The Mormon Mission Years

First Draft Disclaimer: Most of this is a rough first draft. I haven’t paid much attention to crafting each sentence, spelling, grammar, etc – I’m just getting the ideas down, the polish will happen in a phase between this, and publication. Take it all with a grain of salt.

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A quick primer on the organization of Mormon missions – 

A “mission” is both the act of the two years of proselytizing, and it refers to the geographical boundary that one proselytizes in. For instance, I served my mission in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Mission, which included all of Delaware, the eastern half of Maryland, and the southeast corner of Pennsylvania (which is where Philadelphia is located). 

A mission has a mission president – usually an older man and his wife who preside over the mission, it’s missionaries, and all related operations. Our mission had about 250 missionaries in it, missionaries operate in pairs called “companionships”. Mission companions are with each other 24/7. It’s somewhere between a roommate and a sexless same sex marriage that typically lasts 1-4 months. 

At that time ( late 90’s), young men served from age 19 – 21, women from age 21-23). 

Let’s devle deeper into the notion of making young men commit to a life of total chastity during their sexual peak. “Total chastity” includes one’s refraining from sexual relations with one’s own hand, by the way.  All sexual energies must be contained, denied, ignored, whatever. JUST DO NOT DO THE THING THAT EVERY PART OF YOUR BEING WAS CREATED TO DO RIGHT NOW.  This may not please you, but it pleaseth The Lord. 

The first couple of days of mission life included staying over at the Mission President’s home, having a few meals and meetings with the new missionaries and the Mission President, and, the first of many monthly interviews with the Mission President. 

President Wagstaff was a kind, soft spoken giant of a man. I was nervous to have my first interview with him. Interviews with church leaders always made me nervous – they could probably see through my soul, and I wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted all of that to be seen. 

“We’ll have these interviews each month. I’ll ask you a couple of questions:  ‘How is the work going in your area?’, ‘How is your companionship going?’, and, ‘Are you living the kind of life that a missionary ought to be living?’, and by this, I am wanting to know if you are having any problems with pornography or masturbation.”

Ah, so we are going to act like old school Jews, talking about wanking-off like those who cannot say the name of God, instead we’ll use euphemisms. 

Kind of an interesting notion, isn’t it?

At the time I was relived that we had some code words we could use instead of just saying “porn” and “masturbate”. What a relief! 

Such dedication to The Lord did not come easy…  it did not help matters at all that the movie Showgirls had just come out, and the city was plastered with promotions for the movie. Every billboard, every bus, every train was adorned with movie art that seemed devised by Beelzebub himself to tempt me: 


My dear reader, I don’t know if this is bragging or confession, but I went a whole year before breaking down one night and eliciting a release from my 20 year old manhood.  

I didn’t look at any porn. I didn’t need to. I just let my mental guard down one night in a moment of weakness and entertained some thoughts that erupted into a flow of guilt and shame (and much needed release, apparently). 

I dreaded the upcoming interview with President Wagstaff. I was going to be totally honest with him, despite all of the shame I had about it. In the intervening days and nights between the incident and the interview, I prayed and repented mightily. I pled with The Lord for forgiveness. (I’m being totally serious).  I had an experience a few days later that seemed very spiritual in nature, my companion and I were guided in an uncanny way to someone who wanted to hear our message. I took this as a sign that I was forgiven, that the Spirit of the Lord was again dwelling in a clean vessel. 

“How is the work going?”

I reported on the people we were teaching. 

“How is your companionship going?”

I told him that Elder Richardson and I were getting along just great and that he was making good progress on competing his new missionary certifications. 

….and then I started to get light headed, my ears rang a bit in anticipation of the dreaded next question:

[ppp_patron_only level=”5″ silent=”no”]

“Are you living the kind of life that a missionary ought to live?” 

I swallowed my pride and told President Wagstaff that a few nights ago, I gave into temptation. I struggled to use the word, but I said it. “I masturbated one time last week”. 

I followed up with reports of my prayers, fasting, and repentance that I have offered up to The Lord to seek forgiveness, and of the spiritual guidance we had received recently which I took as a white dove signification of the Lord’s acceptance of my broken heart and contrite spirit. 

In hindsight, I’m not sure who I was trying to reassure more – him or me. Also in hindsight, I remember President Wagstaff’s response:

His ruddy complexion leaned more into magenta:

“Well, Elder Jensen, you are a healthy, normal young man. It sounds like you still have the spirit with you. Just keep up the good work.” 

Apparently my transgression did not hamper my rise through the mission ranks:

Several months later, I was called to be a Traveling Trainer: These were exemplary missionaries who were charged with traveling throughout the mission to work with various companionships who may be struggling, to give their work a boost.  Following that assignment, I was called to serve in the highest leadership position in the mission. I was called to be a Traveling Assistant to the President, or AP.    Both of these assignments are typically given to missionaries who are near the end of their two years of service. 

The Traveling Trainers and the AP’s lived together in an apartment near the Mission Office. When I joined, the cast of characters were as follows: Elder Garner, Elder Oliverson, and Elder Strong.  

We lived in a large apartment complex with a laundry room that contained 8 washers and 8 dryers – a small laundromat. It did a lot of volume. As such, occasionally certain ladie’s items were left behind. One of the elders from our apartment made a point to collect the panties, camisoles and thongs that were left behind.  On several occasions, one of the elders would emerge from their bedroom wearing nothing but what they found in the laundry room, strutting a catwalk vibe through the apartment.  

There are some things you can’t unsee. 

My favorite game with the lingerie was more subversive:

In hindsight, it’s laughable to see how we were being groomed to become tame old white men. To this day, I can’t remember how the buy in happened, but somehow we all carried handkerchiefs. 

Does anyone use those anymore? 

My Dad did, but he had trouble controlling his saliva due to his disability from the motorcycle crash – but that was a very special circumstance and made perfect sense.  It’s almost like one day I woke up and was a “hanky” user.  

I guess we needed them to catch all of the tears we cried as we bore our testimonies of Joseph Smith every day. 

Not only were hankys commonplace, so were pocket protectors. 

And just to add insult to injury – I also wore those glasses that automatically turned into sunglasses in the presence of UV light, which meant that inside, I always had half-tinted glasses on, because that shit is everywhere. 

Try to keep yourselves under control ladies. I know, the vision is sexy beyond compare. 

I digress. Here’s why the hanky thing matters: 

We all were accustomed to having a certain portion of cloth in our suit jacket pockets.  As AP’s, we regularly traveled around the mission conducting training meetings for groups of 75 or so missionaries at a time (called “Zone Conferences”).  A game ensued – for example:

One day I’m giving a presentation to 75 missionaries. For some reason, I feel inclined to reach for my hanky (I probably had to wipe off a white board, no way I was crying. Even as a kid, I was always been suspect of the pre-programmed tears of Mormon spirituality. I could smell the contrivance all along, I just didn’t know how to name it). At any rate, I went to retrieve said hanky from my inner jacket pocket, and just as I was removing it, I noticed that the fabric felt decidedly different: It was a pair of panties. 

[ Have you ever wondered why a single unit of panties is referred to as a “pair” when it’s just one thing? Pair of socks makes sense.  Is this one of those “we drive on the parkway and park of the driveway” kinds of things? I can almost get on board with “pair of pants” or “pair of tights” but even then…. I realize I’m basically a clothing racist that’s holding it against the panties for having super short legs. ]

Antics such as this were common, especially between Elder Oliverson and I.  Not to be outdone, I crafted a final check mate move: 

At the end of a missionary’s service, it was tradition for the departing missionaries to spend their last night at the mission home, share a nice dinner together, and a final “testimony meeting, something we dubbed “Old Dog Dinner”. One of the funny things about the Mormon echo chamber is that returning missionaries are thought of to be wise, old, seasoned men of the world. Yes, they are 21 year old boys, but when you are in it, they seem so grown and mature!  (Mormons are very fond of “testimony meetings” – sacred gatherings where members will share their testimony of the spiritual matters they feel to be true. 

Side note: at my Old Dog Dinner testimony meeting, I talked about being a lover of truth – and that I would forever be a seeker of the truth, no matter what.  Brothers, Sisters, and everyone in between – I have made good on that declaration, though it has led me into places I could scarcely imagine back then.  This is one of the many moments I my life where I unwittingly spoke words that would materialize into fully formed three dimensional realities.  Words have power, and I may be a wizzard – for better or for worse. 

Anyway, back to the check mate panty move:

Elder Oliverson was at the mission home for Old Dog Dinner. I drove over to the mission home while they were having dinner. I found his backpack and scriptures, which were kept in a leather carry case. I placed a pretty little pair of panties into the middle of his scripture case. My vision was that he would reach for his scriptures to share a verse from the Book of Mormon during Old Dog Testimony Meeting, and that in the middle of this somber and spiritual moment, a pair of panties would drop out in front of everyone, including all of the Mission Presidency.  I was as giddy as a 7 year old on Christmas morning.

I returned to the tasks for the evening, and patiently awaited some story to make it’s way back to me via a phone call or story through the gape vine. Surely, my stunt was salacious enough to merit a speedy transmission of the story!  

Hours passed. Nothing. 

Days passed. Nothing. 

Weeks passed…. 

A small package arrived at the mission office, addressed to me, in handwriting I didn’t recognize. I opened the box and found the panties I had placed in Elder Oliverson’s scriptures.  Serendipitously, he called the mission office within minutes of me opening the package and explained how my final move played out:

He did not use his scriptures that night. 

The next day, he flew out of the Philadelphia airport, returning to Salt Lake City. Seated next to him was a young man from the Philadelphia area who was traveling to Utah to report to the Missionary Training Center to begin his mission. 

“Elder, I’d like to share a scripture with you”, Elder Oliverson said, reveling in an opportunity to dispense some hard earned wisdom on this young man. (only two years younger, but keep in mind – Mormon Years are like Dog years). 

He reached for his scripture case, proudly opened it up, and out spilled the pair of panties. 

Check mate! 

Another similar prank involved Victoria’s Secret catalogs:

Most missionaries serve in 4-8 different areas throughout their mission, which creates a difficult task for loved ones at home to keep current on mailing addresses (yes, the only method of communication we had was written letters). An elegant solution was to have all mail sent to the mission office: the nice old ladies who staffed the mission office (“the Office Sisters”) would then place updated mailing labels on the letters and forward them along to the missionary at their current address. 

In other words, the Office Sisters saw most of your mail, creating a great opportunity:

Elders would prank one another by subscribing to the Victoria’s Secret catalog in behalf of other missionaries, using the mission office address, which would of course, make the recipient missionary look like a pervert (or in the words of President Wagstaff, “a normal, healthy young man” who may not be “living the kind of life a missionary ought to live”). 

The Office Sisters would never forward those catalogs along, which meant that the mission office garbage was reliably full of Victoria’s Secret catalogs and many other forms of printed tempation – an uncanny recapitulation of the procurement of porn as a kid. 

My eye was single to the Glory of God, and I was determined to not sin again…. Though I thought it was hilarious to try to tempt my companions into sinning. 

I harvested a few catalogs, and one day while I had a few rare moments of privacy, I quickly cut out a few dozen of Victoria’s hottest secrets, and then planted the cut outs of models in lingerie all over my companion’s personal effects. 

In his sock drawer. 

In his scriptures (several locations)

In his suit coats. 

In the cereal. 

To my knowledge, none of my pranks yielded any results. 

Elder Garner, if you’d like to admit anything at this point, I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations has passed. Drop me a line. 

I concluded the remainder of my missionary service in successful complete denial of my roaring sexual prime. 

On October 4th 1997, said goodbye to Philadelphia and boarded a flight to the Salt Lake City Airport, where my family – and the young woman I would soon marry – were anxiously awaiting. 


Other notable experiences that I’m not quite sure how to fit into this story right now, but just need to get down on “paper” – 

My first camera word magic:  Philadelphia is a city full of street art. In particular, the sides of buildings are often adorned with massive murals, depicting the culture of the area (In the late 90’s Philly had many ethnic districts – the Jewish district. The Gay district. The Irish Catholic district. The Laotian, Cambodian, Korean, districts… and the core of the inner city that was quite black and Baptist). I love the art. At that point in my life, I was merely the kid that always had a camera on the field trips. One day while walking through Center City, I made up my mind that some day, I would become a good enough photographer that I could return to the city, document the city’s street art, and make a coffee table book of it. I didn’t imagine being a professional photographer – just skilled enough to pull off the project.  Another matter of word Magick. 

Little did I know that two decades later, I would be a working professional photrographer, my bread and butter being boudoir work – and that I’d be planning a trip to return to Philly to document the history of Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad not only photographically, but in the context of my podcast – the Underground Railroad Soul Anarchist project that you’ve probably heard me talk about. 


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