France, Thursday 8 August ’96—At the main train station at 7:20 in the morning. It’s ‘transfer day’. Mormon Missionaries are stationed in one area for one or many months to teach the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. This month both our sister missionaries are leaving. They came round yesterday to use the vacuum cleaner to compress their big winter coats in a bag—another tip for my own my mission. My sister was there, as missionaries aren’t allowed be left alone with members of the opposite sex. This morning I helped them with their suitcases.
4—Being LDS in France and in the closet
2—One year a member of the LDS Church. One year to know the missionaries well. These are episodes that remain with me and describe the missionary life in France in the 90’s.
I love sister missionaries. No one expected them to serve a mission. It’s always their choice, whilst it’s (almost) a requirement for boys who get assigned a mission field for the (supposed) “best two years of their life.”
A team of/two ‘Elders’ arrive at the station to say goodbye to the sisters. I spend a lot of time with them all. There really isn’t anyone else my age in church. Plus, the affection I had for the missionaries who taught and baptised me transferred to those who know them and stand in their stead.
The Elders need a male member with them when teaching female investigators. Being a student, I have lots of free time. I love teaching investigators. I want to serve a mission, so this is good practice. I love how the Spirit burns inside of me whenever I bear my testimony, read the Scriptures or hear a good talk.
My fellow university students don’t find it appropriate for missionaries (and for me) to knock on people’s doors or talk about our religion: “If people want to know about your religion, just let them find you.” But no one seems to have any issues with unsolicited TV commercials. I believe I must give back from what I was given. Besides, no one is forced to listen to us. Giving a Book of Mormon is no different than giving a CD to a friend. Talking about the Gospel is like talking about a movie. Love (of the art product and yours friends) is the motivation. Sharing the Gospel is not different. Proselytising is pure charity: Christian love in action.
I know missionaries can be really cute, and that the whole ‘forbidden fruit’ thing is hot, but just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you fancy every bloke.
Rachel ¹ is here now. She’s 16 and her parents are members of the Church. She’s here because she has a crush on the French Elder. Sylviane is with her. She’s new to our ward (congregation). I stopped by Rachel’s yesterday and found out Sylviane had run away from home. Again. Obsessed with Mariah Carey—that she listens to on her discman even during church meetings—she’s the only person I know who can get away with wearing those Aladdin-type attires she’s into these days.
Sylviane tried to dye our hair yesterday. Then we made water bombs with condoms (she brought) and dropped them from the third floor. When someone furiously rang the bell and managed to get in the building and drummed on the door of the apartment, we buried all the remaining condoms at the bottom of the garbage can and proceeded to read the Scriptures, so God could deliver us!
It worked. So we went to The Big Night Out, some French version of an American bar and my favourite place in town since before my conversion. The owners are a young couple who lived in London for years and who love me for always bringing lots of people—from school friends to fellow students (who taste American beers) to the missionaries (who love their homemade cheesecake). Some missionaries never would have gone (it wasn’t allowed) but Elder French (let’s call him that) loves it… and sometimes we need ‘comfort cheesecake’ after teaching investigators!
I remember that time in the spring when missionaries agreed to meet that crazy woman in the woods. She clearly didn’t care about the discussion and kept asking to be kissed. They wouldn’t (it wasn’t allowed). She then produced a box from her large bag—a gift for the one she fancied the most. He said he couldn’t accept it. So she produced a revolver. That was mad!
Some Elders could be so naive too. Some middle-aged woman “wasn’t feeling well” and made them sit on her bed. They did the discussion as she lied down and unbuttoned her blouse “to breathe better.” Elder French and his companion are streetwise, so they know what the young girl with skimpy clothes they started teaching is up to!
All the girls fancy Elder French. And I love him. Dearly, not queerly. I know missionaries can be really cute, and that the whole ‘forbidden fruit’ thing is hot—and I’ll get to that in another post ² —but just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you fancy every bloke. That’s just one more stupid myth that needs burst! Elder French was a brother and, although handsome and charming, not my type.
This morning, at the station, I’m thinking about all the things we have done, me, Elder French and Shawn ¹ (as we call Elder French’s companion instead of using the official title printed on his tag). I can’t believe it’s all coming to an end.
Shawn got his picture taken behind the bar at The Big Night Out yesterday. He got the call in the morning informing him that he was transferred. We went to the candy store so he could see the check-out girl one more time. “I love her…”
We were kids. And we were friends, even if it was wrong for missionaries to be friends with members (the same way teachers aren’t supposed to be friends with their students). He and I would go buy pizzas while Elder French stayed at the flat alone (which wasn’t allowed). And we listened to music from the charts and other stuff (which wasn’t allowed). We played loud music and we laughed a lot (which I think was allowed).
Shawn was so chilled and so much fun. Yet there was this sadness inside him that most people didn’t see. He once told me his Dad was in prison for fraud. Unlike some other missionaries he was “here to do good” and not because someone promised him a car. He was from the Midwest and going on a mission didn’t give him the status it gave “those kids from Utah.” Yes, he liked bending the rules and he did his own thing but his heart was in the work in his own personal kind of way.
Here they come. Finally! Rachel is flicking her hair as Elder French is waving at us. The train is leaving soon and I know Shawn arrived late on purpose. I give him the mix tape I made for him and the letter I wrote. Not a word is spoken. We hug goodbye. He goes for his train.
The sister missionaries are saying goodbye too. No hugs from members of the opposite sex. We swap letters with tears in our eyes. Then they get on the train where Shawn is sitting. Now the train is leaving, leaving me with something in my throat.
Elder French hands me a bag. “C’est pour toi.” I look inside: there’s Rachel’s journal Shawn’s written in, something for my little sister as well a her dictaphone with a tape in it, a yellow note and that Utah Jazz cap he always wore in their flat and on Thursdays (their day off—‘Preparation Day’). I’m going to wear it everywhere.
The missionaries’ friendship, the time we spend together and the spiritual support we give each other mean a lot. I’m not in love with Shawn. Yet those male friendships are most certainly a substitute for love.
Being gay brings me a lot of confusion, shame and fears about the future. But I could not tell him. I would have lost him. In fact, I would have lost everything.
We say goodbye to the other team and to the girls. Sylviane’s parents are coming to get her home. Again. Elder French and I are alone now, walking to town. He tells me he’s nervous about meeting his new companion. He always shares a lot with me. About his past, about his fears about the future. He shares so much and I hide so much. Being gay brings me a lot of confusion, shame and fears about the future. But I could not tell him. I would have lost him. In fact, I would have lost everything.
We spend the day together and we’re back to the train station. The other team is there. That missionary must be gay. I feel bad that I didn’t befriend him. I don’t get along with that team as much and I’m so uncomfortable with being gay that I don’t want to see that side of me in others or even associate with gay people.
That team and work together, though. Their flat’s no frat pad like Elder French’s. It’s a proper missionary flat. I went there once. They make cookies and listened to CDs of the Book of Mormon. I enjoyed that a lot.
Those missionaries in their straight suits, we often forget they’re real people. And that they’re all different from one another. They may look like clones but they’re nothing of the kind. Well, many aren’t anyway. Some are extremely obedient, some break all the rules. But all made a sacrifice. I remember Elder Jacobson ¹ , so homesick, and so in love with that girl he left behind for two years. He worked with such enthusiasm and loved to make people feel good. That American positivity is such a breath of fresh air.
I see the new missionary getting off the train. He’s tall, very blonde and walks like a soldier. He was a soldier back home, actually. I met him at a Stake Conference before. I remember now. He served here back in ’95, before I received the discussions with the missionary who gave me information a year before I decided to know more. ³ He has piercing blue eyes. He smiles the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen and holds out his hand to me…
¹ Some names have been changed when authorisation was not or could not be granted.