This is Part 6 of “The Real Elder Price” series. The rest of the articles are available here.
Note: This essay is lovingly dedicated to the memory of Elder Marion Duff Hanks.
Disclaimer: Obviously, The Book of Mormon Musical is intended to entertain, not to serve as a primer on Mormonism. This series of essays is offered simply as a view of what missionary life is actually like for Mormon missionaries in Africa, not as a direct response to the musical—though there are a few responses. The missionaries featured in these essays served in the Republic of Congo and Cameroon. The missionaries in the musical are in Uganda. Of course, each African country is distinctive. Nonetheless, for the purposes of these essays, I often refer to Africa as a whole rather than to the specific countries of Cameroon or the Congo.
Comedy, particularly satire, tends to simplify and exaggerate characters and content. So it’s no surprise that LDS Church leaders, as depicted in The Book of Mormon Musical, are either goofy or tyrannical—and capable of teeter-tottering to either extreme. In the satire, the mission president is an implacable hard-liner. When it’s clear that the African converts haven’t received the orthodox gospel from the missionaries, but something profanely different, the president explodes. He pronounces the missionaries all failures, and then declares that he’s sending them ignominiously home. The same guy who had gushed that these teenaged ministers had “become Africa” is now in a rage, and fulfilling every fear provoked by the “spooky Mormon Hell dream.” All he lacks is a pitchfork and a tail.
In real, unexaggerated life, I know a lot of currently serving and former mission presidents. The one I know best is my father. I remember well when he got a phone call inviting him and my mother to Salt Lake City for something. For a week, we Blair kids were left to speculate about what our father was being asked to do. Finally, we had a family meeting, and Dad reported what had happened.
He and Mom had been invited to talk to Elder Dallin Oaks, sustained by Mormons as an apostle. As it happens, Elder Oaks is also a family friend, someone we have joked with, eaten cake with at wedding receptions, and greeted at funerals. But in this setting, he was acting in that apostolic assignment. He told Dad that the Church was ready to open a mission in the Baltic States—which had been behind the Iron Curtain since the 1940s, and asked if Dad, with Mom at his side, would preside over it. They both agreed, not mentioning the other things in their lives which would make such service difficult. (Two of my siblings would marry during my parents’ time in the Baltics. Mom returned for one of the weddings, but we Blair kids represented our parents at the other.) There would be no financial compensation for this service; the three years were consecrated time.
In the LDS religion, we are asked to offer our time and talents to the service of God—which (since we believe that service to one’s fellow beings is service to God) means that we go where we’re asked to, and offer ourselves in humanitarian efforts, congregational service, or missionary work. My uncle, John Groberg, was called to be a General Authority when he was in his early forties and had a young family. He had already served as a bishop and as a mission president. When he was invited to be a member of the Quorum of the Seventy, he understood that if he accepted, he would be devoting the rest of his life to church service. That meant that he would leave his home in Idaho Falls and go wherever the Church assigned him. Anyone familiar with John Groberg’s life (made a bit famous in the film The Other Side of Heaven) knows that he accepted. Ultimately, he and his family lived in Tonga, Hawaii, Argentina, and Hong Kong. They had a home in Bountiful, Utah, which they rented out when they were on long (meaning several years) assignments. He received a stipend, but it was far less than what he would’ve made as a savvy businessman in Idaho.
This is the level of commitment a Mormon is asked to sustain, and a level both of my parents already had when they accepted this onerous responsibility.
For my husband, Bruce, and me, the experience of witnessing my parents being set apart for this assignment was awe-inspiring. When Elder Oaks entered the room, it was with a power which distinguished him from Dallin Oaks, the attorney and friend who we laughed with in everyday associations. This was no social gathering, but as serious and as sacred as when Christ sat in Peter’s boat and asked him to “thrust out a little from the land” (Luke 5:2).
John (functioning as Elder Groberg) placed his hands on his sister’s head, and pronounced a blessing of comfort. Mom was desperately insecure about leaving her home and family. He told her she could do this thing, and that she had been prepared in ways she didn’t realize.
Elder Oaks laid his hands on my father’s head and set him apart. Until he spoke the blessing, I had not been aware that Dad was worried about his unfinished tasks and projects. When Elder Oaks instructed him to not concern himself with what he was leaving behind, my father openly wept. The blessing also included a promise that my parents’ children would be watched over, that others would be brought into their lives to help and support
And so Mom and Dad went to Eastern Europe, where my family and I visited them a year later. One of their missionaries said to me, “Your father is the most inspired man I have ever met.”
Since I knew my father much better than this young man, that pronouncement was two degrees shy of mind boggling. “My father?”
“The most inspired man I’ve ever met!”
That generous imagination and the Mormon sense that anyone who answers the call to discipleship may be duly empowered had added a divine dimension to the man I called simply Dad.
In my own little family, we have also experienced this magnification. My husband and I were released from our calling at the Missionary Training Center when he was asked to be our congregation’s bishop.
I remember the voicemail which let me know a change was before us: “Brother Young, the stake president would like to meet with you. Sister Young, we’d like you to come as well.” I knew immediately what was before us, and knew that our time in the MTC was about to end.
In his office, our stake president pulled a letter from his desk. It authorized him to extend this call to my husband. I did not want to leave the missionaries, and Bruce had no idea of how difficult this stewardship would be.