Well, it’s been a wild few weeks. I was teeing up a post related to current events but I decided I needed a break … maybe this will be a fun break for you, too.
I served a mission in Spain (Madrid) twenty years ago and I’m planning to take my husband & kids there next summer for a couple of weeks. It’ll be the first time I’ve been back since a quick visit the year after I finished my mission, and a first for everyone else. To prep for the trip, I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of books and podcasts about Spanish culture and history. If you’re not familiar with the history of Spain, it’s quite a fascinating country historically, culturally, politically, economically, geographically, religiously–all the things.
Spain’s geographical location and features gave it closer contact with the Middle East & Africa than other European countries. Although through marriage and dynastic unions it was still closely connected with the rest of Europe, its position surrounded by water and mountains, as well as numerous mountain ranges within Spain, insulated it from much of what was happening in the rest of Europe to a greater extent than other European countries. It was one of the earliest parts of the Roman Empire, and many famous Romans (like Seneca and Hadrian) were actually Spaniards. It’s been a place where the three major religions “of the Book”–Christianity, Judaism, and Islam–have co-existed (and fought). Many portions of it were under Islamic rule for longer than not. For long periods of time, it was culturally more advanced than most of the rest of Europe; it has produced great philosophers, artists, and writers. At one time, it had the largest empire in the world and the Spanish Armada. But it has also had an extreme rich/poor gap and things really fell apart when the riches it imported from the Americas caused inflation to run rampant. It basically never had an industrial revolution like the rest of Europe (resting instead on wealth generated from colonial expansion), and then political corruption and economic unrest sowed the seeds for the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s long dictatorship which–having ended in only 1975–continues to impact Spanish economic, political, cultural, and religious life.
What’s struck me, though, is how little about all of this I knew despite having lived in Spain for eighteen months. In some ways, I was very culturally immersed. I feel like I got a good understanding of how people thought and communicated and behaved, I lived more or less like a local in many ways, and I did hear a lot about how Franco’s dictatorship had impacted people (some impacts: a ton of people living with the effects of polio and other health problems because access to healthcare was shockingly bad for a developed country; a huge generational divide between people who loved the Catholic Church and people who absolutely hated it because of its role in Franco’s rule; a deep distrust of institutions). But in most ways, I now find myself lamenting my lack of understanding and knowledge about the history and culture of the places I lived. One of the books I’m reading, Iberia, has massive chapters devoted to small towns I lived in and I can’t believe all of the things that were right under my nose but that I never saw because I didn’t know about them. Of course I saw some major tourist attractions, but there is a lot that I missed.
There are a lot of reasons for this. I don’t think American educational institutions spend a lot of time on Spain–while I took several semesters of European history in college, those courses really focused on Northern Europe–England, France, Germany. I did study a fair amount about Spanish conquistadores in some American history courses, but we studied what they wrote about and did in the Americas, not where they’d come from (apparently, many had some from areas I’d lived in!).
I left shortly after I graduated college and I didn’t have much time between graduating and leaving to read up on Spain even though I’d wanted to–graduating and taking the LSAT and moving and getting a bunch of other stuff ready took up all my time. And, like most people, I spent my mission prep time reading scriptures and preparing spiritually–not learning about the country I was going to or the people. Once I arrived in Spain, I was pre-smartphone, of course, so it’s not like I could do research on the fly while I was there and getting transferred to new areas.
Spain was also unique for a missionary because most Spanish people were uninterested in talking to missionaries (see above re: distrust of religion & institutions), so I primarily taught recent immigrants from South America. Now, of course, that was in fact a piece of Spanish culture that I got very familiar with–the lives of those immigrants–and I am glad for that experience. But I probably learned more about Ecuadoran culture than Spain. I certainly ate more Ecuadoran and Peruvian food than Spanish food–no joke.
Finally, and most regrettably to me, as a missionary I had the attitude (as do many, but not all missionaries) that I had a superior understanding of the world than the people I was sent to teach and was there to teach, not to learn from, them. I regret that I did not spend more time listening and learning about the people and culture I was surrounded by apart from trying to find angles to get them to accept the gospel or come to Church with me.
What I’m wondering from readers is whether you had a similar experience if you served a mission or even just lived abroad as a Church member.
- If you served a mission, do you feel like you knew or learned a whole lot about the place you were serving in, or were you mostly focused on Church topics? If you did learn a lot, how did you go about doing so? If you didn’t, why not?
- If you grew up believing in a One True Church (as I did), how do you think that impacted your interactions with other people and cultures? Do you think it hampered your ability to listen to and connect with others, or did it improve it? Why or why not?
- Any recommendations or resources on Spanish history (especially kid-friendly, like documentaries or movies) for me?
My mission experience was the same as yours in that I spent two years in Brazil while learning nothing about its history and larger culture. I viewed Brazil through an extremely myopic lens.
On Spain, I’ve actually been reading several books on Spanish history. Truly unique, truly fascinating. One thing that has fascinated me about Spain is its name, Hispania, which comes from Phoenician “i” meaning land of and “shapan” meaning hyraxes or rabbit-like rodents, and “ia” being a Latin suffix for place names. Many of its regions, Cantabria, Asturias, Galicia, Lusitania, and other places, were named after the pre-Roman Celtic/Basque tribes who inhabited the region when the Romans arrived, but for the whole of the peninsula, the Phoenician name of land of hyraxes just stuck. It is one of the few European countries whose non-immigrant populations are not ethnolinguistically homogenized, with relatively large regions of non-Spanish speakers. And for that reason, it is one of the few European countries not to recognize the independence of Kosovo from Serbia. It doesn’t want to give the Basques or Catalans any justification for breaking off from Spain.
You’re right that Spain is often excluded from larger discussions on “Europe.” But it isn’t just Spain. In fact, it almost seems that most countries in Europe are excluded in the common conceptualizations of Europe by Americans and even many Western Europeans. People mention Europe, and they really just mean the UK, France, Germany, and parts of Scandinavia. Perhaps Italy and a few other countries are included in the conceptualization. But any map of Europe shows a much larger piece of land that includes many countries and groups of people that are often forgotten, such as Moldova, Malta, Bosnia, and Estonia. The Romani (Gypsies) are a very large and distinct group of people who have inhabited Europe for centuries who are often rejected as not truly European or as outsiders who don’t belong. The most populated cities in Europe aren’t Paris or London. They are Moscow and Istanbul. The language with the largest number of mother-tongue speakers isn’t German or English. It’s Russian. The most western part of Kazakhstan is geographically in Europe. Contrary to many American conservatives’ concepts of Europe as politically liberal, Europe is actually mostly conservative with the majority of its inhabitants clinging to ethnic identities, ethnic claims to territories, deep traditions, and are governed by traditional power-holders. Yes, there are many liberals in France, Germany, Holland, and Norway. There are many conservatives there as well. Russia is hugely conservative, and its current slaughter in Ukraine is driven by Russian conservative ideologies.
I served in Germany in the early 1980s. Young Germans (high school and college aged) often wanted to engage about the Cold War and Ronald Reagan, but we were strictly instructed NOT to ever go there. On occasion, we did have lengthy discussions about such things with people our age, and inevitably we formed some relationships beyond just trying to get them to listen to our message or come to Church (only when we “got real” and talked about things that interested THEM). Often this happened with neighbors by where we lived: the students living in next-door apartment, the college kid living in the landlady’s house upstairs, etc. I can’t help but wonder if a more open approach of just making friends and connecting with people as humans, rather than a riveted focus on religion, wouldn’t be a better approach for missionaries and for the Church. It would lead to real relationships, real sharing, trust, and it would make the world a better and more connected place.
I served in Italy in the 90’s. I felt I had a decent grasp on a lot of the history. There were always plaques on historical sites and, as an extroverted history buff, if I couldn’t find a sign, I would stop someone and ask if they knew about it. I also made it a point to meet the priests in our local cathedrals and ask them about the city. That always opened up interesting conversations. Sometimes they wouldn’t want to talk, but most of the time they were happy to talk about religion with an interested listener. Most peole did not want to talk about faith (much like Spain) but they were always proud of their city and would talk about 400 year old rivalries with passion.
I don’t think my belief in One True Church hampered my interactions any more than being from the U.S. hampered them. I was raised with a more universalistic approcch to religions. While there is ultmately One True Church that gets us into the Celestial Kingdom, all religions point us in the right direction and we don’t have just one lifetime to make those choices. In fact, since nobody wanted to talk about our church, I spent a lot my time inviting Italians back to their own church since they were very clear it was important to them. Our baptsms average 1/2 a person for a two year mission, but I look back and think I did some good helping people connect to God through their own cultural faith and they will remember that at some point in the eternities.
Here’s my observations of having served a mission in Argentina in the 1980s:
1. I learned the very basics of Argentine history but I didn’t really know anything. I didn’t really appreciate the complexities of Peron, for example, until well after my mission.
2. Being American in the 1980s meant (for many of us) that we were in charge. We had Reagan. We had the defense build-up. I kind of looked down on every other country if I’m being honest (don’t blame Reagan blame me I was 19).
3. Being LDS meant that we knew things that nobody else understood. So if you combine this with #2 above, many of us definitely had a white savior complex going and therefore we didn’t need to know about the culture and history of Argentina. They were backwards and we were not.
In case you haven’t noticed, I have a lot of regret about how I felt about Argentina and Argentines. I love the US and consider myself to be patriotic but here’s what has changed: In the 1980s I thought I was something special because I was a Mormon (ONE TRUE CHURCH) from the US of A. I was taught in Seminary that I was preserved for the latter days and the freest country for a reason. I now realize that it was just dumb luck that afforded me to be born in the US and kind of bad luck that I was born into the Church. Life is random. And I now realize that Argentina is full of great people who have been suppressed by an ugly system (leftists and military governments that both ripped people off for generations). I don’t feel special I feel lucky.
Served a mission in Guatemala in early 1990s with a similar attitude that I know more than the people I taught. Parts of the country were still in civil war and I witnessed crushing poverty. In hindsight I wouldn’t serve a mission, but if I did I’d spend more time understanding the culture. For example I had no idea how much USA Cold War policies negatively impacted Central America.
It was my mission that cemented some harmful ideas and pseudo doctrines that I’m still struggling with today. Blind obedience, the valiant in pre-earth life were born into the Church, Catholic Church was the great and abominable church, etc. Because of the pre-mortal valience thing I thought the people sort of deserved their lot in life. I distinctly remember thinking I must have been a general in the war with Satan. Ugh.
On the other hand, if I’m honest with myself, some of the seeds of my faith transition were planted on my mission. I learned about the temple penalties and how messed up that is. Overwhelming poverty softened me and made me re-evaluate the idea that it’s somehow deserved or justified. I met sex workers and realized that they were probably victims instead of sinners. I met rape victims and drug addicts and even murderers.
One embarrassing experience stills causes me shame. My comp and I were teaching a poor family of about 6. The Guatemalan dad said all Americans are rich and I disagreed and said I was raised in a pretty humble home. I honestly thought I was poor or average at best by American standards. This guy asked me how many cars my family owned, and I said “five, but they are all old.” We legit had five functional cars, one for each driver in the family, and he shook his head incredulously, and then left his family in an attempt to enter the US illegally. I later found out that one in ten Guatemalans at the time had left the country for the US. I wish I wasn’t so naive…
I didn’t go on a mission, but I had some memorable overseas tours while in the military. I spent a couple years in Germany and took every available opportunity to travel around Europe and soak up history/culture. As a serviceman, I initially filtered everything I experienced through an American military lens (with all the hubris of being the victor of WWII living in the country we defeated), but was quickly disabused of this by being forced to live off base, out in town amongst the real-live Germans (and others), and by attending the German-speaking LDS ward instead of the English-speaking one meant for American servicemen. It was an incredibly valuable experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Often, we would invite the missionaries over for dinner, nearly all of whom were Americans who welcomed the respite from their daily labors (read: boredom) and a chance to speak English again. Whenever we would recount to them our recent weekend excursions, they would look wistful and jealous. They only had 1 P-day each week (which was more like half a day at most) and it was always on Monday, the same day when most museums and cultural sites were closed. I felt bad for them, and tried to make them feel better by giving them some American grocery items from the base, like peanut butter, which is nearly impossible to find otherwise in Germany. Also, I got a lot of cultural education simply by watching German television, which missionaries don’t get to do.
I remember how quiet and peaceful Sunday mornings were in our German neighborhood. Every store was closed, no one was doing yardwork, and the streets were deserted. As it turns out, this is mandated by law. German society is far more secular than the U.S., but they are much better at keeping the Sabbath Day holy, and seem to have its actual purpose figured out (rest/recreation). That really stuck with me, especially when I later noticed the hypocrisy of how busy Walmart and Costco are in Utah on Sundays, with many shoppers still in their church clothes.
I liked going to church with the Germans because they didn’t seem to get hung up on ridiculous American LDS culture, no matter how much it seemed the American members in the area tried to push it on them. I was there during a major national election and not a word about politics was uttered within the walls of the meetinghouse, as far as I could tell. Interestingly, their hymnbook has a version of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” with all the military references taken out–called “Onward Christian Youth” or something like that.
@jack Hughes, when I was reflecting on my Spain experience I also thought about military folks living abroad. My sense from having spent some time with people living on base (including in Germany) is that they had a similar experience in having some distance from the culture. I’m sure not all were like that but it’s funny you mention that as a comparison (until you lived off-base).
If you think Americans don’t learn much about Europe in school, imagine how little I knew about Hong Kong in 1999. To wit, when I told people about my mission call to Hong Kong, most people’s response was “Oh Japan! How lovely!” Eye.Roll.
I loved learning about Chinese and Hong Kong culture while I was there, including attending museums and temples on P-Day. I found it all so fascinating. I love that city with all my heart. The first time I took my family (we were on secondment in India and it was a short trip over to the Kong) my wife says she’s never seen me so happy as when that plane landed. I was just glowing.
Like Toad, my mission experience actually started my Church “shelf.” Hong Kong is the Asia area hub for the Church so it was very common for us to hear from Area Authorities. They were horrible horrible people that said the most horrible horrible things. I can’t even type them it makes me so mad how they viewed missions, missionaries, and the people and culture they were living in. We would see them out and about from time to time and they were such hypocrites in their conduct. But I too was guilty of some bad behavior that I still remember and regret to this day. Each time I have the privilege of returning, I try and make amends for the way I sometimes treated the people by trying to go the extra mile to be kind. It’s my way of trying to heal.
Elisa, I’m super excited for your trip!
The UK isn’t Europe. Even when we were part of the EU, we were British, not European, thank you very much.
I wouldn’t consider Scandinavia as Europe either.
@AB Johnson I guess you better edit the Wikipedia entry then 🙂
I served in Missouri, so…
I guess you could say I learned a whole lot about Church topics. 🙂
And this thread makes me feel much better about serving stateside, as a geography buff.
P.S. Chadwick, perhaps it has come up before, but I wonder if you knew an Elder Hansen in Hong Kong. My brother served there around the same time as you.
Tons of documentaries and movies are available on rtve.es, the spanish public television website. My two favorite series are the historical fictional dramas “Cuéntame cómo pasó” and “Ministerio del Tiempo.” Each episode has a significant historical event woven into the narrative and for Cuéntame, the fictional characters are sometimes green screened into actual historical footage. For me, the episodes just before, during and after Franco’s death in 1975 were particularly compelling.
We had an elder in my mission to Korea that spent most of his mission in the mission home, including as an AP, because he loved nothing more than to tell Koreans how backward their country was. He offended far more Koreans than he taught.
I felt like I was in a time warp there, but saw a country and a people who generally did the best they could, even if it wasn’t the American way.
When I came back home, I had this elder’s brother in one of my classes at BYU. I learned that being a jerk was a family trait.
I also served in Argentina, but closer to 10 years ago. I enjoy politics and history, so naturally I didn’t always go along with mission rules to ignore those topics.
I also never really connected with the actual missionary work, mostly due to tactics, terrible companions, suffocating rules, etc. As such, I have fond memories of my mission, but little of it has to do with being a missionary. It mostly has to do with being immersed in the culture, talking to people, hearing their stories. Sometimes about history and politics.
I paid attention to the political campaign signs wherever I went. I was very conscious of different parties and when one member would support one candidate or another. And of course anyone who has spent any time in Argentina knows that the people feel very strongly that the Malvinas (NOT the Falklands, mind you) are Argentine.
I remember one frank discussion with a member we were comfortable with in which I admitted to being something close to an anarchist. Imagine the reaction of people in the Church office building if they heard one of their missionaries say that! Of course I never argued with anyone given my status as a missionary, but it was always on the front of my mind.
A little bit later in my mission I would buy a New York Times or a national paper off a newsstand just to get some taste of what was happening. I visited historical sites on P-days, including the sites of the Israeli embassy and AMIA bombings in Buenos Aires. So I was probably a little bit more aware of the history and politics of the country I was in than I suspect most missionaries are.
I was in Denmark on my mission the same time you were in Spain. Despite some past comments on other threads, I really do love the Danes. Over 50% of our discussions were taught to immigrants, however. Lots from South America, but also Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Every once in a while we’d run into an Australian or Pacific Islander.
I focused on my call to teach, but I’m also naturally curious and inquisitive, and really did end up learning a lot about Denmark and a lot of other countries, even though I knew I was still only scratching the surface. Our mission was pretty loose with teaching appointment lengths, and you could cover a lot of ground in those times.
My One True Church belief still exists, but even before my mission, I felt God had far too much to do to work solely through His Covenant people. My mission only reinforced that tenfold. I really do think that improved my ability to connect with people.
Getting home from Denmark, I decided I wanted to learn a language that more than 5.5 million people spoke. I started taking Spanish classes and in turned into a second major. In the History aspect, I spent equal time on the Iberian and Latin American aspects.
Don Quijote is one of my alltime favorite novels, and if you follow up on many of the footnotes from Edith Grossman’s excellent translation, it opens up a few interesting avenues for learning. I want to share it with my kids, but there are a few adult situations that don’t work well for all ages. There are parts that can easily be skipped without affecting the overall narrative, but the purist in me can’t quite bring myself to do that just yet. Please let me know if you visit some of the places where the novel took place.
@eli, I haven’t read the book but I spent several months in Toledo and visited the windmills in La Mancha! I better read the book and thanks for the tip on translation.
Did you visit the Lego factory in Denmark???
Legoland was my very first District Activity. Lego and the Danes would have you believe it’s the Lego equivalent of Disneyland, but that’s not quite the case. It was still worth the trip and the sculptures were amazing. In my childhood I never had more than thirty or so Lego blocks, so I’m in no way a Lego-maniac, but I got a greater understanding of the appeal.
I also enjoyed the Thorvaldsen Museum, The Round Tower, Kronborg Castle (where Hamlet takes place), the Little Mermaid Statue, and a number of Viking Graveyards. I never did make it to Tivoli or the Hans Christian Andersen home.
Elder Hansen and I were flatmates in Tsuen Wan! Incredible guy who was always smiling. Thanks for the memory. Tell him hi from Elder Chadwick!
ABJohnson, wait are you English? Because as a person of Cymry ancestry (which you Anglo-Saxons called “Welsh” in Old English, meaning “foreign”) I would say that you Anglo-Saxons hijacked British identity and stole it from its rightful possessors: the Britons! And these Britons identified themselves as such to the Greek traveler Pytheas when he traveled to Britain circa 300 BCE and continued to identify themselves as Britons when the Romans occupied the island. The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes ruthlessly occupied Britain in 450 CE and drove the Britons out of the eastern part of the island, many taking refuge in Brittany. And then they had the gall to call themselves “British.” And they even let a bunch of Frankicized Vikings called the Normans invade in 1066 and replace their nobility and clergy and corrupt their language and customs. 🙂
But in all seriousness, the question of who is legitimately European and what Europe is and is supposed to be has been a question that has divided the continent for centuries.
@Elisa Will you make it to Spain in time to catch some stages of the Vuelta in person? As a cycling fan, its fun to get to see some beautiful places on TV as the riders pass through and it has made me want to ride there even more than some of the famous climbs of Le Tour de France.
I served with Cambodian refugees in the US. So does learning their culture count? Our mission president encouraged us to spend an hour each morning learning the language and another hour learning the culture, so I checked out a lot of history books for the local library about the French Occupation of Cambodia, the rise of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot’s regime and the eventual invasion by Viet Nam when Pol Pot turned against Viet Nam. All things relevant to understanding why Cambodians were refugees. Also why people from certain parts of Cambodia used more Vietnamese words vs people from other rural areas vs those from Phnom Penh who threw in lots of French vocabulary. I also did a fair amount of reading about Theravada Buddhism, although I doubt that was what my mission president had in mind. I just decided it was something I needed to know about.
We spent a lot of time talking about peoples lives in Cambodia, just out of necessity. So much trauma to process. We were useless except as someone who could listen. I definitely regret trying to turn those conversations eventually back to how the plan of salvation would provide comfort. Lots of people said they had no desire to be resurrected. Its not just from Buddhism, its when you have been tortured, your body is an instrument that others can use against you.So why grant them this power again?
@10ac it looks like the Vuelta starts in August – we are going as early in the summer as possible because Spain can be brutally hot. But I will check it out on TV.
One of the cool things about Spain is how geographically diverse it is. Very mountainous in many areas, and Northern Spain is green with massive mountain ranges. But even other areas are very hilly so I can imagine that is a challenging course!
I love that you took the opportunity to learn about Cambodian history and culture on your mission and that your mission President encouraged it (to an extent). I do agree that it’s unfortunate we can have the attitude that our version of the plan of salvation will benefit everyone. One person I taught didn’t want to be reunited with her abusive family, so there are individual variations, and then in many cultures the religious beliefs that have developed there are actually quite tailored to address the challenges they face in life.
I purchased a book on “La Historia de Chile” while on my mission, and since it was in Spanish (Castellano), I justified reading it during my required “language study time” each day.
More fascinating for me was finding out some members didn’t attend church because they were Allende supporters, and there was a police officer (carabinero) in the same ward. The Police in Chile are a branch of the armed forces, and were instrumental in propping up Pinochet after he deposed of Allende.
Somewhat similar to you, young adult men in Guatemala would use conscription as an excuse to not attend church. It was a legitimate fear because the army could grab any young male and wisk him away without informing anyone. I was on a bus one time when this happened. On my way to a zone conference when three men with machine guns pulled the bus over and told all the men to get off. When they saw us missionaries they said “not you, you’re gringos” and laughed at us. They hauled two guys away presumably for the army with only the shirt I n their backs and their family members watching helplessly while crying.
I served in Russia in the early 90’s. There were endless cultural and historical things to be fascinated by, one could hardly avoid learning at least something from them. A place of so many contradictions. This was where I first sensed that this big, diverse world was hard to reconcile with the narrow paradigm of Mormonism as the one true church I had grown up with. I wish I could go back but looks like that’s not happening anytime soon.
One of grandfathers served a mission in SW England in the early 20th century. I have his missionary journal. Apparently, back then missionary regulations were more relaxed. He enjoyed the local culture, expanded his horizons. He visited castles, gardens, museums, etc. Missionaries were even allowed a one week vacation each year. My grandfather and a friend traveled to Wales and Scotland.
I served my mission in Belgium and France in the mid-1960s. I loved my 2-1/2 yrs in Europe. My missionary work, not so much. Our principal activity was tracting. Which was mostly a waste of time. We gave few lessons. But I loved Belgium and France, particularly France; Alsace is a beautiful part of France.
I read a lot, mostly history and philosophy (existentialism, or more particularly absurdism). I enjoyed the work of Belge historian Henri Pirenne and French absurdist (and Nobelist) Avery Camus. I developed a real love and appreciation for fine art, particularly Vincent Van Gogh. I worked in a city where the artist lived for a short time.
Most of all, I loved traveling around, seeing the countryside. I could only tract so long, I needed breaks. There wasn’t a tattle-tale culture in the mission which facilitated travel, and there was no shortage of missionaries who wanted to look around. I visited wide variety of art museums, castles, historic villages, churches, etc. But I also did a lot of missionary work, with a little success.
In retrospect, I wish I had done humanitarian work, and given a more Christ-centered message.
The Way (2010), directed, produced, and written by Emilio Estevez, depicts an American walking the Camino de Santiago trail, beginning in France and ending in Spain. It might not be interesting to children but I thought it was worth watching.
If you served a mission, do you feel like you knew or learned a whole lot about the place you were serving in, or were you mostly focused on Church topics? If you did learn a lot, how did you go about doing so? If you didn’t, why not?
If you grew up believing in a One True Church (as I did), how do you think that impacted your interactions with other people and cultures? Do you think it hampered your ability to listen to and connect with others, or did it improve it? Why or why not?
(sorry, this is turning out to be a bit of a rant, very long anyway)
I was in central Argentina ten years ago. I deliberately avoided learning anything about it before entering the MTC because, frankly, I didn’t want to go on the mission and I was scared to death about it, so I tried to block it out until that was no longer possible. My entire MTC district and most of the district in the next classroom over was going to the same mission in Argentina, and our MTC instructors were an RM who went to Argentina and an Argentine immigrant, but they taught us next to nothing about the country. People in Argentina eat noodles a lot, and there are these cool Argentine cookies called alfajores. That was about it. The MTC instruction was entirely Church correlated doctrinal and language material.
When I got to my destination in Argentina, I found the mission culture to be highly rules-based and overwhelmingly numbers-focused. The mission president, then a year into his tenure, had made it his goal to quadruple monthly baptisms to compete with the higher-baptizing missions elsewhere in the country. We barely – by using every trick in the book, figuratively speaking – achieved his goal of 200 baptisms a month exactly once, just before the end of his tenure. (The sustainable level seemed to be 80-100 a month, which was, to be fair to the mission president, significantly higher than the 50 a month averaged under the previous mission president. But even that wasn’t really sustainable in a larger sense, considering the dismal retention rates: in my third area, there were sixty individuals listed as having been baptized in the previous 24 months, and only the person who was baptized most recently came to church.) Then three weeks before my two years were up, the new mission president announced a goal of baptizing 400 people a month. I don’t know if they achieved that during his tenure, or what other missionaries thought of that big bold goal, but I thought it was madness. The immense pressure placed on missionaries all up and down the line to report high numbers and use high-pressure sales tactics led to a very short term outlook, an inability to build relationships with people over a longer period if they didn’t seem to be immediately “progressing”, and an awkward desperation to hammer every interaction into the Preach My Gospel “lesson” format of prayer/teaching/commitment/prayer in order to reach the arbitrary mission standards of such-and-such many lessons a week. Which made the missionaries even weirder than they needed to be, with predictable results on our real efficacy. In at least one instance it led to my companion (not really my companion, we were doing splits that day) saying something that I thought was a shocking exaggeration of the truth at best, an outright lie at worst.
Anyway, in order to be “obedient” (rules-based) and “efficient” (numbers-focused), there was cultural pressure in the mission to only study the materials in the (very small) PMG-approved reading list for missionaries and to get out the door as soon as possible – which meant very few missionaries took the full hour allowed for language study, and even the half hour of language study that was recommended but optional was skipped most of the time. After all, if you’ve been in the country for more than a few weeks you should know the language by now, amirite? So get out there and find, teach, and baptize! (Besides, you can only do the exercises in the language textbook so many times, or learn so much about local Argentine Spanish from the Spanish-language Preach My Gospel or the Reina-Valera edition of the Bible, or the Spanish version of the Liahona.) Reading novels, magazine, history books, or the newspaper was absolutely out of the question. Which meant that not only were we insulated from pop culture and politics, but we had no idea what was going on in the province, the country, or the world, and we (meaning the Americans, especially the ones from “the factory” ie Utah), were frightfully ignorant of the most basic history. Imagine getting all your US history from paying attention to street names and portraits on the currency, that’s what it was like. In my third area the missionary apartment was just a block from a seventeenth-century Catholic cathedral and the colonial viceroy’s palace. We walked past them every day on the way to our main proselyting neighborhoods, but never got to go in because they were closed on Monday. I never heard of anyone asking to take a different day as P-day in order to be able to visit a historical or cultural site, so I never asked either. Mission culture was to get the zone together on P-day to play soccer and make pizza or milanesas in one of the chapels in the zone, which didn’t leave time for anything else. Mission culture was also to be obedient and hardworking and get your three+ hours of proselyting in on Monday evenings, so between grocery shopping and laundry and house cleaning and bus travel and cyber* there was hardly time to go see the cultural/historical sites in the urban core even if we wanted to. Of course, you could forget about attending any investigator’s regular services in order to get them to come to church with you. But despite all that, I was curious about history and culture and wanted to learn all I could, so I asked people questions about it from time to time and tried to keep my eyes and ears open. That was the only way to learn, and of course if you’re tramping around the streets of somewhere for two years, talking to lots of the common folk and paying attention to the world around you, you learn quite a bit even if you’re otherwise cut off from perfectly normal sources of information.
I’ve got another bone to pick about mission culture regarding cyber. In my mission the strict expectation was that you were to spend no more than 60 minutes in cyber a week, on Mondays only, and that time was to be used primarily for reading the weekly emails from the APs, communicating with the mission secretaries, and writing to the mission president, not in reading letters from your family or writing letters to your family. But you weren’t supposed to write letters home during the week, by hand, before bedtime, and your family was supposed to direct all snail mail through the mission office, which meant you only got mail at zone conferences, about once a quarter, if you got any at all. The result was near-complete isolation from your family and friends – which in turn led to the Mothers Day and Christmas calls being very long, contrary to white-handbook instructions to keep them short, 20 minutes or so. I resorted to printing off emails from home as fast as I could at the start of my cyber time and writing my family one letter that I sent to everybody and copied to the mission president too. Of course there was no time to maintain individual correspondence with anybody, which meant that even if I hadn’t been a good boy before the mission, trying not to form attachments or steady-date anyone because that’s bad for your focus as a missionary, my existing group of friends would have vanished by the time I got home – which it did. My district leaders and zone leaders dropped cane on me more than once for using too much cyber time writing my letter home. IMO, the single best change made to missionary work since I got home is allowing missionaries frequent electronic communication home. I’m so glad the rules for missionary communication aren’t stuck in the nineteenth century anymore. Of all the needless deprivations on my mission in the name of self-discipline and focus on serving Christ, the utterly unnecessary restrictions on communication with family and friends were the cruelest.
My belief in the One True Church as a missionary (or desperate wanting to believe) was a substantial hindrance to being able to listen and connect to others when I was in the mission field. Despite the rules in PMG and the white handbook to keep lessons short (and despite the half-hour windows in the planners) the mission culture was to sort of park and bark, talking at a stretch for 45 minutes or more. As a senior companion I tried to avoid that, but having been “raised” in that mission culture it was hard not to. (You can get an idea of it by how long-winded this comment is.) That didn’t leave much time to listen to others, except when it was their turn to go on and on for 45 minutes or more. There wasn’t much real conversation between missionaries and investigators (or other people), more like “your turn to talk past me for so long I’m about to fall asleep, now my turn to talk past you for so long you’re about to fall asleep.” I certainly entered the mission field with way too much of the attitude described by josh h. Meeting all these good, honest, sincere, hardworking people of many faiths and economic situations was eye-opening, and I constantly wondered if the Church, the gospel, baptism, etc, was really THE thing all these people needed. They needed housing, healthcare, food, childcare, jobs – something other than a poorly heated two-room cinder-block home in the middle of winter. If I was really there to help people, not just goose up numbers for an organization with high-pressure sales tactics, I felt completely unable to do anything about their real needs; like, all my preaching isn’t going to put one loaf of bread on this person’s table, and I could bring them some food once, but not twice or three times, and the monthly missionary stipend (which didn’t roll over, to prevent missionaries from saving month to month, probably for tax purposes) was hardly enough for food and travel – and often wasn’t enough. So what am I doing? Moreover, the versions of the commandments taught in the mission culture were hard-line forms: pay your tithing first and God will bless so so you have no room to receive it (prosperity gospel), go to church on Sunday even if you have to quit your job to do it, live the law of chastity even if you have to leave your family to do it because you’re not legally married, etc. (What the heck? I always wondered. I thought I was here to bless familes and help them be happier together, not break them up. This person has hardly anything to eat, and I’m implying they should quit their job?) – – – And as missionaries we were totally, 100%, clueless about abusive situations, even if they were plain as can be in front of our eyes, and a battered woman was lifting her shirt to show bruises on her belly, just 100% clueless about what to do or say – which in practice meant doing nothing, saying nothing, in response. So that was a serious hindrance to connecting with people. We were supposed to promise people “specific and concrete” promises/blessings to persuade them to take the missionary commitments, but how on earth could we promise anything specific? We couldn’t. Just so many vapid, empty promises, cheap talk. I was never bold enough to make any promises that were falsifiable if they didn’t come true, I don’t know if any more successful or more pushy missionaries did.
Sorry about the length of this comment. It’s got a lot of complaints about the mission that I’ve had for a long time, but haven’t voiced in front of my family. The mission was, all in all, a valuable experience, but I want to make it very clear to my children that they don’t have to go just to make their parents happy, that a mission is NOT categorically the most valuable use of their time in early adulthood, and that they are NOT bad people shirking their priesthood duty (for men) if they don’t go – all of which I was taught, either explicitly or implicitly, in the small but proud suburban Salt Lake County ward where I grew up.
I served in Kyiv, Ukraine in the early 90s. Shortly after the Berlin Wall came down and the former Soviet Union opened for missionary work, the wild rumors started. Missionaries called to the former USSR needed individual interviews with a GA and missions were 3 years long and etc. There was a lot of excitement about the new missions in the former USSR.
I knew nothing about Ukraine as a separate country. We spoke Russian because the Church materials had not yet been translated into Ukrainian, which contributed to not learning the Ukrainian culture. However, we toured medieval churches and went to museums and tourist spots, so I learned some superficial Ukrainian culture. I was there for Ukraine’s 2nd Independence Day, which involved parades with tanks and soldiers. I didn’t really understand the animosity the Ukrainians felt towards Russian until Ukraine put on a Day of Remembrance for the Holodomor, which was the famine forced on the Ukrainians by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s. Russia took the harvests and left Ukrainians to starve. Some 4 million people starved to death. Four million. I can’t even comprehend that. We sat and listened to a radio broadcast with a woman. I didn’t understand much because it was in Ukrainian – I learned a lot from the expression on her face though. Generational trauma; historical atrocities. They matter. They pass down to the descendants.
We taught a family who had been targeted by the Soviets because of their education. The 30-year-old woman we were teaching told the story about her philosopher father being sent to a farm to work with his family. Basically, he was sent into slavery because Stalin wanted the intellectuals gone.
Ukraine was two years into its independence from Russia when I was there, and I learned a lot about the horror they felt towards Russian.
Now this terrible war. That poor country; those poor people. Putin is an evil, evil man. I heard through mission contacts about rescue missions put together by former missionaries, and efforts to get family members and friends out of Ukraine when the invasion started. That was one blessing to joining the Church – American contacts went all out to help wherever possible.
@ Elisa–my husband served a mission in Spain in the early 90’s. Although he pretty much despises the church now, he still talks fondly about his time spent in Spain–mostly in Badajoz and Salamanca, with a bit of time in Caceres and Alcorcon. It’s interesting that he still finds value in his mission experiences, even if the religious reasons for which he was there no longer resonate. We are planning to go visit next summer as well.
I never served a mission, having married before I turned 21. Even at my most orthodox, I’ve never longed for a mission experience or regretted having not served. It all seems pretty awful to me, honestly. So I respect those who knew it wasn’t for them and either left early or didn’t go at all, and I equally respect those who toughed it out.
@pontius python, I have so many reactions to your comment and I’m sure it resonates with many people. I don’t have time to share all but one in particular is the idea of breaking up families.
When I was in Spain, there were a lot of immigrants who were legally married but had been separated from their spouses for ages and ages, and had been with new partners for ages and ages, but couldn’t get a legal divorce because of immigration & financial barriers. So we found ourselves in the same position of trying to insist that people break up from their long-time partners because they couldn’t legally marry them. (There were even thoughts tossed around as to whether we should help pay for divorces, but that too of course seemed very problematic.). I was uncomfortable with all of that at the time–what good comes from asking people who are committed to one another but not legally married because of legal technicalities to separate? How is that pro-family? I’m even more uncomfortable now.
Ditto to asking people who could barely afford to eat to quit their jobs so they could attend Church on Sundays, or to pay tithing when they couldn’t feed and clothe their children. Of course, I was convinced they’d be blessed for those sacrifices, but that’s very prosperity-gospel.
@Not a Missionary, I spent time in Badajoz (not many sisters did). That’s one of the areas with a fascinating history that I knew almost nothing about. That said, since I had a Spanish companion there, I was definitely pretty immersed in the culture.
I was a missionary in France. We were supposed to do a few hours a week of service. We met a priest who connected us to some Catholic service opportunities. He was different from the other priests (who didn’t like us) because he had been a banker before joining the priesthood and was open to working with Mormon missionaries. When he found out I was interested in French culture and had read Pascal’s Pensées, he gave me several boxes of classic French books that another priest gave him when joining a monastery. So I supplemented my scripture reading with Balzac, Zola, Hugo, Bernanos, medieval poems, and many more. His thoughtfulness is still moving, and my supplemental reading set me down a path that changed my life.
Regarding your second question, I think the teaching that we are all children of God and everyone gets a fair chance before God kept me seeing the best in others and appreciating their lives even though I had condescending views that centered on whether people joined the church or not. But underneath that condescension was a real appreciation for others that eventually won out when the condescension faded.
I think serving as an adult (21-22), and maybe just because of personal temperament, I was a little more interested in the culture than some of the younger missionaries were, but also I’m sure I didn’t know nearly as much as I do now, having been back a few times to both Spain and the Canary Islands. The islands are pretty unique, anyway, and a lot of the history is tied up in Columbus stopping there on his way to “discover” / exploit / conquer the “new world.” There was also a significant battle in Tenerife where Admiral Nelson lost his arm. And then there were the native people, the Guanche, a light-skinned, blond haired, blue eyed, stone age culture without seafaring technology who were conquered by the Spaniards in the 16th century. Even more than the history, quite a few of us bought books of poetry written by locals, and we loved eating the local food and asking questions of the members and investigators. I know this is not necessarily the norm because my husband also served there, does not own any local books from there, and didn’t even know the names of most of the local foods I couldn’t wait to eat again when we went back. I love travel, and I find culture interesting, so I did all the things you can do to soak it up (he does now too, but not so much at 19-21 with limited life experience). We ate in bars and talked to the locals during medio dia. I chatted up local restaurant owners to ask how business was. I made friends with the panaderos (bread sellers) and taxistas. We attended Catholic services and congratulated the priest on a good homily.
I do think that missionaries who were incredibly focused on their own ability to rise in the hierarchy or the “glory of the yellow sheet” saw the locals as a commodity and kept their meetings with them “transactional.” In colonization, we call this a “wealth pump,” using another nation as just resources to be mined, in this case “resources” = converts. Although my husband was not like that at all, I think a lot of the elders were just young and inexperienced and had lived somewhat sheltered lives. They often hung out with each other when they had downtime, and our mission had a lot of focus on avoiding the appearance of slacking, unless you had high results. If you had high results, nobody was going to bust your chops over it.
I learned a lot more than I had known before about Spanish history just in my trip there last summer. Spain really hasn’t been “Spain” longer than about 500 years. The Arabic roots make for some of the best food and architecture the world has to offer. We also did a brief tour in Granada through the Roma neighborhood outside the main part of the town–the houses are built in caves. It is a really unique and old culture. Another thing that’s amazing throughout Spain is that there are fresh water cisterns in all the old cities, and you can just fill up your water bottle wherever you are . That’s some excellent and very old city-planning! Since the islands are so different from the peninsula, I really only knew a little bit about mainland Spain from members, companions and investigators who were originally from there. My impression of Spain, coming from the islands, was that every city was completely different in terms of culture, food, customs, geography, and history, and there was a lot of city-based and regional pride. They didn’t come from Spain; they came from Galicia, Valencia or Andalusia.
The other thing I learned a lot more about by being in Spain last year was just how controversial Columbus is and was there. His brutality was viewed as intolerable by the royals, partly because he also brutalized the Spanish colonizers in addition to the natives, and he was stripped of his titles and a lot of his gold (there may have been more motives at play than just morality). The natives were viewed with geniune curiosity, but they were also viewed as a group of people the Spaniards could convert to Catholicism. And yet, in the Seville cathedral, Columbus is venerated in a gilded display that is really something to see! In that same Cathedral is an elaborate wall carving from floor to ceiling that includes a Spaniard gruesomely trampling on a Moor under the hooves of his horse. So, really, a lot of the best history is just all around you!
We always watch Rick Steves’ videos (they are all on YouTube) in preparation for our trips, and then we often watch a few other vloggers, but he’s the one that’s most comprehensive on food, culture, history, and architecture.
@Angela, the regional pride is VERY true. Madrid is something of a melting pot, but people (missionaries and ward members alike) were pretty clear on where they came from. Especially if they were from Andalusia or Basque country.
We had several missionaries from the Canaries in my mission (one of whom I was companions with).
Oh, yes! We had a Basque elder, and another one specifically from Pamplona. I wonder if we have any mutual acquaintances if you had missionaries from the Canaries!
Your pedantry notwithstanding, many of us English certainly do consider ourselves European, I know I do, even after Brexit.
I “served” in Paris in the mid 00s. Like others have said, it was probably equally educational for what I learned about culture in Brazzaville, Yaounde and Algiers as it was Paris, Orleans and Caen.
@Pontius Python, swap out Chile for Argentina in your story and that was practically my exact experience 15 years ago.
I vaguely knew about Pinochet before my mission from watching the 1982 movie “Missing” in a high school Spanish class and learned very little more while a missionary. Some members told me that the church flourished in Chile under his dictatorship, which was a shelf item for me at the time. Especially when as an American I was yelled at in the street by a guy who blamed me personally for the horrors of that dictatorship. Indeed, I learned also that some Chileans saw the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the US as karma for Americans since the US supported Pinochet’s rise to power, the coup d’etat occurring Sept 11, 1973. I remember seeing someone wearing a t-shirt referring to that karma and being extremely offended by it. Then I learned the historical facts after my mission and felt shame for having been a naive American telling people how to live their lives in a country that has every right to hate my American presence there. Remarkably most people I met actually really love Americans, which made the upset ones really stand out in my memory.
@Katie, thanks for that. I expect that most of the missions in the Southern Cone were that way, and all my words were saying nothing that readers of W&T didn’t already know. But sometimes you just gotta shout into the void, “this is the way it was”, right?
It was also a bit of a shelf item for me when I learned that missionaries continued to go to Argentina and go door-to-door during the worst of the Argentine dictatorships; I thought the cooperation with a brutal government was a really bad look for. the Church. Now I don’t feel like that’s such a problem. The Church is a relatively small organization with very little influence on public policy, more so in the mid-60s through mid-80s than now, and it had been in the country since the early 1930s. It has a responsibility to members in any given country to continue operations and it makes sense to try to keep as even of a keel as possible despite political turmoil, except when missionary lives are in danger. So keeping the missionary program going during the dictatorships isn’t cozying up to a brutal government, it’s just survival. As shelf items go, that one was easy to take off the shelf – if only all shelf items were that easy to retire. You probably came to the same conclusion about Church operation in Pinochet’s Chile long ago.
I second Steve’s recommendation of Cuentame. My husband’s loves it. Also, Amazon has a well-made drama series about El Cid. One I never finished because it was too intensely tragic for me was Cathedral By the Sea on Netflix, an excellent historic miniseries about medieval Spain, I think in Basque country. It’s based on a novel. Pan’s Labyrinth deals a little with the brutality of the Franco regime, although maybe in a more artistic than informative way. I learned a lot of Spanish history I wash ignorant of from Goya’s Ghosts.