Call and Response

February 16, 2006 | 63 comments
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Last night at 6:30 PM Pacific time, most members of my family dialed in to a conference call to Provo, Utah—to the lobby of Stover Hall on BYU campus, to be specific. My brother Benjamin—seventh child, sixth freshman at BYU, fifth missionary, third son, and a few days shy of nineteen—was about to open his mission call.

With six different lines dialed in, and with several of those lines on speaker to accommodate even more participants, it was no small feat simply to follow the telephone conversation: the Frandsens are prolix as well as prolific. On top of that, the ambient noise in the Stover Hall lobby was just a few decibels short of shattering: a crowd of Benjamin’s friends and ward members, male and female—even his BYU bishop, I think—had gathered for what, during this season, must be a near-daily ritual to witness the opening of the call. After all parties were connected, Benjamin got started, narrating the process into his cell phone: insert letter opener into large white envelope, fumble through the colorful sheaf inside, locate the right sheet, try not to skip ahead, “Dear Elder Frandsen… You are here by called… You are assigned to labor… Germany Munich/ Austria mission!” The telephone line shredded into squeals and exclamations, but it was the Stover lobby that really erupted: in the video of the event that Benjamin emailed to me today, the room burst into sponaneous cheers and extended applause, Benjamin beaming but mostly composed, absorbing the shared joy and memory and projection and release of this collective living of a life-moment.

Every missionary in my family has served in Europe. Our collective harvest has been small, and, surveyed without the eye of faith, its generational yield is unlikely to increase much. I occasionally wonder why we send missionaries to Europe, I wonder why we send ninteen-year-olds, I worry about those nineteen-year-olds we don’t send. There are real costs to, even casualties of, our modern Mormon lifeplan—as there are of any fully theorized subject position, really, particularly one as rooted in a to-the-bedrock moral plot as ours is—and there are those who must consider those costs and casualties. But the rewards—the rewards! To be able to step into a role infused with such a rich mythology and invigorating ethic, an identity that houses so many of our collective hopes and vulnerabilities, and to do so to the singing and shouting of throngs—well, Lord, give me at least seven children, six freshman at BYU, five missionaries, and three sons of my own.

At 6:30 Pm Pacific time yesterday, it was sweet to be a Frandsen, sweet to be a Saint, sweet to orient another arm of the family compass backward and forward in time, across longitude and latitude, across the veil, even, to the promised land of the shared soul.

Oh, my brother, did you come for help to me?
Pray and give me your right hand
Oh, my sister, did you come for help to me?
Pray and give me your right hand

Oh, the land I am bound for
Sweet Canaan’s happy land
I am bound for
Sweet Canaan’s happy land
I am bound for
Sweet Canaan’s happy land
Pray give me your right hand

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63 Responses to Call and Response

  1. Russell Arben Fox on February 16, 2006 at 2:37 pm

    Yes! What a gorgeous capturing of a gorgeous moment, Rosalynde. Every note was just as it should be. Family, community, history, identity–pity the poor, disgruntled individualist who does not feel impelled to respond to such a call. Viel Gluek, (soon-to-be) Elder Frandsen!

    Interesting, by the way, the manner in which patterns can often be discerned in mission calls. All those Frandsens sent to Europe! Our family, by contrast, has sent missionaries to all six inhabited continents–Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, North and South America.

  2. DHofmann on February 16, 2006 at 3:12 pm

    “Dear Elder Frandsen… You are here by called… You are assigned to labor…”

    And all the while he’s thinking, “not Slytherin, not Slytherin…”

  3. Ronan on February 16, 2006 at 3:29 pm

    I’m moving to Vienna in September, so if we see Elder Frandsen we will be sure to feed him some schnitzel.

  4. Ben S. on February 16, 2006 at 3:38 pm

    A joyful story indeed! I have one sibling left who will put his papers in within a year, and we’re all excited for him.

    I sometimes wonder, though, if the family/public involvement in this kind of thing leads to problems. People feel pressure to go on a mission/to the temple at the right time, lest people wonder. To show the right emotion at opening the call.

    One of my wife’s friends went through a marriage ceremony she *knew* was wrong, because so many family and friends had come. It lasted a year.

    I watched one friend open his call. He had studied German language and history a good bit, and felt he had had promptings of going there. He was absolutely destroyed to be called to New Hampshire, English speaking.

  5. Hans Hansen on February 16, 2006 at 3:49 pm

    As a freshman at BYU (1967/68) I lived in Stover Hall. I remember that Russell Frandsen and his older brother (whose name I unfortunately have forgotten) were both in my BYU 22nd Ward (we met in the Skyroom at the Wilkinson Center). Later in 1968 I received my mission call to Norway. When I returned to BYU in 1971 I again took up residence in Stover Hall and was now considered a “Stover Rover”, as we called ourselves, mainly because there were so many RMs there.

    Since then my son has served a mission in Guatemala (South) and my younger daughter just returned in December from the Canada Toronto East
    Mission.

    Congratulations to Elder Frandsen on his mission call.

  6. Christian Y. Cardall on February 16, 2006 at 4:02 pm

    A very special and joyful moment indeed! I have to say that even though my life seems more complicated now, upon reading this I cannot escape feeling glad I made it through these rites of passage before things became more complicated.

    My father and grandfather both served in southern Germany, and my father at least had some converts with generational impact—I was in a history of science class at BYU with a son of one his converts, for example—so don’t give up hope. (And if nothing else, he can bring home photos of Schloss Neuschwanstein (sp?), the medieval-looking McDonalds sign in Salzburg, and the drain pipes coming out of gargoyles’ rear ends on the Freiberg muenster (they had senses of humor in medieval times too, apparently?). These snapshots are not my father’s—don’t blame him—but some of my own salient memories of that region.) As for my siblings and me, to a man (neither sister served a mission) the Brethren saw fit to make us all Latin American Spanish-speakers.

    There are real costs to, even casualties of, our modern Mormon lifeplan—as there are of any fully theorized subject position, really, particularly one as rooted in a to-the-bedrock moral plot as ours is—and there are those who must consider those costs and casualties.

    This is too tantalizing. Please explicate, share… somewhere else if you like, to avoid disruption of the main thrust here.

  7. Kevin Barney on February 16, 2006 at 4:28 pm

    Good thing he wasn’t called to Idaho. You’d have gotten a tape with a few coughs and embarrassed attempts to look pleased rather than mass exhiliration.

    BTW, I’m quite envious. I went to Colorado, and was very happy with the call, as I did *not* want to have to learn a language at the time. It was only later in my education that I realized how wonderful it would be to have a good grasp of German. He likely won’t have a lot of converts, but it will be an incredible learning and growing experience for him. He’s a lucky young man.

  8. Karl on February 16, 2006 at 4:47 pm

    As a former Stover Rover (70-72) and Germany Munich missionary (72-74), the story brought back wonder memories. Thanks.

  9. Rusty on February 16, 2006 at 5:17 pm

    Very exciting! The memories of my anticipation are sweet indeed. Thanks for sharing this moment with the rest of us.

  10. fMhLisa on February 16, 2006 at 5:57 pm

    What fun. I love it when people make a big deal for each other, it makes this pivotal moments mean so much.

  11. Bonjo on February 16, 2006 at 6:12 pm

    My wife served in the Munich mission, a few years before it was combined with Austria. She absolutely loved it.

  12. manaen on February 16, 2006 at 7:29 pm

    What an uplifitng moment!

    I was in the same ward as the Klaphaak (sp?) family for a while in Michigan. “Father” Klaphaak served in Belgium and was one of the last missionaries evacuated before the War — WW I. Forty years later, his son was called to serve in the same area. Our ward was thrilled when the son’s daughter received her call to the same field of labor. That family had a 70-year history of proselytizing Belgium. There must have been some old folks over there scratching their heads every time another Klaphaak appeared.

    BTW, “Father” Klaphaak is who told me that, in “Praise to the Man,” “plead unto heaven” originally was “stain Illinois.”

  13. paul on February 16, 2006 at 8:21 pm

    Beautiful post Rosalynde. Amy and I loved it. Congratulations to Benjamin.

  14. Ronan on February 16, 2006 at 9:42 pm

    Bonjo,
    Who’s your wife?

  15. Anna on February 16, 2006 at 11:08 pm

    Today I ran into an acquaintance from my ward and gave her a ride home. We were talking about Europe when suddenly she asked me if I had served a mission. “No,” I said. “I thought about it a lot, and am still haunted by it, wondering if I was supposed to go and just missed the message.” I didn’t tell her that the main reason I didn’t go was because my desire to go was never enough to outweigh my doubts–doubts about missions, doubts about the Church, doubts about my ability to hear when God speaks.

    After I dropped her off, I thought as I drove home how I’ll probably never go on a mission now, given that I’m 24 and in my first year of law school. Then I got home and read this beautiful post, and I again felt that pull “to step into a role infused with such a rich mythology and invigorating ethic,” felt the longing to fumble with an envelope of my own.

    It was never required of me, never asked or expected. I still don’t even know whether it’s right. So why does it feel like a loss?

  16. Gordon Smith on February 17, 2006 at 2:13 am

    My mission! Well, almost. I was in the Austria Vienna Mission. And I am headed for Munich in three weeks. Beautiful places. Congrats to Elder Frandson. Thanks for sharing, Rosalynde.

  17. Tony Loyal on February 17, 2006 at 8:41 am

    There’s a Frandsen in the Belleville, IL ward who’s stationed at Scott AFB. Is y’all kin? (lol).
    Congrats on your brother’s mission call. Germany is a wonderful (wunderbar!) place and I hope he enjoys it. I was stationed there with the Army for four years in the 80s. I wasn’t a church member then so I enjoyed it for different reasons ( ! ), but there is plenty to enjoy about Germany that doesn’t involve bier.

  18. Adam Greenwood on February 17, 2006 at 9:52 am

    Amen to all that has been said.

  19. Boris Max on February 17, 2006 at 12:27 pm

    One of the specters haunting this thread has been the cultural ranking of missions: Europe and Japan are the prize, with great potential for cashing in later in life if you pick up a “useful” language. Going to the third world is seen as exciting, and while Tagalog (sp?) may not be the most marketable language, Spanish sure is. But then some of us go to unglamorous areas of the United States (Idaho was mentioned above) and are pitied. I am not saying anything at all about the actual spiritual experiences people have on missions. I am talking about how people react to the call and then, after the release, to the information that you served in the United States–Obscure Redstate mission. Elder Max served in such a mission, and he is very glad of his time (opening the call felt like wating to find out if Officer Friendly was going to file charges or let me go, but I digress). Let me illustrate what I mean by a few examples:

    After my mission, I attended an institute class about adjusting from missionary service to the real world. Opening and closing prayers were said in people’s mission languages. NO ONE prayed in English, even though a plurality of us served English-speaking missions. What conclusion can be drawn from this? Was I serving in a pre-lingusitic part of the world? If I have no “mission language,” does my mission not exist?

    When my wife and I were preparing to get married, we would go to the temple and do sealings. Let’s just say that my wife served in the Exotic Asian–Valuable Language Skill mission. One of the othe patrons asked her if she had served a mission and then listened for quite some time as my future wife told some admittedly interesting mission stories. This person then asked me where I had served and when I said “United States–Obscure Redstate” coughed and changed the subject.

    My friend’s family has also send most of its missionaries to Europe, except for the brother who went to the United States–Obscure Redstate mission. He’s the one who came home early and is disaffected from the Church and estranged from the family. Coincidence? Maybe, but that family also had the mass-gathering-to-announce-a-calling tradition, and the lack of an exotic call made for a very quiet room that night.

    I think that the reasons for this heirarchy are worldly and instrumentalist and do not promote Zion. Service is service, and should be recognized as such. After all, am I not a man and a brother? Are not the sisters who serve in the United States–Obscure Redstate mission equal in the kingdom of God?

  20. Costanza on February 17, 2006 at 1:02 pm

    “What conclusion can be drawn from this?” The lesson I take from it is that some Institute intructor somewhere needs to get a life. I’m sorry, but how hard is it to adjust to “real life” after a mission. It’s not like spending seven years in the Hanoi hilton for cryingout loud.

  21. Tyler on February 17, 2006 at 1:07 pm

    I applaud the new mission-call; here’s to Elder Frandsen. Every mission worthily-served is a miracle.

    At the same time, I’m afraid I have to echo Boris Max’s comments. My brother received his call when I had been serving for eighteen months in Mexico. My mission was not the highest on the unofficial hierarchy, but it was exotic enough (especially when I served in places like Tulancingo) to give me inappropriately-based and neraly-automotic respectability. My President allowed me to call home to listen in on the family gathering as my brother opened his call. Imagine my pain when he read through that first sentence with quivering anticipation and then dropped his voice and said, without any emotion at all, “Philadelphi, Pennsylvania.” My father later told me how hard it was to watch his son’s face drop upon reading of his mission assignment.

    Throughout the interim between receiving his call and entering the MTC, my brother had to endure a parade of folks who acted as though he had been given the ultimate booby prize. From their reactions, you would have thought submitting mission papers was like applying to college. To extend that analogy, in which many members seem unknowlingly to believe, getting called to somewhere like Mongolia equates to an acceptance to the Ivy League: the Lord only calls truly intelligent, spiritual, and committed missionaries to serve in such a forbidding place. The sad extension, though, is that a call to the States becomes like an Ivy rejection letter: “yes, you are good enough to go to college, but you just wouldn’t quite cut it here amidst the ivory towers.”

    Luckily, my brother was stalwart enough to stick out the tough reception and put his nose to the grindstone in Philly. As a result, he saw miracles and came away knowing with precision the reasons for his assignment. Nevertheless, it seems deeply inappropriate for our culture to condone the “ranking” of missions. People in any country matter the same to the Lord and so–by definition–missionary work anywhere is equally valuable.

    I realize I am venting, but this is a nearly ubiquitous problem–something in our culture that I really wish we could change.

  22. Beijing on February 17, 2006 at 1:54 pm

    #20, I recommend asking the doctors and therapists at BYU how many RMs they treat each year for post-traumatic stress disorder following their missions. I was surprised at my diagnosis (though very grateful that someone recognized my suffering and offered real help!), and was even more surprised when the Health Center doctor assured me that the diagnosis is not at all uncommon for RMs, especially sisters.

    I wish your brother well, Rosalynde.

  23. Mark N. on February 17, 2006 at 2:03 pm

    Good thing he wasn’t called to Idaho.

    Yes, the scene in “Singles Ward” is priceless when the Elder opens his call to learn that he’s going to… Boise, Idaho! That pretty much nails the “cultural ranking of missions” idea that is at least real enough for “Singles Ward” to raise it at all. (“What do you say to that?”)

  24. danithew on February 17, 2006 at 2:13 pm

    My parents both served their missions in Germany (different missions … about the same time). Consequently all my life I will crave Pfeffernusse and other kinds of German cookies at Christmas time.

    My sister and I also served missions … but we did not go to Europe. So it can be interesting to see how some families seem to be consistently sent to one geographic location and other families see a wide variety of mission experiences.

  25. danithew on February 17, 2006 at 2:18 pm

    Perhaps I should have added that my grandparents (on my father’s side) also served missions in Germany. My grandfather was serving there right before WWII and was abruptly called out of Germany just days before the war started. When he was much older he went back to Germany with my grandmother for a genealogy mission. One day when he was in the mission office there he abruptly suffered a heart attack and died. I’ve always been proud of him that he died as a senior missionary — with his missionary “boots on” so to speak.

    I also happen to know that my mother and John Fowle’s father-in-law were serving in the same German mission. It was funny to come to that realization at one of the bloggernacle get-togethers.

    Rosalynde, thanks again for sharing this experience in a post. It took me back to the day I opened my own missionary call in the Deseret Towers W-hall lobby and also (obviously) led me to reflect on the missionary experiences of my own family. I’m really grateful for the church’s missionary program.

  26. Russell Arben Fox on February 17, 2006 at 2:49 pm

    #19, #21, and #23 all make true observations. I don’t know what to do to eliminate it, because I think the uneven expectations that come along whenever a particular practice gets acculturated into a way of life are just part of the whole, and I would hate to lose all that. But all the same, it’s real, if comparative small, problem in our culture. For what it’s worth, while it’s sometimes painfully obvious on the “Obscure Red State” level, it is noticeable between regional groups as well. You should see some of the occasional (mostly good-natured, but not always) barbs that get exchanged between people called to Japan and those called to Korea. As one RM who served in Japan once put it to me in class, “We look at you guys [those who served in Korea] and think, ‘Ah, too bad–they just missed the brass ring!”

    Frequent commenter Jonathan Green once wrote a hilarious piece for Student Review on this very issue; it was a mock news article on BYU setting up a counseling office to help RMs who served in boring missions. Great stuff. Jonathan, if you’re out there, I don’t suppose you still have the essay after all these years?

  27. Jim F on February 17, 2006 at 3:18 pm

    Russell: I agree completely with what you say, but having “missed the brass ring” has always been for me a kind of comfort: it is easier to believe that I didn’t go on a mission as a means of getting a better job, etc. (I.e., it has become a kind of reverse snobism.)

  28. Chad Too on February 17, 2006 at 4:03 pm

    Gee… I never realized that I should have been lording my Japanese mission over the rest of you! Here I thought that serving the Lord in the place where I was called was reward enough. And I served in Tokyo proper, not out in the sticks like some poor souls I know. Surely my calling and career have been made sure! ;-)

    Seriously, if Japanese RMs are treating people that way I’d say there needs to be a call to repentance. Pres. Benson’s talk on pride sounds like a good start. I enjoyed my mission, worked hard, and served well. That’s enough for me. The only workout my Japanese gets these days is helping my 3rd-grader son with his homework and his kanji will surpass mine very soon.

    And here’s a second for Jonathan sharing his article!

  29. Russell Arben Fox on February 17, 2006 at 4:14 pm

    “I agree completely with what you say, but having ‘missed the brass ring’ has always been for me a kind of comfort: it is easier to believe that I didn’t go on a mission as a means of getting a better job, etc. (i.e., it has become a kind of reverse snobism.)”

    That’s also been exactly my response when I’ve been in encounters like that, Jim. In fact, I think my retort to the guy I’m remembering was something along the lines of, “Yes, well, the Lord had to send some of us to a country that still had a soul.”

    Some friends of mine and I have discussed this issue a couple of times in the past; without, we hope, partaking of too much of the same comparative sensibility, we’ve tried to don our anthropologist hats, examine Mormon culture, and determine just where the boringest, most disrespected mission on the planet is. We invariably come to the same conclusion: Salt Lake City South. (Which is, not coincidentally, where my friend and former guestblogger Glen Henshaw served his mission. He embraces our conclusion out of perverse pride. Maybe, along with Jonathan’s contributions, I can get him to say something about his culinary adventures in the wards of Sandy….)

  30. Tony Loyal on February 17, 2006 at 4:36 pm

    …Good thing he wasn’t called to Idaho. You’d have gotten a tape with a few coughs and embarrassed attempts to look pleased rather than mass exhiliration…

    …United States–Obscure Redstate mission…

    …“Philadelphi, Pennsylvania.â€? My father later told me how hard it was to watch his son’s face drop upon reading of his mission assignment…

    You guys are cracking me up! Being a convert, I wasn’t aware of this particular aspect of LDS culture, the perceived status attached to some missions. Kind of makes me wonder what my missionaries thought/think about being in the boring ol’ Missouri St. Louis mission…

    I’m just picturing some poor kid opening his mission assignment-“Dear Brother X, you are hereby assigned to the Nebraska Lincoln mission…” Cue the falling horns from “The Price is Right”, followed by crickets chirping…

  31. Greg Call on February 17, 2006 at 4:40 pm

    Ah, the unspoken mission hierarchy. I was called to a red sector of a blue state, and at the time I was happy to not be going to South America, where most of my family members and many of my friends had gone and come back with tales of recurrent intestinal disorders. And it turned out to be wonderful in every way. What I didn’t realize is that it would make for awkward conversations with non-Mormons for years to come:

    Did you serve one of those “missions”?
    -Yep.
    Where’d you go? A friend of mine’s kid went to Mozambique! Another went to Madagascar!
    -I went to Southern California.
    LA? The inner-city?
    -No, the Central Coast and San Joaquin Valley.
    Ah, you learned Spanish! I bet that comes in handy.
    -Nope. I spoke English.
    Hm…

  32. Chad Too on February 17, 2006 at 4:56 pm

    Russell, the joke when I was growing up near Bountiful was that if you weren’t valiant you’d get called to the Idaho Pocatello Mission. Somehow SLC South doesn’t have the same *punch* to it.

  33. Glen Henshaw on February 17, 2006 at 5:06 pm

    Russell wrote:
    “I can get him to say something about his culinary adventures in the wards of Sandy….)”

    We got *lots* of dinner appointments. An unbelievably high percentage of them – well over 50% – served spaghetti. I couldn’t eat spaghetti for years after I got back.

    OTOH there are a lot of Tongans in the Salt Lake Valley. If you’ve never experienced a dinner appointment with a Tongan family, you haven’t lived.

  34. Chad Too on February 17, 2006 at 5:07 pm

    Tony: I can SO hear the “Price is Right” horns in my head now. What great imagery you’ve shared!

    Russell: We also joked about the fictional “Montana Butte Mission,” using “Butte” in the sense that Buzz Lightyear does in Toy Story 2. :)

    One other thing I just remembered was that when I was preparing for my mission there was a standard language aptitude test or something like that that was a part of preparing your papers. I don’t know how heavy a role it played in long run, but do they even do that anymore?

  35. Jay S on February 17, 2006 at 5:09 pm

    I too felt that sense of disappointment when I opened my mission call. I had taken some years of Japanese, so felt for sure that I would be going to Japan. I wanted to serve in the foreign service, so that would have been perfect. I opened it, and read Oregon Portland. At that point I had no awareness of Oregon. When I tried to recall what I knew about Oregon, nothing came to mind except the video game I played in Elementary school (you know the one with wagons, hunting and typhoid) and a undefined space between san francisco and seattle. The room was pretty quiet too (my best friends had just recieved calls to Columbia, Brazil, Japan and Russia). At the end of it, I can pretty much say that Oregon is a foreign country from where I grew up.

    I think so much of it goes back to the primary activities where missionary work is hyped. They don’t really simulate knocking on doors so much as the exotic culture and food. From what I have heard, there have been steps to change this.

    But for all of it, the joy from serving a mission has been a constant throughout my life. Not ever moment was sweet, but like a meal, ever portion should not be sweet and it is the quality and diversity of experience that makes it great.

  36. M.J. Pritchett on February 17, 2006 at 6:49 pm

    I’m sorry these very interesting analytical discussions have to follow on Rosalynde’s wonderful family experience. Rosalynde, I hope you’ll forgive me for carrying on in that vein (since we’re now at comment #35), I don’t mean to take anything away from your experience–you’re a lucky family!

    As the father of a daughter who is a high school senior and considering BYU, I wonder what the effect of these ceremonies (and the underlying 19-year old male missionary system) is on the freshmen women at BYU (and BYU-Idaho, UVSC and other predominantly Mormon schools). It seems like a major “rite of passage” for men that reenforces women’s role as supporter, cheerleader and keeper of the home fires.

    And what is it like for all of the female sophmores who are left behind? What is it like to have to start over to make all new male friends, all of whom are now two years older than you and are reentering after their mission experience? Does it seem like all of your fun, freshman buddies have been replaced with serious old men, or is it nice to finally have the men catch up a little to you in maturity?

    My older daughter is a senior at a small college with only a handful of Mormons and I have been surprised at how the (non-Mormon) friends she made as a freshman (male and female) have continued to be her best friends throughout her four years. It has caused me to realize that I never really reconnected with any of my freshman friends (male or female) after my mission.

    My wife was pretty lonely and unhappy her first semester as a sophmore and I wonder how much of it was related to the fact that all of her male friends from her freshman year had gone off on missions. Fortunately, she had a great study abroad experience in Vienna in her second semester that gave her “mission-like” friends that carried her through her junior and senior year.

    Any women out there who who can provide any insight into what it is like to be “left behind” at BYU?

  37. Julie M. Smith on February 17, 2006 at 7:19 pm

    “I wonder what the effect of these ceremonies (and the underlying 19-year old male missionary system) is on the freshmen women at BYU (and BYU-Idaho, UVSC and other predominantly Mormon schools). It seems like a major “rite of passageâ€? for men that reenforces women’s role as supporter, cheerleader and keeper of the home fires.”

    I’ve wondered about a related issue: What effect is there on 21yos when the male ones have spent two years in the full-time service of the Lord and the female ones have spent two years . . . going to dances? It seems that a maturity/spirituality/seriousness disconnect could be present–and at the worst possible time, considering that that is the age group making marriage decisions.

    But I’m hypothesizing. And I’ll apologize to RW for the threadjack.

  38. Russell Arben Fox on February 17, 2006 at 7:33 pm

    M.J. and Julie–both of your comments touch on some great issues about how mission calls, and the missions themselves, affect social dynamics, gender relations, and romantic prospects in heavily Mormon environments. Lots of humor in there, more than a little heartbreak, and some serious issues underneath it all. I’m a huge fan of the way some of these practices have become full-blown rites in our culture, as I think in general modern people are starved, whether they acknowledge it or not, for ritual and the sort of “invigorating ethic” they make possible…but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth some critical thought. (And creative thought too! I’ve long kind thought or hoped that if the “great American Mormon novel” ever does appear, it would almost certainly have to revolve around young Mormons on missions and in love.)

    That being said, M.J., my response to your particular comment–“It has caused me to realize that I never really reconnected with any of my freshman friends (male or female) after my mission”–would have be that such was not the case my freshman year. What many people experienced in high school, I experienced at Deseret Towers, 1987-1988. Not only were the bunch of us quite tight, but I remain close today, nearly 20 years on, to a half-dozen friends from that year–a couple of whom are irregular commenters here at T&S.

  39. Glen Henshaw on February 17, 2006 at 8:41 pm

    I have to agree with Russell (and in fact I’m one of those friends). I still count several of the people I met my freshman year in DT among my very best friends. I think it has to do with circumstance; that particular group of people on the same floor of the same dorm just meshed. I don’t keep track of many of the people I met at BYU after I returned from my mission.

  40. M.J. Pritchett on February 17, 2006 at 9:05 pm

    Russell and Glen:

    That’s great that you were able to keep up those relationships. I would assume that with email and the internet, it is even easier for students today to keep track of each other.

    Is your group of friends all men (who went on missions at the same time and then came back to BYU as sophmores two years later and picked up where you had left off) or were you also able to stay friends with the women who were freshmen with you?

  41. Glen Henshaw on February 17, 2006 at 9:38 pm

    Are you kidding? We were such geeks, I’m not sure any of us ever actually met any women freshman year :)

    That’s actually not quite true, in fact several of us (me included) did have girlfriends. But that dynamic is different; if the relationship doesn’t work out, as is often the case with freshmen/women, you don’t tend to keep in touch. It’s an unusual friendship that can withstand a breakup. Plus, it’s more difficult to start a strong friendship with a women at BYU because of the segregated housing arrangements. One of the reasons I got to know and like Russell so well was the 2 am bull sessions in the commons room; that’s not possible at BYU between the sexes.

  42. DavidH on February 17, 2006 at 9:52 pm

    My nephew (from Michigan) is in the SLC mission. Several weeks ago, they were invited to dinner at a member’s home. When they arrived, they were told there were be a special guest (a relative of the members) that evening.

    To quote from my nephew’s letter: “As [President Hinckley] walked into the room, my jaw dropped to the floor in astonishment. If you know of anyone who feels sorry for the missionaries who are sent to the SLC mission, you can tell them that we’re doing just fine right in the center of the church.”

    My nephew hasn’t mentioned if he asked President Hinckley whether he had any referrals for the missionaries or encouraged him to set a date to share the gospel with a friend, but we do have a picture on the refrigerator of our nephew having dinner with those members.

  43. Liz O. on February 18, 2006 at 12:39 am

    To answer the threadjack… On that account, Sophomore year stunk. I was a Helaman Halls girl myself; it was weird to be in the familiar place with the familiar female friends, but all the guys (beloved! Sent 10 of ‘em on missions… married none) were gone. Sure, there was a fresh crop of little boys, but the problem was that was all to apt a descriptor. We girls grew up with the guys that first year, but the newcomers were, well, babies. And none of us were ready for the RMs yet (ick! over focused on finding a ‘wife’ rather than a partner).

    So sophomore year was a good year for focusing on oneself, thinking about one’s future, studying hard, evaluating what avenues to personal spiritual development were as fruitful as the mission our guys’ letters described, and just plain growing up. It was a good year not to go on any dates.

    Junior year, well, that was another matter. The RMs weren’t so much ‘older’ anymore, and the sense of self and confidence had grown. Some of my girlfriends by this time were preparing for their own missions. By the time our ‘guys’ came back, all of us were either out on our own missions or married to someone else. No regrets.

    Oh, and whether there can be freshman year 2am bull sessions between the sexes at BYU…. obviously you didn’t ever spend the whole night talking on the Cannon Center patio or sitting on the heating vent outside the Kimball Tower shivering but not wanting to stop the conversation. (Disclaimer, this was – oh my gosh – twenty two years ago, so I don’t know if the heating vent is still there or if some body of campus police would break up a conversation on the patio these days).

  44. Glen Henshaw on February 18, 2006 at 8:34 am

    “Oh, and whether there can be freshman year 2am bull sessions between the sexes at BYU…. obviously you didn’t ever spend the whole night talking on the Cannon Center patio or sitting on the heating vent outside the Kimball Tower shivering but not wanting to stop the conversation. (Disclaimer, this was – oh my gosh – twenty two years ago, so I don’t know if the heating vent is still there or if some body of campus police would break up a conversation on the patio these days).”

    Very true, I didn’t :) My loss…

  45. Russell Arben Fox on February 18, 2006 at 9:08 am

    Glen–dude, take it from me, those vents were seriously uncomfortable.

    “Are you kidding? We were such geeks, I’m not sure any of us ever actually met any women freshman year.”

    Hey, speak for yourself! Well, ok, that was mostly true. But then there was Jordan–remember her, hanging around Matt Fairholm’s room? I took her out on a date once. She and Chris Karpowitz got married, so that’s one friendship which lasted through the mission and eventually turned into something else.

    “Several weeks ago, they were invited to dinner at a member’s home. When they arrived, they were told there was be a special guest (a relative of the members) that evening. As [President Hinckley] walked into the room….”

    You never mentioned anything like this to me Glen. Was this not your experience while serving the Lord in Bluffdale? Bumping into Elder Monson at the old folks’ home while delivering meeting with an investigator? A little pick-up game of handball with Elder Oaks at the local Y on p-day? Man, talk about keeping the good stories to yourself….

  46. Adam Greenwood on February 18, 2006 at 9:59 am

    It’s true that (1) high-baptizing missions and (2) exotic, foreign missions are seen as a plus. And it would reflect badly on us if they weren’t seen as a plus, though its definitely something we should try to rein in.

    But I have to say that on my exotic mission among the Moorish towers and olive trees of Andalucia, I and most missionaries I knew wished to be somewhere else maybe 300 days a year. I had a friend who went to Pocatello (a life-long friend that I met in DT), and he wrote me about member dinners, bucking hay for service, and baptizing folks. I wrote him back about the paella and Semana Santas and Mediterranean because (1) that’s all I had to write about and (2) I wanted to get a little bit of my own back. I think folks who go to Japanese and European missions tend to emphasize the language and the exotic culture because what else is there to emphasize?

  47. s p bailey on February 18, 2006 at 2:40 pm

    My pre-mission sense of the hierarchy of missions:

    Europe, particularly England, France, Italy, and Germany, and then all the rest (generally moving from the North and West to the East and South) were the elite missions. Missionaries to these places partook in culture (some missions required participation in a cultural event every month!), perhaps learned a language, perhaps partook of fine cuisine. Missionaries sent to the elites did not need to worry about spartan conditions, parasites, unstable governments, unsafe security conditions, and the like. Japan was also elite because (remembering when mission costs were not equalized), the rich kids in my ward were sent there while the poor kids went stateside or to Latin America. Also, a call to Japan implied intellectual capacity because the language was harder to learn than Spanish. There was also elite cachet attached to certain exotic-extreme condition missions: for example, I knew of a guy called to a remote area in South America who was asked not to purchase suits, but a good backpack and hiking boots. I also met guys who were some of the first 19-year old men called to India (as I understand it, that experiment has now been put on hold). Their stories were absolutely fascinating. Also, calls to Russia and former Soviet republics soon after the end of the cold war was seen as particularly cool–something many never thought they would see in their lives.

    My mid-mission and post-mission sense of the hierarchy of missions:

    The elite missions are those where a great deal of teaching and baptizing actually takes place–where the field is truly ready to harvest. This made Latin America, some stateside missions, and probably a few others scattered across the globe the elites. Full disclosure: I served in a high-baptising Brasilian mission. Many, many days on my mission I taught ten or more discussions. Many, many brothers and sisters that I taught entered the waters of baptism. And I had the good fortune of being there when retention came to be emphasized more and more, and I saw the fruits of that shift. I did fine with the spartan living conditions, parasites, and occassionally unsafe conditions (and now I have great stories to show for it). And although I didn’t get to enjoy the culture nearly as much as I wanted (there was no one cultural event per month rule), I understood why: we were there to serve others and nearly every minute of our time spent doing missionary work brought results. Neither I nor my family sacrificed what I did to serve a mission so that I could enjoy another culture, eat fancy food, learn a language that would enable me to read particular philosophers in their native tongue later in life, and so on. For me, it was a little painful to read letters from friends in what I had thought were elite missions: I think rarely getting in a door, rarely teaching all six discussions, rarely baptising would be very hard indeed.

    The ideal that persists (even if occassionally obscured by all the usually unstated hierachy crap):

    “I’ll go where you want me to go, dear Lord.” And even if my calling to a particular place says something about who I am and how I am useful to the Lord, I ought to humble about it. A calling is an obligation to serve others, not an opportunity to hold myself above them.

  48. Anita on February 18, 2006 at 3:41 pm

    It’s interesting that our generation sees Europe and Japan as “elite” calls; an earlier generation sometimes has a different response: My husband’s grandmother had the hardest time accepting that her grandkids were serving the “enemy” when so many of them went to former Axis powers! (Of the 6 kids in his family, 2 served in Japan, one in Italy, my husband served in Germany, and then a later sister in Hong Kong.) Wonder how we’ll do when our grandkids serve in Iraq :-)

  49. Jonathan Green on February 18, 2006 at 3:53 pm

    Rosalynde, if your brother goes into the MTC in May, and leaves for Munich in July, that means that his two years in that region of the world will nearly coincide with our own, up in the northern reaches of his mission. I’ll keep an eye out for Elder Frandsen. (And, Ronan, when do we hear what’s bringing you to Vienna?)

    When I got my mission call, I badly disappointed my mother by not tearing the envelope open immediately. I had things to do; I couldn’t deal with it until later that afternoon. But I don’t think she’s ever really forgiven me for how I opened the envelope later–alone, locked in my room. (My reaction at the time was ‘Düsseldorf? Where the heck is that? Germany? But that’s the one place I told my bishop I didn’t want to go.’) I still open all possibly important envelopes like that.

    Russell, sorry for the late response (I made an unexpected trip to the emergency room early Thursday and just came home today, minus one appendix). I still think that article on support groups for BYU students with domestic mission calls was one of the better things I’ve ever written, but I don’t have a copy of it anywhere that I know of. Does anyone have the ‘Daily Unifarce’ editions of the Student Review from the early to mid-90’s? It made the front page–not under my byline, of course–in, what, 1993?

    I think S. Bailey sums things up well above; what looks groovy ahead of time might not work out so well in practice (like spending two years in an exotic part of the world speaking just like a pre-schooler in need of speech therapy while educated adults condescend to you). “I’ll go where you want me to go” is good advice. Not that I would trade a day of my own mission for another, but I’m not blind to the advantages that other locations would have offered, either.

  50. Russell Arben Fox on February 18, 2006 at 4:20 pm

    “For me, it was a little painful to read letters from friends in what I had thought were elite missions: I think rarely getting in a door, rarely teaching all six discussions, rarely baptising would be very hard indeed.”

    Yep, that was me. I think I taught the fourth, fifth, and sixth discussions, at most, two or three times in the course of 22 months in South Korea. Of course, a lot of that likely had to do with the fact that I was a crappy missionary anyway.

    The way those letters can play out is interesting though. When I’d been out about a year, I received a letter from my sister, then serving in Paraguay. She expressed her deep heartache and, well, yes, anger at those missionaries who justified their poor results by talking about “planting seeds.” She would have none of it, and through the scriptures and Grant von Harrison at me: “We’ve been called to reap, baby, REAP!!!” And the thing is, of course, given her intense, high-baptizing proselytizing environment, I sure that seemed to her nothing less than the perfect truth. Being twenty years old and already of a rather morose mind about such things, I kind of contemplated suicide for several weeks after receiving her letter.

    (Jonathan, sorry to hear about the appendix. Hope all is well. I sacrificially trashed my Student Review archives in a bit of self-therapy several years ago–it didn’t help, but that’s another story–so I’m afraid I no longer have a copy of the issue your piece appeared in; if I did, I surely would have excerpted some of it in this thread already. One line from it stays particularly with me; if I recall it correctly, it was a rhetorical question you placed in the mind of an invented BYU coed, wondering whether or not she should stick by a boyfriend who’d been called to serve in Iowa: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should have received such a pathetic mission call?”)

  51. Ben S. on February 18, 2006 at 5:04 pm

    “I think folks who go to Japanese and European missions tend to emphasize the language and the exotic culture because what else is there to emphasize? ”

    As a missionary in France/Belgium, I second this. If we hit more than 1 book/1discussion a week, that was good. Ah, but the pastries and bread! Pain longue! Apple-filled gaufre! Mille feuilles! Doner kebabs! (Technically Turkish, but dang good.)

  52. Jack on February 18, 2006 at 5:59 pm

    “…and threw the scriptures and Grant von Harrison at me.”

    I wish I had possessed the wisdom, as a young guilt-driven missionary, to know that a “thrown” version of the latter of these two would have hurt me about as much as a flatulent wafting by.

  53. Wilfried on February 18, 2006 at 6:05 pm

    “What else is there to emphasize?”

    Getting to know the members in those small branches and wards. Learning their conversion stories. Learning of their daily struggles as pioneers in a non-Mormon environment. Taking note of names and addresses to send them birthday and Christmas cards for the rest of their lives because each card can make such a difference. Giving your testimony on fast Sundays. Setting an example of dedication and enthusiasm to the youth in those small units so they will be inspired to go on missions. Looking for service projects… etc. etc.

    And even if during those two years you only give a couple of discussions to non-members and baptize perhaps none, the focus will have been where it ought to be. Be it Europe or Idaho.

  54. Matt Evans on February 18, 2006 at 6:31 pm

    “I wish I had possessed the wisdom, as a young guilt-driven missionary, to know that a ‘thrown’ version of [Grant von Harrison] would have hurt me about as much as a flatulent wafting by.”

    I struggled as missionary, but I did have the good fortune of being able to peg Grant von Harrison’s ideas (as they were explained to me by missionaries who’d read Drawing on the Powers of Heaven) as ridiculous. I think he was the “inspiration” for our many zone conference themes that turned D&C 82:3 on its head, too: if we promise and do X, the Lord would be bound to do Y and, best of all, we can define X and Y! (The APs re-defined X and Y every conference. One month we collectively promise God that every day we will have companionship study, be out of our apartments on time, and make 10 street contacts. By keeping our X promise God would be “bound” — a la D&C 82:3 — to produce 30 mission baptisms. Etc.)

  55. Jim F. on February 18, 2006 at 6:40 pm

    Wilfried, thanks for the reminder of what we ought to emphasize regardless of our mission. I regret deeply that I did not keep track of those I got to know as a missionary. But, I hate to say, I didn’t even think of it. I wish someone had said, “Elder, write not only the names of those you baptize–or get to know well, even if they aren’t baptized–in your journal, but also their addresses and birthdates. Then keep in touch with them with the occasional card or letter.” I would have been a more sincere friend and, so, a better missionary.

  56. danithew on February 18, 2006 at 10:26 pm

    Jim, I had the strange experience of hearing during my mission (in a talk that was given) that it would be better if we did not try to keep in track with our investigators or converts. I took it for granted that this was what we were supposed to do so I heeded it. I now wonder about some of the people and families I taught who were baptized — whether they were sealed, whether they are still active, etc.

  57. Jim F. on February 18, 2006 at 10:56 pm

    I’m sympathetic to mission presidents and others who have to deal with friendships gone wrong: boy/girlfriends for example, or would be boy/girlfriends, and families who have decided that the missionary is now one of their family. (My oldest son dealt with a touchy situation like the last of these for some time after his mission.) In other words, I think I understand where the prohibitions (which I believer are local rather than general) come from. But is the best we can do to tell the missionaries, “Just say no, no matter who it is”? I hope not. On the other hand, having spent several years as a branch president at the Missionary Training Center, I know how exhausting it can be to work with missionaries who refuse to have good sense. They are in the minority, but they take a tremendous amount of energy, energy that may mean it is better just to make a rule and stick to it.

    But I still wish I’d been advised to keep track of people. Some might have stayed in the Church; some might have joined. And I would have been strengthened by hearing from those who stayed without my help.

  58. Robert C. on February 18, 2006 at 10:59 pm

    I think the idea behind the advice in missions that danithew refers to (#56) is to get new members to become friends with other members of the ward rather than just with the missionaries (so when the missionaries leave they’ll have a support group). But I feel guilt over not keeping better track of people I met on my mission. I wasn’t very good at recording names and addresses either, but I also was so busy right after my mission trying to figure out the rest of my life that I wasn’t very good about keeping in touch with those I did have names and addresses for….

  59. Jim F. on February 18, 2006 at 11:07 pm

    Good point, Robert C. Though I am willing now to do so, what about those years just after my mission, when I was trying to find a wife, then had children and was trying to figure out how to feed them while going to school, etc. I wan’t a good home teacher then. There’s no reason to believe I would have done a good job of keeping in touch with people from my mission.

  60. Adam Greenwood on February 19, 2006 at 8:18 am

    “Getting to know the members in those small branches and wards. Learning their conversion stories. Learning of their daily struggles as pioneers in a non-Mormon environment. Taking note of names and addresses to send them birthday and Christmas cards for the rest of their lives because each card can make such a difference.”

    I bitterly regret that it is eternally too late. My mission discouraged it some, but mostly its my own fault.

  61. gst on February 23, 2006 at 12:23 am

    The importance of keeping up correspondence brings to mind Homer Simpson finding a stack of letters from his childhood penpal: “Ooh, look–a letter from my old penpal! [wistfully] Someday I’ll write you back, Osama.”

    I was home for the summer working as a delivery driver for a dry cleaner when my mission call came. I swung by the house in my truck to learn that I was going to some mosquito-ridden banana republic, and then had to finish my route.

    My brother received his mission call to serve in Minnesota. We lived in Wisconsin at the time. My dad called the missionary department and said “This is great! Parts of that mission are only five hours from our house. He can come home on weekends, we’ll do his laundry…” His call was changed to Texas.

  62. Mike on March 10, 2006 at 1:56 pm

    I served in the Japan Fukuoka Mission. My brother served in the St. Louis Missouri Mission two years after me. There were advantages and disadvantages to both. I am glad that I went to Japan and he is glad he didn’t, even the day he opened the letter from President Kimball, and he is glad he went to Missouri instead. He loves Missouri as much as I love Japan.

    It takes most of the mission to learn enough Japanese to have decent conversations in areas outside of the memorized lesson plan whereas my brother could teach the gospel effectively from day one. I had about 6 or 8 months of truely effective teaching beyond tagging along or floundering, he had 23 1/2 months of effective teaching. The difficult languages tend to drive a more rigid hierarchy since you can’t function as a senior companion without some language skills. Often the hardest problems (like that time my companion told our land lady that in America the whole country was clean enough that we didn’t need to take our shoes off indoors and she kicked us out) require advanced diplomatic language skills. At least the DL needs to be able to survive independently. There is definitely more of a Senior-Junior companion relationship instead of equality and teamwork. My brother was a ZL at 3 months in Missouri and in Japan 15 months minimum for anyone that I knew who made ZL.. And if they send all the “stars” to Japan, that explains why I never did make ZL (not my skeptical obnoxious attitude). My brother had more opportunities to see how wards function and learn the leadership skills helpful for further service in the church today.This might be the most valuable aspect of a mission. He fits into a ward far better than I do. Most of the small branches in Japan where I served functioned more like girl scout troops than churches and did little to prepare me for future callings, beyond basics like prayer and follow the Spirit.

    It is much harder to keep in touch across an ocean than across a few states. My brother can go back and see people in Missouri, I have never returned to Japan and may never be able to. I can’t even write coherently in Japanese and two of my native companions could not communicate in English so I could never keep in touch with them. Some of the people we taught were pretty good in English but as time goes by they loose it and contact becomes more difficult. Long term retention in Japan is under 10%; where the church once was something that brought us together, it becomes a reason to avoid each other.

    Then there is the little problem of wanting to marry someone from your mission since missions are done during the height of the marrying season. Marriage to a Japanese woman, regardless of her personality, would entail enormous lifelong cultural accomodations that a 21 year old can not possibly comprehend. For some, it can be done. But for me I think this would have been a grave mistake, nothing short of a disaster. Marriage to a woman from Missouri would depend entirely on the person and not be the same sort of a problem. My brother married a wonderful girl from Idaho; something to keep in mind when serving there, they raise mighty fine women.

    When I came home, I had not even seen more than 3 or 4 American women for more than a few minutes the entire 2 years. My perception of what was attractive in a woman had changed so drastically that I found every American girl to be, quite frankly, ugly. All were too tall and gawky with wide pale eyes, funny colored frizzy hair and enormous noses and ears and monstrous feet. Not to mention other anatomic features that seemed grotesque to the extreme. And they dressed like whores. And they seemed so obnoxious, selfish, impolite, aggressive, demanding and crude. This was all due to cultural differences; I had grown accustomed to one thing and needed to re-adjust. Add to it the injunction given by my MP to get married within 6 months and it seemed that only a Japanese girl would do. It took me 6 months before American girls were even tolerable to be around again and by then I was seriously dating a beautiful Japanese girl.

    Fortunately we did not marry. But I watched 4 of the Japanese girls I dated, including her, go through nothing less than hell over the next decade as they got involved with American return missionaries and the relationships or marriages failed in various ways. These exotic foreign missions can mess with your mind in ways you never imagine.

    I agree with the general trend of this thread that we should count our blessings and be grateful for the gifts that God sends to us and not envy others.

  63. Chad S. on April 10, 2006 at 9:17 am

    Beautiful post, Rosalynde. Thank you.