Like most Mormon young men, I served my two year mission for the church in the prime of youth. Due to a fear of parasites and desire to communicate well right out of the box, I served in a completely unexotic stateside location. This was prior to a relatively recent policy change referred to by the leadership as “raising the bar.”
The concept evolved from a perceived need to improve the quality of our missionaries. This is done by increasing spiritual, mental and physical requirement to be eligible to serve. The experience is very rigorous. There is a reason Richard Dutcher referred to LDS missionaries as God’s Army.
From experience I understand spiritual part of the concept. Many of the missionaries in my mission had a certain lack of drive and purpose. In reflection, they were really just typical 19 year olds. They lacked a certain focus, rebelled against rules and a strict schedule. The problem was, they tended to view the experience as a two year vacation. They also tended to work over people, new missionaries in particular, to their cause.
This caused a certain rebellious mission counterculture that made it difficult to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. They tended to baptize people without really teaching and preparing them well. These converts would then quickly fade away. It could cause converts and established members alike to become quickly disillusioned with missionary work. For this reason, I found the policy a welcome change.
The mental and physical parts of the equation I am not as sure about. Certainly, missions are tough. They involve 80-100 hour work weeks spent in community service and proselyting. It requires a certain physical and mental stamina. They can be high on personal rejection and thinner on uplifting experiences. Not all who are sent find they are up to the task.
The screening was made more stringent to try to pick up those with problems with depression, anxiety, or other mental illness to try and spare them the humiliation of being sent home. The idea is to get them the help they need and avert crisis down the road.. I worry though that the stigma would still remain. When the problem you have is low self confidence, I can’t see being rejected as below the bar really helping any.
I had a very unique opportunity on my mission to serve with someone who could never go today. I had a certain companion on my mission who had a mental disability. My first hint that something was up was when the Mission President took me aside the zone conference before transfers and actually forewarned me. Mentally he functioned about like a 14 year old though he was actually around 30. He had applied to leave on a mission three times before, each time rejected until he showed he could live independently, which he eventually did. He had very low expectations for himself. His confidence level was very low and led him to refuse pretty much everything.
I had to threaten to tickle him in the mornings to get him to study(possibly manipulative and paternalistic I now realize, but cut me some slack for my age.) He regularly locked himself in the bathroom for hours at a time to avoid proselyting. He never contributed to a discussion and he only did 2 door approaches the entire three months I spent with him. I announced to him at most every door that I was going to let him do this one and it was his lucky day. He accepted twice. I would say I failed except it turned out that 2 door approaches was 2 more than he had done in over a year on his mission to that point. I called the Mission President or his assistants daily to cajole him simply getting out the door. Our pool of investigators steadily shrank, temporarily. I am happy to report that the area exploded with success after we were transferred out.
This might lead one to ask, why exactly did this Elder even go and what purpose did his mission serve. I often asked him that very question. His answer was that it was a major accomplishment for him to even be on a mission. On reflection, he was right. What could be more difficult for a mentally disabled person than leaving everyone you know to spend two years knocking on the doors of strangers. He had to learn independence in a way he never could have at home. On his own timeline, he was absolutely stretching and expanding himself. He faced down a “no” answer three times without giving up. He had a certain amount of pluck. I can’t discount that kind of personal growth
But the real amazing changes happened to me. This elder taught me more about myself than any other companion ever could have. The mission president actually congratulated me at one point with what I accomplished with him, stating “I don’t know how you do it.”
My answer was that I couldn’t. I was only able to do what I did through the Lord. This period of my mission intensified the power of my prayers. In the process I learned what it really meant to be filled with the Savior’s love, to gain his image in my countenance, and to sing the song of redeeming love. This small town, backward social phobic boy was transformed into a confident, patient, persistent and bold Man in a way I would never have thought possible. I grew to geniunely love this Elder, in a way that startled me.
I learned to see what it was he really had accomplished. I learned that he really wasn’t so different than me. He was largely bound by fear, just as I am. He was determined to reach a goal, just as I was. I learned to communicate and appreciate the small things of life serving with him. This experience shaped and molded who I am and what I have done with my life. I think it led me to dedicate my life to working with many similar patients. For me, child neurology is truly a calling. There are a relative few who are willing to work with these patients and the need is great. I have learned the reward is even greater. I fulfill a large societal need in a very spiritually fulfilling way, and continue to learn so much about life in the process.
Ironically. if I were to go back and do it again under today’s standards I would likely not meet the standard. I had only an inkling at the time about how limited by fear, depression, and anxiety I really was at the time. They could have referred me for help and may have been able to spare me much pain. I can’t imagine any counseling that could have approached teaching me as much about myself as I learned through this experience.
I fear that many bishops today lack the imagination to see how one mentally disabled, or even disfigured, chronically ill, or an amputee could serve themselves and others with these kind of life lessons about what the human spirit is capable of. Maybe that is self indulgent, I don’t know. I fear that this only reinforces the idea that disability means inability. It strengthens the stigma of imperfection in our culture.
Yet, I know it is not that simple. It is definitely not the wisest decision to send someone who has great need of medical care to a remote corner of the world. Certainly any condition that limits the hours a missionary can spend working, limits it for both members of the companionship.
At what point is this kind of personal growth outweighed by the cost in lost converts? I don’t know. All I know, is that the worth of souls is truly great in the sight of God. I have to believe that God could continue to work out his plan through whoever has a real desire to serve. He has stated that he will work his miracles through the weak things of the Earth. My prayer is that Bishops everywhere can catch the vision of what is possible when we look past what our preconceptions and see what is really possible.