3) The Interviews
Every six weeks on my mission, the missionaries would have a one-on-one interview with the Mission President. Interviews were one of the only times that companionships were separated. These interviews were not particularly long – they would typically last anywhere from 15 minutes to half an hour. Their purpose was simple: the MP was checking in with the missionaries, and giving them an opportunity to ask questions, discuss any issues had in companionships, etc. They were not scripted, and no topic was an absolute requirement for review.
I liked my MP, and I liked him a lot. On a personal level. He was sincere, reflective, and a deeply thoughtful man. I also liked his wife, largely for the same reasons. I respected them. He would often make comments to me about how he disagreed with our culture of quasi-hero worship of the General Authorities, since they are men serving in a calling, susceptible to weakness like any other man.
Once in a Zone Conference (also a meeting that took place every six weeks) he opened up the floor to questions on doctrine or practice, encouraging the missionaries to ask anything they wished. One of the Elders from my district – a guy that I also really liked and stayed friends with after the mission – asked “What would happen if we used a cross on our church?” The MP replied, “It would still be the Lord’s Church, but with a cross on top.” Like I say, I really liked this man.
My one-on-one interviews with him tended, more often than not, to be forays into issues of doctrine and culture. He would often preface his statements with the wry disclaimer: “If you quote me on this, I will deny it, but…” He and his wife were adept at picking their battles carefully from within the large, streamlined institutional culture of the church.
On one particular tropical stormy day, I entered his office troubled and defiant. A General Authority had just come to visit the mission. This GA gave a stirring talk to the assembled missionaries, offering tips and authoritative advice on how to increase baptisms. (I’ve mentioned before that our mission was noted for being the lowest baptizing mission in Latin America, a topic of great concern in Church Office Headquarters.) The powers that be had dispatched this GA to rally the troops and, using guilt and rousing rhetoric in equal measure, to create a baptism-doubling miracle. Among the many words of advice that he gave was that our testimonies needed to be “perfect” in order for us to be successful. To illustrate his point, he then said: “Do you have a problem with polygamy? Make your peace with it – pray and make your peace with it, or you will never have a perfect testimony and you will fail as a missionary.”
I turned to the MP in my interview, quoting the GA, and said “I don’t think I can ever be a successful missionary if coming to terms with polygamy is required.” I had read about polygamy in depth before my mission. I knew about the polyandry. I knew that there were many, many things that were done then, back in those early, turbulent times, that were not talked about anymore.
The MP looked at me with the measured, unblinking, probing expression that had become so familiar to me, and then said, “Well, what about blacks and the priesthood? Isn’t that just as troubling?” He went on to tell me that he had been granted privileged access into some archival material that is no longer available to church scholars and historians, and that he personally had come to the conclusion that barring people of African descent from priesthood ordination had been a huge mistake from the very beginning. He said that he saw notes from first presidency meetings going back to the early twentieth century that showed them trying to figure out when and how the ban had come into being, and what the rationale behind it was. He then said, “Many of us have problems with polygamy, Hermana. Many of us.” He went on. “This is the Lord’s Church, and I believe it is in trouble.” Citing his career as an oft-contracted Church employee, he added, “I believe that the problems go far deeper, and far further up the chain of command, than is widely known. I believe it is systemic, and it causes me great concern. But I also believe that God would have me serve, and serve honestly, and that the greatest good that I can do is from within. God wants us to be loyal to Him, and to His Church. He would not have us leave.”