5) The Elders
I have no younger brothers. On my mission I came to feel a sense of siblingdom with a lot of the Elders in my different zones and districts – a feeling of occasional exasperation mixed with tenderness and deep affection, what I imagine I would feel toward my younger brothers if I had them. I loved those guys.
I served in the Provo MTC alongside an Elder from California. He and I were in each other’s district there and again after we moved to a smaller MTC in Latin America for our Spanish language training. Then, after we arrived at our mission country, we happened to be placed in the same district again. I will try to be careful in how much detail I give in this story because it is his and not mine.
He was a very thoughtful person. One day I discovered that every transfer period (every six weeks) he wrote a personal, individual letter – in Spanish – to each of the (around 15) Latin American missionaries, Elders and Sisters, in our mission. He had learned that their own families could not afford to send them letters, so he wrote short notes to them, offering words of encouragement and support. (This was technically against the rules – *missionaries are not allowed to write to other missionaries in the same mission. I think, though, that had the MP known he would have been proud of this Elder who wanted the Latin American missionaries to have something tangible to open alongside their North American companions.)
When I learned he was doing this, I felt both a sense of admiration for him and a sense of deep shame at my own inadequacy – it hadn’t crossed my mind even once to reach out in that way. And this Elder struggled more than most with Spanish, making it doubly impressive to me that he quietly, unobtrusively, sought out ways to buoy people up without letting the fear of making mistakes get in the way.
One day in our small district meeting – we had only two companionships in our district – he felt the need to tell us his story: He came from a large family, one of the youngest children of nearly ten and the only child to serve a mission. He was an athlete, a strong, big guy, as were his brothers, and he had turned down a sports scholarship to serve.
And, he told us in that small, intimate meeting, he came from a gang family.
A couple of years before his mission, one of his older brothers was killed in a gang feud. He explained that normally in those situations, gang families seek retribution by plotting revenge. But his family “remembered the church” – that phrase stuck in my mind – and chose another path. His father and mother and older brothers and sisters decided instead to pray for help to forgive his brother’s murderer. And he decided to be the first in his family to serve a mission.
He struggled with the language and with the culture of the country we served in. And, he said, on a more profoundly personal level, he struggled privately to expurgate himself of the gang norms of his past and to fit in to LDS mission culture. His biggest fear was that he wasn’t strong enough to see it through – that all the friends and family back home who had doubted his ability to be a good Mormon missionary would be proven right.
They weren’t. He completed his mission, and recently we got in touch again.
*Update* – I realized after I wrote this up that I was remembering this rule incorrectly – missionaries were not allowed to write to missionaries of the opposite sex who were serving in the same mission. For me as a sister missionary that pretty much meant that I couldn’t write to other missionaries. (Sisters made up just over 10% of my mission, and there was rarely more than one set of sisters in any district or zone, with the upshot that sisters rarely got to know other sister missionaries who weren’t their own companions.)
The fact that this Elder didn’t exclude the Latina sisters in his letters spoke volumes to me. They weren’t love letters (my one Latina companion showed me a couple of the notes he had written her, and they were 100% mission-appropriate in terms of content). I was glad that he looked at us as his sisters in the gospel and fellow missionaries first, and as women (off-limits!) second.