I wrote this–the only sustained essay I’ve ever produced about my mission–about seven or eight months after I came home, while I was a student at BYU. It appeared in the Winter 1991 issue of Insight, a BYU student publication. I lost the electronic copy long ago, and so, in posting it here, I’ve had to type it all up, which meants I’ve had to re-read it for the first time in I don’t know how many years. The prose strikes me as ridiculously precious, and the actual story I tell is much too pat. There is an immature and unearned presumption and world-weariness to it which embarrasses me today. And it also occurs to me now that I never really could speak or understand Korean particularly well, and so I wonder whether my recollections of what I said or heard that night, now 18 years in the past, were ever accurate even in the first place. But still, I kind of like it. For all its weaknesses, for all that I left out then or would express differently or not at all today, it still manages, I think, to say something honest and true, just the same.
(I haven’t attempted to update or fix any of the details or translations I mention; I’m leaving it exactly as I wrote it, almost two decades ago.)
I stepped out of the Dong Suwon Hotel and breathed in the warm Korean air. It was about midnight, June 11, 1990, and I needed a taxi. Walking over to the sidewalk, I started waving. It took me less than three minutes to flag one down, which was good–when you’re running away from your parents you don’t want to be caught standing around. A one word command to the driver was all it took to send me on my way. No backing out now.
I knew the route the driver took. We passed by Dong Suwon Byongwon (hospital) where Bishop Chi Hyon-Chae had paced back and forth, waiting to see his wife and newborn son and where, less than three months later, they brought Biship Chi to die. We sped past the little apartment where Im Ch’ung-Bin and Hwang Yun-Hye had awaited their first child with joy and anticipation. The last time I saw them, there were still waiting–waiting for their son to heal, waiting for his heart to beat steadily, waiting for the doctors to tell them their baby need never go under the knife again. And we went through an intersection where I’d seen girls chant like cheerleaders, urging their fellows to pick up their rocks, ignore the gas, and charge the riot police one more time.
Yes, I knew the way. I could walk it blindfolded.
To cartographers, Suwon is the capital of Kyonggi Province, a city of approximately 600,000 people forty kilometers south of Seoul. To missionaries, it’s a decent post: it has a nice big ward, good bus routes, and is far enough out of Seoul to allow for a little relaxation. To me, it was–is–a home. I spent the last year of my mission there, surpassing all previous records for length of service in Suwon, at least for Americans. There had been a native sister that served nearly her entire mission there. In fact years later she returned to Suwon and married a young man by the name of Chi Hyon-Chae, who was later called as bishop. She bore him a daughter, Chi Na-Rae, and a son, Chi Sol, who will know his father only as a picture on the wall.
My father was sleeping soundly back at the hotel. Mom too. I was still a missionary, though I’d said all my final farewells and really didn’t consider myself one anymore. I had been released to the custody of my parents, meaning there were my “companions” and I was to stay with them while we toured Korea–a country I had wanted to understand more than I had wanted anything else before in my life. I didn’t though. In the end, as it slowly dawned on me that I was leaving, I realized I barely understood myself, much less the country I had served.
Why should I understand it? was the self-mocking question I asked myself. I was, after all, just a missionary.
The taxi stopped at my destination. I said “Kamsahamnida” (thank you), paid the man 1100 won (roughly $1.75) and stepped out. Before me stood Bukmun, the North Gate, one of the four old wide tower-gates of Suwonsong, the fortress that King Chongjo had built more than 200 years ago as an act of filial piety to his murdered father. Through time and war the original walls and gates of the once mighty structure had worn thin and crumbled. A massive restoration project in the mid-seventies had brought much of the fortress back, though the city of Suwon had long since out-grown the stone boundaries of that more medieval time. The new Suwonsong was, of course, different from its precedessor. It hid no archers, no caches of food, no assassins, no guards. Its walls, ramparts, and four restored gates were huge stony reminders now, speaking silently of Korea’s rocky past.
I had come to say goodbye.
My mission didn’t just end in Suwon; in a very real way it began there. The elder who came to Suwon in the summer of 1989 had long since left the scene, though as I looked upon that massive structure, before which the express buses coming south from Seoul make their first stop, I remembered him. He had left Seoul in the midst of the heat and humidity of the rainy season long before. What had he hated about the city? I wondered. I really couldn’t remember–it was all so petty and distant now.
Turning towards Bukmun, I read a little sign listing the fortress in the archives as a national treasure. I intended to climb it, to clamber up its left side, which sloped down into a grassy knoll, flip over the retaining wall that surrounded its top, and look inside the wooden chamber that topped Bukmun like a hat. See what’s there.
We elders had joked about climbing Bukmun before. In truth, what we really wanted to conquer was Nammun, the South Gate. But it was located at the city center and we couldn’t approach it without being spotted. It’s illegal to climb national treasures, and despite our irreverence, none of us really wanted to make our lot any more difficult than it already was. But the next morning would find my parents and me on a southbound train, and the Suwon I knew would disappear as Seoul had before it. I needed to do something, something foolish and spontaneous.
I needed one last look around. A final goodbye. I knew that leaving Korea on Friday wouldn’t be nearly as difficult as leaving this city the next day would be. I deserved this.
Climbing up wasn’t hard. Nearby, a drunken man lying on a park bench seemed to be staring at me. Korea’s a hard country, and Korean men have raised hard drinking to a fine art. This man’s performance (fully clothed, minimal movement, silent) was one of the more staid routines I’d seen. I considered waving, but decided against it. He was under enough stress already.
My mission had taught me about stress. Looking out over a side wall near the top of Bukmun I could almost seen the zone leaders’ house. Ten months before, two men in that house had struggled in vain to control a zone that didn’t care for control. I spent my first three months in Suwon there, and I saw a lot. I saw leaders who called men to repentance for crossing streets outside the crosswalks, leaders who though they could force men to do right. I saw missionaries who though a three-hour day was plenty, who sent letters of protest to the president saying they were “on strike” until he removed the zone leaders. Once, the assistants to the president came down, called the zone together, and asked all forty of us if we sustained our priesthood leaders. A Korean sister, a Korean elder, a former companion of mine and I were the only ones who raised our hands.
I reached the top of Bukmun, flipped over the chest-high retaining wall and landed on sand. The sand ran in a five-foot wide strip surrounding a wide open chamber elevated by thick wooden pillars and topped with an ornate roof. I climbed a dozen old wooden steps to take a look inside. Here, I thought, looking at the dust which covered the floor of the empty chamber, soldiers had watched for traffic from Seoul and played baduk while the Yi dynasty slowly collapsed around them.
There was a time when I though my mission would collapse. I had thought my situation hopeless, my goals lost causes. I surveyed Suwon’s main street beneath me, a road that connected the old North Gate with the city’s center, a road lined with restaurants, tea rooms, bookstores, and churches, a road I had walked a million times. Why had I gotten up those mornings, when nothin but an empty appointment book and long hours on the street faced me? Why hadn’t I given up then?
It was getting late and I knew I was teetering on the edge of melancholy. I wondered why I had come to Bukmun. Arrogance? Some wish for confidence, for satisfaction? There wasn’t any to be found–not for a simple, ordinary missionary who had come, as most missionaries eventually do, face to face with the real issues and found himself lacking, and especially not for one who disregarded rules, both his parents’ and his Church’s, in order to sneak out alone and satisfy his ego.
Keeping my eye on a young couple making small talk on a bench opposite the drunken man, I climbed down. The college kids didn’t see me, or maybe they did but just didn’t bother to make a fuss. To them, I was probably just another crazy American soldier. Just one more foreigner who didn’t care.
I decided to walk up the main street and catch a taxi back to the hotel. My route took me towards the chapel, the church I had attended for so long. I had spoken in sacrament meeting there for the last time just two days before. In the crowd that Sunday was Kim Myong-Hwan, the only man I had taught and baptized in my ten months in Suwon. My “greenie” declined to participate in those discussions, so I taught him along with two good friends, Lee Sang-Ho and Chang Si-Song. The day I stood to say goodbye to the Suwon ward Chang was off serving a mission and Lee was sitting behind me on the stand. Kim sat alone towards the back of the chapel, his silent demeanor expressing a filial sadness that made my heavy heart seem cheap by comparion. His father had died just weeks before, and he was the first-born son.
As I approached the church house, a bent-over old lady crossed the street in front of me and set down a heavy bundle on the sidewalk. “Ayonghasimnikka, harmonim. Sugo manu hasimnida” (greetings honored grandmother, you’re working very hard), I said. Barely looking at me, she started complaining about her heavy load. After a moment I said I would carry it for her. Looking at me squarely she consented, but warned me it was a long way. I picked up her bag of odds and ends and we started down the street. Soon we were talking freely, discussing life and the types of people that wander a city’s streets at 2:00am (old ladies and crazy soon-to-be-ex-missionaries excluded). We passed by the church and I pointed it out to her. I told her about my being a missionary, about my long service in Suwon, about my feelings as I now prepared to leave. I’m sad, I said, very sad.
We turned off the main street and started up a hill. The old lady began to tell me her story. She was fifty years old, and had no children. Her husband had grown ill, too ill to tend the farm they had lived on most of their lives. They had moved to the city just three days before, and she found work with a friend in a tiny restaurant to pay the bills. She walked to and from her job every day. The restaurant gave them food, which was good. They found an apartment, but it was up near the top of P’aldalsan, the tall hill that overlooked all of Suwon. So far to walk every day, she said, and no children to help her. No one to care for her in old age, no one to feed her or respect her. All alone.
We sat on the steps leading up the hillside and were silent for a moment. There were tears in her eyes. She asked my age and I told her. You could have been my son, she said, grabbing my hand. I said nothing, but instead listened to her weep, trying to understand the pain and weakness she felt. Then she turned her teary eyes to me and aske me why.
All I could see what Chi Na-Rae, Bishop Chi Hyon-Chae’s normally vivacious four-year-old daughter, now sitting silently beside her mother on the front pew of our chapel, listening to men say goodbye to her father for reasons that I’m sure she could barely understand. I rushed into the chapel late, dragging my companion, hurt and mad as hell. I wanted to be at that funeral, wanted to offer some consolation, show some grief. But my companion and I had spent a long day proselyting in a small village south of us, arriving at home to the sound of the phone ringing–the Korean sisters calling, asking how I could have been so insensitive as to skip the funeral of a man whom I had said I respected so much, a funeral I had thought was taking place the next day. By the time I got my companion and I there, it was all over. Standing at the back of the chapel I wept in pity and frustration. Na-Rae, glancing back as women surrounded her inconsolable mother, met my eyes. Hers were wet too.
Staring alternately at the starry sky and the steps below us, I began to tell my elderly friend what I wished I could have told Na-Rae–and myself–at the time. I told her what I knew about God and the world around us, about the despair and the joy, the goodness and the pettiness in our lives. I testified of the greatness of God–a choppy, relatively incomprehensible, off-the-cuff testimony, something you wouldn’t find in a discussion pamphlet. Doubting that she understood me, I lapsed into silence.
We were quiet for a time, and then she thanked me. Thanked me for, more than anything else I believe, simply being there.
A short while later we resumed our journey to her tiny apartment. It was a poor, dingy, ugly place, not worthy of this elderly lady who tended her ill husband within its walls. She invited me inside for tea. I declined. Fishing into my pocket, I extracted 10,000 won (about $15) and pressed it into her hand, saying that she needed it far more than I. Weeping once more, she asked if we would ever meet again. Of course we would, I lied. Bowing, I said goodbye, God bless. She stood waving silentely to me from her doorstep until I was out of sight.
Jogging down the side of P’aldalsan, I wondered, as I had at Bukmun, just why I was doing what I was doing. Had I been led to that lady, or her to me? But that wasn’t possible–this couldn’t have been a “spiritual thing.” I had been alone, enaging in free-lance counselling with an older woman in the middle fo the night. My mission president would’ve slapped me in irons. As a taxi pulled over and I climbed in, I questioned myself: how did I know that anything she told me was true, that she wasn’t just some batty old lady after me for insidiuous purposes?
I sat silently for the duration of the ride back to the hotel. I didn’t know, I decided. It wouldn’t matter if I did.
In Suwon, over the course of ten months, I grew a great deal. I can say I love the people there, with a love that I’ve not yet been able to feel for any other people. But despite that love and concern, I never really felt like a part of that city and ward. Often, I was more machine than member. I wanted to show my appreciation by being with the members, by becoming like them. But I was a missionary with a job to do, rules and leaders to follow, reports to fill out and transfers to anticipate. As much as my mission did allow me and did teach me, it never let me feel at home.
But that last night in Suwon, out alone, somehow I did. I felt right with the world as I feel asleep in my hotel room that night. Missionaries need that feeling. They need it, I think, more than almost anything else.
Crossing a rice field north of Suwon during harvest season, 1989
I think you did a good job capturing that “outsider-ness” that missionaries have, no matter how much they love the people and the place.
I have Korean friends and customers here. There does seem to be a kind of east-west divide in culture that goes deep.
My dad was in Korea as a kid, then with the Korean ROK in ‘Nam and then in ’73 with the Air Force. Finally he returned for a temple mission. He still loves the Koreans.
Glad you learned to love them too.
Thank you for that wonderful essay. As a former Korea Daejeon missionary, I find that I often reflect on the time I had there. Thank you for that beautiful essay
Russell, there seems to be a large Korean immigrant population in most major US cities. I visited a Korean church on Easter (my ward is on the afternoon schedule this year). I loved listening to their choir. As a visitor, I received a much warmer reception there than most investigators/visitors have received in the LDS wards I’ve attended.
Both Korean churches that I’ve visited had a meal afterwards, which I enjoyed. (I learned that the first time, so the 2nd time, I contributed a few dollars when they “passed the plate” so I wouldn’t feel guilty about mooching free food.) If your ward is on the afternoon schedule, might I suggest visiting one of the Korean churches (any denomination) in your city.
I served in the UK and had a few days with some non-member relatives in the mission at the end before going home that felt so very lonely despite their kindness and desire to understand what I’d been doing. I too felt like an only semi-inside outsider in another country, and I really wondered if I’d done any good in those two years. But I had one of those moments walking back to their place in the evening one last time where a feeling of “you don’t understand the eternal importance of what you’ve just done” overwhelmed me. That was enough for me. I still don’t fully get it, but I felt it, undeniably, and that really has been enough for me to look back on the whole experience with immense gratitude despite the hardships.
Thanks all; I’m glad the essay, after all this time, still works, to some extent. (And Bookslinger, I have visited some Korean congregations before, though it’s been a very long tim.)
Russell, thanks again for this. I have loved Korea and Koreans for more than 38 years, and I felt at home during my mission, though I couldn’t speak Korean well and though very few Koreans thought of me as belonging there. I’m glad you finally had that moment of belonging.
Stephen (Ethesis). When was your father in Korea as a kid? I may have known him. I was there from May of 1962 through May of 1965 and then returned as a missionary from March of 1967 to September of 1969.
Russell, maybe you’ve matured as a writer while I’m still stuck in the early 1990s, but I liked this a lot.
Thanks. Your essay led me back to a Quebec of over forty years ago.
Jim, I’d forgotten that you’d read this before. Can you actually remember it, from so long ago? (Maybe I gave you a copy of it, way back then?) I wish I had been mature enough, wise enough, to really see and love Korea for itself, for the Koreans, the whole time I was there. But I was too wrapped up in myself, too stressed by my own sins and fears and doubts, to be able to see those good brothers and sisters around me as anything other than obstacles or reproaches to myself. That’s why I treasure Suwon so much–I was there long enough (and perhaps while I was there I was finally grown-up enough) to get past the “politics” of missionary work, and actually appreciate the Land of Morning Calm for what it was. It became a home for me, for a moment, at least. Anyway, thanks very much for your comment.
Jonathan, as I said up at the top, I kind of like it too, despite all its flaws. Glad you got something out of it.
Richard, thanks also for your comment.
I am dying to know why your greenie refused to teach your investigator.
Because he didn’t like Korea, never learned the language, and just plain didn’t want to. What was I going to do? Fast and pray for him? Hit him with a stick? Report him to his mother? (I should note that he wasn’t actually my “real” greenie–someone who I received as a companion right after got off the plane. No, he was just this guy who was kind of a perpetual greenie for the whole time he was there; they kept rotating him in and out of the mission office for his entire two years, giving him to various missionaries in the hopes that someday he might show some sign of life. Didn’t ever happen, from what I heard.)
RAF: I enjoyed this. It made me think of my own experiences in Korea. The only area where I served anything like this length of time was in the mission office in Pusan, so it wasn’t quite the same. I do have some marvelous memories of working in Kyoung-Ju and even (although I think it still counts as the hardest experience of my life) Yang-san. I can say that I genuinely came to love Korea, although to my shame there were a fair number of Koreans — including a depressing number of my own investigators — that I didn’t like. By the time I left, Korea felt like home, but it never felt like a place that I was integrated. I’ve often thought that being a tall, white, red-headed American missionary in rural Korea is probably a useful experience for imagining what it would be like to be an African American in, say, Orem. People tended to be polite, even genuinely warm and accepting. On the other hand, you were always and irreducibly a Waegook-in, or perhaps just a Wae-in. This used to bother me a great deal, particularlly at the end of my mission when my language started getting good enough that I could realize the full extent to which I was regarded as a martian. On the other hand, I think that I also was able to give up on the quixotic notion that I could somehow blend in to Korea, and appreciated my relationship to Hangook for what it was.
I wonder, Nate, if you can’t see the rudiments of some of our longstanding disagreements in our different reactions to being a foreigner in Korea. You were able to “give up on the quixotic notion” that you could ever really be a part of the Korean church and Korean life, whereas finding a way, a place, where I could be integrated and at home (if only a little bit) in Korea haunted me. Of all the things I hated about being a full-time proselyter, the thing I hated the most was having to look upon my hours and days, to look upon the people I met and the units I served in, as boxes to be checked off, as resources to be used, as something that I was to distance myself from so as to better analyze and employ. But then, I find the lines in the scriptures about our existence as “strangers and pilgrims” on this earth to be terribly, almost unbearably sad. Perhaps that’s simply not a healthy way to think; perhaps the management techniques which the church missionary program has sold itself to are really the smartest way to go.
I just noticed your “elderly lady” was fifty. Bet fifty’s not feeling so old now, huh? Heehee
Oh, and wonderful post.
I just noticed your â€œelderly ladyâ€ was fifty. Bet fiftyâ€™s not feeling so old now, huh?
Snow White, I really wanted to change that from my piece. After I saw it the first time, I thought, “oh, well, I guess I can be forgiven one stupid assumption,” but then I keep repeating it, like five times through the whole essay. Fifty years old = ancient. How lame. In the end I decided I needed to keep it; if I allowed myself to go back and change that, I’d probably change a whole lot more. But it is embarrassing.
Also, thanks for the compliment.
I think it’s fine to leave it in; I just thought it was funny! It definitely lends to the authenticity of the piece :D. I remember myself when 50 seemed old, but since I turned 30 and my mother is in her 50s it seems really young. Heck, I just wasn’t expecting to become elderly in 20 years!
“Of all the things I hated about being a full-time proselyter, the thing I hated the most was having to look upon my hours and days, to look upon the people I met and the units I served in, as boxes to be checked off, as resources to be used, as something that I was to distance myself from so as to better analyze and employ.”
I am not sure about boxes to be checked off, but I do understand what you mean by the insturmentalist approach one is forced to have as a missionary. I suspect that part of our difference is that I am a less friendly person than you are. (My wife recently asked me, “Do you have any emotions of any kind??!” I replied by asking her exactly what she meant by emotions, and she hit me with a pillow.) As I have said a couple of times, this was what haunted me most about my mission, my sometimes inability to really love people. On the other hand, I locate this inability in a failure of my own character rather than missionary culture. Perhaps I am less culpable than I think.
I do think, however, that there is a very real sense in which missionaries can’t really be the friends of those that they serve, not in a completely committed and total way. They must treat others as targets and flee from those that reject them to the next target in the search for those who will hear. I think that if members behave in this way toward their neighbors they are acting in deeply unethical ways. On the other hand, a missionary has a white shirt and a name tag, and I think that these outward symbols are extremely important because they necessarily inhibit normal relationships by signalling your insturmental attitude toward the world. In the absence of such a strong and constant public signal of intent I think that much of proslyting behavior would be unethical.
This does mean, however, that ultimately a missionary experience is an insturmental one that will frustrate any attempts at richer, non-insturmental belonging. On the other hand, I think that this is the purpose of missionary work, to be an insturment for God’s work. Hopefully, He — not me — is the one with whom they are acquiring a rich, non-insturmental relationship. You say, “Insturmental management culture, Ameican corporate capitalism applied to religion and cultural interaction. Yuck!” Well yes, in a sense I agree. Much of missionary culture is — I think — silly and stupid, but the fact that much of what we do is pretty stupid should come as no surprise — it has always been so with God’s work and his servants (including his prophets). There is, however, another sense in which one can understand the brutal insturmentalization of a missionary’s experience:
“I know that which the Lord hath commanded me, and I glory in it. I do not glory of myself, but I glory in that which the Lord hath commanded me; yea, and this is my glory, that perhaps I may be an insturment in the hands of God to bring some soul to repentence; and this is my joy.” (Alma 29:9, emphasis added)
I think we can take this seriously: the possibility (and it is only a possibility) of bring some soul to repetence — i.e. a reconciled, non-insturmental relationship with God — is glory enough, even if being such an insturment precludes a relationship that the missionary would rightly find to be thicker and more authentic.
My wife recently asked me, â€œDo you have any emotions of any kind??!â€ I replied by asking her exactly what she meant by emotions,
Thoughtful response to a thoughtful post, btw.
(Let’s see if T&S can handle hangul:) ê³ ë§™ìŠµë‹ˆë‹¤, RAF, beautiful piece. I think the post-mission quality to the prose is very endearing.
I didn’t get to serve a mission (yet), but I really enjoyed this piece. In a way it gives me some perspective on how my inlaws (immigrants from Korea to the US) must feel. They’ve been here decades, they’ve read more classic English literature than I have, but they are always somewhat outside. Their children, including my husband, are thoroughly American. It’s an awkward, sometimes painful, dynamic–to have individuals with reciprocal “outsider” feeling in a family, which is supposed to be the ultimate “insider” place.
Interesting comments–how wonderful to see there are so many Bloggernacle people with ties to Korea!
Ah, hangul comes through intact. Bravo, T&S!
That makes me wonder, Nate, what sort of missionary my son will be (providwd of course that they allow him to go under the new raise-the-bar standards) as he has Aspergers. I wonder if his experience might be closer to yours.
Snow white: You might want to suggest to your son that he check with his bishop or stake pres. Situations where prospective missionaries have Asperger’s Syndrome may already be addressed in the instructions to bishops/SP’s.
Although I never had an official diagnosis, I wonder if I have or had a mild form of Asperger’s. Social/people skills never came natural for me, and I had to learn them like any other acquired skill. And that didn’t start to happen until I was about 40, and is still very much in progress, with a long way to go.
As I think back to my fellow missionaries who (I thought) were more clueless than me, I would guess that those with moderate to severe Asperger’s would not be encouraged to serve a full-time proselyting mission, under the new guidelines.
And of course, your son, his bishop, and his SP are entitled to personal revelation on the matter of whether the Lord wants him to serve a full time proselyting mission or not.
I’m very encouraged by the fact that the church now offers full-time-but-live-at-home types of service missions for 19 to 25 year olds.
Uh, I don’t see that missionaries are forced to take an instrumental approach to the people they work with. I don’t see that at all. I see that many do it. I see that some of the leaders (particularly among district and zone leaders, who as missionaries themselves are only slightly less clueless than the missionaries they lead) seem to encourage it. But keeping a count of people contacted, taught, etc. doesn’t have to make any difference in how you approach them.
I meant the preceding comment (#25) more as a response to Nate (#19) than to the original essay. For purposes of the essay, the fact that you found yourself doing it, Russell, is enough. But based on the original post, this is probably a topic for another thread.
Thanks for both posts.
My mission in Korea was similarly challenging, but I share with you both fond memories of Suwon and Jim F.
I attended my first district conference in Suwon in April of 1976 within a week or two of arriving in the country. The district consisted of Suwon and Onyang. Onyang, where I was serving, had just been opened for missionary work the prior month and had no members. Onyang was not yet a communter suburb of Seoul and had only one paved road and no church facilities, so a trip to Suwon as a step up in more ways than one.
Towards the end of my mission I visisted Suwon again for another district conference. At that time I was zone leader of the Inchon zone (which was comprised of about 10 missionaries in Inchon, 4 in Bupyong and 4 in Suwon). One of my former senior companions was the district leader there and we had a great reunion.
To get to Suwon my companion and I took the narrow guage old fashioned steam train that ran along the coast from south of Inchon to Suwon. It was a guilty frolic to take this train rather than the much quicker bus, but the trip was among the most magical experiences my mission. I also remember the trip back on the bus from Suwon to Inchon as one of the few calm and peaceful hours of my mission.
As to Jim, I took Philosophy 101 from him in Fall 1975. He was a young turk and would occasionally sit cross-legged on the table at the front of the room with his shoes off when he taught–maybe he still does. I received my call to Korea towards the end of the semester and he wrote me a short note in Korean, which was of course jibberish to me.
I tucked the note in a book and ran across it three months later in my first area in Seoul. I was surprised to find that I could now read and understand Jim’s note. The sentence I remember was that “Missionary work is worth doing.” Since I respected Jim, I believed him and this helped me keep going, even though most every day was hard for me.
As for my missionary journal, I didn’t throw it away, but for the first twenty years after my mission, it was too painful to even read a page. I’ve read a few entries on three or four occasions in the ten years since then and now the pain is less in the memories of my mission and more in the embarassment of who I was at the time, and, in a sense, still am.
Nevertheless, for me it’s easier looking back thirty years out than it was after ten or twenty, so hang in there.
Nate, that’s a fine and beautiful testimony of missionary work–of its instrumentality, even. Your comment brings up many points worth further discussion–about the ethics of missionary work, about the “stupidity” of much of what servants of the Lord are called to do (and whether such “stupidity” is an excuse for resting content with whatever particular silliness our cultural or corporate assumptions burden us with), about the differences (and whether they are necessary) between investigators and neighbors and fellow-citizens in the gospel, and more. Thanks for contributing.
Sister Blah 2, Mjp, thanks to both of you for your kind words and your thoughts about Korea, from to very different points of view. (And Mjp, unless Jim has changed his style over the past 12 years or so, he does still occasionally come to class without shoes on. I never saw him sit cross-legged on the table, though.)
Snow White, Bookslinger, you ask good questions, and I’m in agreement with you that it’s a wonderful thing that, in dealing with the real diversity of potential missionaries out there, the church has slowly but surely come to embrace, at least in some ways, alternative forms of missionary service.
Ben, I suppose there are two aspects to your comments that deserve a response–the first is the question of how one exactly defines “an instrumental approach” to missionary work, and the second is whether such an approach is actually common and/or is encouraged (implicitly or explicitly) by the missionary program. My response to the first would require us to start mucking around in Kant in our attempts to nail down something that, to me at least, is pretty obvious; and my response to the second would be “yes and yes, explicitly so.” But if that’s not what you saw as a missionary and not what you see in the missionary program today, then I’m happy for you, and may your tribe increase.
Nate (comment #19), really can relate to the instrumentality thing. This was something I really hated about the mission – my relationship with people was dictated by how serious they were about the gospel. It makes sense – that’s what I was there for. I wish I’d been a little slower to leave people, though, when they weren’t interested. There was a little family I fell in love with and had two or three great visits with, but when they stopped being interested we weren’t supposed to visit them any more because they were a “dead end” (which felt a lot like a “No Sale”), and time with them was time that could be put into finding people who were, as I picture my leaders seeing them, all circled around the door in baptismal clothes waiting for us to knock.
There were some missionaries who let themselves get more attached to their areas and the families and their investigators, which I judged poorly at the time but now wish I’d done more of, building actual relationships with people. But, that made it really tough for the missionaries that followed them into the area, because as friendly as they tried to be they didn’t have the bond that came over time with the other elders.It’s one of bittersweet things about missionaries and areas and the temporality of it all. The people I ended up getting the closest to, then, were those that we made friends with as they accepted the gospel, because we were ‘allowed’ to spend time with them (it may sound like my mission was tightly structured and controlled – this was so – I had a ‘clean-up’ President). I went into one area where the elders before were there for eight months, and it was uphill from the beginning trying to forge my own relationship with them – but there was no denying that they really loved the elders before. I don’t know that there’s an ‘action item’ to solve this problem, except to have missionaries serve in areas longer.
Ben H.: I am probably not clear enough — even to myself — about what I mean by insturmentalism. First and foremost, however, I DO think that missionaries have a necessarily inturmentalist experience, at least if they are doing missionary work right. It is NOT about you or even about your relationship with others. It is about being a tool for God’s work. Being a tool full time for two years will leave one feeling used and insturmentalized. This, says Alma, is our glory.
I think that this also effects the way in which missionaries relate to others. I am not saying that they should somehow manipulate others to achieve some purpose such as higher baptism numbers. Rather, I am saying that their relationships with others are always teleological in a way that ordinary relationships are not. One never is a friend merely for friendships sake, but always in the hope that one’s friendship can be made a tool for God’s work. This is not meant as an apologia for every stupid and manipulative practice of a gung-ho elder who wants to be ZL someday. Rather, my point is that missionary relationships are NEVER going to be like ordinary relationships — even when pursued in a spirit of honesty, sincerity, and genuine love — because a missionary is always a tool and never wholly an end or agent unto him- or herself.
I should add, that at the level of practice, I am sympathetic to hp’s notion that how one balances the competing concerns is very difficult. On my own mission I repeatedly erred, I think, on the side of not loving and caring enough about people. As I have also said, I think that this was mainly due to flaws in my own character.
Rather, my point is that missionary relationships are NEVER going to be like ordinary relationships â€” even when pursued in a spirit of honesty, sincerity, and genuine love â€” because a missionary is always a tool and never wholly an end or agent unto him- or herself.
This is a good observation, and complements what you said above very well. It also, as I said above, opens up many fruitful avenues of discussion–perhaps particularly about “missionary ethics,” about the bottomline morality or common sense involved in calling someone to be a tool, and whether being a “tool” can have different ethical implications depending on how it is employed. (I would note–and I’m sure you would agree–that Alma’s “instrumentality” was almost certainly of a completely different order than the kind of instrumentality which is common in the heavily technological, risk-averse, management-oriented missionary program of today. But that’s a discussion for another time.)
(I would noteâ€“and Iâ€™m sure you would agreeâ€“that Almaâ€™s â€œinstrumentalityâ€ was almost certainly of a completely different order than the kind of instrumentality which is common in the heavily technological, risk-averse, management-oriented missionary program of today. But thatâ€™s a discussion for another time.)
I am not sure that I would agree with “a completely different order.” Again, I am not trying to justify every aspect of the current missionary program. On the other hand, I am less convinced than you are that technological and managerial thinking has no relationship to the sort of godly insturmentalism that Alma refers to. I certainly think that this kind of insturmentalism is consistent with — and probably requires — a certain amount of rough emotional usage as it were. For what it is worth, you may remember that I gave some of my own thoughts about the corporate organization of the missionary program in a post four years ago at the dawn of T&S. Here it is:
“The Industrial Organization of the Gospel”
Thanks for linking that old post, Nate O.
I certainly think that this kind of insturmentalism is consistent with â€” and probably requires â€” a certain amount of rough emotional usage as it were.
You may be right about “rough emotional usage” being required for effective proselyting today, especially given that we’re mostly talking about young men coming out of modernized societies attempting to build up a corporately centralized church. Information must be gathered, missionaries must be rotated, practices must be replicated, etc. Whether such “rough emotional usage” is therefore also consistent with the kind of instrumentalism which Alma spoke of is, I think, a different, more philosophical and conceptual question, and a harder one to answer.
“Rather, my point is that missionary relationships are NEVER going to be like ordinary relationships â€” even when pursued in a spirit of honesty, sincerity, and genuine love â€” because a missionary is always a tool and never wholly an end or agent unto him- or herself.”
I’m not sure it’s true that in ordinary relationships we meet others only or primarily as agents unto ourselves, any more than we do as missionaries. I meet my colleagues, students, even relatives and children in the context of something other than pure friendship-for-myself. It’s in the course of doing something other than pure socializing (frequently doing something that helps them, and not because we’re friends), that I grow to love them, like them, or otherwise place some value on the relationship. A lot of the time these relationships are very one-sided, limited, or not brought about by choice, and still they’re just as they should be. For that reason I can’t see much difference between the relationships I had with my comps and investigators and the ones I have with just about everyone else.
You are using the term “instrumentalism” in a very creative and layered way–picking up strands of (i) being an instrument in God’s hand; (ii) being unconstrained or excused from by certain ethical norms or social relationships; and (iii) focusing on ends rather than means.
I would love to see you develop those ideas further.
You might be interested in the text accompanying fn 15 in the recent article article about professionalism and legal ethics in the Buffalo Law Review by Christopher Whelan.
Itâ€™s in the course of doing something other than pure socializing (frequently doing something that helps them, and not because weâ€™re friends), that I grow to love them, like them, or otherwise place some value on the relationship. A lot of the time these relationships are very one-sided, limited, or not brought about by choice, and still theyâ€™re just as they should be. For that reason I canâ€™t see much difference between the relationships I had with my comps and investigators and the ones I have with just about everyone else.
I can understand the point you’re making here, and in essence I agree with it. Of course, any relationship that exists in any context other that of some purely consecrated, very humble and uncomplicated community (and perhaps even within those) is going to have some instrumental aspect to it. People have goals, and those goals involve other people; it is goals and aims and ideals and intentions that bring us into interactive relationships with others so often in the first place. Thus, I can allow that the presence of intentions needn’t necessarily undermine a non-instrumental appreciation of others; I can even imagine that instrumentality can be a school to help one reach the level of charity in our relationships that Jesus calls us to. Still, all that being said, there are still the material, bureaucratic, procedural aspects of missionary work, all the stuff which goes beyond the conceptual and into the temporal and the technological. If, in spite of all that crap, you can still honestly say that you feel your relationships with others as a missionary and your relationships with others today aren’t all that different, than either A) you were a truly excellent and spiritual missionary, in a truly excellent and spiritual good mission environment (in which case, I’m happy for you), or B) we’re defining our terms very differently here (this is the most probable explanation), or C) you were super lucky.
I wish my last days in Korea could have been as reflective as yours. At some point during my mission, I had lost my passport, and didn’t realize it until I was doing my final packing. Those days I thought I would visit old friends in previous areas were instead spent trying to work through the red tape at the US Embassy. I still can’t imagine that it had been stolen–there were as many blond-haired, blue-eyed Koreans as there were tall pale redheaded ones.
Nate, reading your experience reminds me of a companion I had who was also a tall redhead. When we got on the buses, he would stick his head up the air vents in the roof of the bus, and the cha-jang would be laughing so hard she would’t take our tokens as we got off the bus. I never made it out of Seoul, but also never really got to the country. My mission was spent in the suburbs. From the comments above, I see I just missed mjp, since I arrived in April of ’78. The world of Korean missionaries is small, but not that small.
I finally got a bit of a chance to enjoy Korea when I went back as a serviceman with the Air Force. My wife and I lived on the economy, and the only reason we got the apartment we did was that I was willing to drink the landlord’s water and eat his kimchi. He had signed a contract with another couple, but broke it for the novelty of having a Korean-speaking tenant (he even lowered the rent for us, too).
You’re as fine writer as ever, Russell. You capture that sense of meloncholy and longing that color the memories of my own departure from the motherland.
I was alone waiting in the Salt Lake airport for my departure to England back in August 1994, and, yes, I had a “travelling companion” who was being swarmed by his Utah family and friends, but I still felt very alone at that moment.
Then, Russell…… you and Melissa arrived. THANK YOU!!!! We hugged and you handed me a packet of several church talks and essays. I still have that packet. The two items contained within that I read more times, many more times than any of the others was a typed out prayer given by then (when he gave the prayer) Elder George P. Lee and your essay “Last Night in Suwon”. “Last Night” meant a great deal to me on my mission. Not only did I find comfort in it because it was written by my brother, but I really loved and needed the messages it communicated to me.
Thank you, Russell, for both of your “missionary” posts here. And thank you for being there for me at the airport…………..see, Elder (whatever-his-name-was) I have people too………..
CS Eric–thanks for writing, and I’m sorry to hear about the passport. Losing them is an incredible headache. While I was living in the zone leaders’ apartment when I first came to Suwon, someone broke in (twice, in fact), and made off with various valuables, including the briefcase for one of the ZLs. He had his passport in there, and so all of us elders for the next couple of weeks took turns being his companion has he traveled up to Seoul to fill out all the paperwork at various offices. (The one upside to this was that there was a Book of Mormon in his briefcase, so we counted it as a stat for the week.)
J.D.–thanks very much for the compliment…but you’re still not helping me figure out who you are!
Abe–it’s always a delight to find out you’re reading T&S. Thanks for that kind memory; I seem to recall that Melissa and I went to the MTC that morning, hoping to see you off, but you’d already left for the airport, and so we quickly drove up to Salt Lake, hoping to catch you. I’m glad we did, and I’m glad the stuff I gave you (including this essay) was of some help to you. Really, I was just “paying it forward”….a lot of the stuff I gave you had been given to me, six years before, when I left on my mission, by our cousin Bobby Church. He just showed up there on the sidewalk in front the of the MTC, as we were waiting to get on the bus to SLC, and thrust a packet of material into my hands with a hug and “Good luck!” I’ve lost most of what he gave me, and which I copied to give to you, but I think I might still have a couple of essays and sermons from that moment 20 years ago still kicking around somewhere.
Russell…..I don’t think I have ever told you that Betsy and I have a friend in our homeschool book group that knows you. She says that she served in your mission and knew you, “Elder Fox”. Her name now is Shauna Kaiserman and she has told me her maiden name before so I could pass it by you sometime……but I can’t remember it now. I’ll have to ask her again.
Weird. It’s (still) a small, small Mormon world out there. Definitely check, Abe, when you have the chance.
Hello Russell-Fox Jang Ro Nim- (elder Fox).
Suwon was my first area to serve after leaving the MTC in seoul.
I do remember you. I believe we were in the same district or zone.
I also remember the bishop, Chi & his family. It was very sad how he got killed in the car accident.
do you remember the baptizm which we had to break the ice on the lake and how we had to run to a neighboring house or something to borrow the hammer (?)!