The Armpit of the Mission Field: “Heaven Up Here” by John K. Williams

When John got his mission call to Bolivia, it was like a joke come true. Before the letter came, he and his friends had a running gag that he’d be sent there — because it’s the clich worst-possible foreign mission (see here for a coincidental example). Then he really got sent there. And, as a faithful kid from a troubled family, he was determined to fix things by devoting himself entirely to the Lord’s work.

Heaven Up Here is the complete story of Elder Williams’s mission, full of colorful (and often graphic) descriptions of what life was like for Mormon missionaries in Bolivia. But (unlike some complete missionary memoirs) it’s not a laundry-list of companions’ names and culture notes. His fellow missionaries and Bolivian friends are fully-fleshed out characters, and the local culture is presented in the context of interesting, often poignant stories about what he experienced and how it affected him.

One amusing example of the clash between Mormon missionary culture and Bolivian culture was the tale of a Bolivian member who was constantly giving suggestions for ways the LDS church could be improved. To the missionaries, it was almost laughably absurd that some random Bolivian would think that the church might change its policies based on his suggestions. Meanwhile, the missionaries themselves recognized that the church policies could use some major improvements, and joked that they’d have more success if the meetings were less boring — and were more like the Pentecostals’.

The brilliance of the narrative, though, is the lack of retrospective editorializing. I happen to know that the author is currently an ex-Mormon, and that he didn’t stop believing until many years after his mission. But precisely where he’s at now is not obvious from the text. There’s no future-retrospective narrator re-interpreting the stories as evidence towards a particular conclusion about the CoJCoL-dS. The events that built up his faith at the time are presented as such, and the disheartening aspects (like the relentless focus on the number of baptisms) are presented as he felt them then as well. For example, here’s a typical passage that illustrates the contraction between the way he felt at the time and the way he thought he was supposed to feel — but not about how his present self feels about having been put in that position so many years ago:

My companion and I went home that night feeling devastated. We had been working so hard. We both had been sick and had some days forced ourselves to get out of bed and do the Lords work. But it was clear that what we had given wasnt enough. The Lord expected more from us. In our bedroom we sat, nearly in tears, talking about what we had heard. It didnt take too long for us to decide that Elder Howard was right: we werent working hard enough, and we needed to be more committed. By the time I wrote in my journal that night, I had decided that this conference had been Awesome!

Heaven Up Here is a fascinating, page-turning narrative that I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in learning more about the Mormon missionary experience (or in comparing notes about their own mission experiences).