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Suspicious Characters

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 19, 2008

In the summer of 1948, two prisoners escaped from a work farm near Carey, Ohio. Somewhere they obtained business suits to replace their jail garb, then walked into a bank and robbed it. As soon as local police could be alerted by telephone, roadblocks were thrown up on all the country roads, and lawmen were told to be on the lookout for the two dangerous but well-dressed robbers: one, age 24, was fair-skinned and had light hair; the other, age 26, was darker. They would probably be carrying bags with the cash they had taken from the bank.

Completely oblivious to the drama swirling in their neighborhood, Elder John W. Campbell of La Mesa, California, age 24, fair, and his darker companion, Elder Vernon L. Tyler of Mesa, Arizona, age 25, both of them well dressed and carrying attache cases, strode along a road near Carey, Ohio, keeping an eye on the sky. They were traveling without purse or scrip, canvassing the countryside and leaving religious tracts at rural homes, planning on making a second circuit of the neighborhood later that summer to follow up on their first contacts. Traveling without purse or scrip meant not only that they were dependent on the kindness of strangers for daily food and nightly lodging, but also that they were exposed to weather, and today looked like rain.

The two elders were grateful when a car stopped and its driver asked if they needed a ride. They climbed in.

They had traveled scarcely a half a mile when they ran into a roadblock. Three state highway police officers, armed with rifles, halted the car and approached the driver. Keeping a wary eye on the passengers, the patrolman examined the driver’s identification, and asked him about the two elders. When the driver said he did not know his passengers, that he had offered them a lift only moments before after having come across them walking along the road, the patrolman, rifle at the ready, told the elders to get out of the car and ordered them to raise their hands above their heads. The elders of course complied.

Hands raised high, they stood by the roadside, being gawked at by other passers-by. The officers demanded, Who are you? Where are you going? Where are you from? One officer searched the elders themselves while another went through their briefcases. Finding only religious literature, they allowed the two men to lower their arms and show their own identification papers, which included their ministerial certificates. Finally convinced that the missionaries were who they said they were, the officers allowed them to go on their way.

Their driver had waited to see the outcome of the search, and when the elders were allowed to go was kind enough to wave them back into his car. Elder Campbell, perhaps understandably, or perhaps a little more insulted than he had a right to feel, noted with satisfaction that it began to rain as soon as they got into the car, quickly soaking the patrolmen on roadblock duty while the elders stayed dry. It continued to rain until the elders reached the junction where they wanted to go one way and the driver continued another; at that moment, the rain ceased.

When I was a missionary, my companions and I were often mistaken for Jehovah’s Witnesses, or in a few cases for habitless nuns. I was never mistaken for anyone worse, however – how about you?



22 Comments »

  1. CIA. Andes-Peru Mission, 1972-1974. Especially outside of Lima in some of my smaller towns. There was some heightend tensions at the time between Peru and the US due to tuna fishing and a dispute over territorial boundaries at sea.

    Comment by Yet Another John — December 19, 2008 @ 9:37 am

  2. Like YAJ, the CIA (Chile, 1989-1991).

    I got there just after the referendum on Pinochet but was there for the Aylwin-Buchi-Errazuriz race. (Best campaign slogan EVER: “No mas bla bla. Vote por Fra Fra”)

    Although, given the mission itself, my hair color, my height, and my pre-mission fluency and ability to pick up an accent, I was usually asked if I was born in one of the the Chilean German enclaves. I would never lie, but if someone wanted to believe I was native-born, I wouldn’t disabuse them of that.

    Comment by queuno — December 19, 2008 @ 10:10 am

  3. DW, on her mission in Spanish-speaking SoCal, had her own tag sign, given to her by the gangbangers in her area.

    Comment by queuno — December 19, 2008 @ 10:11 am

  4. As a missionary in Taiwan, I and my companion were occasionally mistaken for FBI agents.

    I never understood why some Taiwanese guy living in an obscure apartment in a suburb of Taipei would think that the FBI would be sufficiently interested in him to send to very young-looking, and conveniently Chinese-speaking, agents to his door.

    Comment by Spencer — December 19, 2008 @ 10:17 am

  5. Secret Service detail–Heildelberg, Germany. The American president (who was that guy in 1985?) was visiting the city and giving a speech. My companion and I were downtown street contacting. We walked the pedestrian zone looking for people to contact. Being that we were two Americans, in dark suits looking “suspeciously” at people, it’s no wonder we couldn’t strike up a gospel conversation with anyone because they thought we were secret service.

    Comment by Steve C. — December 19, 2008 @ 10:19 am

  6. You elders had MUCH more interesting cases of mistaken identiy! Memo to CIA, FBI, and Secret Service: If you ever do want to spy in foreign countries, send women.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 19, 2008 @ 10:45 am

  7. There was a free love commune in Macau (part of the China, Hong Kong Mission) which a few years before I arrived used to proselyte. They were mostly westerners. We were frequently asked if we belonged to that church. It became so common my companion, who was a Hong Kong resident, arranged for us to go visit them. It was …. interesting, to say the least. When their minister asked if we could arrange an activity of some kind for our respective congregations to get together we politely declined.

    Comment by BruceC — December 19, 2008 @ 10:47 am

  8. CIA was usually our cover as missionaries in Bolivia (78-80).

    I had a friend who was a sister missionary in Sicily in the 1970s. She said the only men who wore suits and drove nice cars were the elders and the mafia….

    Comment by Rameumptom — December 19, 2008 @ 11:19 am

  9. Another vote for CIA (French speaking, 1991-1993).

    We elders always laughed amongst ourselves everytime someone asked. Would the CIA really send two very conspicuous white guys on the street to complete a covert operation? Too funny.

    Comment by Hunter — December 19, 2008 @ 11:28 am

  10. Grocery store manager, Ireland Dublin Mission 1987-89.

    While grocery shopping on P-days I was regularly mistaken for a store manager and asked for directions. There was something about the dark suit and nametag that confused people, but this never happened to my companions that I could tell. When I opened my mouth to give my best guess where the peas were people immediately recognized my American accent and got embarrassed. It was a nice change from the regular requests I get to reach things down off of top shelves (I’m pretty tall).

    Folks in the Republic of Ireland regularly called us JWs. The people of Northern Ireland didn’t make that mistake.

    Comment by Tom D — December 19, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

  11. I was mistaken for a stowaway Russian while serving in Japan.

    We were in a port town in rural southwestern Japan (where a lot of Russian ships come to dock) and decided to go with some members and other missionaries on a P-Day trip to the nearby rugged coastline. We met at the train station and then had to go by car to the coast, but discovered that there was only one compact member car for 8 missionaries to ride in. We made the bad decision to all cram in on top of each other without seat belts.

    A police car stopped us somewhere in the nearby countryside and acted much more aggressively towards us than was usual. It took us quite awhile to get things straightened out, but apparently there had been a rash of Russians illegally entering the country from the port in the area and when the policeman saw all of us crammed into one car he assumed we must have been the Russians. I learned that it’s a little hard to prove that you are not a Russian stowaway in a situation like that.

    Comment by DCL — December 19, 2008 @ 12:55 pm

  12. At this point, male Mormon missionaries are so ubiquitous that you probably *could* pull off a covert op. Especially if the operatives were riding bicycles and had bad haircuts and accents.

    Bond. Elder Bond. Who likes his milk frothy.

    Comment by queuno — December 19, 2008 @ 12:57 pm

  13. JW – definitely.

    Shortly after I arrived in Japan, a JW teenager needed a blood transfusion to live. His parents refused, and he was broadcast on national TV begging them to change their minds. They wouldn’t relent, and he died – again, making national news.

    We were instructed to go to the hospital immediately, donate blood and wear the Red Cross pin conspicuously on our suits. It was a wonderful conversation starter.

    Comment by Ray — December 19, 2008 @ 1:33 pm

  14. Since I’ve never served a full-time mission, I haven’t had that problem. However, I am definitely and quite often mistaken for a sister missionary, such as by the investigator last week who hugged me and said sorry since he “knew that wasn’t allowed.”

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — December 19, 2008 @ 4:20 pm

  15. DCL,

    Was that somewhere in Kyushu? Or Shikoku? When I was in Kochi 33 years ago, we used to see Russian sailors from time to time. I remember trying to explain to one what we were doing–but got nowhere.

    Comment by Mark B. — December 19, 2008 @ 5:10 pm

  16. I love all of your stories of mistaken identities. Not having served a mission, I can’t add any similar accounts.

    Comment by Maurine — December 19, 2008 @ 10:52 pm

  17. Mark B., that was in Matsue.

    Comment by DCL — December 20, 2008 @ 12:18 am

  18. Sorry for coming late to the mistaken identities party. I don’t know if we were mistaken for someone else any less than the elders were. The children used to accuse us of being CIA or FBI or Jehovah’s Witness (Zeugen Jehovas). Adults would also mistake us for Zeugen Jehovas and Mennonites (I think they meant Amish). The CIA mistake usually only happened in neighborhoods with a higher percentage of Ausländer (immigrants).

    My companion and I had been sitting in someone’s house for about half an hour one time and he had been going on and on about how much he admired our church’s pacifist stance during the war and I kept wondering what exactly he was talking about until I realized he thought we belonged to a different church. Once I explained the mistake, I think he ushered us out fairly quickly.

    I had another mistaken identity experience recently, but in a role of visiting teacher rather than sister missionary. I was in the one and only “tough” neighborhood in our community to visit a ward member I didn’t know. As I tried to figure out where to park and where this ward member lived, I asked a child standing on the street. A woman came running out of the house and grabbed the children and hurried them into the house and closed the doors and blinds. I looked around confusedly, trying to figure out what had just happened. It finally dawned on me that I must have been mistaken for a social worker (child protective services or something like that). That never happened while I was a missionary; must be the difference of age.

    Comment by Researcher — December 20, 2008 @ 8:01 am

  19. DCL, since I never made it up to the Nihon Kai, I always figured Matsue was away up north.

    Another post-mission case of mistaken identity. There was a young man in our ward named Esteban–he went by Steve–who lived in a rough neighborhood with a half-million other Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics. One evening I went down to pick him up for some activity–one white, middle-aged non-Hispanic in the whole place. Steve wasn’t waiting outside, and I didn’t remember exactly what building, what apartment was his. So I asked some people walking by if they knew where Steve was.

    Finally I found where he was–it turned out he wasn’t planning to come to the activity anyway. But as I walked outside, one of the guys I’d spoken to said: “Hey, did he have?” I said “Huh?” Again: “Did he have?”

    Then it dawned on me that he thought Steve was my dealer and I was down there buying drugs.

    Comment by Mark B. — December 20, 2008 @ 9:06 am

  20. In Brazil we were either mistaken for CIA or Bus Drivers – by the locals.

    The bus drivers and elders dressed alike – male / short sleeve white shirts and a tie. People were curious why we were walking and not riding/driving a bus. And other bus drivers gave us free rides.

    Comment by Roland California — December 21, 2008 @ 11:11 pm

  21. These responses are all a lot of fun!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 22, 2008 @ 1:06 am

  22. Sorry to come in late, but I can’t resist adding a couple stories:

    1. In my experience in Portugal, we were often called CIA (whether they believed it or not). At least some missionaries claimed to have shouted “KGB” in return.

    2. April 8, 1939 sixteen armed policemen stormed the mission home in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the day before a scheduled mission-wide semi-annual conference (missionaries had been arriving from around the mission for several days). The mission had held a large meeting the previous evening, and withdrawn large amounts of cash from a trust account the previous day, in order to cover expenses for all the missionaries for the next several weeks.

    The Argentine police had observed large numbers of often blond, northern-European looking foreigners and had received a tip claiming that the missionaries were the core of a cell set up to print and distribute Nazi literature in Argentina. The situation may have been exacerbated by the Church’s early success among German-speaking immigrants. The police soon realized their mistake and asked the mission president to absolve them from responsibility for making a warrantless search!

    The mission president, Frederick S. Williams, later discovered that the mission home and buildings used for LDS services needed to be registered with the police, which would have avoided the problem.

    The complete story can be found in Williams’ book From Acorn to Oak Tree (self published, 1987, ISBN 0-944329-00-4, now out-of-print)

    Comment by Kent Larsen — December 27, 2008 @ 7:05 pm

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