Exactly 25 years ago, I completed a two-year mission for
the LDS church. In the final hours of my mission, I had the first of two
encounters with Robert D. Hales, of whom some of you might know.
First, some background. As an overachieving eldest child, I approached my
mission with the same fervor as my other endeavors growing up. I gave
everything. The Austria Vienna Mission is acknowledged as one of the most
difficult in the world. Certainly it is one of the least “successful” based
on conversion rates. But I pretended not to notice. I worked as hard as
anyone, knocking on countless doors, staying out till my body ached. I often
fell asleep, exhausted, during bedtime prayer. Like a maniac, I would study
German during the 60 seconds or so between doors, using 3x5 index cards.
But with understanding of language, comes understanding of culture, and I
came to realize that in Austria, what we were doing—approaching strangers on
the threshold of their homes and asking to come inside to discuss
religion—was not the way. But this is what our “inspired” mission president
commanded us to do, and I reluctantly dedicated myself to it.
I was soon promoted to District Leader. Then the call came to serve as
Mission Secretary. I worked alongside the Mission President in the mission
home (and felt my confidence in his abilities ebbing away as I did). Maybe
that’s why he later called me as Zone Leader. (kidding)
Being Zone Leader in Vienna was the Holy Grail for me. I had a year left at
this point, and I planned to make the most of it. My strategy was to work-in
new approaches to proselytizing alongside the dreaded tracting. I saw that
the urban setting offered a rich palate of opportunities for reaching out to
people. I got a city permit to set up an exhibit in the city’s main shopping
area. I spent time in parks playing chess or other games to connect with
people. Ate lunch in the university cafeteria. In other words, tried to be
less of a weirdo.
I’ll never forget the day I experienced the mother of all breakthroughs. I was
“splitting” with a newly arrived, astonishingly talented Elder with an
amazing singing voice. (He was a music student and today is an accomplished
opera singer with an impressive resume. I’m reluctantly withholding his name.
He was the pivotal player in our subsequent success—but I’m getting ahead of
We were in the main pedestrian zone in the central city, the
Fuessgaengerzone. It’s one of the truly awesome public places on the planet,
with a backdrop of stunning architecture and commercial activity, where
people from all over converge and celebrate. Street musicians are one of the
many entertainments, and it occurred to me that there might be an opportunity
for an aspiring opera singer in, well, the capital of opera. So I encouraged
this Elder to place himself somewhere and start singing.
As he somewhat nervously began to sing, the sweet floating melody of “Ave
Maria” stopped people in their tracks. We were stunned, and elated. After an
enthusiastic applause some people hung around and talked with us. At that
moment, I didn’t care if I didn’t knock on another door the rest of my
mission. It was like we had cracked the lock on the famous Austrian reserve.
But it didn’t stop there. We soon realized that there was an abundance of
talent in our zone, and we formed a singing group. We worked in a little
dancing, and appropriated a guitar, and wrote a couple of skits. You get the
picture. It was pretty innocuous: folk songs, a little opera, primary songs,
Saturday’s Warrior stuff, infused with small doses of comedy. It was
entertaining and we always attracted big crowds; sometimes a hundred people
or more would gather. We even got a write-up in the paper. We’d meet a couple
of times a week on the street and perform. Those missionaries that weren’t singing
worked the crowd, handing out pamphlets and getting into conversations. We
were giddy with the success—Austrians never, ever, let themselves be
approached like that in other contexts.
This is the kind of heady thing that today would be championship material on
“The Apprentice,” if not “American Idol.” :) But in the real world of mormon
missionary-ing, I was hanging myself. Rumors began to spread about those
disobedient Viennese elders who were having way too much fun and “breaking
the rules.” After a few weeks the Mission President decided to shut us down.
When I confronted him about it, he “busted” me as Zone Leader, and packed me
off to the farthest village in the mission, deep in the Austrian alps, as
junior companion. I had dared to have my own ideas, and I was going to pay.
Well, I didn’t knock on another door. Instead I spent the remaining 4 months
mostly hanging out, struggling with difficult questions. For the first time
in my life, I stopped to think. I was coming to understand that a person of
my disposition might not have a place in the church. But more importantly, I
was maturing in my beliefs. I was beginning to suspect that, if there was
indeed a God, the Mormon God might not be it.
For example, what God would direct its servants to continue knocking on doors
incessantly but unsuccessfully, yet expect a different result? Isn’t that
just the definition of insanity? Of course the obvious alternate explanation
is that it’s not about success, it’s about discipline and obedience. Well,
maybe so, but I was getting the feeling that I had been duped. That wasn’t
how it was explained to me before the mission. I was told that, when you obey
the commandments, you get rewarded for your sacrifice. But I was afraid the
only thing I was getting out of it was a huge future therapy bill as a result
of two years of mental, and yes, physical abuse.
It didn’t help that during this time, I was invited by a member of a cult
(Hare Krishna) to discuss religion. It was a weird conversation, and I
remember thinking as I left how thankful I was not to be in a cult, and as I
had these thankful thoughts I had this funny feeling.
Well, fast forward now to the last day of my mission. I’m sitting in an
all-mission conference—every elder in the mission is there. And Elder Robert
D. Hales, the European Administrator and General Authority, is presenting an
inspired new program that is going to guarantee the longed-for and
well-deserved increase in the baptismal rate. And it’s basically just a fancy
new reporting system with more door-knocking involved. At some point, I ask
if tracting might not be…well, you know the rest. It went down like a load of
bricks. Two other senior elders publicly ridiculed me and basically called me
lazy. Hales was giving me the eye the whole time.
Later, because I’m a groveling idiot, I approached Hales in the hallway and
asked if he had a moment. He started to walk off, mumbling something about
having somewhere to go and basically making clear that the last thing he was
going to do was waste his time with someone like me. So I just started
talking. I said calmly that I had been a dedicated missionary and that I
didn’t understand how there could be such animosity toward me. His reply was
that I needed to work harder at having the spirit.
The following week, I’m in Frankfurt, Germany with my mom, who grew up there.
We’re visiting relatives on the way home from the mission. I once spent a
summer here when I was 17, and ever since then I’ve thought it would be cool
to find a job here and live for a while. Maybe even go to college here.
Well, as fate would have it, I hear though the grapevine about a possible job
at the Church’s European Headquarters, which happens to be in Frankfurt. So I
call, and the personnel director is interested. He interviews me and ends up
offering me a job. So three weeks later, I’m back in Germany. Now remember,
the big boss here is--you guessed it--Elder Hales. And he sees me in the
hallway. He doesn’t greet me, but he goes to the personnel director and tells
him that I will not be working there.
When I ask the personnel director to give me an explanation, he suggests that
I talk to Elder Hales myself and sends me down the hall. The secretary lets
me in, and Hales has me come into his office. I sit down.
His first question is: What are you doing here? So I explain that I have
roots here. He is not impressed.
I end up getting a lecture that amounts to this: I have no business
“returning to my mission field.” (I try to explain that Germany and Austria
are actually two entirely different countries and not the same mission at
all. This doesn’t work.) My place is in the States. I need to be married
within a year.
He asks: “Do you realize that if you are here, and you get married like
you’re supposed to, that you will likely end up marrying a German?”
At this point my heart is beating very fast. Not only does this guy seem to
be suggesting that there is something wrong with Germans, but he is telling
me where to live, when to get married, who to marry (or, not marry), and
where I will work (or, not work). The whole thing smacks of totalitarianism.
He thinks he can order me around like I was still a missionary, like he still
owned me. My mouth is dry, and my thoughts are like a cassette tape getting
pulled out and left on the floor in a tangled mess.
Then this realization rises from deep inside: some 40 years earlier, in a
place very near here, my grandfather would have felt the same way, as the
Fuhrer ordered him into the Reichsarmee to fight a perverse war for a
criminal, totalitarian regime. His last words to his young family, when they
told him to “come back soon,” were: “The good men don’t come back, only the
bad.” I know he meant this as a joke, but at this moment, sitting in front of
this man who claims to have total authority over me, it cuts me to the bone.
Postscript: I left the Mormon Cult not long after this incident. I stayed in
Germany for another six years. They were some of the “best years of my life”
and that is truly one of the best decisions I ever made. I eventually
enrolled in the Polytechnic University in Frankfurt and received a degree in
architecture. Today I have a thriving practice and I love my profession. And
yes, I got married in Germany—but to a Dutch girl, so I guess that’s o.k. :)
Mr. Hales has gone on to become an Apostle and who knows—maybe he’ll be the
“prophet” one day!