Monday, June 25, 2012

A Missionary's Heart

          My older sister decided to serve a mission around the same time that I chose to leave the Mormon Church.  This fact caused a lot of tension in my household, as my father vacillated between picking fights with his apostate daughter and bragging about his dutiful BYU-educated daughter.  The spring of my senior year was not easy as I prepared to head off to college while my sister prepared to go on her mission in Brazil.  
          A few months after my sister left for her mission, she started e-mailing me.  This was in the fall of 2003 and from what I gathered, she had been granted special permission to communicate with me via e-mail.  Her primary form of communication, along with most of the other missionaries in her area, was via conventional snail mail.  In her e-mails, my sister talked a lot about her faith in the Mormon Church, with an occasional snippet of her everyday life.  From the rare glimpses of her life that she revealed, I gathered that she was living in unsanitary housing, complete with leaking roof and faulty plumbing, and subsisting on a diet of rice and beans.  She also asked me to keep the details of her housing situation a secret from our parents.  Every once in a while, she would write to my parents begging for money; her fair skin was peeling due to the harsh sun and she couldn’t afford to buy sunscreen.  
          I have always struggled to communicate with my sister; we are two very different people and I always felt that she judged me.  This communication barrier was only exacerbated by our differences in belief; the bulk of my sister’s e-mails were centered around bearing her testimony to me of the truth of the Gospel.  I tried to write like a good sister but I also struggled to contain my frustration.  I never was able to shake off the suspicion that my sister’s primary motivation in writing was to try and re-convert me to Mormonism.  E-mails with my sister were intermittent as she completed her mission.  She came back from Brazil eighteen months later a little thinner and a little tanner than before.  
          Not long after returning, my sister started getting sick; she was dizzy and couldn’t keep food down.  She ended up in the emergency room a couple of times, where the doctors assumed the problem was an ulcer.  But the ulcer medication didn’t work and my sister's condition kept deteriorating.  Eventually, after three or four months of unsuccessful treatments, the doctors discovered the real cause.  My sister had pericarditis, which is when the sac surrounding the heart (the pericardium) gets inflamed.  Her pericardium had been rubbing against the heart and fluid had started to build up, to the point that it was pressing against her stomach and restricting her heart’s function.  
          Words cannot describe my horror when I first saw my sister after coming home for Christmas break that year.  Her condition had worsened to the point that she could no longer get out of bed.  Always thin, she looked like a Holocaust victim; her wrists stuck out at odd angles and I could count each rib on her body.  For months she had been unable to keep solid food down and was now subsisting on a diet of Ensure.  Her blood pressure hovered around 70/40 as her heart struggled to pump blood to the rest of her body.  My sister’s surgery was scheduled for the day after Christmas; the surgeons were planning to go in, remove the excess fluid, and determine if the cause was congenital or not.  
          My sister’s surgery was a success.  The doctors have yet to discover the exact cause of her condition.  Their suspicion is that she picked up a virus while living in Brazil.  Now that I have learned more about the Mormon Church’s treatment of missionaries --- their disregard for missionaries’ physical and mental health, their scrimping on costs at the expense of missionaries’ well-being, their blatant ignorance of a country’s culture --- I find myself wondering just how badly my sister’s heart was damaged during her mission to Brazil.  

Note: If you are interested in reading more about the everyday life of Mormon missionaries, I highly recommend the book "Heaven Up Here" by John K Williams, which is a very honest and moving account of the author’s years as a Mormon missionary in Bolivia.  


  1. PMGirl, that is indeed an excellent read and a great example of what it is like to be an LDS missionary - as is this post you've written.

  2. Horrible. Not only does the LDS expect its proselytizers to pay their own way, but it fails to look after their basic needs during missionary trips. SERIOUSLY messed up.

    1. It is pretty messed up. I think my sister's example is pretty extreme but unfortunately, there seems to be a chronic disregard of their missionaries' well-being. And it was frustrating to watch my parents struggle to pay tithing and missionary fees, especially after I had been told I was on my own when it came to paying for college.

  3. How hard for your family to have your sister have such a difficult "home coming." I am curious if your sister has ever shared how she feels about all the medical problems resulting from her mission. How did your parents and the rest of you family react?

    I am really only intimately aware of contemporary conditions for missionaries in the US. Some of my step-father's stories from Argentina are truly hair-raissing, including getting on the last plane out before the airport was shut down in one of the coups.

    Thanks for sharing such an intimate part of your family's history.

  4. Hi postmormon girl! You linked me to this from my post The Chaplain which is similar, about my sickness in my mission.

    Holy cow! I am so sorry for your sister, and happy to hear it worked out well with the surgery. Are there residual issues with her heart? I hope not. :(

    In our mission, there was a terrible neglect for the health and well-being of the missionaries, including housing that was well below the poverty level even in Mexico (where I served). No indoor plumbing. In my first area, we lived in a $40-45/month house and received $60 a month to live on ($15/wk) which was mostly consumed

    People in the church think that you go to these Latin American countries and they are unilaterally poor, and so the missionaries live poor too. Not so. The church in Mexico attracts the middle class, like it does in the US, and the Mexican middle class is much like the US middle class in terms of purchasing power. Mexico can be quite comfortable, it has perhaps the largest disparity between the classes of any country in the western hemisphere. The wealthy are PHENOMENALLY wealthy (including the richest man in the world, Carlos Slim).

    The reason the missionaries lived (at the time I went) so poor in Latin America is because the church is so very cheap. Which is all the more ridiculous because if we only had that $400/mo that our families sent, we would had lived quite comfortably.

    Mexico has a wide disparity between the classes, but the Mormon church tended to the middle-class, which is not terribly different than middle class in the US. The poor of Mexico, however, are incredibly, heartbreakingly poor. I once made a comment to a member about some investigators that were 'poor but happy,' as they told us in the MTC. She said, 'Elder, when you get sick, you go to the hospital. When the poor get sick, they die.' Unfortunately, we elders came very close to that category too, the difference for us was that the members were absolutely wonderful and took great care of us. I could go on and on about this, but I better stop. Ha ha. It's funny you mention that about the sunburn too. I am pale and I remember walking around with bleeding ears and face.

    Thank you for writing this and thanks for your encouraging words on my post. Also! I read your Salon piece, very cool! I hope they finally got you off the rolls. As for me, we've been out more than 10 years, but I never bothered to resign.

  5. I have a cousin who has a very debilitating condition as a result of a virus he contracted while on his mission. I don't know the exact name, but he has a form of arthritis in one of his hips that makes it very difficult to walk. The medication for this is not only prohibitively expensive, but also has scary side effects.

    It makes me sad to know that he left on his mission healthy and will live the rest of his life with this terrible condition.

    And he's only 28.

    1. I am so sorry - that is horrible. Have you had a chance to talk with him about the matter - has he opened up much about his mission experience? Do you think it would help if you gave him John's book? (That was the trigger point for me, when I started thinking about my siblings' missions - it also really helped me sympathize with them more)


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