I just listened to the final episode of Lee Hale’s “Preach,” a podcast in which he interviewed various figures from different religions about their spiritual life, including how their views changed over time. One of the more famous interviewees was Rainn Wilson (Dwight on The Office) who talked about being raised in the Ba’hai faith. It was also fascinating to hear Lee’s own insights peppered throughout these interviews.
As the show wrapped up (due to an exciting new job for Lee with NPR in DC), he had a final discussion with his producer Tricia Bobeda about things he learned from talking to his guests, and how the show was different than what he expected it to be. Something he said really resonated for me as I thought back to my time as a missionary in the Canary Islands in 1989-1990. He observed that we all seem to have the same types of questions, and that the real gift was the compassion you develop from listening to people talking about their questions. He said that religion evangelizes its own set of answers, but that maybe the questions and listening are the important part, not claiming we have all the answers.
There were so many examples of this that occurred in my mission that I wrote about in my memoir, to the point that it was clear to me over and over how inadequate it was to sell people answers. As a 21 year old, I had no real answers for things I routinely encountered, including:
- What do you say to someone who is a severely depressed single mother and occasional low rent prostitute with no prospects and no support network?
- How do you help the parents of a heroin addict who fear for his life but can’t move away from his drug network?
- What do you say to a woman who is afraid to tell her husband she had a secret abortion and now she thinks she’s going to hell?
- How do you advise a woman whose husband is beating her or cheating on her?
- What do you say to the incredibly lonely person who might be going a bit crazy due to social isolation and poverty?
- What do you say to the young man who was kicked out by his family because he’s contemplating a sex change operation?
- How do you answer a young homosexual’s need for acceptance and love and a meaningful existence without completely ignoring the set of answers you’ve been handed?
- What do you say to the mother of a severely disabled daughter whose neighbors believe it’s her fault?
- What do you say to a family who clearly can’t afford groceries without sounding like the local branch will pay them to be baptized?
- What do you say to the couple who wants to join the Church but whose neighbors have made it clear that if they leave Catholicism they will be ostracized?
- What do you say to the aging father whose children will put him in a home if he joins the Church?
- How do you address a man who laughs in your face when you suggest families are forever because that’s the last thing he wants?
These are the types of questions that motivate people to talk to the missionaries, but they aren’t questions that are answered adequately by the discussions. It’s something I ran into time and time again.
As young middle-class American women, the majority of us did not have the experience or expertise to deal with women or children who were being abused. We had a naïve optimism that greater commitment to the gospel would improve things, no matter what the problems were.
Sometimes, although we recognized there were no specific answers for these types of problems, we thought a general commitment to the gospel would be enough.
We were as naively optimistic about his recovery as they were. Why couldn’t the gospel cure heroin addiction and turn prostitutes into financially stable, respectable Church members?
I also found that local members weren’t great at helping these non-fitting investigators.
The local members were mostly warm, good people who embraced newcomers as much as they could, although like anyone who has their crap together, they found it harder to relate to those who truly did not.
But part of “having your crap together” is also just indicative that the Church’s set of answers fit your set of questions and your life problems. If the Church isn’t for everyone, if it doesn’t have the potential to better everyone, then is it for anyone or are those for whom it works just people that have easier adversities, fewer problems to overcome, or a better support network? Would they be fine without it, too?
I shared the story of a discussion we held with a woman we met who lived in the elders’ area. Our district leader infuriated me because he just wasn’t listening to this woman at all. She strenuously and repeatedly objected to us reading scriptures or following a script because she said she just wanted us to talk from the heart. In response, this elder said, “That reminds me of a scripture!” and opened his Book of Mormon. Grrrr! A funny story, but also often true to Mormon culture more broadly. How often do we “fellowship” people rather than making real friendships? How often do we listen to others’ problems only to give them some canned Church-approved response? How often do we strive to be “good Mormons” by checking the boxes without remembering how to be good people?
Ultimately I concluded that selling others the answers to life’s questions wasn’t the point, similar to Lee Hale’s observation.
To me, this was the point of missionary work, to support and comfort those in need, to help them through difficult trials, to be a friend to them when they needed it most, not just to shoo them into the baptismal font and crow about our great results, then immediately move on to our next conquest.
Maybe this idea that our rote Church scripts can answer others’ questions is borrowed from other conservative faiths, ones that don’t also talk a lot about personal revelation and our unique ability to get divine counsel through prayer. We hear plenty of one-size-fits-all answers at Church, but personal revelation is a more promising approach. In my experience, claiming personal revelation that contradicts the party line still results in community stink-eye.
What if instead of “preaching” (telling others the answers to their questions) we just listened with compassion? What if we saw people and their problems as important in their own right, worthy of our full attention, not just the means to prove that our pre-defined answers are right?
- What questions have you encountered that aren’t easily answered by religion?
- Did you have similar mission experiences or life experiences that taught you the difference between listening and trying to fit a set of answers to situations that they just don’t adequately cover?
- Did you listen to Lee Hale’s podcast? Were there any stand-out interviews you recommend?
- Do you agree that teaching others how to get personal revelation uniquely tailored to one’s own situation is better than “Sunday School answers” or is it still problematic because it can contradict Church culture and policy?