Bramovich: In The Missionary Position

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“Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of (another)… There are just some kind of men who – who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.”

– Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockinbird

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Here I was sitting on my terrace in Luzon one afternoon, partaking of refreshment and generally minding my own business.  Then there was a knock at the gate.  I was caught, they had me sprung, there was nowhere I could hide – the Mormons had come to visit.  To this day I’m unsure if there was something in my rum and coke that there shouldn’t have been but I was feeling friendly so I invited them in to sit a while.  I held them captive for a solid 2 hours while I got to understand why it was that a 19 year old from Arizona would decide to come and spend 2 years in the Philippines and asked more about what is involved in their day to day lives.

They had most certainly chosen the wrong gate to knock on, I am one of the fiercest and most ardent atheists that most people will ever meet and after the requisite display of baby eating, dusting off my Ouija board and telling them not to even dream about trying to convert me (to my surprise) it turned into a reasonably interesting conversation.

Before I  continue, a bit of history

The Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) has a long history in the Philippines, in fact it goes way back to 1898 and the Spanish-American war.  Two US servicemen who also happened to be mormons in addition to their day jobs in the artillery battery were set apart and began performing outreach in the country.  These early pioneers of the LDS in the Philippines were Willard Call and George Seaman.

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Efforts at missionary work continued throughout World War II but the church did not properly establish itself in the Philippine Islands until 1955, legal problems further held up getting missionaries established in the country until 1961 and the church has been operating here ever since.  According to church reports there were just under 700,000 mormons in the country as of 2013.

Of their 21 missions it would appear that one is very close to the author’s house as we regularly see them in the streets in teams of two, generally one foreigner and one local.  I have always wondered about them and what it is that makes them tick.   On this particular day it appears I was just pissed enough to make the effort.

I really don’t like, respect (or trust) missionaries

bookofmormon

 

My attitude to missionaries has always been really quite straightforward, I have one in the family as a matter of fact so I’ve had some exposure to their approach – if I could sum up my thoughts on that particular member of God’s army they would involve words like arrogant, sinfully rich and wasted life.  As a rule I have slightly less respect and a lot less time for them than I do for anyone who crosses my path with a mandate to invade a culture and force their views on the population.  This is the first time in my life that I’ve ever bothered to have a discussion with one and I was pretty shocked by what I discovered.

Firstly, at no stage during the conversation did this particular chap attempt to convert me.  I had given him fair warning and he heeded it.  This is a first for me as my experience of most religious people is that they are a bit like Amway distributors.  Their approach is to overpower their prey, beat them about the head with their opinions until they are either eventually chased away with a big stick or their quarry eventually submits to their desires.  By the time we’d finished our little dance I was left having learned something new, a number of things new in fact and I even went so far as to invite him over sometime for a BBQ.

The first thing I learned is that you can actually get a work permit in the Philippines if you come here as a missionary.  I did wonder if that would also apply to someone who was not professing to share the word of a Christian God but that’s obviously not a question that this guy was going to be able to answer for me. Perhaps I could found an atheist mission?  See if I can get some of the boys from the pub back home for a bit of a knees up?  Anyway, I digress.  The next thing I discovered was that, while coffee and tea were big no-nos, a glass of coke is all good with God.  

This struck me as a bit of a contradiction but as I sat there and watched these guys nail some of my rum mixer with great and furious gusto I asked the question.

“Why can’t you drink coffee or tea but you can apparently drink other caffeinated products?” Predictably there was no answer forthcoming to this question other than “it says so in the book”.  I moved on lest I become embroiled in one of my rants about religious scripts and their endless string of contradictions.  

“I miss the Internet”

I didn’t want to do that because, once again to my shock, I was quite enjoying the conversation.  I broke the stalemate by suggesting we all do some shots, offered them a cigarette and told them why we had to keep the kittens away from the monkey – then our little chat continued.  It came to pass that one of the things that this young lad really missed was the Internet.  I looked at him quizzically (never considering for a moment that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints would send young men across the planet to a foreign country and then restrict their access to information) and asked him what he meant.

Each Monday evening the missionaries are given computer access (no smartphones allowed).  These computers are restricted to an email system so they can contact their families and the church websites.  No real news, no useful information – nothing apart from what the church deems appropriate for the consumption of their chosen shepherds.

He then said (and this was really the only time that I noticed a hint of bitterness in his voice) that members of the church could read what they liked, but not those involved in the mission.

In many ways this served to confirm my long held distrust of the church and their approach to information, instead of getting annoyed (I’d had quite a few Tanduays by this stage of play) I thought I’d dig deeper.  I also changed tack a bit.  I said to him that in my opinion it would seem that their (the missionaries) remit here is to be leaders in the community, to help people and do good things.  How is it possible to do this if they are less well informed about the world than the people they are supposed to be leading?  To this he had no response, he also admitted that if the mission was any longer than 2 years it would be far too much to take.  

The conversation occurred at the very end of June and he knew very little about Trump getting the republican nomination, I was the one who informed him about the Brexit vote – these are two examples of just how cloistered the LDS keep their missionaries while they’re out doing God’s good work in strange and foreign lands.

If you flip the lid and look at it from the perspective of the church itself, the policy makes perfect sense.  The better informed people are the harder they are to control.  I did put this position to him and once again was met without a response.   Our chat then moved to his reasons for being here, why he desired to be a missionary and what motivated him to make the decision that he’d made to leave hearth and home and come out here into the endless tumult of developing South East Asia.

Isn’t it Ironic, don’t you think?

I think when I asked him this question I was expecting him to say something along the lines of “spreading the word God” or some such other tripe.  Again, to my surprise, he was honest.  His parents had taught him what to believe, his brother had worked as a missionary before and everyone thought it was a good idea. Naturally my next question for him was to ask him what he’d gotten out of the experience (at the date of our conversation he was almost exactly half way through a 2 year stint).  He looked at me with a wry smile and said, “I’m not sure if I should say this, it’s actually kind of ironic.”  Eyes locked on mine he finished the statement with “I’ve become so interested in other cultures.”

To feel guilt about getting exactly what anyone should get out of travel and experiencing the world is something I find a little unfortunate.  At least he is getting it though.  I have my doubts that this particular young man is going to become a lifelong member of any religion, I got the impression he would rather have been sitting around in shorts and a t-shirt necking a beer.  I would like to extend to him my congratulations though.  

I’ll also refrain from naming him as I wouldn’t want him to find himself in any hot water with his church.  Why will I congratulate him?  He is the first missionary that I’ve ever given the time of day – that includes the one who carries the same surname as me.  He also taught me something, they’re not all just bible bashing idiots, I genuinely got the impression from this young man that he is on a quest for knowledge, I can only hope I played some small part in that.

Dave Bramovich is a nutty nomad and a professional author who can only be referred to as a militant atheist.  He’d love to hear from you on your thoughts on the missionary position in the comments at the bottom of this post.

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