by Johnny Townsend
Many Mormons in Utah see Mitt Romney as a traitor, a lefty radical, because he won’t support Trump’s most egregious acts of oppression. Mormons need to start separating their religious convictions from the Republican party line.
“Valeria” was one my favorite missionaries when I served in the Italy Rome Mission. She was also a Communist. Her older sister had been baptized in southern Italy when Valeria was 16, too young to be baptized herself without parental approval. Their uncle was a Catholic priest who lived and worked in a church on the ground floor of the family home in Puglia. Valeria only spoke in glowing terms about the man, unhappy when LDS missionaries made derogatory comments about Catholic clergymen. But she continued to study Mormonism secretly, and when she turned 18, she cut her hair short to celebrate her transition to adulthood.
At least that’s what she told her parents. Valeria really cut her hair so it would dry quickly after she was secretly baptized. Months passed before her mother discovered a Book of Mormon hidden under her mattress, resulting in a beating so severe that Valeria’s father had to physically tear his wife away before their daughter was seriously injured.
Valeria was “grounded” for the next couple of years, only allowed out of the house on brief, monitored errands and visits. But she was plotting something else. She submitted her mission papers and was called to serve as a missionary in Rome. The Church would pay her expenses.
Valeria broke the news to her parents the day before she caught the train north.
One of my early companions, in Ciampino, was the first to tell me about this extraordinary woman. I didn’t meet Valeria myself until I’d been transferred to Napoli 2, the first district I’d served which had a contingent of sister missionaries. They were all fairly impressive, one time sending the most agile member of their group out a stairwell window to crawl along a ledge to break into our apartment the day we reneged on a promise of providing Fast Sunday dinner.
One morning during district meeting, Valeria told us that the previous evening, she and her companion were about to enter the next building in their tracting zone when they suddenly felt “the Spirit” warn them not to go in. They moved on to the next building and began knocking on doors. It was there they learned the apartments they’d skipped had been condemned after an earthquake several months earlier.
I worked with Valeria again in Rome 4, even tracting along with her and her new companion. That companion was a bit overbearing and critical, but Valeria never complained. I often spoke in Italian with her after district meetings because the other missionaries talked to each other in English, leaving her out of conversations. Valeria confided that she’d slowly been rebuilding a relationship with her mother and felt secure enough to mail home the Church books she’d accumulated during her mission. They were just too heavy to keep carrying in her suitcase every time she was transferred.
Her mother threw the books away.
Valeria never stooped to blurting out even the softest of expletives. No “caspita” or “mannaggia” or anything else that would have been as gentle as “darn” or “flip” among the English-speaking missionaries. She rarely judged others, though she did mention once she disapproved of my Italian companion using the word “cacca.”
Valeria and I became pen pals after we completed our missions, sending physical letters in the days before email. A year later, I returned to Florence for a summer language course. She caught the train to stay with a friend in nearby Siena. We dated every day for two weeks, strolling past the Duomo, holding hands crossing the Ponte Vecchio, attending church meetings with the local Mormons.
I caught a train south with her, the cheapest tickets allowing us only a couple of feet on the floor in front of the bathroom for the 13-hour trip. I stayed at the home of one of Valeria’s friends and, after another two weeks of dating, I proposed. Mormons, after all, are notorious for quick engagements, and I knew I’d never meet a better woman. It was only after she accepted my proposal that Valeria made her first and only demand—pasta would only be served al dente.
We planned to live with her parents, but I wanted to finish my degree first, so I returned to America. A year later, she came to visit me in New Orleans for a month. And we continued a long-distance engagement for another two years after that. It wasn’t only the unfinished degree holding me back from bringing Valeria to the temple, though. I was also committed to becoming straight before we took that next step.
We wrote long letters on Sundays and scribbled postcards on Wednesdays. A couple of times a year, we spoke on the phone, crazy expensive at the time. And for Valeria’s birthday, I always sent a box full of Jell-O, peanut butter cups, cheesecake mix, and peanut butter, items she’d grown to love which were unavailable in her town. I even threw in a Snickers and a Butterfinger, and Valeria would ration out the goodies over the next several months.
One day, I made an unscheduled phone call, paying attention to the time difference to give her the unpleasant news early enough that she’d still have an opportunity to seek out the support of others. “Sono omosessuale,” I said, “un finocchio.”
Taken aback, she told me, “Well, you take care of that and then we’ll get married.”
Instead, I was excommunicated for being gay, and almost every friend I’d ever had at church cut me out of their lives.
Valeria didn’t. We continued writing, I continued sending her birthday packages, and we remained friends until her death from breast cancer in her mid-fifties.
She’d taken care of both her parents in their final years. She remained an active, stalwart member of her congregation, teaching Sunday School, giving talks, and making the long trip up to Switzerland regularly to attend the nearest Mormon temple, the temple where she did finally marry another temple-worthy returned missionary like herself a few years before she died.
After receiving her first temple recommend to serve as a missionary, Valeria passed every annual recommend interview for the rest of her life.
She was a registered Communist most of that time.
In an odd twist of fate, the man I eventually married turned out to be one of the elders who first taught Valeria and her sister all those years earlier. He was also, of course, excommunicated for being gay.
And he’s a socialist, something Mormons in America deem equivalent to Devil worship. It’s not something Mormons elsewhere worry much about. Members of the Church in the U.S. would do well to separate their religious beliefs from their political party platform. One can be quite far to the left and still be a good Mormon. And a good person.
After Valeria accepted my proposal, she offered me the opportunity to read her journal. The following morning, I teased her, pointing out her words, “He’s not the man of my dreams, but…”
She looked mortified and then smiled. “I’ll just have to make sure to dream about you tonight!”
Valeria was a sweet, kind woman, a dedicated missionary, a devout Mormon, a temple recommend holder. The only woman I’ve ever kissed. And a Communist.
Mormon leaders have asked us to “Give Joseph Smith a break!” and stop demanding a history of perfection. It would be a good idea for Mormons to give Mitt Romney a break, too, and stop demanding he give up his principles to support Republican leaders at all costs.
Mormons should give themselves a break, too, and do the same thing.