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.