Here’s to the Hard Cases
When I was invited on to post at Main Street Plaza, I was asked to explain why it is I go to the trouble, as a committed member of the LDS Church, to debate with those who are hostile to the LDS Church in some way. This article is a part of my answer to that question.
In the late summer 1995 I was transferred to the port city of Sasebo in southern Japan. It would be the fourth city Id lived in as a missionary in Japan, and would bring me into the last quarter of my time in that country. It was probably the largest city Id served in to-date and, unlike my previous assignments, actually had a real dedicated LDS Church building, and not just rented space.
After Id been shuttled from the train station to our ground level apartment in an alley off an open-air fish market, been lectured by a fussy neighbor lady about leaving her yappy dog alone (apparently the previous missionaries had shot the obnoxious little runt with contraband airsoft pistols), and unpacked, I hopped on a spare bike and followed my three fellow missionaries the two or three miles to the Church building for the free English classes missionaries in my mission all provided at that time.
The date our transfers usually took place, and the way our weekly schedules were set up, Wednesday English classes were usually the first thing a transferring missionary did upon arriving in a new area. It was a good way to get introduced to all the regulars in the area, member and non-member alike. Id been through the routine of twice-weekly English classes for a year and a half now, and wasnt really nervous about it anymore. I was actually pretty good at teaching English, and my classes were always well-attended. It was one of my favorite parts of the week. Besides, first class, you could always punt to introductions and idle chit-chat.
It was here I met Kumi. She was one of the regulars I mentioned. Nice girl – in her early twenties. Not a member of the LDS Church, and showing no sign of becoming one any time soon, and quite conversant in English. Every missionary free-English program had a core of these types of people. People who highly valued either the native English pronunciation practice (which was hard to come by in Japan), or socializing with the missionaries, but were dead-set against converting, despite the efforts of numerous missionaries. The more results-oriented missionaries tended to ignore them, or keep things on the level of restrained friendliness at best. Just about all missionaries tended to write them off as hopeless cases as far as proselyting was concerned.
For myself though, I always liked these types and tended to gravitate to them. So it was probably natural that Kumi and I would hit it off. She was a friendly, understated person with a wry sense of humor, and seemed to enjoy my own perverse approach to life. I saw her regularly at both our Wednesday and Saturday classes, and she usually attended the activities we held after class as well.
I made a few missionary overtures toward her early on and was politely rebuffed. At a certain point, she agreed to have a chat about religion in the chapel after class with me and a church member who was a friend of hers. But she set down some ground rules: I wasnt allowed to talk about my own message unless asked, and she would tell me about HER own beliefs. I was dealing with a pro here, whod been through the song and dance before. Realizing it was probably the only way Id be able to discuss her spiritual life at all, I readily agreed.
Cant say it led to much progress. Her life-philosophy seemed to be a sort of secular Unitarian approach. Sort of an all roads lead to Mount Fuji version of spirituality.
A Christian might taste the apple and say Its sweet she told me. A Jew might taste it and say Its sour. A Muslim might say Its bitter. And a Buddhist might say It has no taste. She looked at me evenly But the apple is the apple.
I nodded, but didnt respond. Id agreed not to argue and besides, Id dealt with hard cases enough to know better anyway.
The other missionaries assured me that Kumi and the others in the advanced class were not the place to devote my efforts. She was not likely to convert. I agreed with them, but it didnt make much difference to me. I wasnt that good at proselyting for new acquaintances mainly due to my fear of approaching absolute strangers. So I had time on my hands. My companion was native Japanese and didnt know a lick of English, nor did he wish to. He spent most of his time with the other Japanese senior companion in the apartment whom he got along with well. This left me and the other American junior companion together more than with our own companions. We also had the excuse of working with the nearby US military base and the American branch of LDS members who met in the same church building.
I enjoyed my time in Sasebo. I spent most of my time on successfully re-building member-missionary relations that the previous set of missionaries had unceremoniously knocked over (it took us almost a month to get to the point where the Relief Society President would even smile at us), reactivating inactive members, service projects (including English classes), and. Well. The hard cases.
Kumi was one of my favorites. I optimistically put her down as an investigator in my missionary log and spent a good deal of time thinking how best to bring her around. Mostly this involved socializing in a non-threatening way. I wasnt manipulative or anything. She was my friend, and as such, I naturally wished to share the things that were important to me with her.
Two months passed and things changed. My other companion had transferred, Id been assigned a co-senior companion who was full Japanese, no English-speaking ability, and was deaf as well. He and I had a rough go of it which was probably mostly my fault. Furthermore, our Japanese District Leader missionary had (appropriately) decided to end the status quo of racial separation that was happening in our missionary apartment. A decision that didnt bother me much, since me and the new American missionary who’d just transferred in really did not see eye to eye at all.
Naturally, I grew more and more concerned for and involved in my friends outside the apartment. Life was good in general. I had warm relations with the local members and was well liked. We were getting regular reactivations from inactives (which probably accounted for a lot of the smiles I was getting Sunday), my Japanese was growing by leaps and bounds due to the only guy in my apartment I really liked being the Japanese District Leader (who had absolutely zero interest in speaking English), and I was spending a lot of time socializing with our stable investigators.
As I was thinking more about these people and less about my own little missionary world, I wanted to see something happen with them spiritually. Especially Kumi. I started thinking long about how to bridge that last gap and bring her into being Mormon something vital to my identity, which I naturally wanted to share. We were really good friends, but something needed to happen.
I decided to go for the direct approach and asked her if she could meet me and my companion in the park to talk. She paused, looked at me knowingly, and sighed a bit, but agreed. She knew exactly what I was up to which was fine by me.
I went with my companion, apologized to him ahead of time, since a lot of the conversation would be half Japanese and half English and I still hadnt learned a lick of sign language (he could read lips, but not English). He was fine with it, more or less.
Honestly, I dont really remember what Kumi and I talked about. I know I asked her if shed be willing to start the lessons with us, pressed her on why it would be a problem, questioned her about how she felt about the whole Mormon thing. I really dont remember the words it was long ago. But I do remember the feelings conveyed. It was awkward. I was sincere, she was not willing to move and felt bad about it. She was obviously feeling bad about turning me down, and I was pushing like it was my last chance at reaching her on this issue which it was. In the end, she got a little teary-eyed and I had to back off. I reassured her it was alright and this wouldnt change anything. Mutual agreement was reached and we went back to where we were.
As we left I asked her to promise me that she wouldnt disappear and stop coming to the English classes and activities once I inevitably left Sasebo. She looked at me a bit mockingly.
You mean so another group of missionaries can have a shot at converting me?
Exactly I responded directly. She laughed and walked off.
I went home with mixed feelings. I was disappointed, but I also felt like Id really done all I could. The issue of faith really did need to be hashed-out between us. There was a feeling of having done the right thing in spite of things not working out. My companion was quiet. I apologized again for sort of leaving him out of the loop. He just remarked you really do care about her and didnt say much else.
I transferred out a few weeks after that. And after three more months in another small town, I went home to the US. Id been dealing with intractable small towns, eternal investigators, hard-nosed English students, and a politely immovable culture for two years, and loved it dearly. It seemed I just had an incurable soft-spot in my heart for the hard cases like Kumi. It hadnt won me any honors my numbers were always abysmal, and the only baptisms I saw were set up by other missionaries. Many of my fellow missionaries thought I was wasting my time. I was even dressed-down publicly in front of 100 missionaries by my Mission President once. But the smiles of friends and local members made up for it.
There is a satisfaction that comes from sharing with those who hold the same interests you do even if the divides seem inseparable. I fought a losing battle every day of my mission in Japan and loved it more than anything Id done up to that point.
So I suppose its not surprising that Ive had a fondness for lost-causes and hard cases ever since. I wouldn’t say that these experiences fully explain where I eventually went with my religion on the Internet, but the rest will have to wait for another post.
Seth, I had some similar feelings/experiences on my mission. Like you, they had a profound affect on me. While those experiences led us in different ways spiritually, and I no longer think of people as “lost or hard causes” in terms of salvation, I appreciate your story.
Interesting post. However, I have to confess that I still don’t understand why “caring” about someone must include trying to make them think and believe all the same things that you (in general, not you specifically) think and believe.
I hold some fairly strong beliefs and opinions, which are not shared by some of my closest friends. We are able to be friends quite well without them trying to convince me to think the way they do and without me trying to convince them to think the way I do. None of us feel compelled to “hash out” our feelings about religious, political or any other category of belief in order to continue to be friends.
I do think that the problem is inherent in the Mormon way of believing, at least as I experienced it. When I was Mormon, I was pressured on a pretty much constant basis to be, do and think just like everyone else in the church. That didn’t work out so well, to be honest. I was even asked once, by someone who I considered a friend, “Don’t you want to be like everyone else?” Well, no. Not really. But I was really made to feel as if the members felt that if I wasn’t just like them, I wasn’t worth being friends with. I found that to be kind of sad.
I recognize that the issue is a little different with missionaries, considering that it’s their job to convert people, and that they are saddled with a huge number of rules that make it difficult for them to get close to anyone. Still, being dressed down for continuing to deal with someone if they don’t show signs of agreeing to conversion is, I think, not a productive approach. It dismays me that there is such a feeling, institutionally speaking, that if someone doesn’t want to be Mormon, then they’re not worth dealing with on any level.
I’m not sure if I’m articulting my feelings well here. It’s early here, and I’m not quite awake yet. I really want to emphasize that I’m not being critical of you, but of the institution you were operating within.
To clarify Elaine – I was “dressed down” for consistently bad proselyting numbers, not specifically for any details of my approach to proselyting. I just personally feel that my approach inevitably resulted in the numbers. The incident actually happened during a zone conference while I was in my last area – which I transferred to after the events I describe here.
The two were not related in my Mission President’s mind – but were related in my mind. My MP didn’t have that much detail about my specific approach.
You’re a salesperson who’s part of a religion of salespeople. Friends who don’t want what you’re selling aren’t really friends, but “hard cases”. We aren’t people who moved on from a (for many of us) abusive religion, we’re “hard cases” too and you need to keep trying, because it’s the freaking end of the world if someone bows to a fox statue.
To the degree that you have to feel this way, you have lost the ability to empathize or form meaningful friendships. Because friends don’t try to push products on other friends; they help their friends find out what’s right for them. And you can’t really do that if you think you already know the answer.
I know, I know, if The Church really is true then you have to do what you’re doing. But I would reject it on principle even if I knew it were, because I refuse to accept that the universe is so screwed up that I can’t accept human diversity. That I have to see it as a bug that needs to be fixed, and as a bunch of people who are Wrong On The Internet.
Seth has posted in the past about reasons for discussing with us here at MSP. In the past, he has mentioned additional motivations:
In my opinion, this is an excellent reason to engage in dialog with people you disagree with. You can understand your own position better and hone your arguments if you discuss them with people who disagree with you. You may even find yourself modifying your own position if you’re presented with new, unfamiliar, and interesting perspectives. At the very least, you’ll end up understanding what some of the major arguments are against your position.
(To give an extreme example: If you don’t think evolution happened/happens, but you spend some time in a two-way discussion with scientifically literate people — even if they don’t convince you, at least you’ll learn how not to embarrass yourself with idiotic arguments like: “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?!”)
And Seth provides that service for us here as well, which is one of the reasons I like having him around. He challenges our various points, which helps keep this place from being an echo chamber of patting ourselves on the back about how right we are.
In this particular article, Seth has focused on not giving up on possibly converting people. I think that is only part of his motivation for visiting us, but it’s the part that’s most likely to rankle people here and start some debate. If he had focused more on his personal introspection (like he did in his excellent Patheos article), then he’d be stuck here with people agreeing with him. And that would be way too boring!! 😉
Thanks Chanson. I was originally going to start with revising the Patheos article I wrote and going with that. But I kept running into writers-block, so I decided to take a new angle.
I don’t mean to suggest this is my only motivation for being in places like this. There’s more to it than that. But I guess I’ll save that for another installment.
Part of what lead me out of my evangelical Christianity was moving to SLC and hearing stories like this. So similar to what I did and how I thought about people as an evangelical. It made me realize my perspective was not as unique as I thought it was.
Looking back, and reading this story (very well told), it reminds me of agent Smith in the 2nd Matrix movie. He “converts” people by making them into copies of himself. As he is changing someone into a copy of himself, he quietly mutters, “me… me… me…”
This was something I tried hard to do as an evangelical – make others into versions of myself. I still do this to some degree, I think for all of us it is somewhat unavoidable. However, religion has moved this behavior to front and center. I consider this trait a fault and a weakness, but religion considers it a virtue.
Andrew, I’m not sure where you got from my post that I was trying to make anyone into “copies” of myself.
Not copies, exactly, but you still thought of people like Kumi as “investigators,” “hard cases,” and “(not) lost causes,” not just as “friends.” You wanted to make them into Mormons. It seems like a difference of degree more than a difference of kind.
I’m curious what you mean by this passage. By not “changing anything,” does that mean that you would continue to try to convert her later when she wasn’t “so emotional?” Or by “back to where we were” do you mean, general interaction minus trying to convert her because she obviously didn’t want to be converted?
As Kuri said, your definitions of her were primarily based on her response to you. She is a little “off” while she is who she is presently – and will be “right” when she comes around to thinking like you (and thus becomes another version of you). So, in the end, your being satisfied with her will only happen upon her thinking like you. Again, I think we all do this to one degree or another (and with all topics, not just religion), but I now view this as a controlling trait and I want to minimize it when I find myself doing it; whereas most religions encourage this outlook.
Alan, I recognized that that meeting was my only shot. I was under the assumption that if it didn’t work out, I probably wouldn’t get another chance to broach the Gospel with her. Sure, I was open to the possibility of her converting at a later date. But I didn’t expect it. Nor did I push it much with her after that. I always had a more gentle approach with investigators than a lot of the more “baptizing” missionaries I knew.
Did I label her?
Yes. Of course I did. Missionaries do that. It’s a coping mechanism for being in a demanding line of work. But does that negate, the genuine friendship we had? I would vehemently say no.
I’m remembering “Emily, My Friend” now. The message of that Seminary video / song is that everyone else in the world is incomplete, and only LDS church members have what it takes to make them whole.
The idea is alien to me now, but I remember the sorrow and disappointment that came from feeling that way. My closest friend rejected the Book of Mormon, and started insulting Joseph Smith in front of me. I was heartbroken and went way over the line trying to get her to listen to me, because I wanted to marry her and I knew that a temple marriage was the only kind worth having. Our friendship is now over.
I blame myself, but the LDS church is complicit in causing the hurt we both felt. Multiply that by every rejected Mormon in the world, and every nonmember who knows that her Mormon friends will never accept vital parts of who she is. And please, I beg of you, ask yourself if it’s worth it.
At least see it as a necessary tragedy, like I came to see the church’s ban on gay marriage as. A lot of people are hurt in the process of gaining a single new member.
Once a friendship is deep enough, you naturally want to share the things that are important for you. A point where not doing so would actually be dishonest.
I know. But there’s a difference between my telling you that I’m a fox otherkin who worships Inari, and your telling me to read the Book of Mormon. In the first case, I am confiding to you something that’s important to me, as you said. In the second case, you’re rejecting everything that I am that is incompatible with Mormonism, and saying I’m not good enough. You are telling me that you will never accept that deep part of me, because it’s not a feature, it’s a bug.
That is the kind of thing that destroys intimacy and drives wedges in between friendships. I never realized it until I saw what things were like without it, and all of a sudden diversity was a good thing.
Well, it didn’t drive any sort of wedge in this one.
Besides, whether it becomes a dividing wedge or not would really depend on the people and how it was handled.
You’re right that it depends on the person, but I feel that Mormonism encourages this kind of shallowness and lack of true acceptance.
I was always taught to only choose friends with “high standards”, and to introduce friends to the gospel.
And I accidentally tapped publish.
I guess what I’m saying is I lost basically all my Mormon friends when I left. And I basically lost my friends in Final Fantasy XI Online when I stopped playing it, but that’s just because we drifted apart due to a lack of shared interests. This felt more like being dropped like a hot potato, and I think it speaks volumes that you say you’re here to deal with the “hard cases” rather than any other reason.
I also consider it blaming the victim to dismiss one of the most common hurts of those who either leave the LDS church or try to be friends with Mormons. I know you can’t help it, since Mormonism is an abusive religion and everyone in it learns to enable its abuse. I only point this out because on some level I feel like if I just explain myself well enough, “they” will understand and be sorry for hurting me. I guess we have something in common there.
Why would me wanting her to eventually join the church constitute a “lack of true acceptance?”
The whole premise of your mission is that they’re not okay the way they are. Otherwise you would have been helping them in personally validating ways, instead of your leadership using your English class as an excuse.
I can’t speak for what you felt, but the young woman’s pain seemed familiar, and so did yours. I really think her “multiple roads to Mount Fuji” idea helped her deal with it better than Mormonism equips Mormon to.
What’s the idea that you have something good to offer people that will improve their lot have to do with “not accepting” them?
You’re idea of acceptance seems to be closer to ignoring people entirely.
“Ignoring people entirely” is what happens when Mormons give up hope that someone will be converted, or when one of their friends turns away from the gospel. It obviously doesn’t happen every time, but it’s happened to me and to so many others. I feel that institutional Mormonism encourages this response.
My definition of accepting people is to love them and want for them what they would want for themselves.
OK… But it didn’t happen in my case.
You keep trying to generalize your experience here, and I think you may be overreaching a bit.
Every Mormon I talk to says that. Whether it’s about teachings on homosexuality, worthiness interviews, or other forms of rejection (like these), my experiences were always the exception and it is wrong for me to blame the LDS church and its culture and teachings. Leaving it was always the wrong decision, and the suicidal feelings and tendencies I had while in it are because of some unresolved sin or my personal, emotional issues, not because the LDS church is intolerant.
I’m not sure you realize that that response is, itself, a form of abuse and rejection. And it is one that you are taught as a part of Latter-Day Saint culture.
Let me get this straight – by disagreeing with you, I am “abusing” you?
That’s an awfully convenient argument to use in a blog debate. Are you trying to shut down the conversation or something?
I refuse to be emotionally manipulated by you here. I’ll thank you not to play this card when we’re trying to have a respectful and fair discussion of things.
I would not accuse you of abuse simply for disagreeing with me, nor am I trying to shut down discussion.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the girl in your story is not a “hard case,” and neither is anyone here. We made the right decisions for our lives. The way you’ve been taught renders you incapable of seeing things that way, so when you see someone who doesn’t want to be Mormon, you have to invent an imaginary Mormon version of them that you want to save. And when you see someone who was hurt because of Mormonism, you have to blame him or her (or say “the church is true but the people aren’t).
These are acts of emotional abuse and negation, whether they’re done for the sake of a codependent relationship or God’s one true church. If it has to be this way, it’s at best a necessary evil.
You are all “hard cases” in at least one sense. That’s just descriptive.
But I never suggested that this was all you were. I certainly didn’t think that about my friends in Japan. And I don’t reduce your characters in that way either.
And incidentally, my personal view is that the Church IS defined by the people in it.
So if the people aren’t true, then to that extent, the Church is not either.
I am not saying that you see nonmembers only as potential Mormons, or that you interact with us solely to convert us to Mormonism.
I’m saying you create ideal, Mormon versions of us in your head, and you want us to become those people. It doesn’t matter if we’re not interested, or even if we’ve been hurt badly by our time in Mormonism. You will never completely accept who we are; only the ideal versions of us that we may or may not like at all.
Phrased differently, this is called “Loving the sinner and hating the sin.” It means that you love who we’d be if we were Mormon. Or at the least, you’d love us more that way. And it’s part of the reason so many of us lost all of our Mormon friends as soon as we left the LDS church.
I feel that this is emotionally abusive, and that it is endemic to Mormonism.
I’m also saying that the way Mormons are taught prevents them from even asking if Mormonism itself hurt someone. Blaming the victim is abuser / enabler behavior, but it’s automatic for Mormons who know theirs is God’s one true church and that everyone would be better off if they were in it.
The best I’ve ever got out of Mormons who’ve heard my story is “I’m sorry you feel that way,” along with a lecture about how I misunderstood the teachings in question. It’s automatic.
Tachyon, if you’re waiting for someone to see you as you really are, and without any expectations of what they’d like you to be, you’ll have a long wait.
No one does that – except in half-baked teenage romance novels.
Even my wife of ten years doesn’t see me that way.
Your expectations of human relations seem a bit unrealistic to me.
I’m not saying that I expect the same level of intimacy and acceptance from Mormons that I do from my soulmate.
I’m saying that for most people, it is possible to like and be friends with someone else without considering a large part of who they are to be defective.
I’m saying that even when their friendships come about because of temporary shared interests — like an MMO or Mormonism — most people don’t fear, shun, or gossip about those who left. Or believe that there is no good reason to leave, and that doing so is a sign of a character flaw.
And I’m saying that most people, when they hear of something terrible happening to someone, don’t automatically assume it was that person’s fault.
Mormonism obliges its members to do all of the above, where non- and ex-members are concerned. These are not normal, healthy behaviors or attitudes, and are closer to those involved in abusive relationships.
Correction: “like an MMO or religion.” Mormonism is one of the big exceptions to this rule, along with fundamentalist churches.
I think this sort of behavior happens in any group that feels strongly about the rightness of what it is doing, and the shared goals of the group.
The only absolute solution to it would be to not care about things – at least, not too much.
When one realizes that the thing that one cares most about is hurting other people, as I did, one then has the choice of what one will do with that knowledge.
It was while reading a faithful, celibate, gay Mormon’s blog that it finally sunk in just what I was asking other people to do. This time, instead of praying that God would show me gay marriage was wrong, I asked why — really, why — it had to be that way for him. Why he had to be so lonely and miserable.
I did not advocate going against our received commandments, but I began to speak out when I saw unfair accusations leveled against gays and lesbians. I felt that it was what Jesus would have done, and that he would’ve wanted gays to be able to marry, just like he wanted blacks to hold the Priesthood. I hoped that by helping people accept their GLBT brothers and sisters I could help to bring that about.
When I found out about my church’s illegal involvement in the Prop 8 battle, I felt sick and questioned whether or not it was okay for me to pay tithing. Then I started reading about church history, and it was all over. Only then did I realize how I had been hurt and abused by my own church.
I don’t feel that you have to give up your passion or principles when they seem to contradict each other. To resolve it, you need to let yourself be guided by what’s most important to you. For me, it was being myself and being nice to other people. I’m grateful for Jesus’ example in showing me that way.
The other solution Tachyon seems to be suggesting is to stop viewing people as defective. I work with folks who have chemical dependency issues and it’s very tempting to paint “better versions” of people in my head and to interact with them as if they were potentially those versions in order to steer them in some fashion. Usually that backfires. It’s more important to not do this, which I don’t think Mormons are trained well in since the faith is a proselytizing one.
I agree, Alan. The problem that Mormons face is that the church they care most about, the church that they know to be true, is systemically abusing and invalidating people who can’t or don’t fit in.
The way they’re taught keeps most of them from seeing it, but every now and then one of them realizes what’s happening and chooses to accept others. Somehow, the doctrines and teachings that were a problem stop being obstacles once love becomes more important.
Alan, everyone IS defective.
That’s a fact of life – no matter what your 6th grade health teacher told you.
The question is how much those defects take front and center in your interactions with people. Believe it or not, they actually don’t take front and center with me. I’ve got enough of my own problems without obsessing about other people’s.
The question is not how you treat others, it’s how the LDS church teaches its members to treat others.
“You can’t expect real acceptance” and “We’re all flawed anyway” are not defenses against charges of systemic abuse. If anything, they are justifications of it.
You should have tried the “flirt to convert” technique.
I was half expecting Kumi to finally convert at the end… or contact you in some way telling you that she was baptized by another set of missionaries…
Well, I would have been happy to see that.
But I don’t think the story would have made the point I was making here as effectively if she had.
Seth, do you think it’s possible that Kumi that came away from your interactions and attempts at proselytizing with the similar feelings of disrespect and intolerance that the preceding missionary team managed to convey towards the old lady’s dog? I think your presence here says much more about your character than it does ours. I know that things get boring in an echo chamber, but we don’t seem to have any moderate Mormon members who post here (do they actually exist?). Seth may think that his perspective is about as introspective as any other active Mormon. I’ll stick up for you, Seth, when you I hear you start sticking up for the hard cases in F&T meeting.
I seriously doubt it left.
The fact that I got letters from her for a full two years after I went back to the US seems to say otherwise.
I also suspect that by “moderate Mormons” you mean Mormons who are really just you guys – only in disguise.
And you don’t know what I do or do not do at Church. I have no wish to run a blow-by-blow blog about interviews with a bishop, or tell-alls about my fellow ward members, or diatribes about how my family doesn’t understand me.
I’m not in high school anymore.