Friday, March 6, 2015

Ghost Town Showdown

January 2, 2008 – January 31, 2008

A silly video I took of myself one cold morning in Xalapa. I’m wearing one of the abandoned sweaters I found in our apartment.

When you first get your mission call, the church sends you a packet which has information about the mission and a list of supplies you’re expected to bring along with you. When I got mine, it told me to bring things like a coat and a sweater. At the time, I didn’t own a dressy coat or sweaters, and based on my experience in tropical places, I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t need them anyway, so I didn’t bother to get one. In fact, I probably would have been fine, except for the fact that my first area ended up being in Xalapa, one of the few cool climates in the mission. November was fine, but December had a few days that were chilly enough that I would have liked a sweater.

By January, I couldn’t ignore how cold it was. The humid weather was totally different than anything I’d experienced growing up in Colorado. Back home, 50-degree days in January were shorts weather. Here in Xalapa, 50 degrees felt much colder, and if we got rained on, then I spent the rest of the day wet, which made things even worse.

Another issue which I hadn’t considered was the fact that no buildings in Veracruz had any insulation, let alone heating. Even the nicest homes were just concrete caves that got hot when it was hot out and cold when it was cold out. On winter mornings, it was generally colder inside our apartment than outside since all the heat escaped during the night and didn’t warm up until the sun was higher in the sky.

Long story short, I was cold. But our apartment was still full of ancient junk left behind by years of previous missionaries, so I started looking through the closets and other storage to see if there was something I could use. I eventually found a couple of sweaters that fit well enough to not be embarrassing. They weren’t the nicest ones I’d ever seen, but they worked. I was glad to have them; they spared me from having to go buy one from somewhere, and I hated shopping for clothes enough that I might have just tried to make do without one.

One of these cold mornings, Elder Nájera and I decided to go explore a part of our area that we’d never visited before. For some reason, the experience sticks in my mind as a warm, nostalgic memory, even though it was actually cold and windy. It was a small neighborhood called La Loma (“the hill”) not far from where we lived that was, unsurprisingly, isolated on top of a nearby hill. We hiked up the road to La Loma, and when we got to the top, a breeze had blown in a thick fog. Between the fog, the cold, and the isolated area, there was almost no one out in the streets; it almost felt like walking into a ghost town.

We started knocking on doors trying to see if anyone was interested in talking to us. We didn’t have much success this time. After about an hour and a half, we finally had a family invite us in. It seemed very promising. The father and mother were both present (which was ideal, but rare), and I believe at least one of their kids was there, too. They were very polite and offered us drinks before the discussion. We started teaching roughly the same way we always did; talking (among other things) about how God is our Father, how He loves us and teaches us through prophets, and how He had also called new prophets in modern times. At this point, the father cut in and started asking pointed questions based on verses from the Bible. It was only at this point that I noticed the translation version that he was using. It was a New World Translation. In fact, the mother and their child were also each holding their own copies. I realized we were talking to a family of devout Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the next several minutes, Elder Nájera and I found ourselves trying to answer questions from the whole family that were backed up by scriptures that seemed to contradict what we’d been trying to teach.

To be clear, Mormon missionaries are happy to talk to all types of people, from any background, religious or not. I wasn’t offended by this family’s religious beliefs, or by their desire to share and defend them. After all, that’s what we were out doing every day! Not all the Jehovah’s Witnesses I met were like this family, and obviously not everyone that wanted to debate with us on my mission were Jehovah’s Witnesses. But in this case I felt kind of intimidated. This wasn’t the first time I’d met with people looking to debate theology with us; but it was the first time since Elder Guerra had gone home, so I wasn’t sure of the best way to approach the discussion. It was very tense for me. When they cited Bible verses that seemed to make our beliefs look wrong, I threw out other verses that made theirs look wrong. When they asked us loaded questions, I wanted to return the favor. It felt to me as though we were the last line of defense of the truth, so we had to “hold our ground.”

All in all, it was a big waste of our time and theirs. In the heat of the moment, it was hard for me to say, “Okay, we respect your beliefs and appreciate your inviting us in; we probably need to get going now.” I wanted to prove them wrong, as though doing so would somehow convince them that our church was the right one, and they’d get baptized and love us forever. In reality, anything we said in the context of this heated debate was just going to offend them and make them less open to listening to Mormons in the future. The best I can say about my involvement was that it was a learning experience for me. I did my best to never let a gospel discussion get that contentious again.

It also gave me a bit more empathy for all the people that we talked to that really weren’t interested in hearing our message. It can be uncomfortable to have someone push their religious beliefs onto you, so it’s important to share your beliefs in a way that respects everyone’s right to choose for themselves. And if someone isn’t interested, we should just be respectful and move along, and not get hung up on it. One of the best things about the way missionaries work is that they invite people to learn a little bit and then pray to ask God to help them know for themselves that what they’re learning is true. That way there’s no need for this kind of heated debate.

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