We talked, of course, about my memoir The Accidental Terrorist, about how humor and religion mix, and about the relative merits of Mormonism and Canada. Peter is a charming host, and I had a great time doing his show. You can hear my 12-minute interview segment below:
Or you can listen to the full episode on Stitcher.
And if you like what you hear, the Kindle edition of The Accidental Terrorist is on sale today only for a mere 99 cents! Hurry! This sale price won't last for long.
You see, unlike in many Christian churches, having your name and records removed from the rolls of Mormonism is not as simple as refraining from church attendance. Mormons are sticklers for records, and unless you do something drastic, they continue to count you as a member whether you want to be counted or not. If you move, your church records will often follow you, whether you want them to or not, and the leaders in your new city will send people out to your house to make sure you get involved in the local congregation. I've heard from former members whose repeated requests to be left alone were completely ignored, to the point where it could be called harassment.
I had not attended a Mormon church in nearly twenty years, and my address had changed eight times, but on May 29, 2014, I nonetheless received an email out of the blue from the local Mormon ward in Astoria, Queens, asking for volunteers to help out with a weekend service project. I still don't know how they knew where I lived, never mind what my email address was.
The point is, the LDS Church (both as an institution and as individual members) is terrible at respecting the boundaries of people who would prefer to be left alone. Because of this, it took at least one lawsuit to establish that people in the United States have the right to easily resign from the church and thereafter be left alone. That's how it should work in theory, anyway. In practice things are often messier.
Until 1985, the church claimed that excommunication was a person's only route out of membership. Despite the fact that it is now well-established that one can resign by sending a request to Church Headquarters, the leadership continues to coyly insist that resignations must be handled by local leaders. In fact, on November 20, ten days after mailing my resignation letter to Salt Lake City, I received this letter in the mail, stating that the matter would be referred to the local bishop and stake president:
Thanks to this heads-up from MormonNoMore.com, I had been expecting that response. And in fact, in my particular circumstance, I would have been happy to talk to Bishop Steven B. Smithif only to share my considered option of the LDS Church with a duly constituted representative, and to inform him that I knew, legally, that I had ceased being a member of the church the moment my letter was received at Church HQ. But that didn't mean I would acknowledge any claim of authority over me that the church might still make.
Before I had a chance to compose a second letter, however, reminding the church that my resignation was now complete and demanding acknowledgment of that fact . . . lo and behold, I received a second letter in the mail, only three days after receiving the first:
Well, that was unexpected. I had received my confirmation of resignation without even kicking up a fuss. I would have been tempted to imagine that the church didn't want to risk bad press from a "high-profile" (ha!) apostate like me, except for two things.
First, a high school friend of mine had messaged me two days earlier to tell me that his confirmation of resignation had just arrived, and he hadn't needed to raise a fuss. (We sent our resignations only a day apart.)
Second, hundreds of people have been resigning from the church this month in protest of its new policy toward the children of married same-sex couples.
My guess, therefore, is that the LDS Church is putting the usual bullshit aside for the time being in order to expedite all these resignations, and maybe to ameliorate the bad press it's getting.
Moral of the story: If you've been putting off resigning from the LDS Church because of the bureaucratic hurdles they try to put it, there might be no better time to get it done quickly than right now.
No muss, no fuss.
To find all the information you need in order to resign from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, visit: MormonNoMore.com
First off, Ella is doing just fine, despite the fact that she had surgery last month, the second time this year. Like many wheaten terriers, Ella is prone to developing big sebaceous cysts, which for the most part we have left alone. They're mostly only a problem if they start to grow. In that case they can cause intense discomfort, or they can even burst and get infected.
Normally we've handled Ella's cysts by having them drained with a needle when they get too big, but in February we finally had to send her under the knife for the first time to have four of them removed. One had burst, another was getting bigger, and we figured we would just take as many off as possible as long as she was under anesthesia anyway.
This is considered minor surgery, but it's still nerve-wracking, especially because of the anesthesia. But Ella came through the first surgery fine, which made us a little less wary about doing it again last month.
Ella turned twelve on October 7. Two weeks later, she had one sebaceous cyst removed from her back, one fatty cyst removed from her armpit, and two adenomas (glanular tumors) removed from near her rump. The adenomas were tested and were benign.
Ella recovered just fine from this surgery, too, though she had to wear this blue jumper for the next two and half weeks to keep her from chewing at her stitches. (She doesn't do very well with a cone because she can't go up and down the stairs in our house with it on.) The jumper has a butt-flap that has to stay fastened while she's in the house. The worst thing is when you forget to undo the flap before letting her outside. And by "you" I mean "I."
On November 5, Ella got her badass stitches out, but even before that she was as bouncy and energetic as ever, as you can see in the first video below. The second video was taken not long after the stitches came out. The third video is just one I like from earlier this year.
Can you believe this is a twelve-year-old dog?
The rant is brilliant, profane, delightful, and irreverent in the extreme. If you're Mormon, it may well singe the ears right off your head. We desire all to receive it. Bow your heads and say "Yes."
People: Video of Political Comedian Lewis Black Reading Teen's Mormon Church Resignation Letter Goes Viral on Social Media
I really enjoyed doing this interview. Host David Barr Kirtley asked great questions, and we chatted not just about the writing of The Accidental Terrorist, but also how charismatic religious leaders manage to get away with so much and why there are so many Mormon science fiction writers.
Dave does a heroic job with this podcast in general, and if you're not listening to it regularly, you should. In fact, you should listen to a few of the many great past episodes and then help support the show.
Listen below now!
GEEK'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY: EPISODE #176
In other interview news, on Sunday morning I'll be chatting live with David Pacheco of the "Atheists Talk" show on Minneapolis-St. Paul's AM 950the Progressive Voice of Minnesota. Please tune in or listen online!
10 November 2015
Member Records Division, LDS Church
50 E North Temple Rm 1372
Salt Lake City, UT 84150-5310
To the General Authorities—
This letter is my formal resignation from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and it is effective immediately. I hereby withdraw my consent to being treated as a member, and I withdraw my consent to being subject to church rules, policies, beliefs, and discipline. As I am no longer a member, I want my name permanently and completely removed from the membership rolls of the church.
My resignation should be processed immediately, without any waiting period. I expect this matter to be handled promptly. After today, the only contact I want from the church is a single letter of confirmation to let me know that I am no longer listed as a member of the church.
You might be surprised to discover that I’m even still on the church membership rolls. I admit, I’m a little surprised too—at myself. I’ve considered myself an ex-Mormon since 1995, when I first began writing about my many disagreements with church doctrine on a website called “Mormon Matter.” Hundreds of people emailed me over the next decade, to share apostasy stories, to argue, or to confess their own secret disagreements with the church. For some people, my site was the first time they had run across a person who thought the same way they did and was willing to articulate it publicly. I’m happy to have helped in a small way to point some of them toward a way out of the church, toward an exit from the prison of belief.
My own apostasy—or rather, my arrival at clarity, as I prefer to think of it—had its roots deep in my childhood. Even as a five-year-old, I could see how spectacularly unlikely it was that my family would belong to the One True Church, considering how many religions there were in the world.
Still, it wasn’t until the age of 19 that the tide began to turn for me. That was the age at which, as a missionary in Calgary, I felt compelled to ground a passenger jet with a false bomb threat rather than allow my companion to exercise his free agency by going home early from his mission. Yes, the church rallied behind me in that hour of need, as I faced a possible sentence of ten years in prison. But I had to ask myself—what kind of church is so lacking in compassion for its youth that it engenders the conditions under which such an act would seem commendable?
After separating myself from the church, I for years held on to the childish hope that when my mission memoir—with its frank depictions of unseemly missionary behavior and a pre-1990 temple ceremony—was eventually published, I would be summoned posthaste to a church court, where I could explain my objections in person and accept my inevitable excommunication with a smile.
I no longer expect that to happen. I’m not important enough for the church to take notice of me. And the church is not important enough to me for me to care whether it does or not.
What is important to me is your ongoing treatment and exploitation of the good people you claim as members. When I look at the church, I see an organization that conspires to eat up nearly every moment of spare time in its members’ lives, leaving them little time for thoughts and activities that aren’t wrapped up in its gospel. I see a corporation that demands 10% of its members’ income in tribute, encouraging them to pay that tithe even if the choice is between that and rent or food, and withholding worship privileges from them if they don’t cough up the dough. I see a cabal that comes clean about its own history only after years of honest scholarship (not to mention relentless persecution of those scholars) and the advent of the Internet have at long last forced its hand.
And finally, as the revelations of the past week have made clear, I see a clutch of tired old men who are so paranoid about challenges to their tired old conception of what constitutes a valid family that they are willing to set aside their own second Article of Faith and punish children for the supposed sins of their parents. You’re not defending the family—you’ve declared war on it, and the innocent victims are children.
Your church, in short, is a whited sepulchre.
I could go on and on about my objections to your doctrines and practices, your manipulative lies and your comfortable living allowances, but what would be the point? You’ve probably stopped reading already. Let me simply close with my testimony that I know Joseph Smith was an overimaginative con man, the Book of Mormon is bad Bible fanfic, and you so-called prophets, seers, and revelators are inspired by nothing more than the love of money and power.
I say these things in the name of reason and decency. Amen.
(né Donald William Shunn II)
What more can I say to you about it? I hope you'll order a copy, if you haven't already. Here are some review excerpts. Here is a reading I did last week. And while you're waiting for the book to arrive, you can listen to this Spotify soundtrack in less than a mere two a half hours.
Oh, yes, and don't forget to stop back in about an hour for a very important announcement...
Wired.com's Geek's Guide the the Galaxy Podcast chatted with me for about 90 minutes about the writing of the book, why there are so many Mormon science fiction writers, and how Joseph Smith got away with telling such huge lies. That episode should become available this Saturday. (The previous episode featured David Mitchell, and I'm rather excited and daunted to be following a writer I admire so greatly in the guest seat.)
On Sunday morning, I'll be chatting live with David Pacheco of the "Atheists Talk" show on Minneapolis-St. Paul's AM 950the Progressive Voice of Minnesota. I can't wait for that!
And finally today, to whet your appetite for tomorrow's book release, I'd like to announce the recent publication of my short story "After the Earthquake a Fire" in issue 2 of the new online literary magazine Bloodstone Review.
This story is a fictionalized retelling of some of my experiences as a missionary after the events of The Accidental Terrorist. If possible, it's even darker than the memoir. You can read it in full here below, over at the Bloodstone Review website, or directly through Scribd.
I'll talk to you tomorrow on release day, when I'll have a big announcement to share! (And no, it's not a movie deal.)
Excerpted from The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary by William Shunn, available November 10, 2015.
My mission began around the time the prophet Ezra Taft Benson forcefully reaffirmed Joseph Smith’s declaration that the Book of Mormon was “the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion.” It was the absolute center of our proselytizing efforts, the axis around which all else revolved.
Joseph published the Book of Mormon in 1830, when he was 24 years old, in the wake of a revivalist firestorm that swept through western New York. New religious movements had sprung up left and right, and utopian societies were a dime a dozen. The region was fertile ground for experiments in faith, having already given rise to such charismatic figures as Jemima Wilkinson and Mother Ann Lee. Joseph and his book would go on to eclipse them all.
Joseph Smith, Jr.—named, like I was, after his father—was born into precarious circumstances in Vermont on December 23, 1805. He already had two older brothers and an older sister—another brother had died in childbirth—and his father shuffled the growing brood from one New England town to the next, hounded by bad luck and debt. Joseph’s was a childhood steeped in magic and visions from his father, but also, from his mother, in deep love and reverence for the Bible.
In 1816, the Smiths fetched up in the western New York town of Palmyra, where they found some measure of stability. Joseph’s father taught school and farmed ginseng root, but he was best-known in the region as a “money-digger”—a mystic for hire who used seer stones and other folksy implements to dowse for buried gold. As Joseph grew older he joined his father in this work, eventually leading his own band of diggers.
Joseph’s First Vision came, he later claimed, in 1820, when he was fourteen—though records would appear to suggest he didn’t talk about the experience at the time, even with family members. The divine visitation certainly didn’t seem to change him much, as he grew into something of a rogue in his mid-teens. Handsome, charming, and tall, he was popular with the girls, adept at street wrestling, and no stranger to wine. “[M]ingling with all kinds of society,” he wrote of those years, “I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations, offensive in the sight of God.”
More than anything, Joseph had a way with a tale. He was quick to embellish an anecdote for the amusement of his friends, and even his mother took note of his storytelling flair. She wrote that Joseph “would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of travelling, and the animals upon which they rode . . . This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life with them.”
Still, it weighed on Joseph that further celestial visions were not forthcoming. “I often felt condemned for my weakness and imperfections,” he wrote, fearing his sins and very character were to blame for the silence of the heavens. On the night of September 21, 1823, when he was seventeen, Joseph harrowed up his soul in bedside prayer, begging God’s forgiveness.
In answer an angel appeared before him, standing in the air and radiating light. The angel introduced himself as Moroni and announced that he’d been sent by God to lead Joseph to an ancient book buried in a nearby hill. The angel appeared twice more that night and once again in the morning—each time, like R2-D2 on the fritz, delivering the same message.
Joseph hiked to the hill Moroni had described. There the angel awaited, directing Joseph to pry a large, flat rock up out of the ground. Beneath the rock, in a box of mortised stone, lay a treasure for the ages—a book made from sheets of hammered gold and bound with wire hoops. These “golden plates” were engraved with strange hieroglyphs. He bent eagerly to retrieve the book, but the angel, sensing the greed in Joseph’s heart, forbade him.
Moroni explained that this was an ancient and sacred record kept by the former inhabitants of the Americas, a record Joseph would one day be called upon to translate if he remained faithful. Disappointed yet determined, Joseph agreed to meet the angel at that same spot one year later.
Joseph returned the next year, and the next, and still Moroni would not allow him to take the plates. Then in late 1825, Joseph traveled south, nearly to Pennsylvania, to work for an old farmer named Josiah Stowel. Talk of the boy’s treasure-finding abilities had spread, and Stowel hoped Joseph could help him locate a fabled Spanish silver mine. They hunted through the winter, unsuccessfully, with Joseph also doing handywork and odd jobs around the farm. His salary was fourteen dollars a month.
But in March 1826, according to court documents, Stowel’s nephew Peter Bridgman hauled Joseph before a judge on charges of being “a disorderly person and an imposter”—in essence, a con man. Joseph was found guilty, though his punishment is not listed in the report. This is the first recorded instance of his many encounters with the law.
Though he seems to have stopped his money-digging at this point, Joseph stayed on with Stowel several months longer, as he was secretly courting a beautiful Pennsylvania woman two years his senior named Emma Hale. Joseph somehow kept his annual appointment with Moroni near Palmyra in September—denied the plates again—then eloped with Emma in January 1827, quite against her father’s wishes.
The newlyweds moved in with Joseph’s parents. Joseph was now 21, with a wife and, perhaps, more incentive than ever to make something of himself. So it was that, on September 22, 1827, flushed with excitement, Joseph brought a heavy sack home to Emma and his parents. Inside, he told them, was a book of gold to which an angel had guided him. He couldn’t show it to them, for to look upon it meant certain death, but their help was needed to keep the treasure safe.
Word of Joseph’s golden treasure soon got around, and at least one attempt was made by thieves to secure the plates. Luckily, Joseph had foreseen the raid and, as he told his family the next day, whisked the plates away to a new hiding place in advance.
At last, using two seer stones as translating devices, and without even removing the plates from their sack, Joseph began the work, with Emma as his scribe, of rendering the strange engravings into English.
The plates, as Joseph’s dictation revealed, contained the writings of a series of prophets of ancient America and were engraved in a hitherto unknown language called Reformed Egyptian. The record began with an Israelite prophet named Lehi who fled Jerusalem in 600 BCE, ahead of the Babylonian invasion. Lehi and his sons built ships that carried them and their wives to America, where the family multiplied and splintered into two rival clans—the white-skinned Nephites, favored of God, and the dark-skinned Lamanites, savage and wicked. The account lent spectacular credence to a popular theory of Joseph’s day, that the American Indians were descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel.
Joseph wasn’t far into his project when a prosperous farmer named Martin Harris visited him. Joseph had done work for Martin in the past, but now Martin was so enchanted by the story of the plates that he offered to underwrite the translation work. Neighbors would later testify to Martin’s suggestible and flighty character, but he did pay Joseph’s debts and provide enough additional money to let the younger man devote himself to the book.
Martin’s wife, Lucy, was less than pleased with this arrangement. She did not share her husband’s credulity and had watched him skip from one faith to the next like a stone skimming a pond. Certain Joseph would bleed her husband dry, she tried to no avail to talk Martin out of giving the prophet more money. In April 1828, Martin joined Joseph and Emma at a house Emma’s father had provided the couple in Pennsylvania. Emma was by now pregnant, and Martin took over as Joseph’s scribe. Lucy had come as well, determined to see these golden plates with her own eyes, but as often as she ransacked the house she never managed to find where Joseph kept them hidden. Why this might be so, I leave as an exercise for the reader.
Martin, like Emma before him, sat writing on one side of a curtained divider while Joseph dictated what he read in his seer stones. As June arrived and the manuscript crept past a hundred handwritten pages, Martin badgered Joseph to let him take it home to show his angry, skeptical wife, who had returned to Palmyra. Joseph resisted at first, but eventually Martin departed with the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon in his possession.
Every writer worth his salt knows you don’t let the only copy of your manuscript out of your sight, but the young prophet had yet to learn this lesson. There were other things for him to worry about, such as Emma’s impending delivery. On June 15, Joseph’s first son was born but died the same day. Emma herself barely survived the birth. Joseph spent two weeks caring for her before he could think about traveling north to see what had become of the absent Martin Harris.
In Palmyra, Joseph arranged for Martin to meet him at the Smith family home. Martin arrived hours late, despondent, and, to Joseph’s horror, confessed that Lucy had stolen the manuscript. As hard as Martin had searched, he couldn’t find it anywhere.
This posed Joseph a vexing dilemma. He could go back and retranslate that first section of the book, but if the result did not match the original translation then Lucy and her confederates could demonstrate to the world that Joseph was no prophet. But to abandon the task he claimed was divinely assigned would be to make the same admission.
After much deliberation and prayer, Joseph issued a revelation from God. To frustrate Satan’s plan to discredit the book, he must stop translating Lehi’s account. Instead, Joseph must switch over to the writings of Lehi’s fourth son, Nephi, which covered the same events, then continue with the remainder of the plates.
With the trap neatly sidestepped, the work of God rolled on.
Martin Harris resumed his work as scribe for a time, until Joseph replaced him with the more capable and reliable Oliver Cowdery, a young schoolteacher. Between April and July of 1829, Joseph and Oliver cranked out the vast bulk of the translation.
The record, handed down from one seer to the next, detailed a thousand years of New World history—wars, intrigues, cataclysms, and prophecies. Most of its writers set down important discourses, filled with doctrine of the coming messiah, the Christ. Nephi copied fourteen chapters of Isaiah’s writings into the record, “for,” as he said, “my soul delighteth in his words.” Remarkably—or perhaps not so—they appear in Joseph’s translation nearly word for word as in the King James Bible.
Just as remarkably, the text reports that the Nephite civilization flourished over the centuries not just because of wise kings and democratic laws, but also with the aid of such tools as the wheel, refined steel, and domesticated animals like horses and elephants. That there is no credible archaeological or paleontological evidence to support the existence of any of these in the Americas during the period recorded in the plates only makes these claims that much more miraculous.
But most amazing of all, the record claims that Jesus himself appeared to the people of Nephi after his resurrection, performing miracles and delivering sermons that match his words from the Gospel of Matthew with uncanny precision. After this visit, we are told, peace ruled in the land for four generations.
Over the next two hundred or so years, however, the Nephites and Lamanites alike forgot Jesus and descended into wickedness and savagery. The prophet and general Mormon, having abridged the records of his predecessors onto one set of engraved gold plates, led the dwindling Nephites in a bloody war against the Lamanites. The dead of both nations were already heaped upon the land with their swords and shields, to be buried en masse under giant mounds of dirt, when the remnants of the two armies came together for one great final battle. By the time it was over, only Mormon’s son, Moroni, of all the Nephite people, still lived. The bloodthirsty Lamanites had triumphed utterly.
The Lamanites harried and pursued Moroni for the remainder of his days. Still, in about 421 CE the fugitive prophet completed the abridgment his father had begun. He added a few final words, then buried the plates in a hill called Cumorah.
It was this same Moroni who returned as a resurrected angel 1400 years later to lead Joseph Smith to their resting place.
Where are the Golden Plates today? No one knows. When Joseph completed his translation, Moroni took them back into his possession. But wherever they are, we can rest assured they remain safe from the clever hands of thieves and opaque to the prying eyes of archaeologists and linguists.
A penitent Martin Harris, having left his wife, mortgaged and eventually sold his farm to finance the first printing of the Book of Mormon. It appeared for sale on March 26, 1830. With that, the grand work of Joseph Smith’s life—the restoration of the lost keys of Christ’s gospel, and the reestablishment of God’s kingdom on earth—was underway.
Excerpted from The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary by William Shunn, available November 10, 2015.
Excerpted from The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary by William Shunn, available November 10, 2015.
Elder Fowler tossed a golf ball lightly in the air as I trailed him up the shady walk. He bobbled the catch, and the ball clacked off the concrete.
“Aw, shit,” he said, lunging for it on the bounce. He snagged it and glanced back at me apologetically. “There I go again. You must think I’m awful.”
I waved him off as best I could while balancing a precarious stack of dark blue books. “Don’t worry about it.”
“You’re sure? I warned you, I can’t live without my cuss words.”
The fact that my first companion, my trainer, couldn’t keep from swearing was both a disappointment and a relief. I was reasonably fluent in profanity myself, having studied the language in the company of friends since at least third grade, but that was one of the many practices I expected to put behind me now that I was here in the field, in Canada. What I hoped, what I frequently prayed for, was to find some kind of peace in mission service. I hoped to emerge strong and transformed at the far end, with a confident authority and a testimony like a rock, but still be myself. I wanted to fuse my righteous half and my mischievous half into a functioning whole. I wanted to put the war inside me to rest. My trainer’s inability to let go of his cuss words suggested that this might not be as automatic a process as I had hoped. At the same time, though, I was glad he didn’t seem to be the drill sergeant I’d been dreading.
“Don’t worry about it, really,” I said. Confrontation was never my style.
“ ‘Damn,’ ‘hell,’ and ‘shit,’ that’s it, I promise.”
“It’s fine, it’s fine.”
Elder Fowler grinned and led the way onto the porch of the brick house. “All right, son, now watch and learn.” He rapped the golf ball smartly on the wooden front door.
“Why do you use that?” I asked, wondering where this mysterious sphere fit into missionary lore.
“It gives you a nice, resonant sound when you knock,” Fowler said, his rangy body curved like an unstrung bow inside his shiny brown suit. Not even a regulation missionary haircut could obliterate his jet-black curls. “Spares your knuckles too, especially when it’s cold out.”
Juggling my slick books, I asked, “Why not just ring the doorbell?”
That characteristic grin split his face. “Knocking’s classier. Jesus didn’t say, ‘I stand at the door and press the buzzer.’ ”
Footsteps sounded from inside. I tensed. This was my first day of door-to-door tracting, an activity that took its name from the religious pamphlets bulging my companion’s pockets. It was, to be more precise, my first minute of tracting, and, despite all the hours spent role-playing at the Missionary Training Center, I had no clue what to expect. Would we be invited inside? Thrown off the porch? Would I melt with embarrassment?
The door creaked open and a heavyset old woman with dyed hair and owlish glasses poked her head out. “Yes, what can I help you with?” she asked, peering suspiciously back and forth.
“Well, good afternoon, ma’am,” Fowler drawled, sounding like a cowboy tipping his hat. “I’m Elder Fowler, and this is my companion, Elder Shunn, and we’re representatives from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sometimes known as the Mormons. We’re visiting people in your neighborhood today with a very important message from our Father in Heaven, and we wondered if we could come in for a few minutes and share that with you.”
The woman was shaking her head even before Fowler finished his spiel, clutching shut the neck of her housedress as if we were trying to peep. “No, thank you, I don’t think so. Not today.”
Fowler craned forward. “Ma’am, is there a more convenient time we might come by to share our message with you?”
She had already begun to retreat, but like an indecisive bird she peeked back around the door. “No, actually I don’t think so.”
Before she could close us out, Elder Fowler nudged me. From my stack I thrust forward a copy of the Book of Mormon, a thick paperback with the title stamped in gold on its pebbled blue cover.
“Ma’am,” said Fowler, “if you learned that our Heavenly Father had sent us a second book to stand hand in hand with the Bible in testifying of the divinity of Jesus Christ, wouldn’t you think that was a wonderful thing?”
“Thank you, boys, but I’m Lutheran and that’s the way I’m going to stay.” Some peevishness was manifesting at last. “At my age I’m not looking for any big changes.”
The needle on my Cringe-O-Meter quivered deep in the red, but Elder Fowler wasn’t nearly ready to give up. “Ma’am, we’d like to offer you the opportunity to read this other testament of Christ for free. If you’ll promise to read these passages we’ve outlined for you, we’ll leave this copy—”
“Thank you, no,” said the woman, pulling her head back in and slamming the door.
Fowler shook his head and removed an index card from his breast pocket. “Okay then,” he said, jotting a note. “We’ll take that as one resounding ‘I’d rather burn in hell.’ Next.”
It was a sunny autumn afternoon in Brooks, Alberta, a booming oil town two hours east of Calgary on the Trans-Canada Highway. Wednesday evening, after a sumptuous dinner at the Tuttle home, the apes had passed out sealed envelopes to all us greenies. These contained our first assignments—companion and proselytizing area. Anxiously we ripped them open. The Canada Calgary Mission covered Alberta, the Northwest Territories, and a corner of British Columbia. One of us could potentially be going to Yellowknife, as far north of Calgary as Calgary was north of Salt Lake City. There was even a rumor that missionaries might be sent to Inuvik, a mere hundred kilometers from the Arctic Ocean.
I unfolded and scanned my brief letter. BROOKS, it read. ELDER MARTIN FOWLER.
I felt vaguely let down. No Arctic adventure for me. That privilege went to Elder Vickers, who would make the flight to Yellowknife the next afternoon.
In the morning, the apes took us to open checking accounts at the Royal Bank of Canada and to apply for Social Insurance cards. When we got back to the mission office, the tiny parking lot was buzzing like a beehive with comings and goings. It was a transfer day, the mission-wide shuffle that takes place every four to six weeks when fresh meat arrives from the MTC. A good sixth of the two hundred elders and sisters in the mission were being reassigned that day—elders promoted to leadership positions, feuding companionships broken up, problem missionaries moved from problem areas, good missionaries stuck in one place for too long offered fresh scenery. Everyone being transferred seemed to detour through the mission office, and every missionary in the city seemed to have turned out to greet them.
The elders who most attracted my attention were the two-year vets checking in for their last night before shipping home. Beaming, confident men, looking hale and fit, ages more godly and mature than the greenies I’d arrived with. I couldn’t imagine ever being one of them, with their easy, solemn camaraderie, couldn’t imagine crossing the vast gulf of time that lapped at their backs, landing on that distant shore a new man. Some of them insisted they’d re-up for another two years if they could, a sentiment I did not understand.
It was in that overwhelming chaos of backslapping and taleswapping and homesickness that Elder Fowler found me. He’d been stationed until now in Calgary itself, a district leader in charge of four companionships, but now, near the end of his mission, he was being dispatched to a lonely prairie town for what would likely be his final assignment—training me.
“This is exactly what I wanted,” he told me as we settled into our mission-owned Citation and headed east, into the unknown. “I went to Prez and I told him I wanted to die in a nice, quiet town away from the city, where maybe I could raise another son.”
Missionaries tended to talk that way, casting their service in terms of life events and familial relationships. This logic made Fowler my “father,” and his long-departed trainer my “grandfather.” Going home was “dying.”
Now, in Brooks, this new father of mine led me all the way back to the sidewalk from the old woman’s front porch, though it would have been quicker just to cross her lawn to the next house. Training me not to cut corners.
“That lady really didn’t let you get a word in, did she?” I said. I wasn’t sure whether to be more dismayed at the woman’s lack of interest in our message or at my companion’s mortifying tenacity.
Fowler shrugged. “Oh, that was nothing, Elder. Wait’ll you meet someone who’s really not interested. Like the kind who opens the door pointing a gun in your face and says you got five seconds to beat it or he starts shooting.”
I boggled. “Did that really happen?”
Brick bungalows lined this block, snug as nursery rhymes beneath a canopy of interlocking elm branches and changing leaves. We turned up the walk to the next house, and Fowler handed me the golf ball.
“Your door, Elder.”
My heart stuttered. “What, me?” I stopped and tried to give him back the ball. “I, I, I don’t know how to do this yet. I can’t even remember what you said back there at that door, let alone what I do if we get in. Let me watch you a few more times.”
He held up his hands. “Naw, it’s better this way. You’re only gonna learn by doing it, so you may as well start now.”
“Don’t worry—it’s not as hard as it looks. And I’ll be right there for backup in case you get in trouble.”
This was suspiciously similar to my uncle Doug’s proclamation the summer I was twelve, right before he threw me out of a tree into a lake. Several humiliating seconds later he had to jump in after me and haul me, thrashing, to shore.
“All right, all right,” I said, rolling the warm ball around in my hand and leading the way up the porch. I didn’t want my new companion to think I was a wimp. Better to take control of the moment than let the moment take control of me. I stopped in front of the white storm door, golf ball poised to knock.
Fowler pointed to the storm door. “Open that first.”
I looked at him. “It’s okay to do that?”
“You don’t want to dent it, do you?”
I tugged at the collar of my white shirt. My tie felt too tight. I reminded myself that I was doing this for the sake of my soul, and that my reward at the end of it would be Katrina. I squared my shoulders and grabbed the storm door by its handle. Holding it propped open with my shoulder, I rapped the golf ball several times, hard, on the wooden door inside.
“The goal is to produce sound without actually damaging the property, Elder,” said Fowler dryly. “And three or four knocks is plenty.”
“Sorry, sorry.” I waited, my heart hammering in my throat, but after fifteen seconds or so no answer had come. “Okay, no one home.” I turned to leave.
“Give them a chance,” said Fowler with a palm to my chest. “Maybe they didn’t hear you. Of course, they’d have to be deaf not to have heard that, but maybe that’s the case. Or maybe it’s a cripple who has to hobble up from the basement on crutches. Try again.”
Every second we waited on the porch seemed to increase the odds that the door would open, which was the last thing I wanted. But I knocked again and after another minute concluded with relief that there really was no one home.
Elder Fowler selected a tract on eternal families from his pocket, scratched our phone number on the back, and tucked it inside the storm door. When he had finished his notation on the index card and we were back at the sidewalk, I held the golf ball out to him.
“Your door, Elder,” I said.
“Oh, no,” said Fowler, shaking his head. “No turnovers till someone answers the door.”
“Oh, come on.”
“That’s the way it’s done, sorry.” He shaded his eyes suddenly, gazing off into the southern sky. “Hey, do you see that plane, Elder?”
I peered in the direction he was pointing. What looked like a silver speck inched across the sky, spinning behind it a gauzy filament. “Yeah.”
“How far away do you think it is?”
I had no earthly clue. “Ten miles? Twenty? I don’t know.”
Fowler shook his head, grinning. “Ten weeks for me, two years for you.”
My face burned, and the backs of my eyes stung. For the past few minutes I’d managed not to think about the time still ahead of me, but now my companion had slapped me in the face with it.
Fowler laughed and laughed. “Oh, you should’ve seen the look on your face!” He tousled my hair. “I’ve been waiting all day for a chance to use that one.”
“Great, yeah,” I said, smoothing my hair and fuming.
“Do you know what they call missionaries like me? I’m a double-digit midget! Less than a hundred days to go.”
“Let’s just get this door over with.”
I marched up to the next house while Elder Fowler chortled in tow. Three sharps raps of the golf ball brought an older man in a plaid shirt and thick glasses to the door. He looked like a startled rabbit.
“Um, sir, yes, hello,” I stammered. “We’re, um, missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? And we’re just bringing people a message today about the other testament of Jesus Christ . . .”
I fumbled to get one of the books up into view, but the old man was already waving a peremptory hand and withdrawing. “No, no, no,” he said, and the door closed in my face.
“Hmm,” said Elder Fowler, inscribing a note on his index card. He tapped his pen against his chin. “Maybe we should role-play this a little as we walk.”
I handed him the golf ball. This seemed more appropriate than throwing it at him.
Our tracting had gotten off to a very late start that day. We had left our modest apartment, inherited from the previous missionaries, at 9:30 that morning, right on time, emerging onto a street of withered lawns, struggling saplings, and squat multi-unit dwellings. The grayish tang of the dark, spongy wood that trimmed our own quadplex set my teeth on edge just to look at. It was my first morning in Brooks, and if that weren’t enough in itself to make me homesick, the neighborhood’s barrenness under its small northern sun made me feel disoriented and dispossessed, a conscript into unending exile.
We drove to the industrial fringe of town, where the first stop we made was not some potential convert’s hovel but a health-and-racquet club Elder Fowler had found in the phone book. We were dressed in civilian clothes.
“Don’t feel like you have to join up,” he told me, “but I can’t get by without my workouts.”
A gym membership was definitely against mission rules—whether due to the expense, the time commitment, or the proximity to hot, sweating female bodies, I did not know—but I didn’t want to be a stick-in-the-mud. Besides, if I hit the machines regularly maybe I could go home to Katrina all pumped up. Fowler, a slick if homey talker, negotiated us a nice, discounted weekly rate.
Our next stop was Canadian Tire, a superstore chain so powerful that many other retailers across the nation accepted its in-house currency. I bought a heavy parka, thermal underwear, and snow boots in preparation for winter. While we were at it, I picked up a cheap racquetball racquet too.
After that we hit the municipal library. “It’s a missionary’s best friend in a town like this, partner,” Fowler said. “You don’t want to be a bucket, but you need something to keep you sane.”
“What’s a bucket?”
“A slacker, a goldbricker, a lazy ass. But I’d rather get called any of those than give up my Louis L’Amours.”
This delighted me, as I hadn’t taken my new companion for a reader, but the good Mormon son in me worried that I was starting off my mission on the wrong foot. Though Fowler and I weren’t wearing our suits or name tags, I spent our time in the library paranoid that some local church member would spot us there and rat us out to President Tuttle. We left with a couple of space operas for me, a stack of westerns for him, and a library card apiece.
We bought groceries next and ran them back home. Our apartment was neat, clean, and in good repair, with charts pinned to the walls and pamphlets stacked on most every horizontal surface. The living room featured stylish faux-brick paneling, while the kitchen was airy and bright. As we devoured peanut butter sandwiches, apples, and approximately a quart of milk, Fowler pored over the maps and notes the previous missionaries had left us.
After lunch we changed into our proselytizing clothes—or “pross” clothes—and drove a few miles south of town. North lay the jumbled desolation of the Alberta Badlands, but the landscape here was a patchwork of farms. Leaving our car on the shoulder of the provincial highway, Fowler marched us into a tangled thicket of poplars that cut the cold wind. We knelt in the dirt while Elder Fowler offered a priesthood blessing dedicating the town of Brooks to missionary work.
Only then did Fowler feel we were ready to pick a neighborhood from the map and begin our day’s tracting. According to the records in our apartment, Brooks had been thoroughly canvassed at least four times in the past couple of years, which perhaps accounted for our poor reception. The only person who actually invited us inside was a talkative old woman who told us she’d been a member of the church all her life. We stayed a few minutes to visit and eat the cookies she offered. When the street came alive with kids on their way home from grade school, I found myself longing for the freedom of their unstructured afternoons.
“Man, this is hard,” I said as the latest door closed in my face. Though my delivery had improved a little, we had so far placed only two copies of the Book of Mormon, despite what felt like hours of tracting. We trudged back to the sidewalk. “No one wants to take even a minute to listen to us. It feels like we’ve been going all day, and I can still see where we parked the car.”
“If it’s ground you want to cover, don’t worry. You’re gonna see a ton of Brooks before you’re done here.”
“It’s already hit me like a ton of Brooks,” I said, handing him the golf ball.
“Hey, good one, Elder! You still have your sense of humor, that’s important. You realize we’ve only been going for an hour and a half, right?”
I groaned. “I can’t believe we have to do this eighteen hours a week.”
“At least eighteen.”
My stomach clenched as I ran a quick calculation in my head. Over eighteen hundred more hours of this before I’d see Katrina again.
“All in all, though, we have it pretty good,” Fowler continued. “Under President Farrow we had to do twenty-four. Now, he was a real hardass. Turtle’s a downright pussycat in comparison.”
Fowler’s grin looked both mischievous and abashed. “You know—President Tuttle.” At my blank stare, he said, “Remember that cartoon show, Touché Turtle? A swordfighting turtle with a big stupid dog for a sidekick?”
“Oh, yeah. Dum Dum, that was the dog’s name. I loved that show.”
“Don’t you think President looks just like Touché? Same baldy head, same beaky nose, same receding chin.”
Fowler’s impiety thrilled and frightened me, as did the weird way he used “President” like a first name. “Well . . . kind of, I guess. Sure.”
“There you go. Turtle.”
Feeling reckless, I asked, “Then who’s Dum Dum?”
“Depends. It changes every time they bring in a new ape.”
We had reached the next door. “You’re going to hell, Elder,” I said, not without admiration.
“Never said I wasn’t.”
He knocked. No one answered. We soldiered on.
“I bet you’re excited to go home soon,” I said.
Elder Fowler’s face clouded. “I guess so. I don’t know. I miss my family and all.”
“You don’t sound very sure.”
“It’s just, things make a lot of sense out here. You know what you’re doing, you know it’s important. You have a purpose. It’s hard work, but it brings you joy. Nothing’s that clear back home.”
Things back home seemed clear to me—perfectly crystalline. “So, what? You’d stay out longer if you could?”
Fowler frowned. “Let me tell you something, Elder. You know why folks call me Methuselah?”
He was almost 23, he had told me earlier, having waited until 21 to start his mission.
“Because you’re older than everyone else?”
“Well, that’s part of it. It took me a couple extra years to make sure this was what I really wanted to do. But once I did, I was committed.” He nodded to himself. “You remember when missions were eighteen months?”
Did I ever. The announcement had come my junior year of high school. For women, missions had always been eighteen months in duration, but in 1982, to encourage more young men to serve, all missions were shortened to eighteen months. This helped me and many of my friends to breathe a little easier. Then, just as I was starting college, the church reversed itself. The new policy hadn’t impacted missionary numbers as hoped, and elders were going home just as they reached their peak effectiveness as proselytizers. Missions for young men were reset to two years.
“I remember,” I said, feeling the sting all over again.
“That’s how it was when I sent in my papers. I got called for eighteen months, but it changed back just before I went into the MTC. When I got there they gave us a choice. We could stand pat at a year and a half, or we could go two years, but we had to decide there. Most of the guys stood pat. Me, I said hit me.” He waved a hand. “I mean, good hell. Were we there to serve the Lord or what? Shit or get off the pot, I say.”
I said nothing, thinking uncomfortably about which choice I would have made. I was ashamed of judging Fowler for his cussing. I had no business here among the real missionaries.
“Anyways, that’s when the guys in my MTC district started calling me Methuselah, on account of how I was gonna outlive them all.”
“If you’re happy here, can you extend an extra month?” I’d heard that if you were a valuable missionary, the church might let you do that.
Fowler shrugged. “I asked, but I think they’re sick of me. And this way I’ll be home for Christmas.”
We were two blocks from our car, having covered two short side streets as we progressed. Now we turned a corner into another spruce little cul-de-sac. We garnered one flat rejection apiece at the first two houses on the block.
I passed Fowler the golf ball. “How many people have you baptized from tracting?”
He thought a moment. “One lady up in Edmonton,” he said.
I gaped. “That’s it? In two years?”
“Well, there are definitely more effective ways to proselytize. Especially in a town that’s been tracted out so thoroughly already.”
“Then why do we have to spend so much time doing it?”
“Oh, lots of reasons. First off, obedience. President says tract, so we tract, and that’s how you get the Spirit—through obedience. Second, it’s a way of getting out in the community and being visible. The members have to see us busy and diligent so they’ll set us up with their non-member friends. And last, I guess, it’s an exercise in faith, and sometimes faith gets rewarded. That dunk in Edmonton? Wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t gone tracting that day.”
Perhaps this wasn’t the message Fowler meant to send, but an overwhelming realization was dawning on me. The souls in this city were my sacred responsibility. If I failed to find the ones who were ready and waiting for the gospel, their eternal salvation might be lost. I shuddered at the prospect.
But tracting still didn’t strike me as the route to success. “You’d think by now there’d be no one new left to meet.”
We had reached the next porch, where Fowler’s spiel was quickly rebuffed. The burden of one more soul shifted from us back to its owner.
“Elder, there’s always someone new left to meet,” Fowler said as we plodded away from the porch. “People move out, people move in, and some folks just slip through the cracks, no matter how many times you’ve been down their street.” He passed me the ball. “Your door.”
The next house was a cozy brick cottage nestled in shade. Something about the circular window beside the door reminded me of a fairy-tale illustration.
At my knock the door opened wide, and so did my mouth. The woman who stood there couldn’t have been far from my age. Her head, capped with a loose bonnet of curls the color of spice cake, came to just under my chin. I could have lifted her with one arm. She blinked her large brown eyes expectantly, but it wasn’t that or her heart-shaped face or her tiny sweet mouth or her faint spray of ginger freckles that held my gaze.
It was the low-cut V of her sweater. Low.
“Hi, what can I do for you?” she said, her voice the laughter of birds.
The fawn-colored cable-knit’s deep, deep neck plunged most of the way to her navel. She wore nothing beneath it, and the inner swells of her breasts beckoned the touch like fresh snow beckons a sled. Thoughts of Katrina fell out of my head.
I don’t remember what I said to this woodland sprite, this gamine enchantress, this vision in chestnut, but I must have gotten it right, because she stepped back from the door.
“Come in, please,” she trilled.
Half an hour later, Elder Fowler and I stood outside again, blinking in the sunlight. In the voice of an earthquake survivor, Fowler said, “Okay, let’s, um, go over what you did wrong there.”
I turned unseeing eyes toward him, my retinas seared. “Wrong?” Honey thickened my tongue. “I thought that went well.”
He patted my shoulder absently, staring off into the sky. “There were some, well, fundamental errors at the outset that sort of undermined the whole proceeding.”
“Errors?” The word did not compute. “Heidi”—the very name was a magic incantation—“took a book. I got a commitment from her to read it. We’re coming back to teach the first discussion to her and her boyfriend.”
Fowler inclined his head. “She said maybe.”
“Fine. Maybe. But what could be wrong about that?”
“Walking through that door at all was wrong.”
I still saw her before me, legs tucked beneath her on the overstuffed sofa, chin propped up on one exquisite fist, eyes rapt and lips parted, thirsty for the knowledge we offered. “How so?”
“It’s in the White Bible.” Invoking our pocket-sized rulebook, Fowler ran a shaky hand through his hair. “We never teach a woman alone in her home without a female chaperone present.”
“But she invited us in.”
“Yes, Elder. And when she did, the first thing we should have asked was if her husband or father or some other man was at home. If she said no, we should have tried to arrange a time to come back when one was, or when we could bring a woman from the local ward along with us. Under no circumstances should we have gone in there alone.”
“But nothing happened,” I protested, weak with distress.
“Doesn’t mean it couldn’t have. Hell, it doesn’t mean she couldn’t say it did. It’d be our word against hers.”
“But Heidi isn’t like that.”
“You can’t know that, Elder.” He took me by the shoulders, eyes beseeching. “But look, this wasn’t your fault. I could have stepped in at any time. Should have.” I had handed him the golf ball before we went inside. Now he bounced it off the sidewalk with a hard clack and sighed. “And I’m afraid there’s another thing you do really need to learn.”
The color drained out of the afternoon. “What?”
“When you’re teaching a woman,” he said, “you should look her in the eyes at least as much as the chest.” He pocketed the ball. “Come on, that’s three book placements. I think we’re done tracting for today.”