Disagreeing With Missionaries Turns To Meeting In the Middle
Three times in the past few years I have spoken to missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. All three of those times I left out of the conversation that I had once been a member of the church. I wanted to know the currently beliefs around Lamanite identity and the darkened skin curse issue without them feeling inhibited or defensive. I wanted to know what they teach about my people. I focused on being cordial and kind. They were kind in return. Even if I disagreed on theology regarding Native American and Indigenous identity, it was always a polite conversation.
After the last conversation I had with missionaries in September 2020, I found I was no longer comfortable with keeping the fact that I was once a member to myself. I figured if I ever were ever in a conversation with missionaries again, I would let them know upfront. I wanted to be able to be authentic, and for them to be authentic and aware of who they were talking to. I wrote about my feelings regarding full disclosure at the end of my blog post titled, “Missionary Conversation with a Native American.” I hoped that with being authentic things would go better. I recently found out I was both right and wrong in hoping that. It did go better, but it went worse first.
Note: In previous conversations, the missionaries gave permission for the conversation to be recorded. I was out on a four-mile run when I talked to missionaries this time though, and my phone was not on me to enable recording. Because of this, this conversation will not be in quotation marks. And this is all based on my memory from yesterday, so it will be as accurate as possible, but not exact quotes like previous conversations. I am going to just highlight a few parts. Also, just as in past posts, I will be leaving out the names of the missionaries. This time however I will call them by their hometown or identity to differentiate, as there were different contributions to the conversation.
May 19, 2021 I was out for a run. At the half-way point is a large pond with a paved walkway that circles it. I was on my way around the pond and starting to turn back towards home when I saw three missionaries for the church sitting at a picnic table talking. I stopped when they said hi. I expressed sadness about the car accident from the day before which had killed two missionaries, and asked if they were doing ok. It had happened only an hour away, and I knew they likely knew them. We chatted for a minute and they said they were doing ok.
After initial introductions one of the missionaries, I will call him Elder Peru, asked me how I knew about the accident. I let him know I was once a member, and I still would learn about things going on in the church world. We chatted some more, and then I told them if they ever needed a bottle of water to drink while going door to door, that they could stop by my house anytime. I let them know we would never be interested in learning or rejoining the church, but we were happy to help when the weather gets hot during the summer. They wrote down my information, and we chatted some more. Then Elder Peru asked why I left the church.
I paused and looked at everyone, I expressed concern over sharing anything. I didn’t want to have a conversation like this. One benefit I quickly realized of not telling missionaries I was once a member is that questions like this would never happen. I admit, I was not prepared. I don’t talk to active members about why I left. I told the missionaries I didn’t want to cause any problems with their own faith as it is a personal journey. I told them I was fine not sharing and asked them if they really wanted to know. All three of them agreed nothing could shake their faith and that they would like to know.
The hard thing about answering this question is that it is not one thing. If it were just one problem, I would still be a member. The problem is that it is a million things. I told them that and then said that I had been just as faithful as them. I was born and raised in the church, I married a return missionary, I paid my tithing, and held callings my entire adult life. I told them that in 2013 while on bedrest with my last baby, that I decided to go onto church websites and learn more about the faith I loved. I told them I refused to look at anything I deemed “anti-Mormon.” It was to increase my faith, not challenge it. I told them I read paper after paper written by history professors at BYU, and that I followed the sources on everything to read the quotes in context. I told them about the very first shelf item I had that made me question the church. I told them about the guy who was in his early 20’s who was forcibly castrated back in the 1800’s, and that it was because the local bishop wanted to marry his 17 yr. old girlfriend as a fourth or fifth polygamous wife. I told them that Brigham Young and the leaders at the time did not punish the local bishop for this forced castration of a young man. I told them it made me view the church different, but it did not make me question its truth. I told them that there were thousands of things in the coming years that I kept adding to my pile. I mentioned information in the Journal of Discourses was a major problem. Then I told them at the end of four years of research the Book of Abraham translation issues broke my shelf which had a massive pile. It was like a light piece of paper landing on top, but it was enough to crack the shelf and send everything falling. I let them know this was simply my experience, and then asked them if they were ok. I knew they had asked, and I was willing to share. But honestly it was hard to feel at ease.
I should have known, and really it is silly that I needed a reminder, people that believe feel attacked when talking about church history with someone who no longer believes. Elder Peru began to both defend his beliefs and push hard against mine. Elder Blackfoot, Idaho and Elder Pocatello, Idaho went incredibly quiet while Elder Peru and I discussed. During the conversation Elder Peru told me his beliefs about God and the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. He and I disagreed on matter regarding LGBTQ people when I said they are not sinning, they are not a mistake. He said love the sinner hate the sin. He and I disagreed on the Book of Mormon being translated. He said direct translation, I said I would make space for the church and say it was spiritually inspired but it was not translated. He was determined to make a point, and I was standing my ground. All I could think is, this is way too much. It was too much for me emotionally, it is not easy leaving religion, let alone viewing things differently from a group of people that you lived with and loved. I knew he viewed me as an apostate, but even as my emotions turned raw, all I could think of was those two quiet elders with him. I stopped the conversation multiple times and asked how they were. They said fine, but I couldn’t seem to stop feeling sad about the entire encounter. Just kept thinking about their moms back home, and how they would want their kids mission experience to be, and I doubted this was it. I was also frustrated at the lack of respect I was receiving, as I had been willing to answer Elder Peru’s question, not have an argument.
So, I decided to try to focus on middle ground with what I cared about, Native American and Indigenous identity. I asked them if they believed the Book of Mormon was a history of the ancestors of Indigenous peoples in the Americas. Elder Peru continued to lead the conversation while the other elders stayed silent. This is when it became heated. He said yes because it is true. I told him that Native Americans predate the Book of Mormon timeline by tens of thousands of years. He insulted the oral history traditions and stories of our own origins. I defended oral traditions and pointed out that anthropology and DNA back up our histories. I told him how Native Americans had been told by church leaders not to dance or join in ceremonies when we went back to our people. I told him that they were beautiful and spiritual traditions. Elder Peru told me that dancing and ceremonies were the incorrect traditions of our fathers. I told him that the Lamanites were not our fathers, they were not our people. I asked him a straight yes and no question, would he teach my Tsimshian people on the reservation in Alaska that the Book of Mormon was a history of their ancestors, and Elder Peru said yes because it was true. This entire exchange, which went on for a long stretch of time, was not calm. We were not yelling, but we were both visibly annoyed.
Towards the end I once again backed away and asked if everyone was doing ok. They said they were fine, but I was still uncomfortable. I asked them if I was naïve to believe it possible to meet in the middle? I told Elder Peru I didn’t want his answer, I wanted the other elders’ opinions. I asked them if they thought if it would be possible to embrace the Book of Mormon as a spiritual book, without misplacing the Lamanite identity and pushing it onto the shoulders of Native Americans as their ancestry? Would it be possible to share it as a testament of Christ, and simply say they don’t know where the Lamanites are, and not mislabel Native Americans?
Elder Pocatello, I will ever be grateful to him. He made this entire encounter worth it. He said that he teaches it by saying that the Book of Mormon is about a group of people who once lived in the Americas, but not that it is specific tribes or people. I thanked him. The entire energy changed. He said more, I wish I could remember it all, but that feeling of mutual respect and kindness was so incredibly different. Even now I wish I could tell him thank you again, I wish I could tell his mom and dad that he is such a kind person. We kept chatting. I told him I could get behind that, because what I want is to make space for religion, but also to simply stop the mislabeling of Native Americans. I told him the Book of Mormon has value and doesn’t need to be put on top of Native Americans to carry an incorrect identity. I shared my experiences in the church as a Native American child growing up. I shared how my ancestors did not turn unrighteous and lose their land through evil choices, but that it was human history. Not evil ancestors. I told them my people were not darkened as a sign of a curse. I told them that dancing and ceremony in Native American tribes is beautiful and should not be demeaned. I told Elder Pocatello that if his approach to teaching it as a group that once lived here, and not teaching it as ancestral history to living Native American tribes today, that would be meeting in a more honest, kind, and accepting place. That even if I didn’t believe it, that I could get behind it as a forward-thinking place to make space for believers as well as still making space to respect the Indigenous peoples of this land.
I asked them if it was ok that I shared my experience. Elder Pocatello and Elder Blackfoot both said it helped knowing my Native American experience and thanked me and asked if I was ok. Elder Pocatello said some more, again I wish I could remember it. There is this saying I have hanging on my wall at home, it says people won’t remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel. This is one of those moments. He made me feel ok and seen, but I seriously can’t remember what he said. He didn’t back away from his faith, but he was also being ok with finding middle ground with me. I told them I was ok with having different views, even with the heated part of the discussion when Elder Peru and I disagreed I was fine, but admitted I was super uncomfortable and worrying if they were ok. Always the mom in me. They assured me they were.
In the end I am left wondering if writing about history, issues, and encounters with members is even helping. All I know is today I am incredibly raw emotionally and feel exhausted. When I do recordings of these conversations with missionaries, I usually take a few weeks to center myself again before I transcribe the convo. I wanted to write this immediately this time though because it is fresh in my mind. But at times I must admit, it is heavy and hard to want to continue.
Then I think about Native American children being singled out as a Lamanite just as I was when I was little. I think about them singing the Book of Mormon stories song in primary that teaches we only got our land if we lived righteously and knowing that the Book of Mormon also teaches why we lost our lands and that we became unrighteous. I think about Native American children unknowingly being raised to accept manifest destiny over their own people. I think of Indigenous people across the Americas being taught that Christopher Columbus was guided by God, and that our ancestors had turned away from God. I may no longer be Mormon, but I will always be Native American, so for them I will keep writing. I will keep putting myself out there. I will keep hoping for change, for “American Indian” to be removed from official Lamanite and Book of Mormon teachings. I will keep hoping for the “Christopher Columbus was guided by God” theology to be removed from current lesson manuals. I will keep hoping that there are more people like Elder Pocatello who do not shame my people’s spiritual traditions, who do not label my people as Lamanites, and who at the very least will be willing to see and hear Native Americans as he did for me. Conversations can only happen when both sides are willing. I know plenty of Native Americans who are ready to have that conversation, it is long overdue. But it takes both sides, and nothing will change until top leaders in the church are ready and willing to have that conversation. Until then, I’ll keep holding on to my naive hopes. Who knows what the future holds?