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“So You’re Going on a Mission!” Don’t forget to write! September 22, 2017

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Books, Humor, Responses.
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Continuing my occasional series on the 1968 guidebook for Mormon Missionaries.

Chapter 17, Letter Care

So as I’ve mentioned before, these missionaries are thrown into a strange place, cut off from family and friends, and expected to sell religion door-to-door for many hours a week, and also expected to study, practice their presentations, go to church, and maintain perfect clothes and grooming, clean quarters, impeccable table manners, do all their own shopping, cooking, cleaning and laundry, as well as possibly needing to learn a foreign language on top of that.  And the added stress of being assigned to spend 24 hours a day with a stranger.

You’d think that would be enough to expect from these kids.  Oh no, we have to dump another expectation on top of the already impossible standards they are expected to meet.  They have to write home.  Every single week, on their one day off, the day when they are supposed to do all their shopping and laundry and any other errands, they need to add this too.

Our author says:

…it is up to you whether letter writing becomes a joy or a chore.  It becomes a chore when you don’t realize what your folks want to hear…” (pg 151)

Because you should be telling them what they want to hear instead of what you want to say.  and that makes it not a chore.  Right.

She first provides an example of a reasonable short, moderately newsy letter, which looks like it might be about one page longhand, but she says that is only “..fine as far as it goes…”  Then she gives an example of what she considers a really good letter home.  I won’t copy it here, because it’s in excruciating detail and takes up a full page of the book, single spaced.  Given that very few of these missionaries would have been able to type these letters in 1968, this would have been many many pages of longhand.

She does have some good pieces of practical advice.  Since they already are expected to write their parents every week, trying to write to all their friends too is really too much.  She suggests setting up a round robin to circulate letters among a group of friends, and that seems like a good solution in pre-e-mail days, since the missionaries aren’t allowed personal phone calls.  She discusses business letters, which she wisely recommends as being typed, and brief but clear.  Some other good resources she provides are some model notes for times when they have to write, like thank you notes, congratulatory notes, or sympathy cards.  Those are always difficult, so having a model to work from can help.  Well except for this one:

Dear Brother and Sister Brown,

I am so sad about Steve.  All the years we were growing up together I loved him as though her were my own brothers so I think I can guess what you are going through.  How very wonderful, though, that he left you such happy memories.

My mission is all that I expected it to be and more. The work is hard, but the rewards are unbelievable.  I shall be released soon, and once I get home I’ll be right over to see you.

Until then, may your faith sustain you in your sorrow and give you courage and strength to meet each new tomorrow,

Affectionately, (pg 158)

Well then.  Somehow this sympathy note turned into “Enough about your loss, lets talk about ME!”.  And then finished with a rhyming platitude.  Gee, I feel comforted.  This is what she gives as a model for a sympathy card?  Really?

Of course, she has to discuss love letters.  In the previous chapter about girls, her main advice was not to get involved at all.  So, if a missionary leaves a girl at home without breaking off the relationship for the duration of the mission, and since no phone calls are allowed, our author realizes that a missionary is going to want to write to his girl.  What to do about this?

“…you should have a frank discussion about the letters you will write to each other before you leave.  If your relationship is really serious, it sill be extremely difficult to turn love letters into friendly ones, for no one can say, “I love you” for two years in casual friendly letters.” (pg 154)

Because heaven forfend the letters are anything but casual and friendly!  Here’s as far as she’s willing to go on the non-casual love letter:

One elder and his fiancee solved this problem by agreeing that they’d keep their weekly letters newsy and friendly, using the word “love” only as a complimentary close but permitting themselves a little more freedom on holidays.  In this way, these occasions became even more special.  For instance, on Thanksgiving he sent her a card with a picture of a turkey on the front cover which said ‘Whenever I think of a turkey I want a drumstick.’  Inside the card it read, ‘And whenever I think of you I wanta neck!’ and then the elder had penciled in, ‘But not till next June’ (which was his release date).” (pg 154)

GASP!  Is this a slightly off-color joke?  I must clutch my pearls before I faint from the shock. She also addresses “Dear John” letters, and here the creepy cult brainwashing is showing again:

“It has been said that an elder is not a full-fledged missionary until he has had fleas, the missionary itch (a skin allergy which comes with a change in food and climate), and a Dear John.

Of the three the Dear John, surprisingly enough, is the most welcome to the majority of missionaries.  This is not to imply that all missionaries are eagerly and obviously waiting for such a letter with open arms and broad smiles, nor does it mean that a missionary ever receives one without being visibly shaken.  What it does signify is that most elders lose interest in writing to a girl as they become more intensely involved in their missionary work.  They forget what a girl looks like after being out for a year, after eighteen months, they don’t care that they’ve forgotten.” (pg 155)

Wow.  Are these young men really so engulfed by this “mission” that they lose interest in sex?  Or is that just the ultimate goal of the organization, that they are pretending is actually the case?  Now I want to talk with some ex-missionaries to see which is true.

But the most difficult requirements that she lays down on correspondence are not on the missionary, but on the people writing to the missionary.  She has instructions for girlfriends, and for parents.  For girlfriends, they mustn’t write too often, or be too “gooey” or talk about how much they miss  their boyfriend, because that might increase his homesickness and make him less effective.  Likewise with parents, they need to talk about what is going on, but not talk about all the good stuff their son is missing:

“A parent creates a homesick missionary if he writes to say, ‘we had all your cousins to dinner today and I fixed stuffed pork chops – the way you like them – with mashed potatoes and gravy, creamed green beans, hot rolls, fruit, homemade ice cream and chocolate cake.” (pg 162)

(Just a few questions about this quote – our author says “if he writes” and then talks about this huge meal.  Is she implying that Dad cooked all this?  Or was that a typo?  And that was certainly a huge amount of work to go into one meal, I hope that was only for a special occasion and not the normal amount of effort Mom was expected to put into cooking every day.)

And parents, no fretting over your kid’s health in your letters, no saying you miss him, no talking about how glad you will be to see him again, nothing to make him the least bit homesick.  But be sure you write every week, but absolutely don’t tell your kid how you actually feel. (As the musical The Book of Mormon says “Turn it off!)  About the only personal topic she seems to allow is how proud the parents are of the work the missionary is doing.  It’s got to be really hard to produce an interesting letter every week when you are restricted to local news that would not make the missionary homesick, and “we’re so proud of you.”

And lastly she has this to offer parents:

“HINT: If your missionary has an investigating family he’s particularly interested in, offer to write them a letter….” (pg 162)

Oh yes, if I’m someone listening to a missionary, and considering changing religions, somehow I can’t imagine that a letter from his parents would be very likely to sway me.  I’m not sure if what this kid says is true, but if this kid’s MOM says so, well then it must be right!  I don’t think so.

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