John K. Williams is a professional writer and editor and worked for two years as curriculum editor for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He also blogs at Runtu.wordpress.com and recently released a memoir, Heaven Up Here, about the church mission he served in Bolivia. He’ll be speaking Saturday at the annual Sunstone Symposium (July 25-28, University of Utah Union, 200 S. Central Campus Drive), which brings together traditional and non-traditional church members to discuss faith and social issues. Williams will be on a panel discussing the topic “Who gets to say what former Mormons are like?” and will also be presenting a paper on “Sins of Omission: Spinning the Missionary Experience.”
What does the church say about people who have left the church?
If you ever leave, your life is going to go to hell in a handbasket. You’re going to lose your family, everything is going to go wrong, you’ll become an alcoholic. ... What bothers me is, people tell me there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way, and usually the right way is to shut up and move on. If you talk about it at all, you’re “bitter and angry; you can leave the church but you can’t leave it alone.” You can be as nice as you want to and you still can be seen as that. People act like if you don’t believe in the church anymore, suddenly you don’t know anything about it. You have no memory of the doctrines, and you don’t know what it’s like to be a Mormon. It’s like you have this amnesia all of a sudden.
Is it easy for the church—which has one central message—to combat the many different messages from former church members?
It’s just a different perspective; in the old days it was all Evangelical Christians attacking the church, and they knew how to handle that. Now there are ex-Mormons who are Evangelical Christians, but two-thirds of the people I know who have left the church are atheists. I don’t think [the church] knows how to handle the more secular approach to things. The information is out there …
What led you to question the church?
I probably for 10 years knew a lot of the issues, the problematic stuff—and there’s a lot of problematic stuff. And one day out of the blue I was in my office, working in Texas, and a friend of mine who worked at the Church Office Building called me and said, “I was having lunch with these guys, and they told me some stuff that really freaked me out, and I don’t know what to do about it. They said that Joseph Smith went up to a couple of families and said, ‘If you want to have your family with you in the Celestial Kingdom, you’ll give me your teenage daughter.’” He said, “That’s not true, is it?” And I said, “Yeah, that’s true.” And he said, “Well, they also said that he would send people on missions and hook up with their wives once they were gone. That’s not true, is it?” And I said, “Yes, that is true.” He asked, “Is the church still true?” And it just hit me, I was defending something … if this were anybody else but Joseph Smith, there’s no way I would have said that this was right and appropriate, and so I said, “You know, that’s something you’ll have to answer for yourself.”
A lot of people get angry at the church because they feel they were lied to. I got angry because I realized that for years I knew deep down that something wasn’t right, and still I rationalized and justified things I shouldn’t have. I sold my conscience for the LDS Church, and it still bothers me a lot when I think about it.
What led you to write a book about your mission in Bolivia, years after the fact?
I didn’t intend to write a book. I was telling my friend a story, and he said, “You should write that down.” So I did, and I just couldn’t stop writing for about six weeks. And it was really cathartic, ’cause a lot of things I hadn’t thought about, or hadn’t allowed myself to think about, just came out. You really do get in the habit of telling just the faith-promoting stuff. You can sort of tell funny stories, but you can tell the difficult stuff only in terms of some adversity that you overcame.
When I finally put the book out, one of my friends from the mission called me like two days later, and said, “I finished your book, I cried all the way through it. I hadn’t thought about so much, I hadn’t allowed myself to think about it, or feel it, or remember it, and when I read the book, it all came out.” And even people who didn’t go to my mission said basically the same thing. That’s when I got the idea for this presentation.
The only other time in my life before now that I even let myself think those things was about three years after I came home. My wife and I were sitting in a restaurant, and the radio was on, and it said two missionaries had been murdered in Bolivia. It was like somebody had punched me in the stomach. For three days, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat; all of this stuff that I’d shoved down inside just came flooding out. You’d have people throwing rocks at you or yelling at you, and you’d think, “Why do people who don’t know me hate me so much?” but you didn’t let yourself think about that. And after the three days I just kind of put it all back.
Are missionaries told to have a positive report when they return?
There’s definitely pressure when you go home that you don’t ever say anything that might discourage something. So many people said the same thing—either they were told not to say anything negative, or they self-censored. You don’t want to be the one guy who gets up in Sacrament meeting and says, “It was really tough, and I didn’t really like it, and we had a lot of pressure to baptize people.” There’s an expectation of a homecoming talk—you talk about spiritual experiences you had, you talk about the people and the culture, and if you went to a foreign-speaking country, you’re supposed to bear your testimony in another language. It’s a pretty standard template, and I don’t know anybody who’s ever gotten up there and said, “OK, let me lay it on the line.”
One of my friends who was in my mission said that our mission president told him that he had one piece of advice, and that was to never, ever, say anything negative about Bolivia or the mission. He said that when he went home, his bishop asked to give a presentation to the Priests Quorum, and he said, “You’ve got to be prepared for things. You might be in a country where the living conditions are terrible, or in a place where people don’t like Americans, or don’t like Mormons.” And he said after the meeting, his bishop called him in the office and said, “We’re supposed to be encouraging these guys to go on missions. Don’t ever do that again.” And he said it was a real shock to him, because he thought he was doing a service.
What are some misconceptions people have about missions?
It seems to me that in the press, at least outside of Utah, they’re either really ripping on Mormons, or they’re just following the church’s PR instructions. There have been lots of articles in small-town local papers about “these Mormon missionaries in our town,” and what they do and where they come from. A couple of months ago The New York Times did an article about Mormon missionaries in Uganda. It could’ve been any of those small-town papers. It was exactly like you would expect the church to write it. It was weird, and it bugged me, and so I thought, “Somebody needs to talk about what it’s really like.” In The Book of Mormon musical, you have these wide-eyed boys who are going out there because they deeply, deeply believe … that’s not always the case. People go out for all kinds of reasons.
I have a friend who’s from Germany, and he was telling me that the single biggest factor in whether a German Mormon young man stays active is whether or not he went on a mission—and it’s not what you would expect. Those who go on a mission, they’re out. They grow up, they’re in this little church, and they have General Authorities coming in all the time telling them how great they are, how faithful they are, and then they get out on the mission, and they deal with getting yelled at, and getting all the pressure, and it’s not the church that they knew.
I was the travel secretary in my mission, and we were sending home this huge group of missionaries—there were like 18 of them. And some of those guys weren’t good missionaries and they weren’t really good Mormons, either. And I remember thinking to myself, “These guys are going to go home, they’re going to give their homecoming talk, and as far as everybody in their ward is concerned, all those 18 missionaries were all the same kind of great missionary.” And when I was working for the church, I saw an article in the Ensign where some guy was talking about being on a mission in Bolivia, and this miraculous event that happened, and I looked down at the name and … this guy was not a good missionary; I’m surprised he’s still in the church. But you go home and everybody says the same thing, and people say, “Oh, you’ve just changed so much and grown up so much.” And … maybe not.
What are some of the things you concealed about your mission?
I lied in every letter I sent home. The first six months we didn’t have running water, so I was dirty all the time. I got really sick. I lost about 30 pounds. My letters home, they were just, “Oh, everything’s going great, we’re teaching so and so.” My journal entries for the same time, almost all of them start out with, “Today sucked.” I didn’t tell my parents anything. There was a guy who was in my mission, and was from a neighboring stake in California, and I asked him if he would take some things home for my parents. He went over to my house, and they asked him how I was doing. He said, “The last time I saw him he was really sick. Skinny and not doing well at all.” My dad was so pissed off at me. He said, “Don’t ever lie to me like that again.” But of course I did—I lied in every letter. And I feel bad about that. But you’re told in the MTC, “The letters home should be positive, and you don’t want to give your parents anything to be concerned about.” So I didn’t.
I don’t want to make it sound like it was this horrifying experience, because it wasn’t. What I’m trying to do with this presentation is say that we only get one side of it. Despite how hard it was and how disillusioning it was in so many ways, I’m glad I went. It’s weird, but it’s like I finally, for the first time in my life, I realized that I was a lot tougher than I thought I was, and I could handle things that I didn’t think I could handle.
Did you self-censor when writing in your missionary journal?
There are certain things that I didn’t write about. One of the things that now I think about that is kind of appalling is that our mission president when I got to Bolivia said, “I don’t care about conversion numbers. The only conversions I care about are the missionaries. If you’re converted, everything will take care of itself.” And then a year later, we get told, “We’re setting a goal this month for 600 baptisms.” It just seemed like such a reversal. We had a lot of pressure to produce numbers. Those were things you didn’t talk to your parents about.
We had a monthly newsletter that had all the companionships in descending order of how many baptisms they had. There was a zero page, a separate page with all the companions with no baptisms. That led to a lot of abuses. In our mission it led to a lot of people who had no business being baptized as Mormons being baptized. We’d interview people for a baptism and say, “Tell me about Joseph Smith,” and they’d say, “Who?” They didn’t know anything about the church. The elders would get them to church once, and then they’d baptize them that afternoon. And 9 times out of 10 you’d never see them again.
What do you hope people gain from hearing your presentation or reading your book?
I don’t know what to do other than to let people know that not everybody fits that mold that “I went and had the best two years of my life.” We used to say in our mission, “If this is the best two years of our lives, we’re screwed.” It wasn’t like hell on earth, but it was tough, and there were some disheartening and some disillusioning things about it. Nobody ever talks about, “Yeah, we had a general authority visit, and he yelled at us for an hour.” Nobody says, “Yeah, we got ripped on because we didn’t have enough baptisms or enough discussions or whatever.” Institutionally, it’s so focused on numbers that you kind of get lost in the cogs.
What do you think of the recent MTC controversy in Provo?
There was an editorial in the Herald where they said that church members in the neighborhood had never experienced this, where the church had stepped in and said, “Do this.” And the first thought I had was, “Well, that’s because they’ve never had occasion to say no before.” They like to control the message, and it’s a very top-down structure.