I cannot remember when Brother H. came to our branch for the first time. Somewhere in the late seventies or early eighties. A middle-aged man, single, not too tall, graying hair, with lips drawn between an angelic and an ironic smile. Was he brought in by the missionaries or did he find us? I am not sure anymore. I tend to think the latter.
At first he was the perfect investigator. Listening intently to the Sacrament meeting talks, even the most boring. Taking notes in the Sunday School class for investigators. Mingling with the members and shaking their hands enthusiastically. Attending each and every event, from district conference to Relief Society bazaar. He would have attended primary and seminary if we had let him.
“When will you be baptized?” the missionaries asked.
– But I have been baptized. As a child in the Catholic Church. I do not need to be baptized again.
– Well, remember what we told you about the authority of the priesthood?…
Arguments were to no avail. Brother H. would display his smile and ask questions about another topic.
After a year or so, things got knotty when he decided to use the free pulpit of our testimony meetings. He would thank the members profusely for their love and profess his love to them. He would express his immeasurable gratitude to God, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Especially the Virgin Mary. She was his anchor, crutch, refuge, rock. Behind him the inexperienced branch presidency sat transfixed. Was this allowed or not? Brother H. did not really say anything wrong. And a few of the older sisters nodded wholeheartedly to his words.
In the Sunday School class for investigators, where he was going through the lesson cycle for the nth time, things also got unmanageable. The good brother who taught the lesson had hardly announced the topic before a defiant hand went up:
– Why don’t Mormons pray to the Virgin Mary?
– Well, Brother H., that’s an interesting question, but the topic today is on the plan of salvation.
– Oh, good. Do Mormons believe we can gain salvation through the intercession of Mary?
To protect the investigators, we decided to move Brother H. to the Gospel doctrine class. We trusted that the handful of longtime members there would endure the hassle. Every lesson Brother H. had his battery of questions and remarks. The teacher tried her best in handling him, but he found ways to become more and more provocative.
The branch president took him in his office.
– Brother H., we appreciate that you come to Church, but there are some things that I would like…
– You want to get rid of me?
– No no, of course not. But you see, for example, a testimony meeting is for members to bear their testimony.
– But I feel like a member. My Catholic baptism is valid.
– Well, yes, but…
In the next testimony meeting Brother H. gave a moving account of his version of the interview. He apologized for anything he had done wrong, expressed his hope he would be allowed to continue his investigation of Mormonism, confirmed his love to us and ours to him, and called upon the Virgin Mary as his witness, anchor, crutch, refuge, rock.
He did even more. In the hallway he started exhibiting the most charming behavior towards the sisters, both old and young. In true Belgian manner, three kisses on the cheeks to each upon arriving, three kisses to each upon leaving. After hearing a conference talk about the importance of welcoming new investigators and making friends with them, he put it into practice with conspicuous devotion. He would answer the investigators’ questions with the authority of a scribe-historian and the fantasy of Lord of the Rings. If they didn’t have a question, he would ask one in their behalf:
– Did you know the Mormon Church abolished polygamy in 1890? But there are still thousands doing that. Would you like to know more?
We had to place guards next to him and flesh out handy techniques to steer the investigators the other way.
Another interview followed, somewhat sterner. The following Sunday his kisses to the sisters were supplemented with a whisper:
– I am so happy you still make me feel welcome here. The leaders want me expelled.
A delegation of sisters went to see the branch president. Explanations, rebuttals, more explanations.
Over the next few years, the branch presidency and the teachers managed to monitor a pattern of controlled disruptive behavior. As we got used to Brother H.’s Sunday Show, it became somewhat viable. And when we heard he spent his Saturdays with the Seventh-day Adventists, for a repeat performance there, we couldn’t help feeling pleased they got their share too.
But then Brother H. moved to a next level of strategies. He brought a portable audiorecorder to Church to make a tape of every talk and lesson.
– I do not hear very well. And I want to study and ponder all the things I can learn.
Counterstrategy of the branch presidency: let’s ignore it.
Counterstrategy of Brother H. a few weeks later: a much larger audiorecorder, with a mike placed in front of the speaker or the teacher.
Counterstrategy of the branch presidency: let’s ignore it.
Counterstrategy of Brother H. a few weeks later: a large videorecorder connected to a camera on a tripod.
This time the Sunday School teacher snapped.
– I will not teach any more with that man in my class!
Yelling in the hallway. Yelling in the office. And in between the soft voice of Brother H.:
– But I love you. I only need this video to enjoy your interesting lesson at home. I love you in the name of our Holy Mother the Virgin Mary.
The branch presidency was despairing. Over the years a sizeable part of many leadership meetings was devoted to this case.
– He is a lonesome man. Not married, no children. He just likes to come and get attention.
– We also have a duty to protect the sheep. We cannot allow one man to ruin almost every Sunday meeting.
– We’re losing members and investigators because of him.
– He’s part of the Refiner’s fire.
– What’s the limit of our tolerance?
– He’s playing a game. He wants us to ban him so he can tell all over how unchristian and intolerant Mormons are.
– No, he wants to keep coming. But he’ll defy our patience.
– There is also the practical issue. We just can’t put a few men every Sunday at the door to keep him from entering.
– What can we do?
Not much could be done. Brother H. kept coming. For some fifteen years. More than once his behavior ruined yet another meeting, and he left the building kissing the sisters.
One Sunday, he did not show up. On vacation? No, he would have told us. Probably the flu. He’ll be here next week. No Brother H. the next week. What happened? No one really felt enticed to go and find out. Perhaps he finally lost interest in us! And then we heard from someone. Heart attack. Dead and buried.
We all paused a moment. No one expressed relief. No one spoke a eulogy either.
But still, somewhere, somehow, in the meanders of memory and morals, we felt we had lost a brother.