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I thought I’d share w/ you part of my mission experience. Below is the text of a letter I wrote Elder Oaks after my mission (mission names removed out of respect). Elder Oaks personally called me upon receiving the letter, and we discussed it at length (including his apologizing for what happened). I hope you find this of use. Please forgive the length.
February 11, 1992
To whom it may concern,
Since I have returned home from my service as a missionary in the Guatemala City North Mission, I have been unable to put to rest some concerns I have felt relative to certain challenges that I experienced while serving there. Though my mind is filled with some extremely positive memories regarding my mission experience, it is also weighed down with a burden that has been hard to bear. At the risk of being thought of as an “ark steadier,” I would like to report to you some of the problems that I experienced personally during my eighteen months of missionary work in Guatemala.
In January of 1989 the La
Laguna Zone, consisting of about eighteen
missionaries, baptized 128 people. The zone leaders alone baptized over
forty people that month. Unfortunately, there was not one complete
family among those 128 people brought into the church. Instead, almost
all of them were very young individuals, most
between the ages of seven and twelve (I say seven because XXXXX XXXXXXXX, a church administrator in the Area Office, told me that some seven year olds were accidentally being baptized by over-zealous missionaries). A few months later, while I was in the
mission office, I looked over these baptismal records and confirmed that only a handful of those 128 were adults.
As my time in the mission
progressed, I was able to become
companions with some of the elders who had served in that zone. They
were usually more than willing to describe to me the methods they used
to achieve such a high baptismal rate. It was rather
disheartening to hear these accounts.
One of the methods employed was
initiated by the zone leaders around
October or November of 1988. They would go out to a soccer field and
begin to play “futbol” with the youngsters who were
around there. After an hour or so, these zone leaders would say to the
young people, “Hey guys…want to go over to the
cool off?” Then they would ask these children their names and
birthdays, put them in white clothes, line them up, and proceed to
baptize them. They would usually do so without missionary
discussions, interviews, church attendance, parental permission, an opening or closing hymn or prayer, or fellowshipping by a church member. It appeared that these young people had not even expressed a true desire to be baptized.
I was called to serve in this
same area about a year after these
elders had left. I noticed that out of the hundreds of children who
were baptized during those few months, only a handful were attending
church. Some of the parents in the neighborhood,
once they had found out that their children had been baptized into a foreign religion without their permission, became very upset. After this, these adults would often scream angrily at the LDS missionaries as they walked down the street and knocked on doors.
Feeling assured that those zone
leaders had acted inappropriately
and would eventually be punished for their methods, it was interesting
for me to discover that less than two months after their transfer from
that zone, they were both called to be
assistants to the president. And with that, what was once a rare phenomenon confined to a particular zone, soon became the mission norm as similar practices were followed during the remainder of my months in the mission. Baptism became a method by which one progressed up the leadership ladder. Quality (the legitimacy of baptism) was seldom, if ever an issue. We were taught by the president himself to find your “golden family” in the morning, and to baptize them that afternoon.
A series of incentives were set up to encourage the missionaries to baptize. Here were a few of them:
1. Missionaries with seven
baptisms or more in a month were given a
certificate signed by the president at the beginning of each zone
2. Missionaries with ten baptisms or more in a month were given a cassette tape of Janice Kapp Perry’s songs sung in Spanish.
3. A monthly newsletter was sent out, listing the names of all companionships that had baptized ten or more the previous month.
4. A party was held once a month on P-Day, and only the companionships who had baptized seven or more the previous month could attend.
5. Every month the president himself would take the highest baptizing zone out, at the expense of the mission, to eat at a fancy restaurant.
6. Even permission to attend the temple as a zone was used as an incentive to encourage baptisms.
We (as a mission) didn’t care much about families, activity rate, or even conversion. What we were most concerned with was “selling the product"–meeting our goals, and climbing up the leadership ladder. I even talked to missionaries who admitted baptizing drunkards and retarded people to help reach their monthly goals.
When I voiced my concerns to
the president, he told me not to worry
about it. He assured me that we were planting important seeds, and that
even if these people remained inactive and never really had
testimonies, we were initiating a process that someday
would sprout and blossom. Even the missionaries themselves developed various rationales which, in my opinion, helped them to calm their troubled consciences and to justify their actions. I was often told by fellow missionaries, “Who am I to deny them a baptism? If they want it, even if they haven’t met all the requirements, it is my
responsibility to give it to them.” The interesting thing is that many of the investigators, in my opinion, really didn’t desire to be baptized, but instead were pressured into baptism throught the use of modern-day, high pressure sales techniques. On rare instances,
some elders would even lead the investigators to believe that they would receive material benefits upon baptism (such as church welfare and other forms of economic assistance). One elder that I talked to told me of a missionary he replaced in Peten who even went as far as to offer U.S. citizenship to a gentleman in exchange for baptism. This promise was never kept, of course.
Another interesting rationalization employed by fellow missionaries to justify baptising ill-prepared individuals was: “Well, if they don’t get baptized in this life, then we’ll have to do their temple work for them anyway, so we might as well do it for them now and get it over with.”
Elder Ballard came down in March of 1989, apparently to stop what was going on. He basically called the missionaries to repentance and established a firm rule that no one was to be baptized until all six discussions had been received. He also established the policy that investigators had to attend church at least twice before they could be baptized. A lot of missionaries felt bad because they had been baptizing people inappropriately, and some of them even repented for what they had done. Unfortunately, the effects soon wore off.
Initially our president
supported Elder Ballard, and encouraged the
missionaries to obey the rules he established, but as time went on and
the number of baptisms began to decrease, slowly the standards were let
down. First our president would say, “No one
can be baptized without meeting the requirements set by Elder Ballard, unless I personally authorize it.” After awhile permission could be granted by the Assistants to the President (AP’s), then the Zone Leaders (ZL’s), then the District Leaders (DL’s), then we were back to normal.
To explain the need for
relaxing some of Elder Ballard’s
newly-established rules, our president told us a story in Zone
Conference of a somewhat elderly man who was willing to get baptized,
but wasn’t able to do so because he had not yet received all
the discussions. When this man unexpectedly passed away, the president
remarked, “What a tragedy! Now we are going to have to go and
his temple work, when we could have baptized him while he was
alive!” He used this story repeatedly to justify our baptizing
people before they had received all six of the standard missionary discussions, and had attended church at least twice.
The primary goal that our
president established in our mission was
for every companionship to baptize at least once a month. There were
always four AP’s called to assist in achieving this goal.
a given month, two assistants would stay in the
capital close to the mission home to assist the president, and two would travel around to the remote regions of the mission and visit the various areas in which baptisms had not yet been performed during a given month. Upon arriving in such an area, these “traveling AP’s” would ask to visit the investigators of the companionships, and literally attempt to compel these investigators to be baptized on that day, at that moment. They would use any form of pressure or persuasion available (such as presents of chocolate, gum, or ice cream) to convince these people to be baptized. I know this because I was a first-hand witness on several occasions.
During the month of March, 1990, towards the end of my mission, there were a few companionships in my zone who had not yet had a baptism. After giving me a harsh reprimand during a zone conference interview, the president told me to plan on going with the AP’s the following day to see how a good mission leader should encourage an elder to achieve success with his stewardship. The president even told me to call ahead to the missionaries in the two areas that hadn’t baptized yet, and have them fill up the font in preparation for the AP’s visit.
The following day, I was picked
up by the AP’s. On the way
towards our destination, I was informed that they had been instructed
by the president to take me to the two
in my zone (Fraijanes and Barberanas), and to find someone to
baptize in each area that day. In Fraijanes, the AP’s tried to persuade and to pressure the investigators to be baptized, but their usually convincing rhetoric wasn’t successful. In what I perceived at the time to be a state of panic, they drove up to a remote,
isolated shack on a hill, found an eighty year old partially blind lady without shoes, and literally brought her in a somewhat forceful manner to the van, and placed her in it. Then, they drove to a trail, walked her down the twenty minute path towards the river (she
was praying to Mary on the way down), had her strip down and change into her baptismal clothes in front of all the townspeople who were washing their clothes in the river, and baptized her. There were no discussions, no interview, no song, no talk, no members, and no church attendance.
After the baptism these same
AP’s located the nearest
telephone, called the mission president, and said,
have witnessed a miracle today.”
I was so troubled by this that a week later, I set up an interview with the president to confess what I had seen on that day. Instead of showing alarm or concern for what was going on, he began to literally yell at me for not supporting my leaders, for kicking against the pricks, and for having a bad attitude. Accusing me of trying to destroy the mission, he reprimanded me in a way never before done by anyone in my life, and sent me on my way.
A few days later I was informed
that though my companion had two
more months in the area than I did, I would be transferred. At the
transfer conference, President XXXXX interviewed me, and told me that
after interviewing the two AP’s involved, he decided that
were in the right, that I had a problem in not supporting my leaders,
and that if I ever “rebelled” like this again he
relieve me of my position as zone leader.
I had been struggling for over a year with a severe asthma condition. The area in which I was then serving was one of the few areas in the mission in which I could work and breathe at the same time. That very day, however, I was transferred (in exile it
seemed) to one of the most impoverished, dusty, polluted areas in the mission. Uspantan, Quiche was an eleven hour bus ride through the mountains of Guatemala, and six hours from the nearest phone. It seemed to me as though I had been sent there to be kept quiet,
and to be punished for my “disobedience and rebellion.”
Regardless of the motivation
for transferring me to that area,
within a week I was very ill and utterly unable to breathe. I was
taking over three or four anti-asthma pills and using an inhaler about
three or four times a day just to keep breathing. The first
day, my companion informed me that the traveling AP’s had also visited his area the previous month. They had played basketball with two teenage boys, and on the same day had baptized them without any missionary discussions. The next week they were hanging out in the bars as usual, letting the townspeople know that the first Mormons in Uspantan didn’t hold their covenants seriously.
After one month of trying to
work under these adverse and
potentially damaging health conditions, I called President XXXXX to let
him know that my lungs wouldn’t permit me to remain in that
anymore, due to my illness. The next day I was on a plane home. I
couldn’t help but think that in some way he was trying to get
me, so as to insure that I not “mess up” his “good thing.” Though I was quite sad to leave under those circumstances, I felt a great sense of relief on that plane ride home. It was as if a monumental burden had been lifted from my shoulders.
The Guatemala City North mission had an average of over 650 baptisms a month during my eighteen months as a missionary there. That’s 11,700 people brought into the church in an area one third the size of Tennessee. Unfortunately, it was my experience that less than 15% of those people baptized during my service there remained active after the first few months. I know of missionaries who baptized over 200 people during their two years but who now perceive that very few (if any) of the new members were active by the time the missionaries were ready to go home.
After returning home, I was
transferred to the Tempe, Arizona
mission under President Durrel Woolsey, who at that time had just been
called to be a General Authority. One day I asked for a special
interview, and told him the story of my Guatemala mission.
Immediately he called the missionary office in Salt Lake, and related to them what I had reported. When he returned, his only response was, “They said that they wish they could have known sooner, but since your former president is going home in a few months, there’s really nothing that they can do.”
After being released from my mission in Arizona, I returned to Provo to finish up my studies at BYU. A few months into the semester I went to visit my first mission president in Salt Lake City. I was truly interested to hear how his last few months in Guatemala turned out, and what his thoughts were regarding the unfortunate circumstances that resulted in my being transferred to Arizona. Though he did express to me that he felt it “unfortunate” that I had to be sent home early, it surprised me to hear that due to his overwhelming success as a mission president, he is now sitting as an advisor to the missionary board for the church. As you can imagine, this came as quite a shock to me.
But though it may appear that
my criticisms are aimed at President
XXXXX, my intentions are not to harm either him or his family. Just as
he was not a perfect mission president, I too was far from a perfect
missionary. What I take issue with are the methods [used by
missionaries to produce baptism statistics] by which people were
baptized in my mission, and the inability of anyone presiding over the
mission president to insure compliance with the established baptismal
guidelines. Since returning from my
mission, I have spoken with several returned missionaries who have had similar experiences in Chile, Mexico, and Brazil, as well as in England, Japan, and the United States. As I hear them relate to me how much of a struggle it has been for them to deal with the same problems that I have tried to deal with, my desire to somehow instigate a change, or at least more awareness, in this aspect of the missionary program only increases.
If there is one favor that I could ask, it would be for someone to please let me know what is being done, or what I CAN DO, to help prevent this from happening again in this church that I love so dearly. Please let me know what to do.
John P. Dehlin
P.S. Several missionaries who
served with me in Guatemala
(including Elders XXXXXXXX, XXXXXXXXXXX, XXXXXXXX, XXXXXXXXX, XXXXXXXXXX, and XXXXXXXXXXX) have read this essay, and have expressed a willingness to sign it in support of the notion that the experiences and feelings I have expressed herein are both accurate and legitimate.