Stake conference in the mission field. Still the mission field, for although we are a stake, there is no stake center, only a chapel in some of the main cities, and rented rowhouses elsewhere. The stake covers some 10,000 square miles. Therefore we gather in this huge, sparsely lit movie theatre—theatre number 14 in a massive cinema complex close to the highway. The authorities sit in front, on two rows of hard folding chairs, under the colossal concave screen as unlit backdrop, staring at the shadowy mass of seven hundred or so members sunk in the obscurity of broad plush seats with empty soft drink holders on each side, the smell of popcorn still hanging in the corners.
The pulpit is a small mobile plastic rostrum. From the ceiling the beam of a lonely spot touches the speaker’s hair, nose tip and hands, the rest disappearing in splotchy shadows. Speaker and pulpit shrink into insignificance at the bottom of the mammoth paleness behind them.
We sing the opening hymn, our voices emerging from the cozy depth of the seats, the resonance going astray in the muffled walls. After the thanking and sustaining sequence, the three members of the stake presidency speak, lengthily.
From the balcony my disobedient eyes glance over the audience in search of familiar faces. Faces tell stories prone to screenplays.
Lisette! Thirty years ago she was a Catholic nun and school principal. From age 18 on, it had taken her a decade of studies and preparation, stage after stage, in an immense test of endurance, to the solemn point where she pronounced the Ursuline vows. As an educator she served another twelve years in total abnegation. Then in her school office entered, unannounced, two Mormon missionary sisters. A physical God? A great apostasy? Pre-existence? Eternal marriage? Disturbingly fascinating. Lisette enters months of soul-searching doubts and discoveries. How does one undo a past tied to the very core of one’s existence? She meets John Staley, Catholic monk for 25 years, Mormon convert, who sketches his former life, respectfully, gratefully, and which parallels hers. Then, he explains, came his illuminating recognition of the Restoration. Lisette soaks up his words. I was a privileged witness to that meeting. Her fears turn into hope. Next, in slow and sanctioned steps, comes the excruciating process of renouncing her convent’s life and returning to a civilian status without a job. Still in turmoil, uncertain. Attending Mormon church services in a small branch at the outskirts of the mission field. Meeting Daniel, a man her age, convert of a few years, still single, soft-spoken, who helps her. A growing, deepening friendship. Finally, in prayer, the irrevocable testimony. Daniel baptizes her. Their friendship grows into love. Marriage, eternal marriage. Could motherhood still be hers? Lisette is 42. A year later a baby girl is born. Twenty-two years later I see that girl working as a bright, multi-lingual sister missionary on Temple Square, welcoming visitors from around the world… Lisette and Daniel, both in their sixties now. Still active, dedicated, in spite of decades in that same little struggling branch, surviving dramas that rocked it. They have not been overcome by the slowly creeping jungle that could finally make the sturdiest temple crumble in the forests of Angkor.
Hernan! Our Chilean brother, around seventy now, adjusts his hearing aid, reminder of one of his impairments inflicted in the torture chambers of Pinochet. Torn tympanic membranes. He arrived here in the mid-seventies as political refugee with his wife and four small children. A Mormon supporter of Allende, detained and tortured, he had accepted exile thousands of miles across the ocean, to a city and region unknown—Antwerp, Flanders. Our small branch took them in, provided housing, language lessons, cultural integration, employment. I relive the scenes of their resettlement in a small apartment which our MIA youth painted and decorated. Years went by, preparing his children to go on missions. An agonizing divorce. The growing, painful understanding that also former missionaries to Chile served the CIA in the mess that led to Allende’s death and the horrors of the Junta. Learn to bow your head and accept the paradoxes of an international Church in conflicting maturation. In the nineties Hernan could have returned to Chile, but by then he had new roots, remarried to a local sister. Two model saints in their humility. In his broken Dutch he has served for years in unassuming callings, and as assiduous translator for scores of Spanish-speaking visitors and investigators.
Denise! I remember her return from Utah on that murky morning at the Brussels airport, more than two decades ago. She was still in her early twenties then, emerging from customs with a single bag, a two-year old and a baby. The marriage with that returned missionary had not worked out. We had been worried when he had her come to the U.S.—his mission in Flanders had been one of ups and downs, collecting ecstasies and depressions with the swing of his emotive pendulum, a fault-finder on his personal quest for perfection—but he was stubborn as to the inspiration he claimed to have received, and she was in love, or at least she thought she was in her desire to marry in the temple, persuaded by the injunctions to strive for that sealing, and besides who else would she find in the mission field—certainly back then? Three years later I drove her from the airport to the home of one of our widows willing to give her temporary shelter, thus avoiding the immediate clash with her own non-member parents’ incomprehension and blame. She apologized for the trouble she was causing. Reluctant to let me in on details, she could not hide that he had managed their marriage like his mission. She had signed what he wanted, lost in the English legal jargon, guilelessly reassured that he did not want the children, but deliberately, defiantly she eschewed alimony, from a deep maternal instinct, thus weakening any claims he could make later. Her life since then has come from day to day. She never heard from him, nor from his parents. She survived thanks to her testimony and the Belgian social system — family allocations, medical benefits, paid job training. A nurse now, specialized in palliative care, she can deal with challenges greater than hers ever were. In her church unit, always short of hands to fill callings, she teaches weekly Sunday school and serves as Relief Society president, juggling her way, with a wise smile and timely biting wit, through lessons about the ideals of family life. Her own parents, long torn between their despite for Mormonism and their yearning to see the grandchildren, still let the former prevail.
Julie! I know she worries about her mother. The news is horrific again. Additional fighting in North Kivu between government forces and renegade troops. Tens of thousands of previously uprooted Congolese, sheltered in UNHCR makeshift camps near Goma, are fleeing over muddy roads in torrential rain, also in Kalehe’s region, hers and her mother’s birthplace. Julie hasn’t had news from her old mother for long now. Women in Congo’s most-violent region are raped and killed by militias, fugitive Hutus and roving Mai Mai fighters. Doctors report that women’s reproductive organs are being assaulted with knives, bayonets, or chunks of wood. The dead are hideously mutilated. Close your eyes to those images, Julie, focus on your sons now on missions in other lands… Julie was born in the mid-fifties as the illegitimate child of a French plantation owner and one of his young black maids. In the bloody upheavals after Congo’s independence in 1960, fleeing the country himself, the man—in some desperate flash of blurred responsibility—had the girl torn from her mother, brought to Rwanda, and handed over to a Catholic congregation, before disappearing himself. After two years in an orphanage, Julie was sent to Belgium and adopted in a Flemish family. Once a young adult, scarred by her past, she stepped into a marriage which turned out to be abusive. Divorced, with two daughters ages 9 and 4 to care for, struggling to make ends meet—we’re in 1981 now—she hears a knock on the door. Mormon missionaries. Three weeks later she is baptized. In her small branch she learns to serve with joy, grows in her callings and meets this faithful brother. In her new marriage, sealed in the temple, she gives birth to four more children, all boys. Twice the search for her own mother brings her back to the depths of Africa—that account would make a documentary of rare poignancy on its own. She is able to find her mama, provides funds for her care, but then again contact is lost in the new horrors that engulf Eastern Congo. Julie continues to serve the Church in her ward here, profusely, and strengthens two of her sons on missions.
The X… A family from a central-European, former communist country with Islamic grounds. For their safety, no identification here. Parents with children, all under ten. Their last Sunday among us. Our clumsy efforts to help legalize their status failed. The expulsion order, received last Thursday, gives them eight days. I only know scant details of their plight, of their failed journey to our promised land. They are among tens of thousands of illegals seeking refuge in West-Europe. They were baptized shortly after their arrival. Who dares to judge their motives? They have been faithful in their attendance, paying tithing on the pittance they earned for doing cleaning jobs, living in a one-room apartment, innocently counting on the miracle of legalization. They still could go into hiding, like many try, sometimes with the help of Church members, against leaders’ warnings. But they decided to obey, resigned to fatality and still clinging to faith. A few more days, then deportation back to their home country. God knows what will become of them.
Jacques! His life seems void of any noteworthy event. Baptized in the mid-seventies, he typifies the Church leader able to be a stake or mission president, and more, and indeed did serve occasionally on higher levels, only to be quickly recalled, again and again, each time for years, to keep his faraway branch together as mavericks and zealots rock the boat. Amazing man, forever glowing with enthusiasm, undaunted missionary, even if after three decades his hundreds of fellowshipping visits with generations of elders have hardly yielded a result. But upon such rocks the Kingdom is built.
Nathalie, the sweet rebellious teenager, now a mother of two herself, one mentally handicapped.
Cyril, wearing his eternal tie.
Mamadou, dying of AIDS.
Others, many. Material for dozens of poignant movies.
From these quiet faces, patiently listening to the conference speakers—or to the whispering translators since some fifty nationalities are gathered here, many from Africa—emerges an innate wisdom, an infinite willingness to accept and to sustain. What a multicultural texture of devotion and modern drama they make. They blend in this texture. None of them feels special or would want to be special. Their cultural backgrounds have not conditioned them to think so.
Conference draws to an end. The visiting Seventy speaks, without a text, from the candor of his calling, translated by a local brother. The lonely beam from the ceiling touches his hair, nose tip and hands, the rest disappearing in splotchy shadows. He tells of his dear wife, sitting on the stand in the twilight. He would not be what he was without her. She gave him a full quiver of children, who all married in the temple, next came the exponential grandchildren. He speaks of blessings and pioneer ancestors, extols the stake presidency, tells the story of a sports hero who, against all odds, won gold. He promises growth, unseen growth, if the members would do better, lengthen their stride, be more dedicated, stand out, be examples to the outside world. All they need to develop is faith.
Seen from the audience he seems at an ample distance, against the backdrop of the giant, empty screen.