Wednesday, June 17, 2015

President Beecroft

Pres. and Sister Beecroft, 1984
My mission president is dying. I knew he wasn’t well, but I heard the news this week that his hospice nurse thinks it’s the beginning of the end. She told the family that in her opinion he has about a week left. 

What’s a mission president anyway?

If you aren’t Mormon, you’ve probably seen the missionaries with their name tags and bikes. The guy who wrangles them is a mission president. He and his wife spend three years overseeing the missionaries and the missionary work in a specific region. 

Jack T. Beecroft was the president of the Mexico Veracruz mission from 1984-1987. This area included the states of Veracruz, Puebla, Tlaxcala and Oaxaca. Jack was a Texan who grew up in the Mormon Colonies in northern Mexico, so he spoke Spanish like a native. 

As a missionary serving under his direction, I didn’t have much to compare him to. My first mission president was only there a month before Pres. Beecroft took over. I didn’t know the first guy at all. I think we had one awkward conversation — awkward because I could barely speak Spanish at the time. Imagine Tarzan attempting a religious conversation and you’ll get the general idea.

Aside from my time as a missionary, I only saw Pres. Beecroft a handful of times in the ensuing years. Most recently, I saw him at a mission reunion in Utah in 2010, it was clear then his health was starting to fail, though his mind seemed sharp as ever.

There was another reunion in May of this year. This time, the former missionaries went to him as he was unable to travel. It was clear from the message from his daughter inviting us all that he had good and bad days. She couldn’t promise he’d be coherent the whole time. I thought about going, but in the end a family vacation ended up being scheduled during the same weekend and I couldn’t go. I was relieved in a way because in my mind, the reunion was more for the “office elders” than for the rest of us. 

Beecroft and his assistants at a pizzeria in Poza Rica, Veracruz.
For those unfamiliar with missionary life, there is a mission office from which the work of the mission is managed. The president calls two assistants who are his right and left hand men for a period of time that varies depending on the mission president. There are also other missionaries who work in the office in finance and other administrative areas. These missionaries typically work during the day in the office and do regular missionary work at night. The assistants also travel when the mission president goes to the various areas throughout the mission. I was never an office elder, though I did spend a week with the mission secretary because I was sick enough to be sent to the mission doctor. 

I’ll be honest and say that though it never happened, I wished I could work in the mission office. I thought it was only my pride at the time –– it’s a high status calling –– but I think that’s only part of it. The other was that office environment felt more like being normal. I would have done very well there, I think. Plus, for at least eight hours a day, I would have been relieved of the stress and pressures of regular missionary –– trying to talk people out of their and into our religion.

See? Camaraderie!
I also wanted the camaraderie of other missionaries. Except for a few months, I had never served in any mission area that wasn’t remote. I missed hanging out with other missionaries and speaking English with the rest of the americanos. Although working in the office and then going back to a regular zone would probably have been a tough adjustment, maybe as hard as starting over. I don’t know. I never found out other than during that brief week.

Anyway, based on the RSVPs, the most recent reunion felt like a gathering for iniders, rather than for the rest of us riff raff. As I often do, I allowed myself to be negative and I imagined that the mission president didn’t really even like me anyway. In 2010 when I saw him, the only thing he really said to me was to ask me if I was still active in the church. I don’t know why he asked, it might have been my beard and the longer-than-is-typical-for-a-Utah-Mormon-hair. Maybe he thought I was a crappy missionary and bound to be headed for apostasy anyway? I don’t really know what, if anything, he remembered about me. 

Not exactly a problem elder

I don’t think I was that memorable of a missionary in the first place. I had a good conversion rate and was always above average in my various stats. I wasn’t in any way what some people would call a “problem elder,” but I did have issues. Almost all of them stemmed from the fact that my dad died the day I sent in my papers to apply to be a missionary. I never really allowed myself to deal emotionally with that loss before leaving so as a result, that grief and emotion combined with the stress and pressure and homesickness which is as much a part of missionary life as the Book of Mormon. 
Maybe I was a bad missionary.

The other thing is I’ve never been the kind of person who keeps his mouth shut. As every one of my teachers from grade school will testify, I share my thoughts and opinions pretty freely. One time, a group of missionaries who knew our previous mission president better than I did were talking about his interviews. Every month or so, the mission president meets with the missionaries one on one to assess how they are doing personally and spiritually. “Presidente Lozano was amazing!” the missionaries explained. “When you left his interviews, you felt like you could conquer the world!” They went on to compare those interviews with President Beecroft who tended to be a little more succinct in his technique. Because I’m a dumbass, I thought President Beecroft should know that his interviews  seemed rushed and were thought of as less than motivational. So I told him. I even used the term “wham-bam thank you m’aam.” To his credit, he didn’t get offended or angry with me. Instead, my (and only my) interviews became a lot longer than everyone else’s. At the time, I thought he might be trying to teach me a lesson for running my mouth, but I can see know he was trying to accommodate what he thought were my needs. In retrospect, I see it as a very kind gesture.

So I suppose my feelings about my mission president’s imagined feelings about me are more in my own head than anything else, but I can’t help but have this weird inferiority complex about my place as a missionary in that world.

Not a lover or a fighter 

I’m not the kind of person who says he loves other people at the drop of a hat. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennett says, “There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it …” 

But I was a bird whisperer.
That sums up my attitude about people fairly well, though I would flip the first sentence and say there are few people of whom I think well and still fewer whom I love. If I don’t dislike you or think you’re stupid, you’re doing pretty well. I also know this has to do more with me than what people actually are. 

I bring that up because when the news of Pres. Beecroft’s imminent demise was posted on Facebook, there was an immediate outpouring of love from his former missionaries. I thought about it. Do I love President Beecroft? I think fondly of him. I’m sad he’s dying. I think it’s likely the world and the church will be worse off without him, but do I love him? I don’t really know how to answer it to be truthful. But I will say this, I thought he was awesome. I thought he was a great man. I admired him, but love? I don’t think I can say that, at least not as I understand the meaning of the word love. But I’ll share what I learned from him.

Make adult decisions

I’ve heard enough mission president horror stories to understand exactly how lucky I was to serve with Jack Beecroft. 

President Beecroft was a believer in free agency. He believed that as adults (which technically we were), we should be able to make decisions without having everything dictated to us. One example of this, and one that mattered to me, had to do with music. The previous mission president restricted music for missionaries to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Pres. Beecroft told us to use our best judgement about musical choices.

This was great news as far as I was concerned. I'm a musician so melodies, songs and lyrics go through my head all day long. I was more than capable of maintaining a missionary spirit while listening to music I liked from time to time. I was often asked to sing/play the guitar in ward functions and the only songs I knew how to play were rock songs. It's not like I sat in my room listening to death metal all day, but it was nice to be able to listen to regular music if I wanted to. It's not like we didn't hear music all day long anyway. Mexicans love music and they love it loud. So I couldn't walk down the street (or even be in my apartment sometimes) without being serenaded by the popular music on the Mexican charts. Some American tunes snuck in there too. At least now, I could choose what music I heard.

Still, it was unorthodox from a missionary perspective. I asked him once why he didn’t just spell out what was and wasn’t prohibited. His response was, “you’re adults, you can make adult decisions.” This tells me that he understood that each of us were different and would make those choices based on our own beliefs and understanding about what was correct and what we could personally handle. This is a pretty progressive attitude for a mission president. But in Mormon theology, the concept represents the entire reason we’re here on earth in the first place: The freedom to act without being compelled. It’s the only way to truly learn. Nevertheless, I think congregations and often the church as a whole have problems applying the concept of free agency. There is way too much compulsion and unrighteous dominion going on. I’ve heard enough stores from other missions to know it isn’t widely practiced. We were way lucky.

Don’t get in over your head

Once a week, missionaries have a (partial) day off to take care of personal activities like writing home and doing laundry. Time permitting, they can also go sightseeing or play sports. One activity that is typically forbidden for missionaries all over the world is swimming. The state of Veracruz is located on the Gulf of Mexico. Many of the missionaries who lived near the beaches would congregate on the beaches to play soccer, American football or volleyball. I can tell you from my own experiences on these beach days that a lot of missionaries “fell” into the water. 

But I was surprised to find out that one time the missionaries from the Veracruz zone were having an outing at the beach with the president in attendance and were doing the same thing. One missionary, apparently conscience stricken, walked over to where Pres. and Sister Beecroft were on the beach and said he was sorry for getting in the water, even if it was just in the shallow surf. Pres. Beecroft told him that he wasn’t worried as long as no one went in over their heads. Good advice, both literally and metaphorically.

There's no place like home ... there's no place like home ...

Your problem is you

Another time, I was very unhappy with an area where I was serving. I really wanted a transfer to somewhere else and I let him know about it multiple times. During one of my longer-than-everyone-else-to-the-point-everyone-thought-I-was-a-chronic-masturbator interviews, I broached the subject again. I hated Huajuapan de Leon, Oaxaca and wanted a change of scenery. President Beecroft looked at me and said, “I’m going to speak to you now as if you were my son. Your problem is not Huajuapan. Your problem is you. Until you see the good instead of focusing on the bad, you’ll never be happy and I’m not transferring you until you are happy.” I was devastated at the time, but in reality, the advice has helped me when I find myself unhappy in a work or other situations. The problem is usually me. If it isn’t, it’s time to get out of that situation or find a new job. 

Sidenote: I ended up getting transferred out of Oaxaca because I became dangerously ill. I never really loved it, but I did stop hating it which is almost as good. 

Those lessons have served me very well throughout my life. So que te vaya bien, presidente! Whatever comes next, you deserve the best of it. I’m a better person for having known you.

Jack Beecroft departed from this mortal life on July 3, 2015. RIP.

Mission reunion Salt Lake City 2010.

1 comment:

Julie said...

Your last sentence is the finest thing that can be said about a person.