I am, by nature, a pleaser. I have always been uncomfortable around conflict, and I tend to compensate by being extra polite to avoid conflict in any form. It’s a personality trait that was especially on display when I was a Mormon missionary in LA.
In keeping with the Book of Mormon scripture, “He that hath the spirit of contention is not of [God],” missionaries are expected to be polite. When you wear that official black name tag with your family name and the name of Jesus Christ on it, you are representing the hopes, expectations, and reputations of both your family and the Church. Your actions could change someone’s opinion of the religion–or even of God.
And pressure to represent Jesus aside, if your goal is to teach and baptize as many people as you can, you aren’t going to accomplish that goal if you aren’t nice. So when you knock on someone’s door, and they invite you in, you are going to say thank you and wipe your feet on the welcome mat.
The most obvious example of this in action is local food. When I was a kid, my dad told me stories about his mission when he had to eat strange and disgusting foods in Korea. “You had to eat what they offered you,” he would say, “It’s rude not to.” And that’s how he developed a taste for kimchi. The only time an Elder would turn away food that was offered to him was if it violated Mormonism’s dietary code, the Word of Wisdom.
When I was assigned to the Temple City area, my companion and I knocked on the door of a less active member that we had never met but that we wanted to invite to come back to Church. He was a big, quiet guy in a t-shirt and sweat pants with two giant dogs. Seriously, they must have been as tall as my chest, and as soon as he opened the door these dogs were all over us barking and jumping up on us.
I don’t like dogs. I didn’t grow up with dogs. I don’t know how to behave around dogs. When I was little, I begged my parents for a puppy. Instead they got me a job taking care of the neighbor’s puppy. That son of a bitch pooped and peed everywhere, ripped most of my clothes, and left me hating the little monsters, but when you’re wearing that black badge, you set your distaste for animals aside, put on a big smile, and ask what breed they are.
The man invited my companion and me to sit on the couch. He offered us water, which we declined. The dogs continued to make a big ruckus in the living room so he disappeared in the kitchen muttering that he’d be right back.
When he returned, he handed me a long rope of beef jerky–like a slim jim. Then he turned to my companion and said, “Here, let me get you one too,” and he went back into the kitchen.
I looked at my companion and tried to express how horrified I was by the thought of eating this. I hate beef jerky and all things like it. I’m convinced it’s a flavor straight men can’t actually enjoy, but they eat it just to look tough. Anyway, my companion looked back at me with a you-gotta-do-what-you-gotta-do expression, and I knew I had to just had to get it over with. I took a big bite and started chewing.
That slim jim was so thick I could barely chew it, and its flavor was so strong I almost threw up. Before I could swallow, the man walked back in the room with the other beef rope and the two dogs. He looked at me, looked at the slim jim in my hand, looked back at me, and suddenly I realized what I’d done.
“Oh, do you want one too?” he offered politely.
I shook my head, still chewing dog food. I gave the rest of the jerky to the dogs who ate it eagerly. The dog treats did the trick, and the dogs sat quietly while my companion and I shared a brief spiritual message. No small talk.
The way my companion likes to tell the story–and boy does he love to tell this story–the first thing I said as we left the house was, “I am so humiliated.” And I was. I also had the worst case of dog breath.