It’s General Conference time, which means it’s also the time for mission reunions in Utah. There’s no rule which says you can’t have a reunion at some other time or some other place, of course, but this seems to be the custom which has evolved. More power to it, I say.
That is, in principle. In practice, I’ve attended exactly one reunion of my mission–Korea Seoul West–in my life. I stayed for about 15 minutes, then left. I’ve never had any desire to participate in one since.
Why? Long story. While, in the months immediately after my return from Korea, I did get together informally with some other former missionaries that had returned home long before me, it was mainly for purposes of getting some good Korean food. Once my (second) mission president returned to Utah and everything got formalized, I realized that I hadn’t any real interest to keep in touch with these people; that being around them brought back too many shameful or embarrassing or immature or unwarranted feelings and memories. Basically, I needed to get over my mission, and going to reunions didn’t help. So I left the only I ever attended early, and have thrown out invitations ever since.
Obviously, for a great many other returned missionaries, the desire to “get over” their missions simply isn’t there–or, conversely, reuniting with old friends (and enemies) is a big part of any such getting over. To each their own. As I said, I’ve nothing against reunions in particular; on the contrary, I think they’re a valuable part of the culture of the church. Indeed, speaking of reunions sociologically, I’d be interested to read of any studies which have been done of them. Have variables been identified which suggest why some missions can successfully pull of reunions year after year, and others can’t? What does the passage of time have to do with it? Has the church’s increasingly reliance on a non-Utahn, non-American missionary force changed the nature of these reunions, or have they remained the same?
On variable, which is probably too vague to be of much analytical use (but is fun to speculate upon nonetheless), is the degree of cohesion, discipline, even a feeling of “destiny,” which missionaries who serve is some particular place at some particular time may feel. Perhaps that partly explains my own ability to toss invitations to reunite with old mission companions aside: whatever else could be said about the Korea Seoul West Mission, circa 1988-1990, one thing that cannot be said with a straight face was that it was characterized by great dedication, spirituality, sacrifice, and unity of purpose. (And no, I didn’t help at all in that regard.) The idea that “we’re all in this together” is not an easy one to cultivate, and I don’t know if there is any sure recipe for bringing it into existence. Certainly there have been many missions where that idea was intensely felt: my father’s mission (London, 1962-1964), for one.
Dad almost never talks about his mission, primarily because–as I have figured out over the years–it really wasn’t one filled with much success (however defined) or even many teaching moments. Lots of hostility, lots of slammed doors, and the miserable task of cleaning up after one of those periodic “let’s-baptize-every-nine-year-old-kid-in-sight” phases that every mission seems to go through once a decade or so. (Dad probably spent more of his mission talking to angry parents and removing kids from the church roles than he did prosleytizing. D. Michael Quinn overlapped with my father in that mission; he wrote about the “baseball baptism” era in England at length in a Sunstone article some years back. Elder Holland was in that same mission too.) So, you’d think it wouldn’t be a mission characterized by much enthusiasm in retrospect, right? Wrong. Elder Marion D. Hanks was my father’s mission president, and for decades his former missionaries returned like clockwork to Salt Lake City, where–far from your typical potluck–there was a catered dinner and formal church meeting, with Elder Hanks and selected returned missionaries giving “reports.” These reunions were very important to my father…more important, you might say, than his mission itself. Interesting, no?