Serving a Mormon Mission in Germany

Leaving the MTC for Germany was an exciting time. I’d never been out of the country, and I was headed to a country to teach people about my religion in a language I could barely speak. But I was with a group of people I’d learned to trust and love, and I figured I’d be fine as long as I could have some contact with them and my family.

I was assigned to a small town named Siegen which was a 90-minute train ride from Frankfurt. When we arrived, the first thing I did was purchase a bike. It would be the first of three bikes that would be stolen over the next 22 months. My bike was light blue and had a basket on the back where I could tie down my man-purse which held a few Books of Mormon and my scriptures. Nobody looks cool riding a bike with a basket hanging off the back.

oberstadt_siegen

We spent our days going door-to-door begging anyone to listen to our message. I could speak only if asked about very specific church topics found in the discussions, which meant I didn’t say much during my first month. I could tell you why I didn’t drink coffee, but I couldn’t give you directions to the nearest coffee shop. On a good day, two people would let us in their homes. But even then few wanted to hear about our church. Many people were interested in America, and wanted to hear us talk about any topic that wasn’t religious. I got asked a lot of questions about Micheal Jackson, Michael Jordan, Tom Cruise, John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe. Germans would act surprised when I couldn’t share many details with them about the two deceased stars.

The first month of a mission is similar to having a first child: you recall a lot of details. Details about subsequent children and cities will fade, but you remember your first well. Our apartment was in a seedy area of town, right next door to a business named “Crazy Sexy” that sold a lot more than adult toys. I would wake up each morning to the store’s orange neon sign reflecting off my bedroom wall. I would lay in my bed, stare at the ceiling and ask myself, “What the hell am I doing here living next to a sex shop?”

Although the work was frustratingly slow, I enjoyed riding my bike around town and speaking to anyone who would talk to me. I craved connecting with someone besides my companion, which was difficult because my language skills were poor at this time. When transfer calls came, my companion was sent to another area and I remained in Siegen for another month. My next companion became one of my closest friends. Elder Shupe spoke German so well that many people we met assumed he was German or Austrian. I told him I was frustrated learning German, and he taught me a valuable lesson.

“Get up early and study”, he told me in his usual blunt style. I began getting up around 5am to jump-rope and study grammar. We went to the bookstore and I bought a German thesaurus. Elder Shupe spent hours grilling me with grammar and vocabulary words throughout the day. I enjoyed going to church because I could speak with the young children without feeling foolish. Every missionary that learns to speak another language has at least one embarrassing story of using a word or phrase incorrectly. While knocking on doors, a young lady answered the door in a towel. I apologized as best I could. She said she was getting ready to move and didn’t have time to speak with us. At least that’s what I thought she said. I asked if we could come in and help her, and she immediately slammed the door. My companion at the time was from Austria, and he doubled over in laughter. I was confused. When he settled down he told me that the woman had told me she had just got out of the shower, and I asked if we could come inside and help her get dressed.

Another time a woman asked me why there were no Mormon missionaries in East Germany. I tried to tell her that we were restricted from sending proselyting missionaries there. When she tried not to laugh, I realized I’d made a mistake. I had told her that we couldn’t serve in East Germany because we were retarded.

I’d heard stories from returned missionaries about how much they admired their mission president. Many viewed the president as a second father, and kept in touch with him and his wife after returning home. I’d met the president and his wife briefly the first evening in Frankfurt. They seemed larger-than-life to me but I didn’t have a chance to get to know them. It would be another month or so before I’d see them at a zone conference. I was excited to say hello, and stood in line to shake their hands. The wife of the mission president shook my hand, gave me an odd look and said, “Your hair is touching your ears. Get it cut.”

That one interaction sums up my impression of the mission president and his wife, and would hold true for the duration of my mission. They were cold and intimidating. I quickly learned to keep my mouth shut or face their wrath. I learned to tell them what they wanted to hear and then use my best judgement, even when that conflicted with their rules. One such rule was that we were allowed to read our mail only on our preparation day (P-day). The work was depressing, and letters from my friends and family kept me optimistic from day to day. Of course, the mission leaders taught that if you’re not having success (baptizing Germans) it’s because God is withholding such blessings until all the rules are followed.

I would serve in ten cities and have 13 different companions while in Germany. I really enjoyed all my companions although a couple of them were more difficult than the rest. Some of them have become close friends. I also got to know a number of Germans who made lasting impressions on me. Most would not join the church, but that wasn’t as important to me as leaving them with a good impression of Americans and the church. Our second son, Kai, is named after a young man I taught and became good friends with.

About a year into my mission, I began to see a different side of the church that I’d not seen before. The church began to feel more like a business than a church. At every district and zone conference, it was drilled into our heads that the only measurement of success was how many people we could baptize. Handing out Books or Mormon and teaching discussions were merely a means to an end. We were not called to Germany to give service unless that service resulted in a convert baptism. In fact, we were not allowed to eat at member’s home unless we had an investigator (a person taking the discussions) with us. This single focus on baptisms came at the cost of connecting with people, and I occasionally felt like a robot that had been stripped of all compassion and empathy. Many times I was quick to dismiss a person because they were Catholic or Seventh-Day Adventist when, had I slowed down, I might have learned something from them or helped them in some way. But numbers and quotas superseded humanity. We either committed the investigator to baptism at the end of the second discussion or we moved on to the next victim.

It was difficult to keep track of all the rules being added by the president each month. Most of them didn’t bother me much until a sister missionary sprained her ankle while jogging on p-day. Once that happened, the president said we were not able to participate in any activity we couldn’t do while wearing a suit and tie. This was the first rule I called BS on. Being able to play basketball or soccer allowed me to set aside the work for an hour and have fun. We also got to know a lot of youth which gave us the opportunity to teach a number of discussions. I didn’t look to intentionally break rules, but this is one exception. The mission president tried to lay it on thick by telling us that God had inspired him make this rule change, but it was one revelation I couldn’t get behind.

I’m mostly proud of how I spent my time in Germany. But there is one experience I wish I could go back in time and change. The pressure to baptize was so great that at times it was suffocating. If you were not baptizing, you were being smacked over the head with questions from your district leader about what sins you were committing which was keeping god from blessing the companionship with baptisms. It was always the missionaries fault if the numbers were down.

One month I found myself in an area with a lot of Nigerian refugees who had fled their land to seek political asylum. These groups were comprised mostly of men in their early 20s, and they often spoke decent English. The mission president made it very clear that we’d been called to teach Germans. The assumption was that baptizing those seeking political asylum was not worth the effort because many would be sent back to their land of unrest, never to return to a country with a Mormon chapel. They were also poor and unable to tithe. Yet many of these Nigerians were eager to speak with us. While Germans tended to take a while to warm up to us, the Nigerians seemed thrilled to see us. So my companion and I began teaching rooms packed full of refugees. I don’t want to make excuses here. But most of our days were spent among people who didn’t want to speak with us, and when they did they often mocked us. One time a guy spit in my face while I worked at a street display and another time a teen tossed a beer bottle that hit me in the knee while I was riding my bike. It was flattering that these Nigerians wanted to hear our message. I can understand why this was appealing to two 20-year-olds.

One month the zone leaders came to visit, and asked to meet with those we were teaching. I took them to meet a group of Nigerian men, assuming they would instruct us to stop teaching them. Instead, they saw rooms full of people who liked Americans and were willing to do whatever we asked them to do. The zone leaders wanted them baptized as soon as possible. I didn’t feel good about the idea, but I didn’t push back either. I don’t recall all the details, but the baptismal font was not available over the weekend we’d promised our zone leaders these men would be baptized. So my companion and I baptized them in a fountain in the middle of town. It was an absurd sight. All of us gathered around a city fountain dressed all in white. People were looking out their windows at us, and I remember feeling so sick to my stomach that I thought I would throw up right there in the fountain. It was terrible. I was disrespectful to these men, and I’m ashamed of my actions that day. They deserved better. The only good that came from this experience was that it kept the zone and district leaders off my back for the rest of my mission.

I also began to have some questions about the LDS doctrine, specifically details about how polygamy was practiced by the early prophets. I was also bothered by the story of Abraham and Isaac. I couldn’t understand why a loving God would perform such a cruel test on his prophet. I wrote my grandfather with these and other questions, and decided I’d look into them more once I returned home. I knew little about other religions, and had accepted what my parents had taught me as truth. One question I got asked a lot was why blacks could not hold the priesthood until 1978, and I had no answer. Well, I should say, I had no answer that wasn’t racist. It would be a few more years before I began to wonder why the Book of Mormon contained such strong racist themes and why women in the church were often treated like children.

Although there were many times I wanted to be back home, I never once seriously considered leaving early. I knew how much my parents had sacrificed to allow me to serve for two years. I served from 87-89 which was before the mission costs had been standardized. I believe my mission ran about $700 a month. I felt close to my parents while in Germany. My mom wrote me a letter every single week. My father wrote me at least once a month, and it was special to get a hand-written letter from him.

As my time in Germany wound down, I focused on spending more time with the members. Instead of having doors slammed in our faces for hours on end, we’d visit ward members and those who were less-active in the church, but were friendly to us. Before long, they began inviting us to activities like indoor soccer and BBQs. Members began to trust us and would put us in touch with people to teach which is really how it’s all supposed to work. Although few joined the church, I met many kind and generous people.

In the end, I stayed out of trouble, met a lot of great people and made a lot of friends. I spent so much time studying German grammar that I decided to study the language when I attended the University of Utah. I eventually graduated with a B.A. in German in 1994. Although I’m no longer an active or practicing Mormon, serving a mission was a life-changing experience. Although “increasing the number of convert baptisms” is the mantra under which I served, I don’t believe it’s the primary reason the church strongly encourages young men (and now) young women to serve missions. I believe the primary reason is to take young men and women, often before they go off to college and learn critical thinking skills, and put them in an intense 2-year indoctrination camp where they come out more committed to the church than when they entered. Today’s missionaries are tomorrows leaders of the church.

I’m thankful I had the chance to serve when I did.

2 thoughts on “Serving a Mormon Mission in Germany

  1. Hi Brett. I’d never read your blog before, but a friend of mine shared this on Facebook, and I had to read it. Thanks for sharing your story. I served in Austria 10 years after you were in Germany, and a lot of what you shared here mirrored my own experience. The one difference was the mission president.

    My mission president and his wife were two of the kindest, warmest, most thoughtful people I’ve ever met. Of course we were encouraged to convert, but considering the baptism rate in Austria at that time was less than one baptism per companionship per year, mission president like the one you describe would have probably ended up driving a lot of Elders home early. Instead, ours encouraged us to get to know the country and the culture. We spent P-Days climbing mountains and exploring the countryside, doing things you could never do in a suit. We were given one evening a month, any evening we wanted (except Sunday, of course) as a “Kulturabend”, when we were encouraged to go out and do something that would help us better appreciate the Austrian culture. This meant I got to see concerts, operas, plays, and even a couple of soccer games (that last one may have been slightly bending the rules, but hey, I guess that’s why we saw so few baptisms ;). We also weren’t restricted on our visits to members, which is one of the things that kept me sane with all the rejection we were subject to. And while some of the missionaries in leadership positions seemed to look equate missionary work with salesmanship, worrying about the numbers and trying to teach us more “effective” ways of presenting our message, I never got that feeling from the mission president. He seemed to understand that it is extremely disheartening and disillusioning to go out on a mission with the zeal that most missionaries have as greenies, only to find that you’ll be lucky to teach one or two lessons a week to someone who’s only half interested in your message. I think he saw his job as simply helping us learn to persevere and learn to love the country and the people, despite the fact that they didn’t love us. That was really important to me, and helped me to redefine my concept of success as a missionary to something very similar to what you articulated above. I saw success my success as being rooted in making connections with people, helping to brighten someone’s day with a smile, a conversation, and act of service, and in doing so, presenting the church in a positive light. Coming to that realization, and having a mission president who didn’t make me feel like that concept of success was a cop out or a sign that I didn’t have enough faith was extremely important to me and my emotional well-being as a missionary

    I struggled, and continue to struggle with precisely the questions you brought up here, especially that of the priesthood being withheld from blacks. I never felt comfortable with the standard answers we were given to that question, and felt it acutely when we were teaching Africans. But I think I can attribute the fact that I continue to be active in the church, despite all of my questions, doubts, and personal opinions that run counter to some teachings, is the fact that on my mission I was exposed to a church and a leadership style that was not dogmatic or restricting, but taught me to respect difference, to respect rules, but also recognize when flexibility is in order, and to realize that it is important to seek out the beautiful and the good wherever it is to be found, and that the church by no means has a monopoly on those things. I would be naive to think that the way I encountered the church on my mission is the church’s default mode. I am from Utah, after all. But it is the way I continue to try to experience the church, despite the fact that my fantasy version of a more open and tolerant Mormonism is often challenged. I don’t know how long that will last, but I credit my mission experience with helping me keep on this long.

    A few more parallels, I also came home and studied German at the U, and I’m actually writing you this from Frankfurt. I live in Germany now, working as an English teacher, and am in Frankfurt for a teacher’s workshop. It’s a great place, although it pales in comparison with Austria :).

    Thanks for sharing your story. Reading and responding to it helped me to mull through a few things that have been bouncing around in my head for a long time, waiting to be expressed in some way. You’ve inspired me to try to articulate them in some way.

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    1. Thank you for your comment. You bring up an interesting point about your mission president and how his actions allowed you to work through some difficult issues with the church. I couldn’t imagine taking questions about polygamy to my mission president. I can imagine his response would be something along the lines of, “That’s not part of the discussions.” and dismiss it. I didn’t learn a lot about the doctrine of the church on my mission. The discussions were about as deep as a lesson in primary and all my free time was spent learning Germany instead of diving deeper into the doctrine. Had I known then what I do today about Joseph Smith there’s no way I could have served a mission. I’m happy with how things turned out though.

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