one year we sang Called to Serve. For the annual program, the presidency had the idea of having the boys wear name tags with the words”future missionary” on them and stand, while the girls remained seated. I convinced them to include the girls. They may not “have to” serve missions in the way that Mormon males do, but I didn’t want them to think they had to sit and wait, either.

  8. Ziff says:

    I really like this post, Rachel. I think you raise a great point that it’s difficult for us to imagine ourselves doing something that we haven’t seen someone similar doing before. On the specific issue of girls growing up to be missionaries, I’ve also noticed the boy and the girl on “We’ll Bring the Word His Truth,” but I hadn’t thought about the other songs. Thanks for pointing them out. Also, I recall that in my last ward when I was subbing in primary once, the primary presidency had asked someone to come in and talk about their mission experience. And it was a woman! It was just the one time, but it gave me some hope, and probably inspired the girls in the primary to imagine themselves in new possible roles.

    • Rachel says:

      Thank you, Ziff. And thank you for sharing the experience you had while subbing in primary. Since writing this post, my mom has had her current primary sing “The Things I Do,” with sister missionaries finding “their door.” She told me that in the junior primary, it went fine, without incident, but in the senior primary, some of the older children (all boys) complained that they were singing “sisters.” The ward mission leader happened to be there that day, and he said, “Yes, sisters!” and then shared how they had sisters in their ward, and what fantastic missionaries they were, and how the ward and community were so lucky to have them. I felt that my mom and that ward mission leader all deserved many gold stars. (As did your primary presidency.)

  9. Christian J says:

    Rachel, your point was brought to my attention when my 4 year old daughter (now 8) said very matter-of-factly that “girls can’t be missionaries”. It seems that it was an assumption she made entirely on her own from observation. The following Sunday, we found some sisters from another area to come to dinner and set her straight. It wasn’t good enough just to tell her – real life examples were needed. Thanks for the post.

    • Rachel says:

      Christian J., I am so glad your family took the time and energy involved to invite those sisters into your home, and the immediate presence of your daughter. I am also glad that there were sister missionaries in a near enough area that you could invite. Both things seem like a gift.

      You are very welcome.

  10. Marcia says:

    The thought of serving a mission had never crossed my mind while growing up in the church. I only knew of one, a YW leader of ours, who served a mission, and while we liked her, she was “odd” in our eyes. I thought the only women to serve missions were those who would obviously never get married, so a mission was the next best thing.
    At 18, I found myself at BYU in a branch full of returned sister missionaries. Many of them were friends and former companions having served in Scandinavia. They were the most wonderful women. I was just constantly in awe of their confidence, their goodness, their leadership, their love, and just their overall countenance. I wanted to know more about them. I was in a place in my life where I was struggling just to make it through each day and I wanted to be like them. I wanted to feel happy and confident. A year later, I was not doing well in school, I was unsettled, not finding peace in anything I did. To shorten the story, after much soul searching, praying, and fasting, it became clear to me that I needed to serve a mission. I’ve always been grateful to those friend, those returned sister missionaries. They set such an example for me, and helped me choose a life-altering (for me and others) experience of serving a full-time mission.

    • Rachel says:

      I love this story, Marcia. Thank you for sharing it here, and bless those women-mentors. 🙂

      It also reminded me that when I was 19 I went home from BYU to my parents’ house for the summer, but it was not the house or ward I grew up in. And there were a LOT of RM sisters. One in particular was quite influential on me. Then, at BYU there were three fellow philosophy major females that were beautiful, bright, married, returned missionaries, that made me think for the first time that I could seek all of the blessings that I wanted.

  11. Kendra says:

    Maybe I’m the odd one, but I never felt growing up that I couldn’t serve a mission because I’m female. Though I chose not to go, my first recollection of missionaries coming to our home were two sister missionaries who were just amazing and energetic. And I remember singing, and I still sing the primary song ” I hope they call me on a mission”. Which, though archaic in its recalling the days in which missionaries were literally “called” to go on missions, both boys and girls sang it loudly in our primary growing up. I never ever felt that missions or the discussion of missions was gender biased, and I was in primary in the late seventies early eighties (gasp)!

    • Rachel says:

      Kendra, I am so pleased to hear accounts like this, as this is the story line I would much prefer. I’m glad you did see sister missionaries when you were growing up, that you and the primary children around you sang vigorously about hopeful, prospective missionary calls, and that the discussions you heard were welcoming to both men and women. That is as it should be.

  12. KK says:

    It never occurred to me that sisters couldn’t serve. Sister missionaries taught me and my family when I was eight. As for getting an education, my mom got her master’s before I was born. Then she became a SAHM. I guess I didn’t see many role models of women who both worked and had children at the same time, but for missions and education, I saw plenty of women do it before me.

    • Rachel says:

      KK, thank you for adding your voice. I wonder if it might have occurred to you if sisters couldn’t serve if you hadn’t had the experience that you had. Regardless, I am glad you and your family did have that experience with the sister missionaries (as I would be similarly glad if the missionaries were male). I am also glad that you were able to have so many exemplars in various fronts. I realize that I did too, though most of mine were male. My brothers and father served a mission before me. And completed graduate school before me. And lived abroad before me. I must have been able to apply what I saw in them, to what was in me.

  13. Jennifer says:

    This makes so much sense. I never once saw any sister missionaries where I grew up in California. There were none leaving from our ward and none serving in our area. I was under the unfortunate impression that only the ugly women who couldn’t get married went on missions. So imagine my great offense when my Bishop talked to me about the possibility of serving! Ha! I let him know that surely marriage was in my near future and my beauty and purpose in life would be validated. How naive I was. It wasn’t until nearly two years later that I met my first pair of sister missionaries, and guess what?! They were beautiful, amazing, normal people! We had an great conversation that truly opened my closed mind. They encouraged me to pray about whether or not to serve, something I had never done. I received my answer and serving a mission is one of the best decisions I ever made. It’s been over 10 years, but the lessons I learned and the experiences I had continue to bless me as a mother, a wife, a leader and every other aspect of my life. And considering that “you can’t become what you can’t see” I tend to talk about it with young women a lot, just so they know it’s an opportunity for everyone. Thanks so much for this article.

    • Rachel says:

      I love your comment, Jennifer, and love Love that you had an inspired bishop (even if his words were ahead of their time), and that you were able to meet the sister missionaries you did, at the perfect time for you.

      The fact that there are now more sister missionaries serving than ever before (due in large part to the age change) makes me thrilled, because more people will have the opportunity to SEE them. I also think those old stereotypes will continue to fade as serving a mission continues to become a more viable option for young women.

      Lastly, I love so much that you are speaking about your experiences with the young women in their ward. They are lucky to have you, and they are lucky to hear your stories. This is so much what I want for young women everywhere, not to make them feel undue pressure to go, but to give them a real choice, and know that it is a real possibility for them. Thank you!

  1. September 18, 2013

    […] the excellent podcast on mentoring with Whitney Johnson and Lisa Gregory Chapman, and when I read Rachel’s essay about not being able to be what you can’t see. I’ve been thinking about the concept of mirrors […]

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