The mission president called. Would I, as his counselor, conduct a baptismal interview? A case he wouldn’t have the zone leaders handle, a woman with a troubled past. Most likely involving a chastity issue. The sister missionaries who taught her weren’t sure, there was a problem with communication. We needed to know about her understanding and her repentance. The baptism was tentatively set for next Saturday.
I called the sister missionaries. Yes, this investigator might have had a problem that needed to be cleared. No, not married. But she surely was a golden contact, result of member involvement. In fact, she always came to that member’s home to be taught.
Three days later, in our chapel, the sister missionaries introduced me to Iza, a rather petite woman in her early twenties. She was from Romania, spoke Romanian, but, the missionaries said, also some Russian. Iza smiled shyly as she gave me a weak handshake.
â€“ And this is Nadzia, she is from Poland. She was baptized a year ago and translates for us. She has been so helpful in teaching Iza. You will need her for translation. She speaks English and Russian. The President told us it is OK. You can trust her.
I worried about difficult communication and privacy issues.
A tiny classroom in the chapel, both women seated in front of me, both tense. After a few sentences to Nadzia, it was clear her English was limited. She stared at my lips, frowned thoughtfully, then articulated with some embarrassment say-again-please. No doubt my own faltering English pronunciation â€“ Dutch is my mother tongue â€“ did not help her either. She then turned to Iza and formed hesitant clauses in Russian. My limited knowledge of Russian should have been sufficient to control the general accuracy of Nadzia’s translation, but I was quickly lost. I presumed she russified Polish words. Iza from her side nodded, seemingly more out of politeness than out of comprehension.
I tried to put them at ease, searched for common words and simple sentences. Introduced myself. Thanked them for coming. Said a prayer. Expressed gratitude for Iza’s willingness to be baptized. Explained I had to ask a few questions. Faith in Jesus Christ? Acceptance of the Restoration? Willingness to abstain from alcohol, tobacco… ?
Each of my questions only obtained an approving nod at the other end of the go-between. I needed more response to be sure Iza understood. And how was I going to talk about chastity and possible sexual transgressions? Provided Nadzia translated my words correctly, how was I to judge from Iza’s answers how well she recognized the gravity of her sins and how fully she had repented?
Inwardly I had to fight off the irritation that the missionaries had again been unable to find local people. It was easy to convert marginal strangers, but did these people fully understand the Gospel and its commitments?
â€“ How long ago did you leave Romania?
The shift to this different kind of question, though gently asked, seemed to unsettle both women. The answer came back as a vague a few years.
â€“ Do you have family here? Where do you live?
Reluctantly it seemed, Nadzia passed the question to Iza. The two women stared at each other, in an unmistakable moment of connivance. Nadzia nodded in encouragement, signaling I could be trusted.
Iza turned to me and whispered:
No more was needed to grasp her background. A victim of human trafficking. A standard case in all its horror. A Romanian girl, probably from a rural area, lured to a fake job in France or Germany, abducted en route, her identity papers destroyed, made to believe family members back home would be harassed if not killed if she disobeyed, detained in back alley brothels. A non-life of pain and abhorrence. Coerced to play roles for photos and films. A few years already. Add to it the torment of her family without news. Cases like this, and the fight against the networks that committed these crimes, had been in the papers recently, with grisly details.
But she had managed to escape to Payoke.
The Payoke initiative was started, end of the eighties, in the inner-city home of a compassionate lady, Patsy Sorensen, who offered shelter to battered prostitutes trying to flee their environment. She arranged for medical, psychological, legal assistance, struggled with social services, immigration, menacing pimps. In the nineties, after the collapse of the soviet bloc, her attention focused entirely on the most abject form of exploitation: human trafficking. Her work reached the media. Volunteers stepped in. Lawyers, doctors, translators. Royal endorsement. Coordination with police. A network of safe houses formed. On the international level Patsy became a driving force to help combat an evil that affects thousands of women.
In our city, the single word Payoke summarized it all. It revealed Iza’s past. It also meant refuge during this first, critical period, as mafiosi were known to seek retribution or the elimination of witnesses.
â€“ Vii imeetje voprosi, she helped me, breaking the silence.
â€“ She says you have questions, Nadzia echoed.
I tried to recall the thread of the interview. What more was there to be asked?
Iza seemed alarmed at my indecision. From her purse she took a Book of Mormon in Romanian. The bookmarker opened the text at Alma 39. Verses were underlined. She turned page after page, her fingers caressing each leaf from top to bottom. At the end of chapter 42 she tapped lightly on the text, as her eyes became moist.
â€“ She wants to say: she thinks that she is ready for baptism, Nadzia said cautiously, pleadingly.
There are moments when the inadequacy of being a priesthood leader can only be redeemed by those whom we are supposed to serve. Iza guided the steps. Justice and mercy. Expiation and redemption. She longed for an acceptance blended with the fear of not being acceptable.
I could only hope that, in the turmoil of her past and present, she could distinguish her place and that of her tormenters in Alma’s words to Corianton. For this was a context of whoredom. I felt guilty that she would feel guilt. Alma’s rebukes were an answer, agonizingly stark, to Corianton’s sin. These words were addressed to a man, to all men who up to this day … Still Alma called Isabel a harlot, stealing away the hearts of many. But what if Isabel had been another Iza? How could Alma have known? How did Gadianton robbers exploit women?
I found nothing else to do than gently close the Book, press her hand on it, and say that all would be well.
â€“ Vsjo budjet chorosho, Nadzia echoed, with the warmth of a soothing mother.
â€“ I also was in Payoke. Now I have an apartment. It is safe. Men are in prison. The missionaries must not know all this. It’s too difficult for them. And better that very few people know. I have a job. I will help Iza.
All was said and all had still to be done. Her journey would be arduous, her past ineffaceable in her nightmares, her past forever present in internet sites men visit. In their lust looking at Izas.
In the hall I told the beaming missionaries that Iza was going to be baptized next Saturday.