Waking up from Zion

Joshua Wartena, Opinions Writer, [email protected]


I followed the barefoot boy down the dirt road. He was pulling a wooden cart with a bag of rotten meat and fat.

“Ya llegamos,” he said. We’re almost there. “Good,” I replied. “It’s hot.”

I’d been in Argentina for a month and was optimistic. They’d told me I would be bringing people to Jesus Christ and baptizing them, saving their souls. My head was high; here was this six-year-old boy, taking me to meet his mother. They would come to church and become the good Mormons everyone should be. I even stopped to smile and take a picture of the kid, Alejandro, walking with his cart.

My hopes rose further when we stopped in front of a tin shack held together with wire. Beer bottles and cigarette butts lay in the yard. This was my moment: a humble South American family who would come to the truth, just like in the church stories. I started forward, pamphlet in hand, when Alejandro stopped me.

“No, you can’t go in,” he said.

“Why not?”

With one foot raised to step forward, I heard yelling coming from the house. A drunken man stormed out the door, pushing me aside. A woman followed him, shouting at Alejandro. “Vete adentro, pendejo!” Get inside, you little shit.

I stood there, confused and holding a pamphlet. Three other boys ran out of the house. They ripped open the bag in the cart and started throwing the contents at each other. They ignored the broken glass, rocks and metal on the ground, gleefully yelling things in Spanish I couldn’t understand.

Alejandro joined in, taking two handfuls and chasing his friends. I looked in the bag and realized it was full of butcher shop refuse, fat and tendons the butcher threw away because he couldn’t even sell it as dog food. A chunk of rancid fat hit the side of my head. The six-year-old dirt-covered child laughed at his aim, and they all started yelling at me.

“Andate cojeton!” Get out of here, motherfucker.

I couldn’t understand this. I had never left the Intermountain West; my idea of diversity was living a week with my grandparents in Oregon.  As a nineteen-year-old Mormon missionary, I thought everyone would want to be like my friends in Utah County. I never imagined there were people who didn’t want this.

I’m the oldest of six boys, home-schooled by our wonderful, sixth-generation Mormon mother. From the moment I was born, I’d heard the word “mission.” I went to church every week, attended devotionals every morning in the living room and planned church activities every week of my life. I was a righteous Mormon.

I’m the second missionary on my Dad’s side of the family and the oldest of more than 50 cousins on my Mom’s. I was raised to be a thoroughbred horse, everything leading to this moment: a two-year race. Nine weeks in the Provo Missionary Training Center reinforced my attitude. I was the star of our group – district leader and scriptorian. My testimony of truth was firm, and my enthusiasm unquenchable.

But now three little shits are yelling at the white motherfucker in a tie and throwing fat at him. None of my books covered what to do. So I walked away.


Eighteen months later, I’m sitting in the curb with nine-year-old Facundo, or Facu as his friends call him. His mother is inside, finishing the fried scones that are probably the only food Facu will eat at home today. We both spit in the dirt, and I absentmindedly scratch the dog sitting at my feet. It probably has fleas, but since I already have them too, this doesn’t bother me.

Facu wants to know if he should be baptized like his mother and sister were a few months ago. The missionaries pushed the family to church to increase their numbers then dropped them as soon as they got out of the water. The mother decided to be baptized because she liked one of the guys, and the area leader said the church would help with her electric bill. In the middle of my explanation about baptism, Facu runs off to play marbles in the road and kick a cat with his friends.

No, I decide, he shouldn’t get baptized. None of the family should have been baptized, not yet. They’ve been inactive for a while now, as long as I’ve known them, and I can’t really blame them. The local members didn’t care much, and the missionaries just wanted another notch on their belts. Facu has forgotten his question. His mother calls him to eat; she doesn’t want to hear about the church either.

I’m still the same person, more or less. The white shirt is a little more wrinkled, the tie is looser, and my shoes could use a polish. A few young men walk by on the only stretch of sidewalk in the neighborhood. One waves and calls out, “How’s it going, preacher?” I respond, “Bien, y como te va a vos, che?” Good. What up with you, man?

Down the street is where a drunk put me in a headlock with a revolver barrel against my neck and collarbone. Some nights I lie awake, still feeling the cold metal against my skin. The teenagers think I’m pretty bad-ass because of it, and having some street cred is nice.

Around the corner is the gym where we had eighteen-year-old Guillermo’s funeral. A cop blew his brains out when a group of kids were running in the street at night. We don’t know who the officer was and nothing happened to him.

Guillermo’s mother, Maria, was a member of the Church. In the neighborhood of poverty, every woman is a mother to all her children’s friends, and Guillermo had a lot of friends. Since the funeral, the neighborhood calls me Maria’s preacher. It’s a badge of honor to be the preacher of the mother whose child was killed. I didn’t do anything, but knowing me has become something to be proud of.

No one messes with me anymore, and the bakery gives me free warm bread every morning. It’s good, if you ignore the bakers’ dangling cigarettes and unwashed hands.


I left that area, my favorite city, with a missionary I trained: Elder Roberts.* He was a six-foot-three, blond football player from Provo. Everybody wanted to be like him, the model missionary: good family, grew up next to the temple, faithful, enthusiastic and smiling. He eventually became an AP, a leader responsible for the entire mission. I thought he was my friend but after we were no longer companions, he avoided me whenever we saw each other. I guess I didn’t live up to his expectations of a good missionary. I disappointed him: too sarcastic, blunt, and questioning for his liking. I got used to that.

What I expected and what happened were very different. As missionaries, we were taught Utah County life is the best way to live, the only way to really live the gospel. But you can’t transplant one lifestyle onto another half a world away. I saw missionaries hurt members, hurt communities, because they insisted they live like Utah Mormons. I saw friends and families shattered because we told them speaking a certain way was wrong or they shouldn’t have friends who aren’t members.

Those whom I called prophets and leaders often had serious issues-teaching lies, racism, and exclusivity as the truth. We were told, “When the Prophet speaks, we hear the pure word of God; we don’t need to question.” My mission became very difficult as I grappled with the fact that I was teaching things that were driving people to depression and away from their communities. I felt like a prisoner, trying to look past ignorance as other missionaries blissfully pushed to “bring forth Zion:” the city of God.


Six months later, my family is waiting for me in the airport. They’ve gone all out. The seven of them are holding a handmade sign, and my mother is crying with pride. As soon as they see me descending the escalator, they erupt into cheers and yells.

I’m happy to see them, they’re my family after all, but the transition to Utah is harder than I thought it would be. There are so many nice cars; I hardly have to walk anymore. There are no dirt roads, and everyone is buried in a cell phone.

People in my ward, the local congregation, are genuinely happy. They believe personal trial is the best way to grow, but you should be joyful no matter what. The blissful, pasted-on smiles creep the hell out of me; it’s like the Stepford Wives or the Borg. “Assimilate,” I imagine them saying. “Join and be happy.”

I try to forgive ignorance when I hear it and teach a broader view of life than most of them have. Most members will listen to my thoughts or explanation, then pat my hand and smile. “Oh, I’m sure you’ll understand one day; just have faith.” They quickly learn to avoid conversation with me and become uncomfortable when I enter a room or lesson. I now avoid topics or questions around my family, lest my mother voice concern over my “apostasy,” or “falling away.”


I’m afraid of saying what I think: That a lot of what church tradition teaches is a lie. That what Mormons in Utah practice is a cultural religion, not doctrine that changes lives for the better. That there isn’t one way into heaven.

Leaving the church would mean being an outcast from my family. My grandfather was excommunicated before I was born; he married a Baptist and left. My family doesn’t talk about it, except to wonder if he’ll ever “come back to the truth.” My mother and aunts become visibly uncomfortable when someone talks about Jacob,* their brother who left. It’s the same with anyone who leaves the church from a strong Mormon family in Utah. They become a missionary opportunity, someone to “love back into activity.” You’re branded as the prodigal son.

My mission changed me. I saw poverty, decadence, lies and honesty. My life has become a balancing act between what I can accept in my church and what I can’t. I’ll probably never leave. For good or bad, the church has affected my childhood and grown into too much of my life for me to uproot it. It’s possible I’ll eventually be excommunicated, kicked out like my grandfather. A bishop will worry about my “extreme views” and criticisms of the prophet, and I’ll be told to leave.

Until then, I keep walking in an ever-widening spiral, a white motherfucker waking up from Zion.


*Name changed

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