By Greg Hudson
After seeing my family for the first time in two years, we drove straight from the airport to the Church so I could be released. There was nothing spectacular about it. No ceremony, no diploma, no applause.
I sat in a room with all the pomp of an office, surrounded by my family and a picture of Christ. There, a local leader of the Church simply told me I was honourably released — that I was no longer a missionary. I could take off my name tag whenever I was ready. No longer Elder Hudson, I was just Greg again. I broke down. I felt like I was being punished, like the leader was stripping me of everything I had experienced. The moment epitomized my mission: for 24 months, I set to convert Southern Ontario, wanting nothing more than to serve my God. But I was always inadequate — I understood what the job was, but I was never commensurate.
As I sat there being released, it wasn’t my own shortcomings that made me cry. My chance was just over. My sister-in-law, not usually prone to poetics, said it looked like a king was losing his crown.
If you are a male born into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon), you’re preparing to go on a mission from the time you can talk. But somehow, nothing can prepare you for coming back. For a lot of kids growing up in the church, missionaries reside somewhere between superheroes and big brothers in the collective consciousness. They are mythical, living symbols, and you look at them knowing that you will one day join their ranks.
But when I became one, it was surprisingly anti-climatic. I had planned for it my entire youth, and it snuck up the same way Christmas does. Suddenly, I was that spiritual giant you always looked up to — only I wasn’t. I wore the suit, I parted my hair, I had an iconic black name tag with ELDER HUDSON engraved in white, but I was still the same kid who loved quoting The Simpsons and knew every lyric to Ice Ice Baby. My first struggle when I landed in Sarnia, Ont., was with myself. I had a new purpose, but I didn’t know how to go about doing it. I had to be patient; I had to wait to become the missionary I had always imagined. And I don’t know if I ever did. That’s the paradox of being genuinely religious: The harder you try to be godly, the more you realize you aren’t, the more you realize your weaknesses.
Missionaries travel the world to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, within the Latter-Day Saints context. They serve the communities where they reside, but mostly in a spiritual capacity, helping people establish a proper relationship with God through repentance and baptism. In short, they are out to baptize the world. Make everybody Mormon. (That may sound sinister, but really it isn’t. Imagine you are certain that you hold the key to eternal happiness and salvation. It makes sense to share.)
I tried hard to follow all the rules of my mission. I worked at obedience with the sincerity of an orphan hoping for a birthright. I woke up before the sun every morning, exercised and studied the scriptures for two hours. Then, I would leave my apartment, companion at side, and try to find people to teach until we would return to our apartment at 9:30 p.m. Any deviation, I felt, would jeopardize my success. Looking back, I don’t know if obedience really led to more success, or if it was a matter of people skills and salesmanship.
We tried to avoid knocking on doors — not because we felt it was intrusive — but because it was actually the least effective way of finding potential converts. But there were times when I felt driven to a certain street. There were baptisms that I’d see and feel a small portion of fatherly relief and pride. I imagined what God must be feeling, not for me, but for the new convert. But all the faith in the world can’t get you into the house of a stranger.
One morning, after praying over a tiny laminated map of Sarnia, I felt a distinct pull towards a specific street: Hazelwood Avenue. Revelation is hard to quantify, but at the time I was certain that I was supposed to go there. Someone was there. When we met the man on Hazelwood Avenue, I knew I was sent to speak to him. He grew up in an offshoot of the Mormon faith: he was raised to believe almost everything my companion and I would teach him; not just the general themes that all Judeo-Christian faiths would espouse, but the unique doctrines that are the toughest part of our message to accept. He already believed.
But he wouldn’t let us in. I tried explaining to him that we had a message that would change his life. Using history and doctrine, I told him that he needed to give us a chance. Nothing worked. I felt frantic. So, I told him the truth: I had prayed over a map, and I was certain that I was directed to that street just to talk to him.
He apologized before he shut the door.
In the span of two hours I had felt the calm certainty of spiritual guidance, the quiet grandeur of Godly acknowledgment and the peace that comes from knowing I was doing my service. And I felt the flip side. Walking away from that house, I not only felt my inadequacy, but I was amazed by how little I understood God and his methods. It must have been something I had done. God set it up perfectly, and I somehow messed up.
But that’s one experience, one day. There were other people that my companion and I would meet on the street and I knew that we were an answer to their prayers. There were times when I was used perfectly, despite my weaknesses.
That’s the power of a mission.
From our apartment on the sixth floor, we could see the fledgling skyline of Niagara Falls. Almost every night, the city shot fireworks above the falls, giving every day a festive farewell, which became less and less impressive by the seventh month.
But as I spent each night on my balcony, I didn’t bother watching the fireworks. Kneeling, arms resting on a plastic wicker chair, I would pray into the night. I didn’t want my companion to hear how desperate I was. I didn’t want him to hear me beg and plead to Him, because I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. I couldn’t understand why after 23 months as a missionary, I was having so much trouble now. I couldn’t understand why my last month was my hardest.
I would look up from my prayers and see the tired houses of the small city, and feel like I was their only hope, and I was failing. So I’d pray more. Night after night, I would pray more.
Two weeks ago, my editor and I were standing in the quad, eating free hot dogs. We spoke briefly about how many Mormons there were on campus (about five, including a professor) and how there probably was no need to talk to them. He didn’t mean to, but the way he said it implied that their viewpoint would almost be unneeded, because, unlike me, they didn’t have doubts. And a missionary who comes home as zealous as he left isn’t a good story.
I didn’t say anything, but it represented a dichotomy that I nurse. On the one hand, I see his point — not about the specific Mormons on campus, but about radical religious people in general. Maybe they don’t evaluate their faith; perhaps they accept Mormon culture a little too readily at the exclusion of other culture. But at the same time, the implied pity in my editor’s off-handed comment reminded me that I still have pretty strong feelings for my faith, like a past love you can’t forget. But there’s been trials, there’s been reasons why I can’t forget.
Not too long ago, I was out with some friends in a sweaty bar in Calgary. They were both former Mormons. Over the beats slipping through the walls of the club, they tried to get me to drink. They had found peace outside the Church, and were inviting me to join them. As stupid as it may sound, drinking was symbolic: they knew I didn’t go to church as much, and that I was no longer living all the tenets of my faith. In their own way, they were being supportive.
But it sounded so hollow. Maybe I’ve just been too indoctrinated to change, or maybe I didn’t want to disappoint my family. But mostly, I think it was my past. Neither of my friends spent those hours on that balcony, praying in seeming vain, pleading to God because my mission, my life and doubts weren’t becoming any easier.
And it never got easier. I left the mission feeling beaten. But, I couldn’t doubt I was heard. Now, I just have to figure out if I’m ready to talk to Him.