Mission reunions

March 16, 2012 | 20 comments
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He is French and served his mission in Spain: “I wish I could attend the reunion in Salt Lake,” he said.

At Conference time, nearly all mission reunions are planned in Utah. The tradition dates back to the time when also nearly all missionaries came from Utah or surrounding States. But things have changed. Thousands of missionaries are called from other countries, serve in their own or other foreign countries, and most will never have the chance to visit Utah. Nowadays even many American missionaries have never been close to the Wasatch Front.

Reunions are private initiatives by former mission presidents or one or two returned missionaries who care to stimulate the get-together. Deseret News provides the channel for the notices. Most reunions follow the same pattern and convey the same tone. The short announcements for the upcoming reunions give an idea:

Friends, memories, treats and video pictures from the mission. Casual dress.  / Enjoy a Brazilian meal and dessert potluck, slide show presentation and more. / Video and socializing with refreshments. / Remembering good times, good companions, good areas and good people. Sandwiches – bring side dish to share. / President will say a few words. / No formal program is planned at this time! Please bring finger foods, veggie/meat trays, empanadas, etc. Drinks will be provided.  / Let’s get together and celebrate the year of the dragon. Chinese dinner, visiting, program; $4 per person.

Here and there, but rarely, a different approach:

Dress is missionary attire. / Speaker: Carol Cornwall Madsen.  / Guest speaker: Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy. / Presentation on the life, conversion, and service of Norbert Helmut Maas of Mannheim. / 4 p.m. session at the Logan Utah Temple. 6:30 p.m. meet at the Lundstrom Park Chapel (Sunday dress please). 7 p.m. devotional meeting. 8:30 p.m. visiting and refreshments.

A rare one is elsewhere, and in June: 

Japan Nagoya. 6/12 Tokyo temple annex; 6/16 Nagoya Chapel at mission home.

And one is nowhere and worldwide: 

Virtual reunion: Please Post your update on Facebook page, Ecuador Quito Mission Virtual Reunion.

The intention of this post is certainly not to take the fun part out of reunions. But it seems some questions can be raised.

– How representative are reunions for all those who served in a certain mission?

– How can reunions truly include all those that cannot attend but would like to?

– What do reunions reveal as to the further (Church) life of returned missionaries?

– What could reunions do for those returned missionaries who turned away from the Church?

– The program: besides the fun, what could other dimensions be and how to implement them?

– To what extent could a reunion contribute to cultural understanding beyond a display of wooden shoes, a Pisa leaning tower, or an alpaca poncho and beyond the consumption of empanadas, Apfelstrüdel, or tikerikakku?

– What is the main content of pictures, video & slide presentations? Could they be improved or diversified?

– To what extent should a reunion also give pause to the consequences of former missionary work: What happened to each of those you taught and baptized? What have you done to keep contact?

– What has been the best part of reunions for you? Or the best reunion ever?

Your comments on this topic will be appreciated.

20 Responses to Mission reunions

  1. Ardis E. Parshall on March 16, 2012 at 11:30 am

    The older I grow, the more often I go to funerals. Funerals have a solemn purpose and are focused on the person who has just left us, and the broader, eternal implications of that leaving. There is a sweetness, a spirituality to funerals that I don’t experience anywhere else.

    But the older I grow, the less often I meet extended family members and very old friends, except at funerals. Parallel with the solemnity and the grieving, is the joy and companionship and very often quite a bit of laughter. That may not be the central purpose of the funeral, but it’s a welcome and appropriate byproduct of it.

    Mission reunions are a kind of inside-out version of that experience. The primary reason people go to reunions is not to have yet another solemn church meeting, or even a cultural or educational experience. The primary purpose is to meet again people you may not have seen for years, who shared a very critical period with you. There may be more reflective, more reverent moments associated with reunions as former companions and districts reminisce, but I think it’s unrealistic, unnecessary, even detrimental to future reunions (because they attract fewer participants) to plan them primarily as solemn assemblies where the social experience is deliberately pushed into the background. I stopped going to reunions after the one that was planned solely as a routine testimony meeting, where we were told afterward to take our hugs and catching-up conversations out to the parking lot because they were inappropriate to the occasion.

    Reunions can only take place where and when people’s paths cross, and I don’t see any practical way to spread the reunion experience beyond those intersections. Reunions are held in Utah not because so many participants live there (we could get together anytime, if someone cared to organize an event), but because so many former missionaries from other places cross paths in Salt Lake City at Conference time. Where else on earth is there so much potential for such crossing of paths? Perhaps miniature versions could be held at other times and places where members in other regions are gathering for stake or youth conferences or other more local, communal experiences, and I don’t suppose there would be anything out of the way for someone to plan a gathering at some mission headquarters any week of any year and invite all former missionaries — but it would be unrealistic to expect anyone out of the area to travel to such a reunion, just as it is unrealistic to expect anyone to come to Salt Lake at Conference time *solely* for a mission reunion, if they weren’t coming for other reasons anyway.

  2. Bryan Stiles on March 16, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    I agree with Ardis here. I was going to write more but it would be basically repeating what Ardis said just not as eloquently.

  3. SilverRain on March 16, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    I third Ardis’ comment for the same reason as Bryan.

  4. Eric Chambers on March 16, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    It’s been many years since I attended a reunion for my mission, the Ecuador-Guayaquil mission, at the time mid-1980’s it was an event attended primarily by Utah residents and many of us who were students at BYU.

    While living in Tahiti in 2009-2010 my wife and I attended a Stake reunion/social for all returned missionaries on the island. It was very similar to mission reunions in the United States; catered Chinese food, socialization, entertainment provided by members of each ward in the Stake. Most of the members had served in French Polynesia but a substantial minority had served in Australia, New Zealand, The United States, and even French speaking European nations. Each individual stood and announced where they served–We added some additional international flair when we told the group we had served in Ecuador and Austria.

    I think an event like this, celebrating past missionary service in any mission could be useful in regions where there are returned missionaries who wish to fondly remember their time as a missionary.

  5. Chris H. on March 16, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    “Guest speaker: Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy”

    Yeah, does it count if it is his reunion?

  6. Craig H. on March 16, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    I have to admit, Wilfried, that I haven’t given reunions that much thought, even though I go to mine every year. I often end up talking with people about other people who aren’t there, and wondering why they aren’t there (if they live nearby), but mostly I feel like I’m sort of in a fog, and sort of like those battleship crews that keep coming together for their big reunions: just glad I survived. Maybe I should think more profoundly about what’s done there.

  7. Kevin Barney on March 16, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    1. I’m married to my wife as a result of a missionary reunion. Sort of. I tried to go to my first reunion after my mission, in Provo, but I couldn’t find it. (Turns out the Universe had transposed the East/West numbers in the address.) I was not too far from a good friend of mine, who happened to be female, so I thought I’d go there to see if she had a copy of the Universe so I could doublecheck the address. No Universe. So, I announced, ok, I guess I’ll go to the Star Palace (a disco), which was right around the corner from the house she lived in. She asked if she could come; after a moment’s hesitation I said “Sure,” and well, the rest is history.

    2. I’ve only attended one reunion in my life. It was put on by my second MP, who is quite wealthy. He held it in his “summer home,” a mansion on the east bench of SLC. A lot of the people there I didn’t know, as our tours didn’t overlap. When I talked to the MP, he had that kind of forced, awkward smile that let me know he didn’t have the first clue who I was (which is ok, a MP runs through hundreds of missionaries during his service, and I had let my hair grow a bit after coming home). It was just sort of a Mormon cocktail party, and I hate cocktail parties, so I never tried to go to another one.

  8. Cameron N on March 16, 2012 at 11:20 pm

    I have a unique reunion experience.

    I served in Tahiti. The Tahitian mission has more or less had the same boundaries since Addison Pratt and 3 others went there in the 1840s. As a result, my reunion is pretty cool because old timers now in their 80s and 90s show up and you can mingle with some who served in the same area you did in a completely different age. Contrast this with other missions with volatile boundaries and young lifespans.

    Additionally, great sacrifices are made to prepare authentic local dishes like poisson cru, a raw fish salad (don’t be grossed out, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever tasted in my life). Those on the fence about going cannot resist the food.

    Recently returned missionaries share which areas they served in. Reports and summaries are given on different subjects by different people. Hymns are sung. Usually testimonies and a story or two are shared.

    Many Tahitian members and non-members fly in to experience general conference. One of the main reasons I go is in hopes of not only seeing those I served with, but those I taught or Tahitian members I know. I’ve seen a few members I knew, and a few native fellow missionaries and that has made all the difference.

    Now that I don’t live in Utah anymore, I don’t go, but I have found lots of friends on facebook, talked with an old companion on skype, and learned through email that a single mom with 3 kids that I taught and since went inactive recently received her endowments.

    I feel spoiled, but I know that for each missionary and mission, there is probably a good recipe that will help maintain the bond of brother and sisterhood among returned missionaries, and catalyze more sons of mosiah reunion type experiences (which IMO is the primary reason they exist).

  9. Cameron N on March 16, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    and by recipe, I meant a recipe of organization for a reunion.

  10. Raymond Takashi Swenson on March 17, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    My Dad passed away a couple of years ago, but the surviving members of his mission in Japan, the.ones who reopened the mission after it was closed in1924 due to reaction against the US.ban on Japanese immigration, have been faithfully meeting every year. They only recently reduced their reunions to annual occasions.

    Many of them have returned to Japan as senior missionaries, some multiple times. That group created a generation of future mission presidents, not only among themselves but also among the Japanese they converted.

    In 2001 BYU hosted a symposium to commemorate the centennia of Heber J Grant and three other missionaries opening the mission in 2001. My Dad’s reunuon group had the.most returned missionaries in attendance in sheer numbers, a full 50 years after they served. We watched a video of the Angel Moroni statue being hoisted onto the steeple of the Fukuoka Tempke, fifty years after my Dad and his companion had begun the proselyting in that city.

  11. Kent Larsen on March 17, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    A couple of observations:

    * U. S. immigration laws may have a role in making attendance at reunions difficult — since in order to get a visa those from many countries not only have to come up with fund to travel to the U.S., but also must show that they have enough assets at home to ensure that they will return and not overstay their visa.

    * In some of the Brazilian missions, since native missionaries often outnumber those from the U.S., the reunions are held in Brazil. I just saw one such announcement for the Brazilia Mission to be held in July.

    * The online communities for my mission seem to be somewhat divided. Those that attend the reunion in Utah each year are U.S.-based and speak English. IMO, most of those in this group have lost the ability to speak Portuguese. OTOH, the native Portuguese speakers I’ve run into generally have no chance of attending, and because they don’t speak English, also don’t seem to know about the online community for the mission. It is almost like they would be better off with a separate mission reunion from those who speak English!

    Personally, I haven’t been to a reunion since I left BYU — I don’t go to Utah at conference time, so the logistics simply don’t work. And since I do not want to ever live in Utah again, I don’t expect that I’ll ever go again. However, the online communities for my mission have helped me reconnect with some from my mission. I wish they were a bit more active, however.

  12. rae keck on March 18, 2012 at 10:29 pm

    as the “and guest” who is dragged to the mission reunions, I have to say it provides an interesting view of the ex-missionary not always flattering. No I don’t get all the insider jokes or relate to the stories. Reunions are meet and greet events and as I dislike small talk and “make nice” occasions I was delightfully suprised to meet some very interesting people among the guests. As “our” mission in Berlin actually existed for a very short time during the cold war, we tend to see the same people at these reunions and have developed more of a friendship and no we do not include the current Berlin mission they experience is not the same. we are going this year. we are also attending our high school reunions and a gathering of LDS service members all similar connection to our past. purpose: just to see how everyone is doing. Keep it simple Keep it light

  13. Ardis E. Parshall on March 18, 2012 at 11:05 pm

    rae, by any chance was your husband a missionary in East Berlin in the late 1950s? If so, I know a stash of scores of photographs of local members and missionaries that very much need to be identified. Now *that* would be a worthwhile reunion activity! (If the time/place is right, please contact me at AEParshall [at] aol [dot] com.)

  14. Wilfried on March 19, 2012 at 10:26 am

    Thanks all for the comments & suggestions!

    Each viewpoint is certainly valid since mission reunions are personal initiatives and the Church does not prescribe a format. I assume that as an institution the Church doesn’t even show interest. The Handbook of Instructions doesn’t mention mission reunions.

    Still, there is more to mission reunions, as some comments show. My initial interest is in the meaning for the international church. In my opinion mission reunions are one of the elements that illustrate a growing divide between the interests of members in a self-centered American or, more limited, “Wasatch-front church” and the rest of the Mormon world, in particular in non-Anglophone countries. That opens a much larger discussion, but, by definition, will garner little interest in U.S.-based blogs.

  15. Ardis E. Parshall on March 19, 2012 at 10:49 am

    Wilfried, perhaps your intent would be clearer if YOU gave some ideas and suggestions. As it is, your comment leaves me feeling like you think we’re spoiled brats merely for living in an area of Mormon concentration. If you could clarify how you think mission reunions could, on a practical level, be more inclusive or expansive, I’d love to hear it.

    It is unjustified for you to condemn American/Wasatch Front-dwelling Mormons for a lack of interest in something you have yet to define.

  16. Wilfried on March 19, 2012 at 11:32 am

    I don’t know the answers myself, Ardis. That’s why I asked the various questions in my post.

    “It is unjustified for you to condemn …” I am sorry if you read my comment that way. It is certainly not what I meant. I am sorry you got the feeling that I think that people are “spoiled brats merely for living in an area of Mormon concentration”.

  17. Ardis E. Parshall on March 19, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    That’s the impression that is often conveyed by your comments finding fault with American/Wasatch Front church members for not magically intuiting the unspoken needs of church members elsewhere. Rather than calling us “self-centered” and declaring that we have “little interest” in your concerns, and then apologizing for *my* feelings instead of your words, please outline some ideas for correcting the problem. We may not be as selfish as you think we are; it may just be that we lack the imagination to guess what you need.

  18. wowbagger on March 19, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    Wilfried

    I am a former member of your church, but can add some color to your thoughts. I am not from the US, and served a French-speaking mission in Europe.

    I attended a few reunions after my mission, since that is what one does at BYU, but once I moved away I stopped attending. I enjoyed seeing my friends and chatting with them, but I would place mission reunions in the same bundle as BYU football and Basketball and Honors Colloquia.

    They are fun when they are easily accessible, but once you are in a different phase of your life and geographic location, they take on less importance, and become a fond memory. Even when I was an active member of your church, I had minimal interest in going to a reunion.

    I do not think that you find fault with those LDS members in Wasatch area, but rather point out that they have the ability to do things that are not available to those of the Mormon diaspora. In my case, I do not see this as a big deal, and frankly, have kept up with the missionaries that I care to on my own initiative.

    Perhaps I am an odd duck though. I don’t do high school reunions either.

  19. Geoff on March 26, 2012 at 8:10 pm

    As a former missionary who served with countless French Elders, I, too, wish there was a way for them to attend a reunion. Granted, some of the “Frenchies” were the most irreverent, ridiculous missionaries I knew and fulfilled every stereotype of a Frenchman, but I loved them lots.

    A lot of this comes down to the Utah-centric nature of the Church. Go where the people are. Go where the LDS population is the densest. Sadly, this leaves anyone out of the Mountain West out to dry. I’m from California and even I have only been to a couple of reunions in the many years since I’ve been home from my mission.

  20. Geoff on March 26, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    Oh, and I meant to say that I served in Spain with the French missionaries. #struggling