Thursday, June 24, 2004


You will now learn more than you ever wanted to know about Joel of About Joel. In this exclusive and revealing email, the Korean language whiz and former missionary discusses everything from the unusual tensile strength of his penis to how to kill a magpie using only your tongue and a plastic straw-- and how all of this is possible through the liberating, exhilarating power of Satan.

...OK, I lied. Joel offers us a glimpse of a serious, thoughtful, spiritual individual. I read this email with great interest, and I hope you do, too.

Kevin - Here are some answers to your questions. I probably wrote a lot more than you wanted or needed to know. I could have written a whole book on the damn thing so I should be glad I kept it limited to a few pages.

Am I a practicing Mormon? That's a tricky question. I guess it depends on your point of view. My family was Mormon originally. I was baptized at 8 years old and went to church pretty regularly until I was 12. At which time my parents, who both held a variety of high-level positions in our ward (a local church organization) decided to get a divorce. Partly as a result of their divorce and partly because of the underlying causes of their divorce they both had their names removed from the records of the LDS church. Scratch that I don't know what my father did since I never talked to him after he left our house when I was 12.

My mom became anti-religion for a long time claiming that she still believed in the Mormon doctrine, but couldn't bring herself to attend a place with so many hypocrites and 'friends' who had turned against her when she needed them most. She lived outside the church's standards for a long time and I, as a result of having no one around to force my hand, took a much-needed break from church and its rules. I hated going as a kid and often found ways to ditch out and this was exactly what I wanted. A couple years of non-attendance and self-enforced isolation from other activities as well and I started to work my way out again.

I think I started going to church mostly at 13 or 14 because it was a requirement to play church basketball, but as I went and I began to read the Bible and the Book of Mormon I enjoyed it and found the history and the theory and the doctrine really interesting.

Of course as interesting as something is that doesn't make it true. That is one of the premises behind LDS religion. If you want to know if something is true you are told to take it to God through the Lord in personal prayer and the answers will be given to you by the power of the Holy Ghost (Who has a host of other titles). I prayed about it for the first time in high school sometime after I finished the Book of Mormon for the first time. I felt good about my prayer and had given it a sincere answer and felt like it was something worth exploring further. I did and I had it confirmed to me on many occasions after that.

I attended seminary (a scriptural study course offered to LDS youth) throughout high school and was asked to speak at seminary graduation. I began to think about a mission and a closer inspection of my life found I was struggling to keep the commandments at home with my mother, whom I had hypocritically and harshly judged and deciding I wasn't going to make it alone. I moved out during my senior year of high school and moved in with a friend's family to better help myself prepare for a mission.

When the time came to actually prepare for my mission my friend's mother tried to force my hand. Telling me I had to pay 600 dollars a month rent to her for the year leading up to my mission, convinced I wouldn't go on a mission because of my family history, she thought she should force my hand by offering to give the money back to me for my mission fund if I went and keeping it if I didn't. 600 dollars was a lot of money and I still wasn't sure and spite was always the strongest motivator for me. I moved out and with no place else to go went back to my mom. She made me pay rent, but it was something more suiting an 18-year old boy and didn't give me any ultimatums.

I eventually decided for myself without the aid of $8,000 blackmail that I needed to go on a mission. I prayed again and this time managed to force myself to live the commandments alone rather than relying on other people and got ready to go. I got my mission call to Korea in October of 1999 and left in Mid-January of 2000. I arrived in the MTC for 2 months of intensive language study and then flew to SOKO on March 22, 2000.

I lived for 2.5 months in Daejeon, 6 months in Yeo-su, 1 month in Cheonahn, 4 months in Gunsan, and 2 months in Hongseong. 2+2.5+6+1+4+2 = 1 year and 5.5 months. A standard mission for Elders (the title of male missionaries in the LDS church) is 2 years. So you know I didn't stay my full time.

I started out my mission loving it. I loved trying to share things with people and I loved doing service. With time though the daily rejection on the street and the guilt I felt telling members and the nonmembers what they needed to do, when I realized how I failed to do many of those same simple things myself finally wore me down. The mission was run a lot like a business. Stats were collected daily of people you had talked to, numbers you had got, people committed for baptism, etc. Service time was limited to 4 hours a week and only then if we thought there was a chance of getting the "baptisms."

Eventually one of the areas I was in the peer leader (called a ZL) tried to cancel service altogether because it was ineffective. I personally took it upon myself to do everyone's four hours for the week, filling my companionship's time with nothing but service. I don't say that to brag. I am not sure I even did it out of the pure love of Christ or to help others as much as it was to spite those who I didn't see as having their heads in the right place.

I didn't notice any of this until I got off "greenie" autopilot and became the senior companion. There are a thousand stories where I conflicted with my mission president, the competition in the mission, and people who sought to tear others down to climb the mission hierarchy.

At home my mom joined the Lutheran church (my big hope in serving a mission was that she would return to the LDS church) my older sister was getting a divorce, and a variety of other things. Finally I found myself getting depressed, hating people, losing hope, and I failed to receive any kind of spiritual confirmation that what I was doing was right. I decided to go home and hop back into school and look for the feelings I had once felt in the place I first felt them.

Maybe I should never have gone back. I think as soon as I stepped off the plane I lost half the friends who had always proclaimed me the bright and spiritual boy who overcomes all his obstacles and succeeds. They loathed me for making a liar out of them. I went to church for the first three months after I was home. I had too many people corner me and ask me "Why did you get sent home?" "What sin did you commit?" I had too many friends shun me or talk about me or tell me how they were going to make me stay active in the church. I guess no one understands that someone as stubborn as me does what he wants when he wants and not because he is some sinner. (That's not true. A few did and they remain my best friends today) I was not going to feel God's love worshipping with them. They made me almost hate myself. It wasn't everyone, but enough people to make me never want to go to church again.

It would be my recommendation to missionaries who want to go home early, that if they are not a strong enough person to survive without support to not do it. I have failed to feel the Holy Ghost or any spiritual feeling aside from the breath taking beauty of nature or emotion in the long three years since my mission. I of course stopped actively studying too because I determined something that was providing me with no tangible or spiritual reward was not worth the time I was investing in it.

Maybe it's too practical but I kind of feel like I am on another little break of isolation where I need to figure myself out. I am not the same person I was at home. I could never have found out who this person is at home. I learned in Korea that I want to be happy and there are many ways to get there. I also learned that if something is making me unhappy most instances there is something I can do to fix it.

I loved Korea as a missionary. I just hated being a missionary, at least the kind others wanted me to be. I kept in contact with a bunch of people I met here and after I finished my BA decided I wanted to come back for a while see what life is like without a badge and a little buddy watching my back. I still keep MOST of the commandments of the LDS church (even good Mormons only keep MOST of them because no one is perfect.) I don't smoke or drink. I am not sure it's true, but I am not sure it's not true either. I'm in religious limbo. Maintaining a high level of artificial apathy to get through life as "just life." However, Sunhang has started going back to church again here in Gunsan and I promised her if she went 4 times in a row that I would start going with her (because she has this weird habit of starting stuff and quitting and I don't want to get non-stop phone calls from missionaries and church members on one of her whims.) So if she can do it, we will see where it takes me.

There are a lot of missionaries here. Of course that is relative. There are more missionaries who served in Korea living back home. I know Jeff is married to a Korean so maybe he can attest to this better than I can, but a lot of missionaries don't return to their mission country because of judgments and pressures from the Mormon community. A lot return on internships through BYU, which is viewed as 'acceptable,' and some come back and get married to girls they knew from their missions, which is not viewed so favorably. It implies that you didn't serve your mission fully because you were out eyeing the merchandise and preparing to score yourself a honey. Marrying a girl from your mission country, that speaks a different language, and is a different ethnicity is a whole lot of pills for typical white Mormon from Utah to swallow.

There are a bunch of ex-missionaries married to Koreans in Seoul. There are a few in Pusan and a couple in Kwangju, specifically Robert Holly himself. As far as a community though I don't know that unless they go to the same church building or live in the same city they are really familiar with each other. If you hear someone speaking passable Korean be leery.

So-- Jeff? Will you take the Hominid Challenge and satisfy my curiosity?


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