Excerpted from The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary by William Shunn, available now!
At the tap on my shoulder I jerked my head. “Elder Shunn, you’re up,” whispered Elder Rosenberg.
Time for my intake interview.
I stood and picked my way through the cluster of folding chairs in the darkened front room. The apes—a.p.’s, or assistants to the president—had drawn the heavy drapes and were nattering on about mission procedures, with transparency sheets and an overhead projector as aids. Elder Fearing and Elder Hardy had cheerfully announced that each of us would have 70 proselytizing hours a week to look forward to, at least eighteen of them knocking on doors. Ten solid Book of Mormon placements would be the minimum weekly goal, along with six first discussions. The monthly goal would be two convert baptisms.
I hated talking to strangers, let alone about religion. Two years of this? Who was I kidding? I’d be lucky to last two weeks.
Near the doorway watching the proceedings sat Sister Tuttle, a short, round woman in her late fifties with carefully coiffed hair in store-bought auburn. She smiled up at me and took my hand.
“He loves missionaries, Elder Shunn,” she whispered, meaning her husband. “You’ll be fine.”
I looked back at the other ten greenies—nine elders and one sister—mostly teenagers like me, indistinct and unformed in the grainy gray light. The boys wore dark suits and ties, Sister Crowley a pullover sweater, conservative skirt, and low-heeled shoes. Black plastic name tags adorned our chests. We had just spent three intense weeks together in the spiritual boot camp that was the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah—living in dorms, eating cafeteria food, and being drilled in the arts of preaching, persuasion, and conversion. After solemn farewells to family and friends that morning at Salt Lake International, we had boarded our flight north to Calgary with backslapping bravado. Two hours later we stood on Canadian ground, clutching work visas in our sweaty, anxious hands. It was real. We were missionaries now.
I ghosted down a hallway of whitewashed cinder block. Outside it might be sunny, but gloom ruled this dim limbo. Soft voices murmured from cubicles nearby as the elderly office staff kept business rolling. I touched my back pocket with longing but didn’t take out my wallet. I was trying to ration the time I spent staring at Katrina, and at the special scrap of chewing-gum foil stashed behind her photos.
I passed the front foyer, with its framed painting of Jesus Christ. How disconnected from the accompanying photographs of the prophet and his counselors it seemed, how much less real than those three old men with their mild smiles and expensive suits. Like a television program shot part on film and part on tape, the elements didn’t quite harmonize.
But Christ in heaven was the living, breathing head of our church, however difficult I found it to imagine. A straight line ran from him to our new prophet, Ezra Taft Benson, then down through the apostles and other General Authorities directly to J. Matheson Tuttle, mission president. Outside whose office door, open a crack, I now stood.
My stomach knotted. Deep breath. “Remember, always obey your mission president,” my father had told me at the airport. “He’s a man of God.”
I straightened my suit jacket, arranged my face into a mask, and knocked.
“Come in,” President Tuttle chirped. He stood as I entered, reaching over his desk, a round man of sixty or so. His hand was soft but his grip firm. “Let’s kneel, Elder Shunn. Will you offer the prayer?”
The office was small, crowded with bookshelves and filing cabinets. Despite the open blinds behind him, the space felt oppressively shadowed and intimate. He hitched up the legs of his black pinstriped trousers as he knelt beside the desk, where I joined him.
“Our dear Father which art in heaven,” I fumblingly intoned, “we give thanks to thee this day for the many blessings thou hast given us, for our lives and our families and our knowledge of thy true gospel, and most of all this day for the opportunity to serve thee in the mission field. We ask thy Spirit to be with us during this meeting and through all our work, that we may be diligent and fruitful in bringing many souls unto the light of thy truth. These things we pray for in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, amen.”
My ears burned as we rose and seated ourselves across the desk from each other. My words had rung hollow and rote, with no trace of the closeness to God I sometimes felt during my personal prayers. If this interview was a chess match, mine was hardly an impressive opening gambit.
“Shunn, Shunn,” President Tuttle said absently, smiling. “From Kaysville, Utah. I know I’ve heard that name before. What does your father do?”
“He teaches school. Junior high, in Bountiful.”
“We used to live there! What does he teach?”
“Wood and metal shop.”
His mouth popped open in an O of wonder. “I think a couple of my boys might have had him for class.”
Tuttle was not a handsome man, with his balding head and beaked nose, but he radiated a magnetic good cheer. I wanted to bask like a lizard in the warmth of his attention. At the same time, I needed desperately to conceal from him my true self, my inner infidel.
“Small world,” I said.
“Small church. But that’s what’s we’re here to change, eh, Elder?” he said, eyes twinkling behind large wire-rimmed glasses. He indicated the neat stacks of papers and folders on his desk. “You’ve made quite an impression on your leaders back home, you know. Your bishop and stake president both wrote highly complimentary letters about you. They seem to think you’re a natural leader.”
“Thank you.” I hungered for a glimpse of those letters, those warm words of praise. I could have read them upside-down as we talked, given the opportunity. “That’s very kind.”
Tuttle’s eyes crinkled but not his mouth. “Oh, don’t thank me. Their opinions are helpful, but I keep my own counsel.” Before the sting had sunk in, he lowered his voice and asked, “Are you glad to be here, Elder Shunn?”
I had endured interviews with church leaders for most of my life, like all Mormon boys—before baptism at eight, before ordination as a deacon at twelve, before admission to the temple at eighteen, and at least once a year otherwise for routine checkups. The purpose was to assess my preparedness and moral worthiness for whatever milestone came next in my spiritual development.
But this was more than that. President Tuttle, a stranger to me, would use this brief interview to assess my potential as a missionary. On the basis of my responses and his perceptions, he would assign me my first companion and proselytizing area. My comportment here could spell the difference between a plum posting and miserable exile. A thousand miles from home, this interview would set the tone for the next two years of my life.
Of course, Tuttle would also rely on prayer in making his decisions. As Fearing and Hardy had told us more than once since picking us up at the airport, “Prez is inspired.” It was a mantra I would hear time and again as a missionary, meaning our president was a man of God whose every decision was guided by the whisperings of the Holy Spirit. My fate might already be set, predetermined by the Lord, no matter what I said here.
But maybe not.
So, was I glad to be here? Of course not. I was nineteen. I had plans. I had stories and novels to write. I had Katrina. I had two years of college under my belt, and in two more years I could be done. The thought of all that lost time and opportunity made me ill. But I couldn’t say that.
Solemnly I bobbed my head. “Oh, yes. Very glad.”
Tuttle tilted his head like a great bird of prey. Was that a glint of suspicion in his eye? The Spirit might that moment be whispering to my inspired leader that I was a liar. My palms prickled. Which was worse for my soul, lying to the Lord or confessing the awful truth?
His brow furrowed. “Are you trunky at all, Elder? You know, homesick?”
“Well, sure,” I said, shrugging. A partial truth for misdirection. “A little.”
He nodded. “That’s perfectly natural, and you’ll get over it soon enough. Believe me, there’s nothing like losing yourself in the work of the Lord to take your mind off home.”
“You are his representative now. It’ll help to remember that at all times.”
Christ’s representative. That made me part of the great church hierarchy too, heir to a portion of the same power possessed by President Tuttle and everyone above him. Another profundity I couldn’t wrap my head around. I nodded as if in deep concentration.
Tuttle leaned forward, hands clasped on the desktop. “Now, what particular experience do you have that you think is going to help you be an effective missionary?”
“Well, I’ve studied a lot,” I said, flailing for answers better than the ones that came to mind. “I know the scriptures fairly well. I do a pretty good job speaking in church.”
“Any retail experience? Any door-to-door?”
“Uh, not really.” I scratched my cheek, nonplussed. These were not the usual worthiness questions. “I sold candy to help us go to scout camp once.”
“Hmm. Management experience?”
Management? I hadn’t even finished college yet. “Deacons quorum president, I guess? And I was senior patrol leader in my scout troop.”
“Eagle scout, right?”
“Yes. At thirteen.”
He nodded, his tone encouraging. “That’s good, that’s something. Now, what do you think your weaknesses are as a missionary?”
“Oh . . . well.” Besides not wanting to be a missionary? “I guess I’m pretty reserved. I don’t really talk or relate all that well to people I don’t know.”
Tuttle waved a hand. “A few days in the field and you’ll get over that. Now, judging from your school grades, you have quite an aptitude for languages. Are you sorry you ended up being sent to Canada?”
In this question lurked more traps than Indiana Jones had faced in any jungle tomb. “As opposed to . . . ?”
“Oh, maybe someplace more . . . exciting? Someplace you could learn a language?”
My closest friends had been called to places like Brazil, Japan, Norway, Thailand, Italy. I was a long way from Quebec, so my three years of French apparently counted for little to whoever made mission assignments at church headquarters. Either that or it was evidence that the Lord really did dictate mission calls to the prophet. Why squander my value in an English-speaking mission unless I was needed here for a reason?
I tried to erase all traces of resentment from my reply. “I was a little disappointed at first, sure. But I prayed about it, and . . . well, it’s like something my mom pointed out. I’m a writer, and English is my tool. It’s the language I’m best at.”
“Good answer,” Tuttle said, nodding. He was already speaking quietly but lowered his voice further. I had to lean forward to hear better. “Now, do you have a testimony of the gospel, Elder?”
There. The crux of any priesthood interview. To a Mormon, a testimony is one’s inner conviction of the truthfulness of the church. Saying you have a testimony implies that diligent study and prayer have instilled in you an unshakeable assurance that the Book of Mormon and the gospel of Jesus Christ as restored by the prophet Joseph Smith are true, correct, and authored by God. Such a statement takes as given that spiritual inquiries, like the scientific, must yield in predictable fashion to empirical attack.
Did I have a testimony? After a lifetime of wrestling with that question, I still couldn’t be certain. I had felt chills of awe many times at the power or beauty of a passage of scripture, or at a fellow Saint’s spoken testimony, or during fervent prayer, but was that the same as the burning in the bosom, imparted by the Holy Ghost, that made truth known to man? How was I to tell?
When I was honest with myself, I had to admit I didn’t know the church was true. No, I feared it was true. Most of the people I knew regarded their knowledge of the gospel as the greatest blessing and privilege that could ever have entered their lives, but to me that knowledge was a curse. I resented the burden it placed upon me, and I envied the less restrictive lives that less enlightened people lived. I wished fervently for ignorance, for the freedom that truth banished.
So. Did I have a testimony of the gospel?
“Yes,” I said firmly. A testimony of the most perverse sort, rooted in pessimism and despair, but a testimony nonetheless.
“Good,” said President Tuttle. “And do you have a testimony of Joseph Smith? Of the Book of Mormon?”
I hedged a little. Partial honesty would come across as more sincere. “A pretty good one, yes. I keep working on it.”
“Do you love the Lord, Elder?”
Mouth dry. “Of course I do.”
“You have a girlfriend at home?”
Though I didn’t want to hear whatever he had to tell me on the subject, there was no point in lying. Like so much else, this tidbit was no doubt tucked away in one of those file folders.
Come to think of it, my father’s occupation must have been in there too.
“Is it serious?”
It had always been serious for me, but I hadn’t understood how seriously Katrina took it until that very morning, at Salt Lake International.
“Fairly serious,” I admitted.
“Do you want to marry her?”
A pit yawned inside me. President Tuttle’s attention had long since ceased to warm me. The wallet burned in my back pocket.
“Elder?” he prompted. “Do you plan to marry this girl?”
Was this his gift of discernment, peering at last into my lying soul?
I shook my head. “I don’t think we’ve thought that far ahead,” I said, keeping my face blank.
He looked at me hard without speaking. Maybe one of the other missionaries—Elder Vickers, for instance—had already told him otherwise, ratted me out. I held his gaze and volunteered nothing more.
At last he moved on. “Any unresolved transgressions you might have let slide in talking to your bishop back home, or to your branch president at the MTC?”
He meant sins of a sexual nature, which required confession and heavy penance. A serious enough sin might even get me sent back home until the repentance process was complete. But whether out of virtue or timidity, I’d never tried to go further than first base with any girl, not even Katrina. I might have committed a few furtive acts of onanism during my three weeks at the Missionary Training Center, but I didn’t feel particularly inclined to admit this.
President Tuttle turned X-ray eyes upon me. For a moment I felt certain he was about to contradict me.
“Let me tell you something, Elder,” he said, his voice a steel rail. “There are more ways to transgress with a girl than just physically, particularly when you’re a missionary. This girl of yours—what’s her name again?”
“Katrina.” Answering felt like betraying a secret, but again I’m sure he had that information already.
“Write to Katrina once a week, and the rest of the time put all thoughts of her away. Let the Lord worry about her for you while you’re gone. These two years are his time. Now that you’ve put on the black name tag, your only concern is saving souls. Dwelling on romantic feelings at this time in your life will rob you of your focus, rob you of the Spirit, and ultimately rob the Lord of the best work you can give him. This is why it’s so vitally important that missionaries avoid all involvement with members of the opposite sex. The Adversary is sneaky and trips us up through our natural inclinations.” He folded his hands on the desk and frowned. “Are you familiar with the Fifty-eighth Section of the Doctrine and Covenants?”
“I—I believe so?”
“ ‘Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness.’ The Lord said this to Joseph Smith. Do you recognize this verse?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Don’t forget it, Elder Shunn. Stay anxiously engaged. Don’t give yourself time to brood about your past life.” He leaned across the desk, beaming now, an expanding sun moving too close to the earth. “And remember, if you ever feel your priorities getting out of alignment, I’m always available to talk.”
He rose, came around the desk, and knelt, gesturing for me to join him in a brief prayer, which he offered. When we stood again he swept me into a bear hug.
“I’m going to have my eye on you, Elder Shunn,” he said, as if this were a good thing. “Never doubt it. Would you send in Elder Nash next, please?”
Troubled, I shambled back along the hallway. The scrap of foil in my wallet, folded twice lengthwise, was a twin to the one I’d wrapped around Katrina’s ring finger not six hours earlier. However unwittingly, President Tuttle had nailed my biggest preoccupation.
I was anxiously engaged.
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