About a decade after returning from my Mormon mission to Germany in 1970 I began having nightmares—one or two a year—in which I was, inexplicably, required to serve another two years as a missionary. The shock each time was palpable. I always tried to explain (although the responsible party was never present or even evident in any way) that I had done my duty. As the years went on my explanation began to include the fact that I no longer believed Mormon doctrine, that I didn’t even believe in god. All to no avail. I was simply required to serve another mission. I consoled myself, mostly, by noting that since I would be in Bulgaria (or wherever it was) I would at least learn Bulgarian.
Last month I read Craig Harline’s new book Way Lower than the Angels, a sometimes funny but mostly harrowing account of his own mission in Belgium. Craig reports being caught in the three-legged conundrum of (1) knowing he should convert lots of Belgians, (2) seeing that no one was really interested, and (3) believing that if he kept mission rules perfectly, really perfectly!, God would reward him with lots of converts. That circle went round and round, beating the hell out of him psychologically.
Although I wasn’t nearly as rule-obsessed as a missionary, I still recognized plenty of the horror.
And then I had a new dream, one that shifts from nightmare to discovery, a therapeutic nightmare, I think:
I’m in a big city in Turkey. I am a missionary. My companion and I walk from door to door, trying to engage people in religious discussion. They have no patience with us, no interest, and I understand why. For one thing, I don’t understand a word of their language. The task is endless and fruitless.
The scene shifts to the inside of an apartment (how did we get inside? I wonder). While we stand there a man comes in carrying a small child. He sees us and starts to say something. I mumble something about a religious discussion and that sets him off: I’ve got a sick child! Get out! Get out!
We quickly retreat, stopping to think for a moment outside the front door of the building. We stand on the busy street. After a few minutes, the man steps through the door. He speaks English with me and we begin an interesting, non-religious discussion. My companion grows antsy. I tell him this is better than our door-to-door futility.
While we talk, I watch four or five homeless people lounge against the wall of the next building. They look ill and gaunt and perhaps stoned. Children who live in that building torment the defenseless people with stones they shoot from a platform at close range. I wonder how they can do that with such impunity. Why don’t the gaunt people attack them? The fusillade grows intense and the homeless people disappear.
My companion too has disappeared, gone to join other missionaries who continue their tracting while I continue the interesting conversation. I ask the man where to find the city’s best bookstore. I want to buy a Turkish-English dictionary. The conversation ends. I step away from the building as the man goes inside. The old apartment building looks different. I notice for the first time that it is next to a busy harbour, a vibrant scene in which working lights create a beauty that astonishes me. The building, I can now see, is really a remarkable boat crafted out of beautiful dark timbers. I stand admiring its lines and the man reappears with a small bag. He hands it to me. Inside is a Turkish-English dictionary. The first word I look up is FRIEND.