When I took a job at the University of Kentucky, a former professor (and boss) of mine at BYU told me to look up a specific French professor on campus, whom she’d also taught (and supervised) some time earlier. I ran into him several months later at a stake conference (this was, obviously, when I was still attending Latter-day Saint meetings), and we bonded over what it was like to work under our boss. Because Mormons tend to assume that there’s no way to learn a language without speaking that language on your mission (this is partly true for me, but I also got my French to a damn respectable level through coursework before I ever put on the tag, so I still resent the assumption), we wound up talking about missions, and so we ended up bonding even more about our shared experience serving in the now-defunct Switzerland Geneva Mission.
Even though my relationship with my mission is trickier now than it was five years ago, I still feel a natural kinship with people who served in the same mission as I did. This is true of people whom I knew when serving in that mission: I semi-regularly text a couple of people whom I know from my mission (and whose relationships with Mormonism have also gotten more complex), and I’d even be happy to see some of my friends from those two years even if we’d have to navigate some awkward conversations first.
It’s also true, though, that I feel connections with people I don’t know personally but who served in the same mission that I did. The Dark Knight came out sometime during the middle of my mission (I remember seeing posters for Le chevalier noir around Geneva), and somewhere around that same time, I ran into the name Aaron Eckhart in some old records in the mission office. It turned out that the actor playing Harvey Dent/Two-Face in the movie had served his own mission where I was currently serving. When doing research on the arch-conservative DezNat movement in Mormon Twitter, I took particular interest in the anonymous account who noticed my research and commented to another DezNat partisan that he recognized my name from mission records, having served in some of the same areas shortly after I did. He never reached out to me, and I never reached out to him, but of all the people in a movement that I’m strongly biased against, he might have invited the most empathy.
A couple of weeks ago, while at a conference in Salt Lake City, I picked up a new book on the September Six and noted with pleasure that Lavina Fielding Anderson (one of the eponymous six intellectuals and feminists) had served in the French East mission, the predecessor to my own (mostly-)beloved Switzerland Geneva Mission. I had never known about that before—if I had, I likely would have included the comment in a recent autoethnographic essay where I wrote in parallel about my journey with French and my journey with faith. I specifically mentioned Anderson as an example of the kind of heterodox-but-loyal Mormon I would have liked to be if I didn’t feel myself being called elsewhere, and given the role of French in the chapter, I wish I had known to make that connection.
In the days since learning this, I kept meaning to write something to my microblog about how proud I was to count Anderson as among these distant-but-meaningful mission compatriots. I kept putting it off, though, and the reason that I’m getting around to it now is because Anderson passed away this weekend; our “shared” mission experience showed up again in her obituary, and even though I never knew Anderson personally, don’t know much of her work, and didn’t really share a mission experience with her in any substantive way, it felt like a blow. I’m still working my way through the book on the September Six, and I haven’t even started any of my bookmarked web articles on Anderson’s life—ones that have been posted since her death to celebrate her legacy. I have a lot to learn about her, but all that I do learn about her makes me all the more proud to share this silly little connection.
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