Mission Call 2.0

April 13, 2007 | 21 comments
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Called to serve—on YouTube.

Last February I wrote a post , “Call and Response,” recounting the event of my brother’s mission call. February 2006 was a big month for Benjamin. As it happened, February 2006 was also big for a young website called YouTube, which received a call of its own that month—a call from NBC, requesting that the viral SNL clip “Lazy Sunday” be pulled from the site. YouTube lost the clip, but won a pile of publicity, and video-sharing hit the big time in a big way.

A year later, millions of video clips have been uploaded to YouTube, among them several dozen of prospective LDS missionaries opening their mission calls. These videos have names like “Dustin Opening his Mission Call” and “Ty Opening his Mission Call” and “Danaan Opens his Mission Call,” and they’re a lot more fun to watch than to read.

If you go to YouTube, and type “mission call” into the search field, you’ll pull up most of them in the first few pages. Watch a few, and it won’t take long to work out the basic anatomy of the species. Each episode naturally falls into three acts: a high-anticipation set-up, with action rising through the opening of the envelope and a line-by-line reading ; the crise, at which the destination is announced (country first, always country first); and a chaotic denouement. Where an essay or film would artfully—and falsely—tie off the end of the scene, the video clip leaves its raveled edges in plain view as conversation fractures and attention wanes.

This is drawing-room drama: mission calls are opened in a home or in a college dorm/dive—and ever so rarely at work. The performances are tightly scripted, of course, the lines taken straight from the big white envelope. But the line readings sample a panoply of emotion: deadpan, lachrymose, pyretic (in Finnish, no less!). Production values, on the other hand, are low, and range from understated to sentimental to drolly deranged.

After a few more you begin to realize that watching a mission call videos on YouTube is like looking at Madonnas in the National Gallery: the delight is in detail, and in difference, in the color of a drape or the slant of a hand. How will the principal open the envelope? (Hint: this is dangerous.) How many cell phones, digital cameras, and webcams will be caught on tape? And just how many GA portraits can a load-bearing wall safely hold, anyway? (Is it just me, or do you see a wall hanging of the RS General Presidents in this one?)

In my little essay on Benjamin’s mission call, I suggested that the potency of the moment came from his stepping into an existing role, a performed identity that houses our hopes and vulnerabilities. If this is so, then maybe YouTube isn’t half bad as a stage: its inherent performativity, its ethic of participatory sharing, even the frayed real-life edges of its clips allow us to experience the moment together, to fasten our otherwise fissile stories to a greater meaning.

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21 Responses to Mission Call 2.0

  1. Ronan on April 13, 2007 at 5:28 am

    The Finnish one is insane!

  2. Meg on April 13, 2007 at 8:50 am

    Hmm, one of my friends got his mission call last night and I know he has video of it. I don’t know if he was planning on putting it on YouTube, but I will definitely suggest that he does…

    I love the whole mission call experience, with the anticipation, opening, slow reading, etc… even if you don’t know a person particularly well, or at all, you always seem to care about where they got called, and watching these just shows that even with complete strangers, the anticipation still exists.

    I’ve noticed that it is getting pretty common for people to use facebook (creating facebook groups or events) as a means of publicizing the opening of their mission calls and as a forum for everyone to make guesses about where the said person may be going

  3. Margaret Young on April 13, 2007 at 10:56 am

    Well, Rosalynde, I really wish I could access these YouTubes. Unfortunately, BYU has blocked them, so I can’t access it from my office. Maybe at home, when my kids free up the computer…
    I certainly remember my siblings’ mission calls. My dad had written a whole book for one of my brothers on how to learn a foreign language for your mission. That brother was called to Montana.

  4. Rosalynde Welch on April 13, 2007 at 11:10 am

    Ronan: totally. And it keeps on going, and going. I love how you see the two friends? brothers? feed off of one another’s reactions.

    Meg: Facebook is definitely relevant here. It solves the problem of privacy/exposure (I actually had a few qualms about bringing these videos to the attention of a wider audience, for which they were presumably not intended)—but at the same time, it’s not publicly accessible and thus not widely shared. I wonder whether YouTube can serve larger culture-making purposes, whereas Facebook and MySpace serve mostly local social needs. I dunno.

    Margaret: I read last night that BYU had blocked YouTube earlier this year. Do you know the rationale? I have to say that YouTube has become a regular technology in our home: my kids watch Mr. Bean videos on YouTube at least once a week.

  5. Rosalynde Welch on April 13, 2007 at 11:17 am

    There are some funny moments in the ouvre that I didn’t link to above: slapstick shuffling of papers; wildly inappropriate comments from onlookers (and the principals themselves; watch to the end of this one); mispronunciations, etc.

  6. Norbert on April 13, 2007 at 11:56 am

    I wish I had seen the Finnish one a few months ago! Argh! There were six missionaries that left from our stake and entered the MTC the same day. Five were called to Sweden and one to Germany. They all spoke in a stake priesthood meeting. It would have been much more entertaining had I seen the video.

    The one on the right is the one going to Frankfurt, and the one on the left is going to Sweden. He was saying ‘Ei suomi! Ei suomi!” “Not Finland! Not Finland!” in a celebratory tone. Notice the large glasses of cola on the table.

    These are excellent. Thanks for creating a guide for the genre.

  7. cantinflas on April 13, 2007 at 12:01 pm

    I can’t watch from work either, but definitely need to come back to this thread when I’m home. I wonder what non-members reactions to seeing this are.

  8. Kevin Barney on April 13, 2007 at 1:31 pm

    Anyone shown being disappointed at a call to, say, Idaho? (Like others, I’ll have to take a look at home.) Or are these self-selected to the point that everyone is pretty much ecstatic at the location?

  9. jjohnsen on April 13, 2007 at 2:02 pm

    “Meg: Facebook is definitely relevant here. It solves the problem of privacy/exposure (I actually had a few qualms about bringing these videos to the attention of a wider audience, for which they were presumably not intended)—but at the same time, it’s not publicly accessible and thus not widely shared.”
    Who puts a video up on Youtube not intending for a wider audience to see it? You should be qualm free. I know when I add videos to Youtube, I know most of the people that see them will be total strangers.

    People are so interested in sharing the smallest details of their life now. I wonder if eventually we’ll start seeing baptisms and blessings pop up on the internet (that actually creeps me out a little).

  10. Rosalynde Welch on April 13, 2007 at 3:08 pm

    Kevin, this kid seems utterly nonplused by his call to Oakmont, CA. The dogs are pretty excited, though. This kid, to Oklahoma, too. This sweet kid, though, gets completely overwrought at New Jersey, Morristown.

    Jjohnsen, I agree that it would be difficult to put up ordinances tastefully on YouTube. In fact, it’s very tricky to make public representations of ordinances at all. That’s part of the reason why I’m interested in the mission call moment: it’s a pinnacle of a Mormon life, but it’s not so solemn or sacred that we shy away from talking about it, representing it, etc.

  11. Russell Arben Fox on April 13, 2007 at 3:52 pm

    “In fact, it’s very tricky to make public representations of ordinances at all.”

    This sounds like an invitation to discuss the works of Richard Dutcher…who I’m not sure really deserves all the praise Mormon cineastes have heaped upon him, but who has at least done one thing tremendously well: given us a cinematic language for the presentation of ordinances (or at least some of them: he’s done healings and the sacrament that I’m aware of).

  12. John Williams on April 13, 2007 at 4:29 pm

    Watch the “piece of animation” that is at the top of the list when you type “mormon” in the search bar on YouTube (at least the last time I checked).

    What does everyone think about this clip?

  13. Robert C. on April 13, 2007 at 4:29 pm

    Very interesting. I think this is also an interesting way to think about, say, praying or reading familiar scriptures: it is not that the words themselves are very interesting, but the inflection and way we read/speak them can be viewed as endlessly fascinating (actually Jim F. got me thinking about this a few days ago, so don’t think I’m bright enough to make this connection on my own!)….

  14. Adam Greenwood on April 13, 2007 at 5:00 pm

    Speaking of representations of ordinances:

    http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2332

  15. Adam Greenwood on April 13, 2007 at 5:00 pm

    Oh, and really good post, RW.

  16. Richard K Miller on April 13, 2007 at 6:41 pm

    Switching modes from \”recently called missionaries\” to \”member missionaries\”, here are a couple more uses of online video. For a high-priest group activity, my coworker Giuseppe showed a short video called By Small and Simple Things, which was produced by the California San Jose mission to encourage member missionary work. Then he asked his ward members to go in front of a camera and tell how they joined the Church. Four participated. I thought it was a great experiment, and the testimonies and stories are sincere.

    He attends a Brazilian ward in Utah county, so you\’ll have to know Portuguese to understand these, but I thought it was a great idea:

    Video Testimonies

  17. Clair on April 14, 2007 at 12:10 am

    It wasn’t taped, but I should have been. A summer hire at our equipment company was known to mock and otherwise disparage his family farm’s immigrant workers. When his mission call arrived, his mother brought it to him at work, probably expecting the best. He read it and moaned, in sad sincerity, “Mexico! I don’t want to go to Mexico!”

    Like the credit card commercial, it was priceless.

    Epilogue – he learned to love the Mexican people.

  18. Katya on April 16, 2007 at 10:00 pm

    Rosalynde –

    The rationale I’ve heard behind the block is that YouTube is a huge bandwidth hog, and BYU would rather put their computer network resources to other uses.

  19. queuno on April 16, 2007 at 11:04 pm

    I have a relative that is totally pumped to go to Mesa, AZ. Anyone live there? You’ll be getting a masterful musician in your midst soon…

  20. Glenn on April 24, 2007 at 12:39 am

    Rosalynde,

    I found your observations and depictions of the performance of Missionary Call letter opening to be highly insightful and right on the money. “Performance Theory” is a very interesting lense to use when looking at the way we interact with eachother as Mormons (and, to a certain extent, family members — any group really where there are pre-determined tradition-based “scripts” and expectations). I loved your three-act breakdown of the events, but I think the performance continues in sequals far beyond the letter opening, of course. The world is a stage, right? And aren’t we taught from a young age that everyone is watching and will base their opinons of Mormons based on our performance? I’m just saying that your post really got me thinking.

  21. Seth on June 24, 2008 at 2:15 am

    If you are interested in a perspective of how to achieve your mission call please check out http://www.sphiatt.com/Mission.htm

    Email to me@sphiatt.com with any questions… feel free to use it. I personally put that together while serving as a YM President after having served in a bishopric for several years.

    Seth

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