For a kid from Provo, Utah, that “distant land” may well turn out to be Los Angeles. For a kid from upstate New York, it was Tokyo, Japan. This is certainly not to say that the narratives penned by ministers of other faiths possess less literary merit or a less interesting perspective. The Mormon missionary memoir measures itself only against its own historical standard: always the same, only different.
The typical missionary hails from North America and the suburban middle class, begins his service at the age of nineteen, and sallies forth with a thin comprehension of his religion (but making up for it with zeal to spare). In the end, he’s been there and done that with the rest of his peer group, been subject to the same institutional regimes and regimens, has dealt with the same heroes and jerks.
And yet the inescapable mystery remains—that these identical pressures and deformations, punishments and rewards, produce such wildly different products at the end of the spiritual assembly line.
The majority, to be sure, are spared any true physical hardships or trials of the soul. They carry purse and scrip and wear shoes made for walking. They are weekend warriors in a lay army. The work is the kind that prepares a young mind for the challenges of the post-industrial world: long, dull hours of often purposely pointless effort interrupted by occasional moments of inexplicable wonder and discovery.
These moments can propel them into the shocking embrace of a world completely different from everything they thought they knew. It can shake the complacency out of them, and a good complacency-shaking is what the average teenager needs.
This is not, of course, the stated purpose of the program—the stated purpose being Preaching the Gospel and Saving Souls. Alas, as a purely evangelical enterprise, the missionary program hardly constitutes the most efficient use of the church’s resources. The number of graduates from the Missionary Training Center has more than tripled since I spent my two months there—evidence of enormous success, one would think—except that baptisms per missionary have dropped by half over the same time period (and continue to fall).