Sunday, November 9, 2014


So a week and a half ago I get a message from a lady in the branch where I served saying a woman we taught had a testimony and was "restored in heart and health". First of all, I really hand it to her for continuing to reach out to her. Really sweet and incredible, really.

This lady, Tammy, had more problems than I had ever seen. My companion (the nice one I had) and I knocked on her door one day, and she let us in. Because it was the South, and people love to talk, we actually were let in more often than I thought we'd be. Anyway, it was always still cause for celebration when people did.

Tammy had been through so much trauma in her life, I was shocked she was even still standing. Growing up in a bad neighborhood of already-rough Detroit, she saw family members murdered right before her eyes and experienced a lot of abuse. She attended a pretty extreme Pentecostal church growing up where people spoke in tongues and there were pretty wild voodoo-like things that went on in services. She said it scared her to death, and she was pretty much afraid of God ever since then.
She wasn't able to raise the few children she had, because she wasn't mentally/emotionally able to. She still had contact with them, and said they and her grandkids were in really bad shape. Actually, the first night we met her she told us they were in a really bad situation and asked if we could pray for her, with her. I pretty much instantly liked her. Even though she was pretty crazy, she worked her way into our hearts quickly. I actually was texting the companion I had teaching Tammy a week or so ago and we both agreed we were glad we were each other's companions when we met her, because we think she would have freaked anyone else out.

Being a chain smoker, we never told her she couldn't smoke during our lessons, but on her own merit she would really try not to out of respect for us. She always had lots of really out-there commentary and lots to say about her Pentecostal upbringing. She even told us once that she had multiple personality disorder and so my companion and I would joke, "I wonder which Tammy we're going to see today?" She confided lots of things to us, even that she thought she was a lesbian and how that is 'bad'. We just told her God loves her however she is (went rogue there!! Nothing in Preach My Gospel about how to answer that- ha).

Her next door neighbors were drug dealers (we saw a drop a time or so) and they would give her drugs so she'd become an addicted customer. We'd always say hey to her bum drug dealer neighbors every time we went over, and they always said hello in a smirky kind of way. They loved to hate on what we were doing. They would tell Tammy we were just out to brainwash her and such, so I just asked her one day, "Well, do you think they're that happy the way they are? They're pretty cowardly for knocking us for trying to help you, because they're just trying to bring you down. What's in it for us? We're not getting paid to do this or anything." She said that was right on and that she despised them, and knew they were just out to get her money and see her become as miserable as they were.

We taught her to stop smoking from this really old-school lesson rubric we were given. And she actually did for a while. She put up all these self-affirmative signs we gave her all over her apartment and put this no smoking sign on her door so her neighbors would see it, and she really told them off that drugs were never allowed in her place again. It cracked us up, and also made us really proud of her.

It was during our time with her that I couldn't emotionally go on anymore and was allowed to go home. I had been having weekly therapy sessions via phone, in which I always expressed my misery and alluded a lot to my conflict with the program. At one point, the therapist told me I'd really tried to tough it out but that it was probably time to leave. I had gotten a new companion -- a really sweet girl who also was coming off a bad companionship (for opposite reasons-- her comp was extremely lazy but also extremely mean and critical). After meeting her and being able to have normal conversations about dumb things like the Kardashians etc, we soon joked we were in "rehab" because we were helping each other process and deal with PTSD from our former comps.

But the damage was still done, thanks to Fuhrer and other variables. I was still constantly berating myself over everything.  I was suicidal all the time. My physical body was also taking a hit. I am prone to neck/shoulder pain and headaches, and know pretty much what to do to keep the pain at bay (rest/massages/yoga/acupuncture). However, I wasn't allowed to do these things on the mission, so I was in constant physical pain (I even knew this going in, and told my mom one day I didn't think I would last long because I wouldn't be able to employ the tactics--but I would still try to go as long as I could because the promptings to go were just so inescapable). It was the roughest time of my life.

Tammy came to church a couple times with us. She would bring up some weird belief about how she thought we sacrificed chickens in the service or did wild voodoo things. She brought it up so much, at one point during the service, she leaned over to me and asked, "So when do they bring out the chicken?" And I just said, "Oh, that's next week."

So …. Tammy left us a voicemail the night before we were going to pack up and say our goodbyes to a few people the next day. She said the fear of God was no longer in her. I was awestruck, and also feeling so selfish that I was about to leave her when she was still vulnerable.

We saw her the next day twice. The first time we told her I was leaving and she got really sad and kind of angry and told us to leave so I just felt really horrible. We went over a second time and we found her smoking again. We were crushed and I blamed myself for being the reason she started up again.

I have thought about her every day ever since.

So about a week ago after getting this message from the branch lady, I was able to call Tammy and talk with her for the first time in over two years. She has moved back to Michigan, and sounds better than when we were with her, even though she still has some health problems. She still smokes a little, but HARDLY as much as she used to. I told her I was really proud of her. She even said something along the lines of "my body is a temple -- you taught me that!" Haha.

At one point, I said, "Tammy, I think about you all the time. I've had so much regret leaving you at such a vulnerable point." To which she replied, "Don't you feel sorry for a second; you changed my life. Heck, you got me in a skirt and going to church- that itself is a feat. We all could see you were slowing down" She even brought up the time when she asked me about the chicken sacrifice in church, saying she really liked me after I had said that back to her haha.

She expressed all these feelings of charity, saying she just wants to help other people out and that she's never felt more urgent about "getting in that water" (baptized). She's gone through other missionaries since us, and I got the feeling that they put too much pressure on her to be baptized, which annoys me. Call me apostate, but I have a much more lax attitude over it. Inviting someone to be baptized shouldn't be about 'closing the sale'-so to speak- as I always felt they were training us to do. You have to respect the individual journey; it's a huge change! Anyway...

During the time when we were seeing Tammy, we were also teaching a man we found named Alan, who I heard got baptized shortly after we left. He also had his share of problems. He was in his 50s, 95 percent blind, never married, and lived by himself. He didn't open up to us very much, and I was always really sad about his situation but glad we could bring some joy into his life.

It is a really amazing feeling to know that you've changed someone's life for the better. It's like I finally got a glimpse of how missionary work could be fulfilling if you're with a good companion and physically/emotionally/spiritually able. I still wouldn't consider the experience a net positive. Maybe someday, but it feels disingenuous now to dismiss all of the hardship I experienced just because I helped someone better their life. Maybe that's selfish?

I got to feel that gratifying sense of serving someone in dire need when I went to Guatemala the next year, so I know that there are ways to do it without doing an actual proselytizing mission. I wish it wasn't such a cultural standard, a romanticized rite of passage in Mormonism, especially for boys. It isn't for everyone.

1 comment:

Austin Smith said...

That is awesome. Kind of reminds me of an older guy we taught on my mission who literally spent money on cigarettes while he sat in the dark because he didn't have enough money for electricity. Helping him quit was really beautiful because, putting aside whether or not God actually cares, his quality of life was just so much better.