When we first meet, we hug our mothers goodbye, and we take consolation that we are many, an entire army, dressed in dark, plain skirts, hose, and flat shoes, with our nametags, "Sister—," placed on our right lapels, marking us for the next eighteen months. Our mothers linger next to the doorway, casting their eyes over the many of us. Some of us have younger siblings—some are five or six years old. Some of them are older and we are aunts, the small blobs of babies being held up and forced to wave goodbye. Some of us cry. We slide closer together as we sing, "We have been born, as Nephi of old, to Goodly parents who love the Lord." Our voices echo over the hallway—the soprano lilts, the altos, the men on the other side, their voices what we have always heard, "We have been taught, and we understand, that we must do as the Lord commands." We are here, in the Provo Missionary Training Center, starting the service we will be carrying forever into the future. Some of us shouldn't be here, but we don't know this now. Right now, what we are doing is right.
When we introduce ourselves, our questions revolve around where we are going rather than where we are from. We engage in a series of speculations—what the weather will be like, how the people will be, whether or not there will be any difficulties with the language. Some of us have spent the last few months in anticipation, pouring over Google sources and maps, talking to our well-traveled non-member friends about their previous missionary experience.
We tend to crowd around each other, taking in each detail—the smudge on a skirt, the light touch of eyeliner, a spatter of freckles on cheekbones, the shape of a chin, a thin torso, a set of thick legs with pale nylons and sturdy shoes. Some of us have grown up fiercely protected, like exquisite china dolls. We didn't work before coming here, and our mothers bought our clothing for us. Some of us have never driven a car. Some of us have never had a bank account. These details erase where we are from—Sandy, Pleasant Grove, Provo, Boise—and instead, we become one unanimous entity—no beginning, no end—defined by a place where we have never set foot.
We can't help but notice the awe that a sister receives when she announces she has been called to serve in Japan, Finland, Russia, the Cote d'Ivoire, Argentina. Perhaps she is more faithful if she has to learn a language. Some of us are headed for the farmlands of Oklahoma, Kentucky, or the Appalachian Mountains. There are beachfront properties in California and Oregon, desert badlands in Nevada and Arizona. Some of us will go to Europe, the impossible baptizing nations, those filled with men and women that have completely forgotten God and have replaced Him with superficial attractions. We console each other that the place we are going to is perfect, right for us, and that everything that happens there will have meaning.
Later, we make our way around the campus, the covered walkways, the sound of rain overhead. Some of us wonder if this is the last rain we will see. The MTC is historic—a place with the same allure of Oz—and we search for ourselves inside the walkways. When we find our dormitories, we feign politeness and let our roommates pick beds first. Most of us want to please whomever we are around. On the doorways is a schedule and calendar. We only have an hour to settle with our things before our meetings start. Even though everything is structured, we feel lost.
Some of our roommates have been here for a while. On the desk is a picture of Christ and next to it a stack of four books that we are allowed to read, a collection of works by church leaders. We keep our bound scriptures with us at all times. This is what we were advised to do.
Some of us work on finishing the Book of Mormon—never having made it past the first book of Nephi. Others are more ambitious—it is the Old Testament all the way through. Some write in notebooks and map out timelines, navigating their own scholarship privately, but then showing it later to us, proud. Some of us have foreign languages to study. These may be manageable—Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian. Some have entirely different alphabets—Russian, Greek, Japanese, Thai. Still, others struggle with study, hiding their high school GPAs from the rest of us, some with GED exams, some with home school certificates.
When we are in the dorm rooms together, we stare at each other in the awkward way that slowly disintegrates into a familiarity on the last day before we leave. One is tall with long legs, a wide forehead, an interesting mole on her cheek, beautiful bones in her face, wide eyes, perfect hair. She is going to Temple Square, and we know this without her announcing anything. All the pretty ones go there. Another is short, with red curly hair that she has trouble styling, clothing that looks much too old for her, an unabashed studiousness. She's set for Portugal. A third has greasy hair parted down the middle and tied at the nape of her neck. She wears thick glasses. She has lips that have never been kissed. Atlanta, Georgia.
An Asian girl can't stop smiling out of nerves. She has bluntly cut hair and eyes that quickly dart over the others. She had a full-ride violin scholarship at Juilliard, which she took leave from. She converted a year ago, finding something about the message the missionaries presented to be hopeful. None of her family believes in God, not even her ancestors. She's set for South Africa. When she spoke to her mother in the airport before leaving New York, her mother shook her head and said, "I don't understand this. You have so much promise."
We can tell the ones who have been set on this from birth. They come from long lines of pioneer ancestors with the last names of prophets. Their parents started missionary funds for them when they were born. They know how to play the piano. They know the words to all the hymns. And they stand a certain way, taller, perhaps. There is an innocence to their faces. These are not the sisters that will be asked why they are here. They will not have to explain that no, they did not have the possibility of marriage. They will not have to explain their future career plans. Their faces are free from the wear of poor choices and financial struggle. When they sing, We are as the army of Helaman. We have been taught in our youth, everyone will believe them.
And then, there are the others. They are the sisters who chose a different path—maybe dated before the age of sixteen, maybe tried pot at a party, maybe bought whisky when they turned twenty-one. These are women whose ears are pocketed by the scars of former piercings, their eyes naked without heavy liner, their hair a natural color instead of boxed black or striped blonde. Some of them had the influence of men—a father, a brother, a bishop, a boyfriend—and so they changed whatever they were doing and came here. When we try to talk to them, they are uncomfortable at first—still against the wall, nervous. We don't know anything about their former lives. We can't smell the cigarette smoke. The names of boys they have been with don't even cross our minds. To us, they are a resource. They know the taste of caffeine and the string of profanity we will hear when we leave this place. They know what to say to someone and what not to. At night, they come into our rooms, plop down on our bunks in their wild pajama pants, and tell us they don't miss anything out there. "It's better here," one says. "Everything makes sense."
"You have to consider what you are about to emerge on," President Owens, our branch president in the MTC, says. "You need to be worthy. Please, take this time to consider yourselves. If there is anything, anything at all that you need to talk to an authority about—please do so. Please don't wait until you are in the field. It makes everything so much more complicated."
It is challenging for us to take stock of our worth. Some of us feel guilty for lying, to our bishops, our mothers, ourselves. We don't know how to say that we don't know what we are doing here, that perhaps we just wanted an opportunity to learn a language, to fly in a plane, to see another part of the world. There must be some kind of truth in the Book of Mormon, but some of us have never finished it. We have trusted our mothers' tears, the ones that appear when they talk about what our ancestors went through to give us this, to get us here.
Some of us came out of heartbreak. A few sisters in our dormitory were writing missionaries before coming here, planning future weddings upon their arrival home. Some even went to the airport, held construction paper signs painted with glittery greetings. We may have gone shopping the day before, just to make sure that whatever we wore had the perfect polish. Sure, we had been on a few dates in the years that our elders had been gone. There were a couple of poor B-list movies, awkward dinners with stilted conversation and chicken wings that we couldn't figure out how to eat without making a complete and utter mess. There were hair appointments and facials. Our mothers didn't mind handing over their credit cards. "If you think this will help your future, dear," they said. "I had to do the same thing in my day."
But then, the men were never the same. The ones who returned from South America couldn't stop groping for words of gratitude, using an accusatory tone and arguing that we didn't realize how much we had, that we had never realized how much we had. The missionaries who returned from Asia sought education and degrees in diplomacy. Some of them married other girls, ones with college degrees or fancier pedigrees. Straight teeth. Thin figures. A promise to leave everything behind and raise several kids. Because we didn't always know who we were after long conversations with men who we had written faithfully every week, we considered other options.
Sometimes, a mission was the only option we had.
Our branch president tells us that we cannot be on a mission to "find" a testimony. For this reason, he counsels with us often and asks us to look deep inside ourselves, deep inside everything that we have ever been measured against, to find the truth. For some, this is easy. The blonde sister in our dorm had this experience. She went to Primary as a child, was baptized at eight, served as the Laurel president and seminary president in high school—a natural and enthusiastic leader, a woman to envy. She was all set for marriage at nineteen, when her return missionary announced that he no longer found women attractive. He had served in upstate New York and had fallen for the companion he had served with for twelve weeks and had told her this, the night of his homecoming, over water sodas in a late-night pancake house.
"But you don't really find men… I mean… you can't possibly find men… attractive?" She had stumbled. It seemed implausible to her that two bodies of the same shape, harnessed with white shirts and ties, could even find their way inside each other. He had fumbled through an apology, playing with the ice in his glass, and then he said, "I used to think that. Everyone wants me to believe what I did, what I'm doing, is such a mistake. But those were the best two years of my life. They let me find myself."
At first, the mission was the idea of proving her elder wrong. But then, as weeks progressed, he was no longer her elder. He was someone else. A boy she had once happened to date. The second boy she had kissed.
A few of us are converts. We grew up with parents who smoked cigarettes, drank coffee, and slept in on Sundays. Some of us grew up being taught about God, but He was more of an intellectual concept, a spray of magic dust that we would go to on term paper or exam day, someone whose name we would call out in the middle of an accident or in a fight with our parents. Sometimes we try to think back to our life before He was on the radar—how insignificant we were, how oblique. But now, He is the center.
For some of us, the food itself is enough reason to be here. We take advantage of eating a five-course meal at the end of every day of classes. We pile cold cut vegetables onto a salad plate, smother them with ranch dressing, and then grab a roll with butter for later. After the main course, we take advantage of the soft-serve machine and don't even mind that we are starting to eat like the elders—covering the cone with sprinkles, chocolate chips, crushed peanuts. At the end of four weeks, we've gained ten pounds. Our bodies are beginning to resemble those of the women we grew up with.
Meal time is the loudest time of the day. We push close together on the benches, laugh, and forget that we are ministers of the Lord Jesus Christ. In these moments, we are simply twenty-somethings who are filled with the pressures of our lives and very little outlet for them. In these moments, some of us slip and reveal our first names. We could be Susan, Madison, Kelsey, Colleen, Delaney, Shannon, Jackie, Ashley. There is some wonderment in these titles, since stripped from us, and we stare at each other quizzically. Most of us don't look like what we have always been called.
We stay separated from the elders. Even though we all share meal times, everyone accepts the change in that we no longer are to be seen with men. Still, we rely on them. Later, when some of us want to leave the MTC, when we decide a mission is not right for us, we turn to them and they place their hands on our heads and give us a blessing of comfort. Rely on the Lord, one elder might say. He knows what you are going through. He can help you get through this. Turn to Him. Let Him in. After, we may feel renewed. Perhaps there is more to a mission than the MTC, and as long as we can get through the long days of classes, scripture study, scheduled showers and bedtimes, and make it all the way across the globe, then we will be fine. We will be perfect.
At times, awaiting a speaker in the large auditorium, we are held together by the secrets we carry and share, even though we don't mean to. It happens in the mornings sometimes, and for some of us, 6:30 a.m. is too early and not a time we have ever been accustomed to arising at. Maybe we had a dream—our brother continued his drug use and committed suicide, a former boyfriend did end up going to BYU and marrying the first woman he sat by in the Old Testament class, maybe our mother had written and told us that she had just started taking an antidepressant—but not to worry. She wasn't depressed. It's just precautionary.
We pull closer to each other in these moments, missing a hug from our mothers, a pat on the back from our fathers who have never been sure of how to approach us. Most of us rushed here from the morning seminar earlier. Now the pause seems weird as we wait. It's heavy and there is so much more we could be doing. We link through each other's arms to form a chain and we stare ahead at the empty podium, awaiting a member of the Quorum of the Twelve.
Earlier, we had gone to a seminar about proper missionary attire and one of us was chastened about her choice of clothing and she left, her face red. Even though it was given to one, it felt like it had happened to all of us and we glance down at our own dresses and skirts even now, asking the question posed after the Lord announced his forthcoming betrayal at the last supper. Lord, is it I?
Some of us bought our own clothing. We had worked for the past few months after receiving a call, saving money for our missions. Some of us were given donations from ward members—a hundred dollars here, fifty dollars there. And yet others had homemade skirts, sewn in the pioneer traditions of ancestors. A few of us sit back, still feeling the sting of correction. Even as we begin to sing, some of us feel that we are the one, the outsider, always less than perfect.
We have been saved for these latter days
To build the kingdom in righteous ways
We hear the words our prophet declares
"Let each who's worthy go forth and share."
After, the Asian sister bears her testimony in our dorm room, telling us that she knows she is supposed to fulfill her calling. She can't wait to go to Peoria, Iowa, and work in the farmlands. "We are His hands," she tells us. What can be better than that?
Outside, there are statues of elders on bikes. They are bronze, white. A Polynesian sister goes to one, caresses his face, and then pecks him on the cheek. There is something about the way she does this that may be thought to be scandalous, but yet, it seems delicate—something a grandmother would do. We walk in circles, counting the flowers, pointing to the clouds. Without television, our Sundays seem long. All that we have is the running track of our past life up until this point. Here, everything has been wiped clean.
Some of us nap on Sundays. Some of us pack—many will leave in the morning, taking a variety of planes all over the country, all over the world. We look strange gathered around each other so haphazardly here, the penultimate day of the week, the day in which we are only required to attend church and meals. Even though we crowd around, share the same space, there is still a piece of us that feels alone. And we will be the Lord's missionaries to bring the world His truth.
It is time to decide, but some of us can't. We feel the pressure of the call, the commitment we have given willingly but unknowingly. Our branch president reassures us over and over again that what we are doing is right and we don't notice when, later, one of us is dismissed, packing to return home. We whisper about this, ask each other what happened. Maybe we should have talked to the sister more. Maybe we should have reassured her that her faith was strong enough.
Later, our branch president reviews the call of a missionary. He tells us to think back to our past life. Are there any issues that have not been handled with the proper authorities? He hypothetically tells us that one sister had come out having previously slept with her boyfriend. She thought prayer was enough—that God had forgiven her—that a mission would wipe her clean. She never spoke to a bishop—thinking the change in her own heart was sufficient. There is another of us who leaves soon after, a court case pending against her father, who had demanded she lay still at night, not saying anything as he mounted her. We don't really know what each other is carrying. We figure we are as the Army of Helaman, that being called entitles us to a power larger than ourselves.
Before we leave each other, we write our names and addresses. We no longer have cell phones and our e-mail addresses are uniform. We promise to write, knowing we never will. Later, after returning home, speaking for years about our service, we will receive wedding and birth announcements. We'll think back to the shared meal times, the way we slept in proximity in a drab room, talking about our futures. We'll laugh about this sometimes, use it as an anecdote in a talk for church one Sunday. But even though we can remember the faces—the clothing, the eyes—the names flee behind us like birds. Sometimes we squint over an announcement, but soon those, too, end up in a drawer, waiting for us to return.