I’d like another mission, please.

the_wire_1

Watching The Wire is a great way to feel miserable about the state of the world in general, but it’s also gets me thinking about what I did (and didn’t do) as a missionary.

The Wire‘s Baltimore looks a lot like Memphis the way I remember it; they’re about the same size (~650,000 people), with about the same demographics (60% black, 30% white), and have most of the same problems–a dying shipping industry, entrenched political corruption, grinding poverty, and violent crime so endemic that it’s almost not a problem to be solved anymore, but something you just plan around, like the weather.

And it isn’t an abstract, diffuse kind of misery.

The strength of the show is that it creates complex, fully-realized characters–people you could know and like–and then chews them to pieces in the teeth of that society. And I know that the grim vision of Baltimore depicted in The Wire is essentially true to life, because I’ve walked around in it.

I met the people who were raised in generations of poverty and abuse–whose parents sold their clothes to buy drugs. I knew kids whose only hope of belonging and safety was to become a “soldier” in some street gang. And virtually everyone I spoke to had a child, or sibling, or parent “in the system” in one capacity or another.

The thing that troubles me is that these fictional characters on television seem more real to me than the actual people for whom that world was a reality–mostly because of my own incuriosity.

I really did care about the people in Memphis–but we were told (in so many words) that they were not our problem to solve; that we were there to look for people who were “prepared”, and should keep moving until we found them.

So for me, the misery I encountered really was hazy and impersonal.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do more–I just believed (somewhat sensibly) that I wasn’t a therapist, or a lawyer, or a social worker. I couldn’t rescue anybody.

There’s probably some practical wisdom in that; a bunch of kids from the suburbs probably don’t have any business trying to play white savior in inner-city Memphis. But it also seems a little too practical for people in our line of work.

Of course, in hindsight, if we were looking for undamaged people in that environment, we may as well have been looking for leprechauns. But I’d been told that that was the way to go, and I didn’t have any better ideas–so I spent most of my mission interacting with most people at a pretty superficial level. We’d do a little small talk, deliver the pitch, and see if anybody was interested (they weren’t).

For two years, all I did was meet new people–and in all that time, I found out hardly anything about them as individuals.

We got to know people who needed their electric bill paid–they were eager to tell us their problems. But the average person just listened politely, thanked us for coming, and sent us on our way.

Occasionally, when someone invited us back, we got to know a little bit about their challenges–usually in the context of explaining why they missed this or that appointment–and then their troubles were a mild annoyance, an obstacle on the road to conversion.

Some of these people had a child in prison. Others were mired in abusive relationships, or drugs, or gangs. Many had been to prison themselves, and couldn’t find work. And rather than ask myself how I could help, I usually thought, “This probably isn’t going to go anywhere. We should move on.”

I know that sounds callous. I certainly didn’t mean to be. I loved those people–at least, as much as I knew how. I wanted them to be happy, and, all cynicism aside, I really believe that’s why I was out there. But I felt like I only had the one thing to offer them–and if they didn’t want it, I didn’t know what else to do.

It wasn’t that they weren’t worth my time–I didn’t think I was worth theirs. I couldn’t get their kids out of prison, or find them a job, or erase their debts, or cure their addictions, or pull them out of the cycle of abuse and victimhood.

I had this set of truths that I believed (and still believe) could change their lives–but no one seemed interested in that, and any other comfort I could offer seemed meaningless in the face of their problems.

I thought hell must be something like Memphis.

One of my earliest memories of teaching was in a big, dilapidated house on the corner–suspiciously big for an unemployed single mother of three, but I didn’t think about that at the time. Everything had that sticky dampness of squalor about it, and as I sat down, I saw a cockroach out of the corner of my eye, perched on the sofa a few inches from my shoulder.

She had three kids, somewhere between ages five and nine, who were shouting and chasing each other around the room as we bravely soldiered through our lesson. She tried to ignore them for a while, but after a few minutes she snapped, and charged over to them, screaming and cursing and swatting, and sent them upstairs. As she sat back down, she muttered, “I can’t wait ’til y’all go to jail.”

What do you say to that? “Families Can Be Together Forever”? What does a 19-year-old kid have to offer in that situation?

That’s a dramatic example, and I’m not sure anyone could have helped her without professional training, but we met an awful lot of people who seemed just as out of reach to us. And that’s a strange place to be, for a kid who honestly believes he has The Answers that can make everything all better.

Missionaries dealt with that in different ways.

Some figured that we were failing because we weren’t righteous enough–so they’d flagellate themselves (and everyone else) about regulations and dress standards, hoping that eventually the offering would please God and He’d trust us with all the “prepared” people He was hiding. Others basically gave up and phoned in the rest of their missions.

For me, I think the solution was detachment, and a pretty dark sense of humor. I hear EMTs talk that way–when it’s your job to help, and you spend so much time around people you can’t help, it’s tempting to dehumanize them a little (or a lot) just to make your world make sense. We weren’t dealing with corpses, but sometimes it felt that way.

Of course, while I was busy despairing on their behalf, agonizing over the impossible task of saving them, I missed a lot of pedestrian opportunities to make things a little bit better. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t be so quick to give up.

Most of life is little, incremental tasks, and it’s so much slower than it seems like it ought to be–at least to those of us who grew up watching Daniel-san learn karate in a 30-second montage. I wish I had figured that out sooner.

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I’d like another mission, please.

3 thoughts on “I’d like another mission, please.

  1. Rich Floyd says:

    Very insightful message. Despite the reality of so much human misery and seeming hopelessness of so many I have found that the gospel of Jesus Christ does bring HOPE and that the Church CAN make a significant difference in the lives of many. Individual AGENCY is the key, and those precious souls who recognize that they can change their circumstance, the gospel, the Church and it’s members are making a profound difference in the lives of many. I have had the benefit of working with literally hundreds of missionaries over many years, visiting and teaching in all kinds of homes, neighborhoods and with a full range of individuals and families. The reality is that we do make a difference in the lives of many! Yes, there are many disappointments along the way, but the ones who embrace the gospel and progress are forever grateful that we took the time to share with them the good news of the restored gospel. Unfortunately, we make this process much more difficult for the missionaries, because we rely on them to do the lion’s sharing of finding, when we, the local members should be the finders. The Memphis First Ward has been transformed by the work that you (Elder) Dolan and the legion of missionaries who have followed. The work has exploded, growing from an average of 15 new members a year, to 50+ new members per year. Yes, not ALL stay active, that was even the case at 15, but a growing percent are! As I have witnessed the many miracles in the lives of so many these past 13 years, I am convinced that we are making a difference. I often think of the story of the man standing on the sea shore reaching down, picking up and then throwing the beached starfish back into the ocean. Even though he won’t be able to “save” them ALL, he does save many. The 18th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants reminds us of “the worth of souls.” Kevin, thank you for your dedicated service. You did make a difference in the lives of many. Just ask Mary Moore if she is not a happier, better person because you went back to see her and share the gospel. Perhaps the most significant blessing of all is that you met a certain young lady during your time here, who is now your eternal companion! God bless you my friend.

  2. Kevin I found this post so interesting! Having also served in a similar mission (Detroit). I can remember so many instances where I would just sit there and listen to investigators talk about all the absolutely crappy things they had experienced in life and I would have no idea what to say to them after. It was totally overwhelming and at the same time hard to see how anything I could say about the gospel could help their immediate situation. I do remember one particular thanksgiving where at the last minute on my way home from a warm, cozy thanksgiving dinner, I decided to stop by a struggling investigators house (older gentleman who had no family) who was living without power in the bitter cold with very little to eat. I left him a box of leftovers I had taken home from the dinner and I have never seen someone be so grateful for such a small act of kindness. I will never forget that moment. He could not stop thanking me and gave me a hug and left me with a small trinket that had once belonged to his daughter. It was moments like that on my mission where I really felt like I was making a difference. I had one baptism my whole mission so It was hard to see how what I did for eighteen months made a difference.

  3. This is about the most honest account I’ve read about being a missionary in these kinds of environments. It also reminded me a lot about my time in the slums of Dayton, Ohio.

    I feel the same way sometimes. Life experience does change us, and going on a mission now would be a completely different experience. I kind of wonder if that’s why people like Parley P. Pratt were so successful. We forget that those guys gave up everything, after going through young adulthood, when they went out to preach the gospel.

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