Sunday, October 13, 2013

10/13/1993 - The end of the mission

Twenty years ago today was my last proselytizing day as an LDS missionary. On Oct. 14, I was taken to the mission home, and the day after that, I was handed over to my parents, who had come down to the Dominican Republic to pick me up.

When I started this "looking back 20 years" series of what were supposed to be monthly posts, I was hoping to reconnect with the Dominican Republic--the contemporary Dominican Republic, not my nostalgic memories of the Dominican Republic. I wanted to do that out of a sense of guilt. Guilt that I connected with all these people, I lived in this country, this culture, and the experience impacted me very deeply, at least I feel like it did--but at the end of the day, was that just a kind of extended spiritual tourism? Was it ultimately an exercise in narcissism posing as concern for people in the Third World?

Yeah. Yeah it was. I mean, it may not have been exclusively that; I trust--I have to trust--that there are redeeming or redeemable aspects to the experience. But, yeah. It was very much about me, and the connections I've continued to feel for the Dominican Republic are very much about me. That's why in the end, this series petered out. My spiritual engagement ended up flowing in other directions over these past couple of years, and the Dominican experience stopped being so meaningful.

This is not good. This is very icky. I am not proud of myself in this moment.

And that's the end of my 20th-anniversary series of mission reflections. S**t.

Other posts in this series: 
5/12/1993 - Safety in the Dominican Republic
4/7/1993 - Alma Rosa
2/3/1993 - Ensanche Espaillat
9/30/1992 - La Milagrosa
8/12/1992 - A year after the call
7/1/1992 - FEDOPO
5/6/1992 - Guaricano
4/1/1992 - First day in Guaricano
2/5/1992 - The Zona Franca
12/4/1991 - La Romana
11/6/1991 - My first day in the Dominican Republic
10/9/1991 - Entered the MTC
9/4/1991 - Waiting to serve
8/1/1991 - Mission call

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Sacred Grove

My 20-year anniversary missionary posts are shot to heck. There's really only a couple months left in which to do any. My spiritual life has moved into a different channel. I would like to do one or two more posts in that series, though.

Today, though, I want to talk about a visit I made last month to the Sacred Grove. My husband and I spent the Fourth of July week in Cleveland, partly so I could make a presentation to the Community of Christ interns at the Kirtland Temple visitors center. While we were in the vicinity, we took a day trip out to Palmyra, something we've been talking about for years, even since we came back east so I could return to grad school. I haven't been to Palmyra since I was a toddler.

The weather was wretched, although in a way I guess that was a blessing because it meant I basically had the Sacred Grove to myself. No one else wanted to be out there in the pouring rain.

I appreciate how the grove is being managed: limited, low-key interpretative apparatus, a wonderfully extensive trail system so that even if there were lots of visitors, I imagine you could achieve some privacy.

I walked back for a good long ways until I found a spot that felt right for no particular reason, and then I paced for a while talking out loud to God. I had this feeling of having arrived at the place of origin, a place where the Presence is specially concentrated. I didn't have Eliade on the brain at that particular moment, but yes, we're talking hierophany here.

But I was also aware that I was standing in a mythic place of origin. This is the place where the story begins--and yet it's not. That paradox is true in a couple of different senses.

One: It's not really the place of origin because the story we tell about this place of origin probably didn't happen the way we tell it. Anyone who saw or heard the "Diagnosing the Seer" session I did at Salt Lake Sunstone last year, with Mark Thomas and Dan Vogel, on the historicity of the 1838 First Vision account knows that I voted gray or black on all the propositions we discussed. But that doesn't stop me from wanting to make my pilgrimage to this place. It doesn't stop me from experiencing the heightened Presence.

Two: It's not really the place of origin because even if the story were strictly historical, the site has changed since the 1820s. This is the insight that struck me during my trip last month, as I was pacing, looking up through the trees, getting drenched in the rain. My understanding is that site that is preserved as the "Sacred Grove" encompasses more than the original Smith property, ergo more than the original grove. Whether I'm understanding that correctly or not, the fact remains that the site I'm seeing now is not the site Joseph Smith prayed in. They're not the same trees. These trails weren't here. Who knows how else the landscape has been altered.

So it's the Sacred Grove, but the Sacred Grove has changed. It's not what it was in 1820. It has evolved into something different. But we still call it the Sacred Grove.

When that thought came to me in the grove, I also thought: That's an apt metaphor for my own Mormon identity. It has evolved into something different from what it was. But it's still Mormon.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

5/12/1993 - Safety in the Dominican Republic

This post is part of an ongoing series in which I "look in" on the contemporary Dominican Republic while "looking back" at my mission there twenty years ago. Today, I feel inspired to write about safety in the DR.

Shortly after I arrived in the DR as a missionary, another missionary showed me a document which had been provided to the missionaries by the U.S. embassy around the time of the Gulf War (which preceded my mission by several months). I don't remember if the mission president had solicited this document or if the embassy had proffered it. It was a basically a guide on what to do if you're kidnapped. The advice I still remember is: Your best chance for escape is when they're first nabbing you; you need to psychologically prepare yourself for a long captivity; and you should press your captors to improve your conditions by demanding things like toilet paper and books.

The document made such an impression on me that I became paranoid when my trainer and I were approached by a young man who was very keen to have us come to his house but didn't want to be seen talking to us on the street. As it turned out, he did have nefarious intentions, but of a more mundane kind: he feigned a desire to convert in the hope of fleecing us of things like tennis shoes--at which he succeeded; I wasn't sufficiently paranoid on that count.

Once I got acclimated, I felt quite safe as a missionary in the DR. During the Gulf War, a missionary had been the victim of a drive-by shooting, apparently motivated by anti-American sentiment (he survived largely unscathed; his temple garments took the credit). But that incident was anomalous. People regularly shouted "CIA" to us on the streets, but I understood it more as a taunt than a threat. Missionaries, the North Americans especially, were natural targets of petty crime: missionaries liked to swap stories about the ingenious ways people made off with their watches in the streets, that kind of thing. I had my bike stolen several months into my mission while I was inside an investigator's house one night--the horrific aftermath of which is that the police carted off a Haitian neighbor of the investigator, who I also knew, and beat him to try to force a confession. I'm not up to reliving that memory right now; but there's a moral there about safety and vulnerability for different kinds of foreign nationals in the Dominican Republic.

The DR didn't feel unsafe to me until the very end of my mission, when my parents came down to pick me up. We were walking at night to our hotel in a touristy area, when a man began approaching us, pulling a coiled wire out from under his shirt as he did so. My petite, iron-willed mother glared at the man, grabbed my hand and my father's, and pulled us across the street. It was a very unnerving experience, and it suddenly made the DR feel less like home to me than it had. I had been moving blithely through this country, feeling like I belonged; suddenly I felt foreign and targeted.

In 1997, when I was back in the DR working with a Catholic program, I visited Guaricano, which had been my favorite proselyting area. I learned that while LDS missionaries still worked there, they no longer lived there. The area had been ruled to unsafe to live after burglars broke into the elders' home one night and assaulted them. In 2000, I returned to the DR again looking for a job teaching English. While there, I heard chilling stories about American teachers--women, in these stories--being picked up by fake taxis full of thieves posing as passengers, forced to use ATM cards to empty their bank accounts, and in one case killed. During that same trip, I got into such a taxi and had my pocket picked. A good Samaritan found my discarded wallet later that day, found inside the phone number of the house where I was staying, and called. My Dominican hosts feared that the caller was actually one of the thieves trying to lure me into . . . a further assault or a kidnapping, I guess. A stake high councilman and his wife drove me over to the caller's home, who turned out to be legit; in fact, the high councilman ended up trying to turn the encounter into a missionary referral.

I was just looking at the U.S. State Department's travel advisory page for the DR. They make it sound pretty scary, though there's reassuring perspective in their statement that "the dangers present in the Dominican Republic are similar to those of many major U.S. cities."

I can't end a reflection on safety in the DR without remembering . . . well, let's call her Guadi, a young mother living in the area where I was working on this day 20 years ago, whose musician husband was often away working a gig on the other end of the island. One night she was awakened at knifepoint by a thief who had broken into the house. Several days later, she saw the thief walking past their home; fortunately, her husband was home at the time, and he confronted the thief, which led to his arrest. I'm proud of the way ward members pulled together for her, spending the night with her when her husband had to go away again. My companion and I met with her one evening, when she was plainly under a lot of stress. We got the kids off in a corner playing with magnets, we three adults sat down to talk, she vented for a long while, my companion and I listened, the three of us sang "Abide with Me," we prayed. It's one of the spiritual highlights of my mission.

I thank God that I was safe during my time in the DR. I pray for the safety of the people I know who are living there now--Dominicans and Haitians and North Americans. Especially women.

Other posts in this series: 
4/7/1993 - Alma Rosa
2/3/1993 - Ensanche Espaillat
9/30/1992 - La Milagrosa
8/12/1992 - A year after the call
7/1/1992 - FEDOPO
5/6/1992 - Guaricano
4/1/1992 - First day in Guaricano
2/5/1992 - The Zona Franca
12/4/1991 - La Romana
11/6/1991 - My first day in the Dominican Republic
10/9/1991 - Entered the MTC
9/4/1991 - Waiting to serve
8/1/1991 - Mission call

Sunday, April 7, 2013

4/7/1993 - Alma Rosa

Twenty years ago today, I was a missionary in Santo Domingo, a couple weeks into a new proselyting area--which turned out to be my last proselyting area. I spent six months here, an unusually long time by the norms of my mission. At the time, I interpreted that as a vote of confidence from the mission president: i.e., he trusted me to be diligent and persistent enough to keep building up the work in this area without getting bored and antsy to go somewhere else. But, um, who knows what his motive was. (Pessimistic speculation: Maybe it was the mission president's strategy for keeping me somewhere he thought I couldn't do too much damage.)

Anyway, Alma Rosa was the name of the area--Alma Rosa I, officially. Alma Rosa II was the next barrio eastward; the city was expanding in that direction. My companion and I lived in Alma Rosa II, but we worked and attended church in Alma Rosa I. The chapel we attended was the same one I had attended in late 1992-early 1993, while I was working in La Milagrosa, a neighborhood just northwest of Alma Rosa. In other words, I was in familiar territory.

In the map below, Alma Rosa is the area shaded green. La Milagrosa, where I'd served in late 1992-early 1993, is shaded pink. (In retrospect, I should have assigned the colors the other way around: Alma Rosa means "Pink Soul." I have no idea why that name.) The chapel in the center of the map, in Alma Rosa, is where our ward met. The chapel near the southwest corner of the map is where we attended zone conferences. The chapel toward the east edge of the map was where the missionaries in my district held our weekly meetings. Ah, yes: I was district leader while I was in Alma Rosa. A long awaited feather in my cap.


The blue circle on the map indicates the approximate location where I lived while I was working in Alma Rosa. The green circle indicates the street where the first YouTube video below was filmed. The red circle indicates where I suspect the second YouTube video was filmed, a judgment I make based on the lack of vegetation. The northern "triangle" of Alma Rosa was a relatively poorer area. The middle section (moving south) was where the most affluent housing was, although rich houses behind walls could exist literally side-by-side with tin shacks. The southernmost stretch of the neighborhood, parallel to the highway, had big apartment complexes that I have in my head were government projects.

I am proud to say that over the course of six months in Alma Rosa, I systematically tracted out--i.e., knocked doors on--every street in that barrio. We didn't just tract, of course; but tracting was what we always did when we had nothing else to do; I insisted on that as a matter of discipline. I might not pursue that same course if I could do things over, but I was proud of it then because the alternative would have been killing time while fooling ourselves that we were being productive. Six months and a few companions later, I'd worked through every street and started over. At a couple houses, people asked, "Weren't you just here?" Nope, that was six months ago. I've been keeping track.

About the videos:

1. This short rooftop look-about shows a stretch of Alma Rosa that has been "developed up" more than I remember it as being twenty years ago. That is, I don't remember there being so many multi-floor apartment buildings.


2. This will be boring for anyone except a fellow Alma Rosa alum. I'm intrigued by the number of young people who have electronic devices--smart phones, whatever these things are called. (I don't keep up with technology.)


Other posts in this series: 

2/3/1993 - Ensanche Espaillat
9/30/1992 - La Milagrosa
8/12/1992 - A year after the call
7/1/1992 - FEDOPO
5/6/1992 - Guaricano
4/1/1992 - First day in Guaricano
2/5/1992 - The Zona Franca
12/4/1991 - La Romana
11/6/1991 - My first day in the Dominican Republic
10/9/1991 - Entered the MTC
9/4/1991 - Waiting to serve
8/1/1991 - Mission call

Sunday, February 3, 2013

2/3/1993 - Ensanche Espaillat

Twenty years ago today, I was working in Ensanche Espaillat, my fourth missionary area. I only spent a couple of months here--the shortest time I spent assigned to any area. Espaillat is a small rectangular-shaped neighborhood, about a ten minutes walk across in the narrower direction, about fifteen minutes in the longer direction. Our proselyting area extended beyond Espaillat proper (which ended at the cloverleaf) down to the river. That neighborhood was called Gualey; it was a substantially poorer neighborhood and was considered dangerous. We weren't supposed to go there by night, though there were a couple of members we visited fairly regularly there by day.

 
1. The missionaries' apartment. We shared with the companionship who worked in the area just southeast of us.

2. The street in Gualey where a couple of members and an investigator lived. I arrived just after Espaillat had been broken off from the adjacent ward to become its own branch. That decision had been made based on our having about 200 members on the records; 11 adults were active on a weekly basis. But church leadership in the DR really wanted a temple, and multiplying units was the way to get it.

3. La Escuela / Liceo Republica de Colombia. A public elementary school where my companion and I went once a week to volunteer as assistants for one of the teachers. Probably the most meaningful community service (meaningful for me, anyway) I did during my time as a missionary.

4. The meetinghouse attended by our branch, as well as by the ward from whom we had been broken off. There was conflict between the (mostly American) missionaries and the local leadership, centered in the ward but spilling over into my branch as well. It reached a heady adrenaline-laced crisis when our (American) mission president demanded that the (Dominican) stake president put a stop to certain prayer meetings being held by the priesthood leaders in our ward and branch, which our mission president (and the missionaries) regarded as apostate. I feel very differently about this incident now than I did at the time; I should blog about it, maybe next month.

5. According to the church's online meetinghouse finder, there's now a meetinghouse here, though it wasn't there when I served.

This is fun: Searching for information about Ensanche Espaillat online, I quickly discovered the blog of a neighborhood organization, Amigos y Vecinos Ensanche Espaillat. It looks like they hold block parties and do raffles; they post announcements of residents' deaths and marriages. I found one post featuring photos of the "ausentes de Espaillat"--former residents sending greetings back from New Jersey or Florida. Thumbs up for civil society!

One post provided the following government statistics about Ensanche Espaillat: There are 4,000 dwellings in the neighborhood (not counting Gualey), and nearly 16,000 people living there! That figure blows my mind, to the point where I'm dubious--but Espaillat was a densely inhabited neighborhood, even 20 years ago. Unemployment is at a relatively low 7 percent. A little under 3,400 women in the neighborhood are reported as being "amas de casa" [homemakers]; the blogger juxtaposes that statistic with the fact that there are only 96 "empleadas domesticas" [domestic employees, female] to remark that "el barrio tiene verdaderas amas de casa" [the neighborhood has true homemakers]--which I take is meant as a commendation for the women who do their own cooking, cleaning, and washing instead of hiring someone to do it. Had this census been taken 20 years ago, the missionaries' maid would presumably have been one of those 96 empleadas domesticas. She would not have qualified, apparently, as a true homemaker even though she was actually running two households--ours, plus her own.

Other posts in this series: 
9/30/1992 - La Milagrosa
8/12/1992 - A year after the call
7/1/1992 - FEDOPO
5/6/1992 - Guaricano
4/1/1992 - First day in Guaricano
2/5/1992 - The Zona Franca
12/4/1991 - La Romana
11/6/1991 - My first day in the Dominican Republic
10/9/1991 - Entered the MTC
9/4/1991 - Waiting to serve
8/1/1991 - Mission call

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Spiral creche

As today is Epiphany, Christmas is liturgically over, so I'm taking down all the Christmas decorations (minus the colored lights, which I'll leave up to help make the dark winter more cheery).

Every year I try to do something different with the creche. This year, I arranged the figures in a double spiral being drawn in toward the center, which until December 24 was empty but was then occupied by the baby Jesus.


As of New Year's, I reversed all the figures so that they were moving away from the center, back out into the world.


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Amahl and the Night Visitors

In observance of Christmas, I'm doing a "nostalgia post." Back in 1985 and 1986, I sang the role of Amahl and Gian Carlo Menotti's light Christmas opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, for Opera West, a shoestring opera company headquartered in the Utah County area. It's an experience I look back on each Christmas very fondly. I have especially fond memories of 1986, when we went on tour to out-of-the-way places like Arco, Idaho, and Vernal, Utah. I'm sure this will be "old hat" for people who do dramatic performance, but the bonding within the troupe as we toured was an unusual experience for me (loner by temperament), and one that I think of as having spiritual dimensions, in part because of the religious themes of the performance.

This year, I tried Googling and Facebooking the major cast members to see if I could find out what they're up to now, almost 30 years later. I found rather less information than I'd hoped for, but it seems that the young man who played Balthazar, Michael Wadsworth, went on to have a singing career with some national recognition. I really wish I could have found out something about Donna Wellman, who played my mother. I learned a little about her past--she'd been singing that role for several years--but couldn't find anything about her more recent life. I'm guessing that Gene Larsson, who ran Opera West and sang the role of Melchior in 1986, has since died. (Forgive me, Gene, if you're alive and reading this!) Director Jerry Elison is still a prominent and beloved figure in the Utah County performing arts scene.

Here's a clip of my favorite aria from Amahl. It's not my troupe's performance--I don't have a DVD rip of that, unfortunately.