Following high school I went into a bit of holding period. I was raised Mormon and at age 19 I would be eligible to embark on a 2 year mission for the LDS church. However I was only 17 when I graduated, so I had over a year to burn. It’s a challenging time because in order to serve a mission you must be entirely unhinged, you cannot be married (even having a committed girlfriend is discouraged) you cannot work, or be in school. As a missionary you are dedicated to fulfilling the service of your missionary duties 16 hours a day, go home, go to sleep and do it all the next day. I had no interest in getting too involved in a career, or college or dating at this time. I went to community college and played drums in a few jazz bands there. I majored in math as I thought one day I wanted to be a math teacher. I got a D in my only math class in college, if that’s any indication how serious I was about life at the time.
I was just biding time until the day I would leave for my missionary services, which happened on September 20th, 2000. When you volunteer for missionary service for my church you are assigned a specific area of the world to which you will spend your 2 years. I was assigned to Cleveland Ohio. Not the world’s most exotic location, but I was excited to go.
Being a Mormon missionary is to this day one of the most difficult challenges I have confronted. The expectation is extreme, and the demands tremendous. I had never been a strict or mature individual but now it is anticipated that every single morning I would wake up 6am, study scriptures and Mormon theology, proselyte and engage in service activities all day, and go around telling people why I, a 19 year old kid, has life all figured out and why YOU should convert to my religion. No easy task.
You may think of Mormon missionaries as 2 young boys wearing white shirts and ties, riding around on bikes, knocking on doors and carrying a somewhat nerdy demeanor….That’s pretty much dead accurate. Every day I would walk around the neighborhoods of Northern Ohio and knock on people’s door with a fellow missionary, and we’d try to have conversations about religion. As you would probably expect it was rare there were people who had any interest in engaging us in conversation, and most of the time we were cordially excused, sometimes we were verbally assaulted, or had doors slammed on us, and on a rare occasion we’d get a dog sent after us, or rocks thrown.
One of the greatest challenges for me as a missionary was a challenge of personality. I already was an insecure person, especially around new people, and now I was expected to meet new people every day and try to talk about religion with them. Secondly, missionaries are held to a high standard in the LDS congregations we attend, and there is a expectation that missionaries are well behaved, humble, polite, spiritual, and dignified young men. We for the most part aren’t. I remember being taught in my missionary training classes that missionaries are to practice, “quiet dignity.” It was not appropriate for a missionary to be rowdy, or outspoken, funny and entertaining. This added an additional layer of difficulty for me as I was already insecure enough about trying to be funny as a way of social coping, and now I need to also be insecure about being TOO funny and entertaining.
For the first few months of mission I was mostly quiet and awkward around members of my church congregation and other missionaries. I tried to exude a sort of faux confidence, but inside I was always uncomfortable. I remember attending meetings with other church members and trying my best to be quiet and dignified, speaking in a professional manner, taking myself and meetings way too seriously. I never felt comfortable but I really believed in what I was doing and I wanted to do a good job.
As Christmas was approaching my congregation was hosting a dinner and me and my missionary partner were invited to attend. Another member of the congregation who would work with us often asked us if we would help him put on a skit. His name is Brother Tychonevich. He and his son had one of your typical skits that you would see at a boy scout camp, or a junior high talent show. I was very excited to be able to part of a skit! I was to play the part of swindling haberdasher that kept selling a misfit suit to a man, my missionary partner, who gets more and more frustrated. We ran through the particulars of the skit with little fanfare, and never really acted out what we’d be doing, we just talked out the different roles and most of it would be improvised.
When we got in front of the congregation for the performance, I came out of my shell. I had a full blown french accent, over the top energy, and found several beats that I used through out the skit, “Now walk ‘dis way, now walk ‘dat way, now STOP! NOW GO!” The congregation was cracking up. I was loving it. But in the back in my mind I was terrified, “This is not quiet dignity” “Is this too much?” “Am I loving the respect of the congregation by being funny?” “Will this hinder my effectiveness as a missionary in this congregation, and will they feel comfortable working with me?” After the event many people came up and completed me on my hilarious performance and some even expressed shock, “You were always so quiet and shy!” This particular congregation ended up loving me any more when they saw me out of my shell, but that was not always the case.
A few months later I was in a new area, a little more confident now and willing to be myself. However, I was reminded that not everyone appreciates a jokster. I was in a new area now with a different congregation, one that had not seen my stellar performance at the Christmas party. Me and my a new missionary partner had been meeting a member who had not been to church for awhile. She enjoyed having us over and even seemed to like it when I would make a joke or two. One night I left her a voicemail and instead of doing the quietly dignified thing, I launched into some sort of impression or accent. Something similar to my French suit maker and left a short message. Being so impressed with myself and comedic wit I thought it would be fun to leave her SEVERAL messages all with different voices. Which I did, 3 or so messages, I don’t quite remember how many. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but she did not appreciate the humor. The next morning I get a call from the president of my mission, which to give you an idea of how rare that is, in the entire 2 years of my mission I got a call from the mission president twice, and this was one of them. The woman had called the president of my mission and complained that I left vocal impressions on her voicemail and she was furious about it. My mission president told me to call and apologize which I did right away. I felt horrible! How could my light hearted attempt at humor been so horribly offensive? I called her, she picked up and I apologized immediately, in a normal voice, before I could finish she said, “That was so rude, don’t ever call me or come over again!” and hung up the phone… I went to my bed and bawled. Turns out I wasn’t a good missionary after all, and I needed to be quiet and dignified. And now I had offended a church member who had been struggling to go to church anyway, and now would never come back, as long as I was there. This destroyed me and to this day it still stings. I was never really comfortable on my mission again after that experience, there were times when I’d feel okay, but most of the time I was just second guessing myself, and my personality. One thing is for sure, I never left another voicemail in a character voice.
I somehow managed to pull through that experience, and many other extremely difficult challenging experiences and finished my 2 year missionary service. It was time for me to return home and start my life. Back to college, back to seeking a career, back to dating, and back to trying to figure who I was and who I am, and would comedy be a part of my life?