Here’s another repost of a book review I wrote for my original Blogspot blog. This one was posted October 6, 2013, and reappears here as/is.
I just finished Harvest: Memoir of a Mormon Missionary, an interesting book written by returned Mormon missionary Jacob Young, who spent two years serving the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Russia. Young was a missionary at the tail end of the 1990s. I was especially interested in reading about his experience because I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Armenia in the mid 1990s. Although Russia and Armenia are different places, they were both once part of the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, there were still some things going on in both countries that made the experiences of living there somewhat similar.
Young’s job as a Mormon missionary was to convince Russians to join the LDS church. Given the culture in Russia– especially given that during Soviet times, religion was pretty much discouraged or even outlawed– being a missionary in Russia must have been tough. Russians are notoriously fond of tea, alcohol (especially vodka), and cigarettes. Convincing locals to give up these things so that they could be Mormons must have been very difficult. And Young does confess that he and his ever changing companions did have challenges in getting potential converts past the first discussions, even if they managed those. However, I was surprised to read that Young was a reasonably effective missionary who did baptize a number of people, a few of whom stuck with the church.
Despite his successes, Young suffered through some annoying and eccentric companions. He had one companion who sang and hummed incessantly, annoying Young to no end. He had another who would use a mirror to spy on Young when he used the toilet, checking to make sure he didn’t masturbate during the few minutes he was alone. The companion would aim the mirror at a small, high window in the bathroom. Having lived in Armenia, I am very familiar with the type of window Young writes of. My first apartment in Yerevan had one. Since missionaries are supposed to be with their companions at all times, dealing with the very hard core ones was a real challenge for Young.
Young also suffered a crisis of faith. He writes of missing music that wasn’t church approved, reading books that weren’t religious in nature, and not having to spend all his time knocking on doors, pestering people who weren’t interested in Mormonism. Young wrote to his parents about his sliding faith and talked to his mission president, who seemed to be a good guy. He also confesses to “cheating” on a few rules.
As I finished reading this book, I wondered where Young stands on Mormonism today. I got the sense that he might have left the church or at least gone inactive. I did not get the impression that he got a big sense that Mormonism is “true”. He does, however, concede that while the mission was not really the best two years of his life, he did gain a lot from the experience. Having had my own tough trials over the 27 months I spent in Armenia, I could definitely relate to that sentiment. There were many days when I wanted to escape Armenia… and I didn’t even have to deal with the constraints that Mormon missionaries have to deal with. I lived alone for most of my time as a Volunteer and could drink all the liquor, coffee, and tea I wanted. If I had wanted to smoke, I was welcome to do that, too. Masturbation was also not forbidden to me and I was allowed to dress pretty much as I saw fit. Armenia in the 90s was just a tough place to be, though; and I think Young’s time in Russia was similarly difficult.
And yet, there’s not a day that passes that I don’t think of those days in Armenia. They changed my life. I came away from the experience with more than I put into it. While Young may not have appreciated the job he was there to do, he does write about all the things he did take from his mission experience. He apparently became quite proficient in Russian and was able to read, write, and speak it. While I was able to speak and understand passable Armenian (smattered with a few Russian words), I could never write it and reading it was always a painfully slow exercise. There were times when it was actually easier for me to read Russian, which is a language I have never formally studied but sort of rubbed off on me.
I admire Jacob Young’s writing, which is personal, confessional, and very fluent. His book does have a few comic moments, but it’s mostly very introspective and revealing. Young puts a human face on Mormon missionaries, who probably aren’t looked at as humans by the masses trying to avoid being hooked into a conversation with them. Young concedes that he didn’t enjoy pestering people for the Mormon church, even though there were a few people who joined the LDS church and appreciated it. Young admits that as a missionary, he pressured people who weren’t sure. He and his companions targeted people who were lonely and vulnerable. He baptized married women, even if their spouses didn’t want to join the church. He sowed dissension within families when he baptized single people whose families weren’t interested in being LDS. There were also times when he was “schooled” by Russians who had spent a couple of hours on the Internet and learned more about Joseph Smith than he knew, just by reading sites that weren’t “church approved”. Young admits he was embarrassed when a Russian told him about Joseph Smith’s habit of bedding and marrying teenagers and women who already had husbands.
I am impressed that Young realizes and admits to doing these things in the name of scoring more baptisms and being a more successful missionary. I am especially impressed that he realizes that doing these things may have caused problems for the converts.
I don’t know what Elder Jacob Young is up to now, but I did really like his book, Harvest: Memoir of a Mormon Missionary. I would certainly recommend it. Four and a half stars from me…
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