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Of Missionaries, Squirrels, and the Bloggernacle

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 12, 2012

Thirty years ago I was a missionary in Toulouse, France. We (four sisters) lived in an apartment on top of the hill called Jolimont, a few hundred yards from a beautiful red brick obelisk erected in memory of “les braves morts pour la patrie” in the 1814 Battle of Toulouse, the last great battle of Napoleon’s army, immediately after which Napoleon surrendered and was exiled to Elba.

Our apartment was an hour’s bike ride from the rural chapel, past trees arching over curvy, hilly roads – a beautiful ride in the springtime, although it was inconvenient for members without cars, and I was secretly skeptical of the wisdom of purchasing a building there. It was a stone mansion set in magnificent grounds. Our chapel was the great room, with polished woodwork, lofty ceiling, stone floors, and massive fireplace; it could seat a couple of hundred congregants comfortably. Other rooms were large enough for priesthood and Relief Society gatherings, and the bedrooms, reached by a wonderful curving staircase, were suitable for auxiliary classes. The multi-car garage held a baptismal font. All in all, despite its inconvenient location, it was a building you would have been pleased to bring investigators to visit.

Except that we wouldn’t have dared bring investigators.

The ward at that time was very disunited. As far as I knew there hadn’t been any single major cause – no scandal, no feud between factions. Possibly it was a holdover from the unsettled and unhappy ending of the Toulouse Mission, which had closed less than a year earlier, its territory divided between the Paris and Geneva Missions. Whatever the cause, it was a rare Sunday that some sister didn’t leave Relief Society early, in tears. There were harsh words in other meetings, and it was difficult to get the ward to socialize. The atmosphere was uncomfortable and tense.

A few weeks after I arrived, we missionaries decided to try something that had been suggested to us in the MTC. It was corny, and I can hardly believe it worked as well as it did. We – the missionaries – began to leave notes, accompanied by purchases from a bakery, at members’ homes under cover of darkness or otherwise in secrecy. The notes thanked members for some comment they had made in a testimony meeting, or for holding the door for someone else to pass through, or for any other little, positive thing we could think of. And they were signed L’écureuil – “the squirrel” – for the sole reason that some missionary had just learned that word.

It was imperative to the plan that members think other local members had noticed and appreciated their small acts of kindness and gospel living. Had they guessed the notes and gifts came from missionaries, it would have been dismissed as just another of those corny things that American kid missionaries did from time to time.

But even if any of us had spoken French like locals, our American handwriting, very, very different from French handwriting, would have given us away in an instant. So we got native Frenchmen and women to write our notes for us. Our investigators thought it was a grand joke. We imposed on friendly neighbors. We drafted children and old men and middle-aged women to write for us, correcting our grammar and spelling, and most of all using their distinctive French handwriting, to cover for us. Everybody loved participating in the secret.

And it worked, amazingly well and surprisingly quickly. The level of tension dropped noticeably. The brusque dismissals stopped, so the tears dried up. When a picture of a squirrel appeared on the bulletin board, with a note thanking the pseudonymous L’écureuil for appreciating one member’s efforts, we knew we had succeeded … although we didn’t understand what that note meant, of course, and had to ask an obliging member to explain.

We got caught once, by a single mother of three young children, who were promptly sworn to secrecy and who took over as L’écureuil.

But one day in the middle of our secret program, my companion and I needed to have a note written for us, and nobody we knew was available. I decided to approach a random stranger in the nearby park and ask for help. I explained briefly what we were doing and why we needed French handwriting. I was enthusiastic and bubbly – this squirrel thing was one of the more fun things I had done as a missionary, and everybody – and I mean everybody – we had enlisted to help us had caught our enthusiasm and was delighted to help, and I simply expected everybody else to catch the spirit of our effort.

The woman in the park was the exception. I was so busy being happy and anticipating the fun to come that I completely missed whatever signs might have been present in her eyes or body language. When I had finished my eager explanation and held out a pen and paper toward her, the woman let loose with a string of expletives, damning us as Mormons and Americans to the darkest and most painful corner of hell, instantly and for all eternity. I’d been cursed before, but never quite like this. It felt like a physical blow right to my chest, and I had difficulty taking a deep breath as I excused us, and my companion and I fled back to our apartment. The physical reaction persisted, and I had to lie down for a while before I could recover. My companion and I didn’t discuss it, and I don’t think I ever mentioned it to anybody before now – it was that awful.

I think the reason it affected me so severely was because I had been so innocently requesting and anticipating a simple bit of help, for which I would have been genuinely grateful – my heart had been wide open and defenseless, and instead of the good I had taken for granted would come, evil had been given instead. Those circumstances may be entirely normal and expected by many readers, but in my case, from the age I should have been a third grader, I have learned to build impenetrable walls around my tender feelings, permitting no one access to my heart except under my own terms, when I thought I was safe from emotional vandals. I had not become acclimated to such assaults, because I had kept my heart protected from much lesser bruising. My guard was completely relaxed that afternoon in the park, and that woman drove a tank right in, guns blazing.

This is certainly not the last time something like this has happened, although for whatever reason, it is one of the memorable times. If I were a mature woman now, instead of merely a 53-year-old one, I no doubt would have learned to handle such situations better, neither letting the stings hurt so much nor using one of my most common, yet most childish tactics for deflecting the stings before they can strike: If I suspect you’re about to strike, I tend to strike preemptively, sometimes in error and usually out of proportion to any hurt you could really do me.

In the bloggernacle, this happens most often when someone offers dismissive or caustic or lying remarks about the Church and believers like me. Haters can get under my skin this way when they can do it in no other way – I don’t have a family they can threaten or mock; I’m impervious to foul comments about my body; I’m so confident in what strengths I do possess that I can’t take seriously any denigration in those areas.

But my faith is tender to me in ways that nothing else is. I’m protective of it, and protective of the belief of others like me. Faith is one thing that can’t be locked up and kept safe from those who either mistakenly or willfully misrepresent and malign it – for faith to be faith, for faith to have any effect in the world, it has to be as open and as innocently vulnerable as my heart was that day in the park in Toulouse.

That doesn’t mean, though, that other parts of my character, for good or ill, aren’t standing by like tigers, ready and foolishly willing to fight fang and claw when that tender center is mocked or slandered. I’m trying to control that impulse – I really am – but it isn’t tamed yet.

Note: This is not an invitation for haters to evaluate my character or tally my sins as a commenter. Other blogs may give you free rein to do that as viciously and as deceitfully as you wish, but you don’t have that privilege here. See? Claws bared.



21 Comments »

  1. Well and bravely said, Ardis. You’re a treasure in the ‘nacle, partly because you wear your heart on your claws :)

    And I think we’re all like this, though the tender centers may have somewhat different contours. I suspect that most of the nastiness among us, even the mocking of belief and testimony,is about defending the soft places and fresh wounds.

    Sometimes I’m startled by how needy my tween- and teen-aged children seem, and I think “they’re still so little!” We all are, really.

    Comment by Kristine — July 12, 2012 @ 7:36 am

  2. Thank you for this post. It reminds me of that part in You’ve Got Mail (I’m sorry for how potentially cheesy this sounds bringing up a movie!) where the girl lead is bemoaning the fact that she does not have the witty/cutting thing to say at the moment she needs it, and guy lead is bemoaning the fact that he does. In the face of attack I am one who shrinks into myself rather than fights back. I can’t help but admire your spitfire-ness. Although, I also appreciate that on either end we are wishing for less of what we have.

    I am also thinking it is hard because almost any instantaneous reaction to such pain can look like fear. That can then be used by whoever is hurting us to attack further believing that our reaction is indicative of their words fanning our doubts. When in reality they cannot grasp that something they do not have an emotion or affection toward could mean enough to us that having it attacked by them can be physically painful.

    Comment by Laurenkri — July 12, 2012 @ 8:00 am

  3. Thank you Kristine — and not just because you’ve given me an idea for a new coat of arms: “heart sanguine, flanked by claws rampant” or something. Although many disagree (vocally, disdainfully), it’s one reason why I think we need at least some blogs that are protected turf for one side or the other, no matter how many ecumenical-leaning blogs there are. People need to be able to express themselves, their faith, their hurt, whatever it is, without being piled on by others who demonize them because they perceive the mere existence of such beliefs to be an attack on their own. And this goes for both (all) sides of the online Mormon world. (But just try saying that, and you’re demonized again for being “exclusive.”)

    Laurenkri, I believe you know exactly what I’m trying to express. I *don’t* like fighting, despite my reputation. It’s why there’s no fighting here at Keepa, by me or anybody else. But elsewhere, knowing that other customs prevail, I feel almost impelled to fight back in part because I know there are so many like you, who don’t/can’t/won’t/shouldn’t speak up for good reason. Nobody put me in charge of mouthing off, but I feel that *somebody* should, that those who stand back need to know that *somebody* shares their feelings and is willing to speak up. I just wish I could do it more diplomatically. (I admire BHodges for his ability to do that — he makes it look so easy that I think I ought to be able to do as he does.) And I agree wholeheartedly with your second paragraph; that’s been my experience, too. Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 12, 2012 @ 8:44 am

  4. An acquaintance, Wylie Barrow, must have been one of the last missionaries in the Toulouse mission. He got home sometime in the fall of 1979 and had a tremendous influence on me, a new convert, serving a mission myself. I’ve surfed LDS blogs for a couple of years now. I am surprised at the number of instances of cyber-bullying that occur. Rare is it outright animosity, it’s in the adjectives and patronizing tones that come across. I can discuss a topic as well as most, but there are many times when I will type a comment, then completely erase it because I know it is mean spirited and not uplifting to anyone. It is a reaction to my pride and is contentious. I am surprised at the number of people I think are cultural mormons. I guess, because I’m a convert, I don’t get that, even though I’ve been a member almost 33 years. If I didn’t believe in the fundamental principles of the restored gospel, I would pack my bags and go somewhere else. I certainly wouldn’t spend my time bad mouthing the church and complaining. Life is way too short to be affiliated with an organization or religion with which you disagree on just about everything. I used to think in accordance with leader suggestions, I might have a positive influence on someone for good. But lately, I don’t get that sense, and seems like it’s pretty rare for people to actually be open to courteous discussion about challenging history or doctrine. As an aside, did you get my emails I sent directly to you? I wasn’t expecting a response, but had hoped in reading them you would understand where I’m coming from on certain things. Thanks for the bits and pieces of church history you provide. Out in the mission field, we can only access so much from the Church Historical Department.

    Comment by IDIAT — July 12, 2012 @ 9:20 am

  5. Ardis – you are one of the treasures of the Church.

    Comment by andrew h — July 12, 2012 @ 9:25 am

  6. No, IDIAT, I haven’t seen any email from you — try either AEParshall (at) aol (dot) com, or keepapitchinin (at) aol (dot) com. It would be nice to hear from you.

    Thanks, andrew h, for the sentiment.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 12, 2012 @ 9:32 am

  7. As Kristine said, you are brave indeed. AND appreciated far and wide.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — July 12, 2012 @ 9:33 am

  8. Boy, your post brought back memories, Ardis. I’d been called to the Geneva-Switzerland but was in southern France when the Toulouse Mission was created in 1975 and was re-assigned to it. For all the similarities, France still seemed like a very foreign country. I remember attending Church services in Marseilles and being shocked at the verbally aggressive arguments that would routinely erupt in both priesthood and gospel doctrine classes. Such things didn’t happen in Provo … I also remember some of the angry responses to our innocent door approaches. (Hearing someone try to swear in English was initially pretty shocking.) I don’t recall every being subject to the animosity you experienced, but there are definitely some encounters that are forever etched in my memory. Vive la France, n’est-ce pas?

    Comment by Gary Bergera — July 12, 2012 @ 9:41 am

  9. You, too, Bruce!

    N’est-ce pas, Gary! Although I can truly say I was abused like that very, very few times during my whole mission. Yeah, there were door slammings and people who didn’t quite conceal their amusement at our appeals, but for the most part the French were far more welcoming to me than their American reputation would lead anyone to expect. I had just arrived at my first assignment in Marseilles, for example, taking the bus from the train depot to the apartment, and my first comp and I found ourselves at the back of the packed bus when our stop came. The bus started to move again while we were still muscling our way forward with all my things, and a dozen or more people called out to the driver to stop, and people grabbed my suitcases and passed them overhead one to another to the front of the bus. That was my welcome by the French, and it was more or less constant all the time I was there. (of course, on that very same bus ride, we witnessed the aftermath of a fender bender, with two drivers shouting at each other and making that arm gesture we’d been told never to make as missionaries, looking very much like something out of a movie!)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 12, 2012 @ 10:00 am

  10. Love the squirrel story!

    (Gary, did you happen to run into an Alan Kearl in the Toulouse mission? I believe he went in 77, so if his time overlapped with yours it would have been just barely. He’s an old friend of mine. And he still uses his French as a business man to this very day.)

    Comment by Kevin Barney — July 12, 2012 @ 10:12 am

  11. Magnifique!

    Comment by David Y. — July 12, 2012 @ 10:41 am

  12. Thanks for your eloquent honesty, Ardis! I’m a timid lurker, for the most part, but I appreciate you and the Keepa community so much that I had to jump in today. Let the haters hate — those that are with you are more than those that are against you. I know there are more timid lurkers out there who love what you do. I’ll venture to speak for all of them when I say THANK YOU for baring your claws when you must!

    Comment by Juli — July 12, 2012 @ 11:15 am

  13. Thanks, Kevin and David.

    Juli, if this draws a comment out of you, so much the better! With the full cooperation of nearly every commenter, we’ve made a nice little community here, haven’t we? Part of that has to do with promptly moderating the very occasional anti-Mormon (or anti-Ardis) comment, and the even rarer attacks by one commenter on another, but mostly it has to do with the goodwill of everybody who participates. I wish more lurkers spoke up once in a while.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 12, 2012 @ 1:52 pm

  14. Hi Kevin @10 — No, I left in mid-1976. However, I started teaching at the MTC immediately afterwards. So I may have met Alan there. (In fact, Alan may have introduced himself to at MHA in Springfield.)

    Comment by Gary Bergera — July 12, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

  15. This is a wonderful post, Ardis. Thank you for sharing. I’m sorry there are those who feel a need to try and aim their cruelty at you – or anyone else for that matter.

    As for the squirrel, I think I may need to have it shipped from France and put it to work in some overly contentious wards here in the states.

    Comment by Kurt — July 12, 2012 @ 2:12 pm

  16. Kurt, the good news is that the squirrel comes from a very large family, and he and his kin thrive virtually anywhere. Enlist a few of his siblings and put them to work!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 12, 2012 @ 2:24 pm

  17. Years ago I was sitting at a dinner table with two men who had spent some time conducting research in Toulouse. As they shared their fondness for the city, one said something that I’ve wondered about since: “There is something about a capital city even long after it ceases to be a capital.” In a strange turn, that person a couple years later was sitting in the House of Lords, so I figure he likely knew what he was talking about. When I visited Philadelphia, I wondered if I was picking up on what he had described.

    Comment by John Mansfield — July 12, 2012 @ 3:02 pm

  18. Solidarité et fraternité parmi les missionaires francophones! Excellent post.

    Comment by Ben S — July 12, 2012 @ 6:21 pm

  19. Ardis, this reminded me that my dad served as Relief Society President for a while in one branch on his mission in Austria, because the few sisters in the branch could not be trusted not to come to blows (literally!) if left in a room alone.

    Comment by Kristine — July 13, 2012 @ 7:03 am

  20. Ardis, you have a remarkable gift and have shared it once again in a wonderful way with this post. Thanks.

    Comment by Paul — July 13, 2012 @ 7:30 am

  21. Sorry I am “late to the party” on this posting, but I have to add that I am also sensitive to attacks on my faith and the Church because it is what is dearest to me and the salvation of all I love is incredibly important. So although we have to remain calm and civil (tough!), it is avoiding being sucked into the contention that allows us to show our valiance appropriately and be more clear-headed in defending our faith and others.

    Comment by Allison in Atlanta — July 15, 2012 @ 12:59 am

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