When I read the news articles about Joseph L. Bishop, the former Provo Missionary Training Centre president, my stomach began to churn and I immediately was brought back to my last night in the MTC. When I was supposed to be eagerly anticipating travelling to the mission where I would be serving for the next 18 months, I was instead reporting unwanted touching and sexual harassment to my MTC teacher’s supervisor.
Ever since I could remember, I wanted to serve a mission. Both my parents are converts and I grew up on stories about the missionaries that brought them into the Church. I started accompanying the sister missionaries when I was 10 years old as they tracted and met with prospective members ( a practice that would likely be frowned on today). My father worked as a travelling salesman and when sisters missionaries were not assigned to our area, we would make arrangements with sisters in other areas for me to stay with them for a day or two while my father made his sales calls. I told everyone I was going to be a missionary and I resented having to wait until I was 21 to serve. I also fought back when I was teased that it was only the ugly young women who were left over and unmarriageable who went on missions.
After graduating from Ricks College, I returned home to work until I received my mission call. My parents were not well off and there were several children in our typical Mormon family. There was no mission fund set aside for me, despite my lifelong goal of serving. I did not think that my branch was obligated to support me while I served, but I knew that they had supported other missionaries with limited means. I was deeply wounded when my branch president told me that he wouldn’t submit my papers unless I paid off my student loan and earned a fixed amount of money first. The branch and stake were supporting elders who were already serving and there was no money to pay for a sister missionary to serve. So, my timetable was adjusted and I worked for 9 months in a minimum wage job, where I was harassed and bullied every day, by an assistant manager who took bets on my first day regarding how long I would last. I limped along until, finally, a miracle happened. My former bishop from Ricks let me know that a contact of his was looking for a missionary to support and he had given me this gentleman my name. I was so grateful that I could now serve and fulfill my dream.
I quickly adapted to the routine at the MTC because I was already so familiar with mission life. What I wasn’t able to adapt to was the teacher assigned to our district. There were 4 sisters and 8 elders in our group. As sisters, we quickly realized that we were not going to have an easy ride with our male teacher. He ruled our classroom with an iron fist and did not tolerate any opposition. He constantly berated us for the smallest perceived infraction in our appearance and would frequently comment, for example, on how much of our stockings were showing under our regulation length skirts as we shifted in our seats or climbed the stairs. We discussed during meal times and after class how uncomfortable we were with all the attention he was directing towards us. The elders in our district also began to notice the imbalance in the attention our teacher was giving us.
A new challenge presented itself in the form of the call centre, which was a relatively new innovation for the MTC. I dread imposing on people, and the prospect of making cold calls to follow up on referrals received through the 1-800 numbers, shared during Church television commercials, was a living nightmare for me. The minimal training and pressure to perform made the task especially distressing. During one particular session in the centre, I became increasingly concerned about how much time our teacher was spending with my companion and how close he pulled his chair next to hers. After a few difficult calls, I turned off my computer and took off my headset. I was done and nothing could convince me to continue. The teacher walked over to my station, pulled his chair close to mine and reached under the desk and touched my upper left thigh. I felt like I had been stung. I quickly stood up and walked out of the call centre. A few of the elders followed me and seeing how upset I was, asked what had happened. When I explained, they became angry and became animated with how they would retaliate. I told them that I would be fine and somehow made it through the rest of the days of our training in the midst of the persistent singling out from the teacher.
That unwanted touch played over and over in my mind and I was at a loss as to what to do about it, but I knew for certain that it was uninvited and unwanted. The MTC was a foreign environment with an unfamiliar hierarchy. Our teacher had bragged that his supervisor was his best friend and I wasn’t sure that making a complaint would make a difference. I felt ripped off and angry that at the start of my mission, a goal that I had waited years to attain, I had been violated in this way.
Finally, on our last night in the MTC, after speaking with my companion about it again, I went to the reception area, where just days before, I had entered as a new missionary, and asked who I would speak to about a concern about my teacher. The person at the desk called my teacher’s supervisor, his best friend. My heart sunk when I saw him, but somehow through my tears, I was able to share what my companion and I had experienced. He thanked me for telling him and after he left, that was it. No one followed up with me and no one offered me support. I never heard anything more about it.
When I met my trainer in my first area, I told her what happened, and she accused me of making it up. Then I gave up, buried my feelings and tried to be the best sister missionary I could. I tried so hard to become the perfect missionary that I damaged my health, and was almost sent home early, because I was a liability for the Missionary Health Department. When I finished my mission it was a relief and nothing close to the best years of my life.
I have made my peace with those 18 months so long ago and I suppose in that time I have forgiven that teacher. But if there is a flyover shot of the MTC during the Mormon Report, between General Conference sessions, I become nauseated and tears come to my eyes as the film of that moment 18 years ago replays in my mind, in perfect detail. The sting is still there.
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