The Last Dinner Appointment

By: Stephen Carter
October 16, 2011

Dear Sister Carter,

For some reason, the people I remember best are the ones I met in my second area, Belleville–a town of about 40,000 people on the north bank of Lake Ontario. A long, arcing bridge connected it to a small island called Prince Edward County (not to be confused with Anne of Green Gable’s province).

One of the people I remember most vividly is a recently baptized man I’ll call Leo. He had a beard Jerry Garcia would envy, and long wavy gray hair that he wore in a full-bodied ponytail. Denim was his fabric of choice and he seemed to be a single father of two boys in their early teens. He would invite us over for dinner from time to time where he would serve us “Mormon punch” (a cheap orange drink mix that seems to have been inflicted only on Canada), “Mormon meat” (spam), and “Mormon dessert” (Jell-O).

We had long, free-wheeling conversations that I relished–a little too much. It was a hard and fast mission rule that we never stay at a dinner appointment for more than an hour, and I often broke that rule while at Leo’s house.

I enjoyed Leo’s company so much that I actually spent $25 of my pitiful missionary allowance to buy him a birthday present of a photography book about a fascinating rock beach in California. I still remember the introduction where the photographer wrote that while on his first visit to this beach, he had seen many manifestations of life, on his second visit–coming on the heels of a friend’s death–the beach took on a more macabre aspect.

Soon after I gave Leo the book, my conscience caught up with me and I decided we were going to cut down on our visits to his house. I considered this a great sacrifice and hoped I would receive some blessings for it.

The month that followed was a colorless one. I keenly missed visiting Leo, dutifully engaging in tracting, street contacting, or other unimaginative missionary activities. It wasn’t fun, but I felt like I was doing the right thing.

After a month of my Leo fast, I was at a dinner appointment at a bishopric member’s house. The bishop came into the house and told us he was preparing to disfellowship Leo. He believed that Leo had gotten involved sexually with one of the single women in the ward. (And it was a possibility since Leo and the woman in question were pretty good friends.)

My stomach knotted up as I listened, and as soon as we got out the door, I drove us straight over to Leo’s house.

The person who met us at the door was not the funny, jovial man I had bantered with the month before. He let us in and sat us down without offering us any Mormon punch, and then he asked a question that still haunts me: “Where *were* you guys?”

It turned out that I’d unknowingly timed my sacrifice for a month when Leo especially needed us. He felt like we had abandoned him and couldn’t understand why. I certainly tried to explain myself, but the damage had already been done.

After that, Leo just dropped off the map. I rarely saw him, and when I did, the encounters were awkward and strained. As far as I know, he never reintegrated with the ward

I’ve never succeeded in assigning a satisfying moral to this experience. It just remains a time when, while trying to do right, I unknowingly let a friend down. I hope this never happens to you.

5 Responses to The Last Dinner Appointment

  1. Bro. Jones on October 17, 2011 at 8:23 AM

    When I served my surrogate* mission for a Pentecostal church, the mission home had a practice of ordering take-out for Sunday dinner. It was a chance to give the mission cooks a break, and it was a pretty big part of social life at the mission home. People took turns contributing to the take-out fund. One week, my boss asked me to buy the pizza. “Oh, but I don’t make purchases on the Sabbath!” I replied.

    If this were an Ensign article, everyone would’ve been impressed by my obedience. What really happened was that my boss was embarrassed in front of several colleagues and visitors, I came off looking like a stuck up Pharisee, and unsurprisingly nobody was moved by my attachment to LDS practice. What was surprising was that I immediately felt the Spirit say, “You’re an idiot. There are times to obey the letter of the law, and there are times to remember that Christ often made a point of breaking the Pharisaic ideal of the Sabbath in the name of fellowship and service.”

    Took a couple of weeks for my Boss to start talking to me again–I’d forgotten that he’d stuck out his neck to get the mission leadership to allow a Mormon kid to serve in the mission. And I felt like a huge dope.

    * Yes, I was an LDS kid serving in a Pentecostal mission school. It’s a long story.

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  2. mark gibson on October 17, 2011 at 9:07 AM

    A lot of things to ponder in this post. I wonder if Leo was a recent convert or established member of the ward? I’ve known converts who had great relationships with the missionaries who brought them into the Church, but once those Elders moved on, the new members dropped out. Neither the ward members nor the missionaries tried to integrate them into the congregation.

    Obviously Leo had at least one friend in the ward; and if the Bishop’s first action on the subject was to disfellowship Leo, that would be inexcusable IMO.

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  3. Jeff Spector on October 17, 2011 at 1:36 PM

    It’s an unfortunate situation, but in a way, YOU made him dependant on YOU. It is not uncommon for new members to glom onto missionaries, but the fact is, you will leave at some point. He had Home Teachers, other members of the Ward to call upon in his tme of need and it probably would have been a good idea to make sure that integration was sucessful because you were going to leave.

    And, lastly, you did not make the choice for him to sin with another member of the Ward, who also should have known better.

    So, while you might feel some regret at how things turned out, I do not think you should feel guilty unless you encouraged the activity. Which I am sure you did not.

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  4. Paul on October 17, 2011 at 5:01 PM

    I still feel sadness when I think of a certain brother in my last city on my mission. He had returned to Germany in retirement after a career as a marble worker in Utah (I don’t know that he sculpted, per se, but he did build altars for the temples, among other things).

    He became very ill. I was accustomed (partly by my upbringing) not to go to a member’s home uninvited; I was never quite comfortable with the “dropping by” thing that so many missionaries did. So since we received no invitation or request to stop by, we didn’t.

    As it happens, his illness set in within days after he went out in the cold to leave a package of food on our doorstep for Christmas. And only months later did I hear that he was disappointed that we’d never come by.

    We did try, but he and his wife were very cool toward us; I suspect the damage was done.

    It was for me clearly a moment of immaturity. I hope that I would have a gentler heart today and a better sense of unspoken need.

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  5. Paul 2 on October 17, 2011 at 11:00 PM

    Many of the active converts in our ward were taught by rule-breaking missionaries who came over for dinner and discussed the gospel til midnight. Those long, in depth discussions are what made the difference. Putting artificial constraints on relationships, I.e. the 1 hour meal rule in France, is putting constraints on the depth of conversion and the depth of human experiences the missionaries have.

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