I'd like to tell you a story...

11:04 AM / Posted by Peter Lemonjello /

When I was on my mission in Argentina I could not have been happier or stronger. En route to my first area our bus tipped over in a wind storm about thirty miles outside the town in the middle of January, the hottest month of the year with 100% humidity and temperatures reaching as high as 118*. We arrived in the area the next day, exhausted and dehydrated, with no apartment to go to and no church meetinghouse in sight. Fatigued, we laid down on benches in the central plaza and slept til the following morning. We did that for two weeks with no money, food, or any way to communicate with our leaders. We were a 24 hour drive from the mission home and it seemed no one was missing us. We ate out of dumpsters and drank from muddy puddles in the dirt roads. But we never gave up hope. We walked the streets with our heads held high knowing that the Lord would provide, and He did. We passed by a home and heard a woman shout in surprise and shock, "Elderes". She gave us food and water and let us bathe while she washed our tattered clothes by hand. We eventually communicated with the mission president and our leaders promptly found us housing and beds. I had already learned some of the hardest lessons the mission and life had to offer. After that...I had learned the language perfectly in a matter of weeks. I had two baptisms my first month in the field. I had the most amazing, strong-spirited trainer in the history of missionaries. Then suddenly and tragically, his mother passed away and he was sent home to grieve. I never heard from him again, sadly. But life had to go on in the work of the church. So I was sent two new companions. Two, recently punished, disobedient missionaries who had only months left in their missions were relocated from Buenos Aires Norte mission to be my junior companions after I had only been out for two and a half months. What a challenge. I will skip all the details and just get to the facts. One missionary, an American, decided to step it up and actually make something of himself in those last few months and tracted and taught like a seasoned champion. He was transferred two weeks later to another area, and I was left with my other companion, a native Argentine. I'll skip the details here as well, mostly because I don't care to remember them. This Elder always found ways to stay home, do nothing if I ever managed to force him to work, and eventually start stealing fast offerings and tithing to be able to buy himself a portable DVD player. All the while, the branch president was stealing a bit of tithing, fast offerings, and church supplies and convincing the majority of the members that he was told by God to form La Comunidad De Cristo and run it from his home. I said nothing of the Elder's crimes as he would have punishment enough in the guilt he felt, but I urged the mission president to look into the matter with the branch president. He didn't believe that a "man of God" could do such a thing and that I must have been mistaken. However, after several pleas from me and my zone leaders the mission president sent one of his councilors, a native and local of the mission area, to investigate. They spoke for only ten minutes privately as my companion and I listened, waiting outside the office. They laughed and hugged and laughed some more. The councilor left with nothing to report back to the president. I was punished and sent to another area and forever gained a bad reputation in the area and the mission. Months later, missionaries reported that literally no one showed up for meetings, they were found worshipping in the now former branch president's home. The area was closed and I was never vindicated.

I arrived in my new area, where my companion did not say a word to me for two weeks, literally not a word. I was becoming rather disheartened at this point. Later, through intimidation, I forced a few words from companion who said that he had heard of my reputation and didn't want me blabbing to the mission president about his exploits with his last companion. They never worked a day in the three transfers they had been been in the area. I said that what he did with his time before me was his business and that we should just get to work. So we did. He walked several hundred feet behind me at a snail's pace most of the time. He never said a word beyond hello and his name to people I greeted. He didn't perform any of the ordinances at church and never taught any lessons or gave any talks. Eventually he stopped leaving the house altogether. So I decided to start leaving and teaching on my own. (I know that sounds horrible, but I was pretty worn down at this point.) Over the course of three months I had taught literally every single individual in that small city. I only had one baptism during that time but I could not have been more pleased at the work that was being done. I caught a glimmer of hope when around that time my companion came to church with me and bore his testimony to the members. I knew I should have gone to the mission president earlier, but I didn't for two reasons: I didn't think he would believe me and I hoped that at some point my companion would come to his senses. He did. He tearfully said what was in his heart and how sorry he was that he wasn't doing what he was called to do. He later made some confessions to me that I will not share.  We cried for a few minutes as we shared this moment of tender mercy from the Father. He never did end up actually working with me more than just greeting people as I did, but it was good to have him by my side again. A week or so later we had transfers, and he was sent off to the hottest and most difficult part of the mission with an Elder that came to the mission a transfer after I did. I met my new companion and the next day we got to work. This Elder wanted to work. He loved to work. He was amazed at how every single family in the town let us into their homes. I told him of my experience there with my last companion and how the work had to move forward.  We didn't have any more baptism during that, my last transfer in the area. After I was transferred to another area I learned that this Elder had fallen into a deep depression and stopped working altogether in the area with his new companion.

I was transferred to a large city in Corrientes Capital after that. I was made a senior companion in the last area and would continue to be one here. However, my new companion was a recent arrival. He had just finished his last transfer with his trainer. I know that sounds like a great opportunity, but it really wasn't. It is extremely difficult to break the trainee's illusion of their trainer's perfection. I hated this guy. Everything I did was wrong. He was constantly criticizing, condescending, and complaining. He didn't think I was up to the task. He later told me of the rumors he had heard about me in my other areas; that I never worked, that I was involved in relationships with women in the area, etc.  I lost it. I flew off the handle yelling at him, telling him he no idea.  He really didn't have any idea what I had been through, and wasn't going to tell him. I was tired. I was exhausted. So, to my shame, I stopped working. I just let him take the reigns and teach away. I would occasionally help with a testimony or two, or a nice scripture to share, but I had mostly given up. We fought...a lot, and to this day I still feel ashamed at how I treated him. About two weeks after the beginning of our second transfer our district leaders showed up at our door saying that the mission president wanted to meet with me us in the mission home. So we took a ride across the river to Resistencia. I had no idea what we were in for as my companion's face showed that he had no idea either. As we arrived, my companion was called in first. After about a half an hour he came out of  the president's office with a grim look in his face and without saying a word rushed downstairs to the main office. Just before I was called in I saw my old companion from my second area, the one who didn't speak to me for two weeks, sitting in another empty office with tears streaking down his face. President called me into his office and he spoke I'm a very serious and official tone to me. He had asked me several blunt and strange questions about my behavior over the time of my mission and about that of my old companion. I told him what I stated earlier, that it was none of my business and that I believed that the work had to go on. He then told me of the things my old companion had confessed to and that for them he wished to be sent home. He said the this Elder had been involved in alcohol use, fornication, and leaving the mission area among other things.  This mission president seemed it think I was involved. I got rather upset but tried to keep my cool. I told him of the things I had experienced and told him he could do what he wanted with the information. After another few hours we were sent back to our area to work away. I apologized to my companion and promised him I would try harder to do my duty. He was patient with me, for which I very grateful. We had a baptism right before he was transferred out to another area. We didn't part as friends or enemies. But we sure had learned a lot from one another. I received another brand new missionary, and though my heart wasn't entirely in it we worked all day every day. We didn't have any baptisms, but we had some great experiences. He was a great kid. Midway thorough out transfer together we were asked to meet with the mission president along with his councilor that I met in my first area, who clearly had a very low opinion of me. They told me that after reviewing all the information and after much "prayer" they decided to put me on probation. I was lowered to a junior companion and told I had to prove myself. I was so angry and hurt I didn't know whether to cry or to scream. I accepted the probation as being sent home old ultimately shame my family. The rest of the transfer was rather difficult. I was numb. I couldn't believe after all that I had done that this was happening to me. My reputation was destroyed and rumors abounded that I was using drugs and having sex in every area. I was later transferred to another area at the end of our transfer together.

I arrived in Resistencia and had terminated my probationary period. I was made a senior companion again and lived in a house with another companionship. I met my amazing companion, a Peruvian that was about two feet shorter than me. I learned a lot with him. We had moderate success in the area and gained a great reputation with the ward and the community. We also had a lot of fun together. We did service, did activities with the members of the ward. We were loving it there. But both he and I were suffering from my still tattered reputation within the missionary community we were laughed at and whispered about at every conference. Our interviews with president were always the 'talk of the town'. It was exhausting. Those rumors began to reach our members, our investigators, our friends.

We finished our time together, and I received a new companion and was made district leader.  My old district leader was still in the same area and had been lowered, which we both knew meant that he was going to transferred next transfer and would need to help train me up a bit. But it certainly didn't help our friendship. Our companionships stopped having meals and prayer together. We stopped sitting together in church meetings. It was a tough period in our missions. Eventually it got much better and we became good friends again, but our companions had become lazy at this point. Neither of them wanted to work anymore. I think that we were so focused on fixing the district that we forgot about our own companionships. Work became difficult. The days became long and unfruitful. When we did exchanges within the district nothing would get done as they just wanted to sit around. That wore on me. I lost patience and hope. I realized that the Lord was giving me a taste of my own medicine. So I trudged on. And in true fashion, right as I fight through another trial, weakened from the battle, I was transferred to another area with a missionary who was fresh off his time with a trainer.

Once again I could do nothing right. All my actions and motives were questioned. My integrity was questioned at every turn as he had heard of my reputation, which by now seemed as dark as night. We struggled to have a good companionship for a month and finally achieved it. We baptized an entire family. It took all the strength of spirit I had left to gain that victory.  We gained respect for each other ad he began to discover the truth about me and my character. But by that time I was so worn down with all the crap and being three months away from the end of my mission that I was done. I had punched my time card.

At the end of our time together he was transferred out, and I received a new companion, a Columbian. He didn't care about my reputation, which was refreshing. He said he knew what I was like and had been looking forward to working with me. We had moderate success, but both he and I knew I was done. We lived outside of out area and had a two and a half hour walk both ways every day. In Argentina they have a siesta period from around noon to four in the afternoon, where rather than walk home and back again we just sat under the trees and talked about anything and everything. He always asked me to share my experiences in the mission. We laughed, cried, and sighed quote a bit during those times. I had suffered a lot and made others to suffer as much if not more. He would always tell me that later in life all these experiences would be my strength, and I would tell him I thought he was a liar. At that, we would just laugh and change the subject. I loved that companion. He is a good man. They all were, but he saw me for who I was when I needed it most. We ended our time together. I said goodbye to my Argentine family and made my way to the mission home. My greeting from president was cold at best, but I didn't care. I just wanted to be home. I got on the plane and instantly fell into a deep, well deserved and much needed sleep.

I had a dream on my voyage home. I saw my younger self. I was popular! Everyone loved me and held me in high esteem. I was unburdened and mostly carefree. I saw all the fun things I did with my family and friends, with the ward and the stake, at EFY, the MTC. All if those things were waiting for me back in Arizona, but my parents had moved to Reno, Nevada and that's where I was flying to. I was going to do everything I could to get back to my old life. What an idiot. Apparently while I was away the world just kept spinning. I came back to a great place with great people, but it was a different place with different people. They had all moved on. I went through some tough times during that year back in Arizona. I was humiliated, ridiculed, and eventually ostracized. I left my favorite job and favorite people and felt so alone and hated. I became very depressed and eventually just picked up my things and headed to Idaho, where my parents had just moved. On my way my I had asked my oldest brother if I could stay at his place for a night or two on my way home. He offered instead a place to live with he and his family until I could find a job and an apartment. I accepted, thinking that it would make me happy. But my problems were more deeply rooted than to be able to fix them with quality time. Don't get me wrong, my brother and his family are amazing and I love them very much, but trying to fix my depression with that was like trying to cure cancer with ibuprofen.

I eventually found a job and place to live. I worked and played a lot. I tried to normalize my life and felt like I was getting there. But I still felt my past and that nagging depression dragging me down. I went through a few jobs and relocated to Orem, where I moved in with three amazing guys. I owe a lot to them. It was there where my problems reached a crescendo. In my loneliness and misery I committed a crime. No one but me was hurt, but this crime was grave and would forever alter my fate. I was at a horrible job where I was wrongfully mistreated feeling miserable as I closed up the store when I got a call that two men were at the house that wanted to talk to me. My landlord/roommate assured me that I had nothing to worry about. But I knew better. It broke my heart to hear him say that. He trusted me so much that he swore up and down they had the wrong guy. I arrived and escorted the men to my room to speak privately. I told them what they needed to know and sent them on their way. That was one of the worst nights of my life. I wept for hours. I finally told my roommates what I have done and they surprised me with their reactions. While they may have been in shock, they all accepted me as a human being. They allowed me stay in the home as long as I needed. The landlord even found ways to try and help me get better. They were accepting and loving to me and still are to this day. They are three of the greatest men I have ever had the privilege of knowing. After about five months, some officers showed up at my door. I was placed under arrest and incarcerated for four months. I won't describe my feelings and experiences there for several reasons. However, I learned a great many things during those four months.

I was released in January and placed on three years probation. During that time I enrolled in an LDS treatment program for sexual addiction recovery. I was given a place to live by a great friend who despite all her own emotional issues was an anchor for me. I met a young woman who I instantly knew I was going to marry. I found a job I love to hate with a great friend from my past. I gained some sense of hope and normalcy in my life that I honestly never thought I would have and the world thought I SHOULDN'T have. I have since completed the therapy program successfully, I finished my probation time without incident and was give an extension in time to pay off the fines and fees to the court. I was made a foreman at my job after only four months. I gained a small sense of self and freedom at last. Which brings me to the point of this rather long and depressing story.

Because of what I've done I was incarcerated, but I was released as the court and the state wanted to give me the chance to regain my full freedom and live a healthy, productive life. I've complied with all the rules and restrictions without complaining...much. I've learned how to change my thinking, not just my actions. I've gained empathy and understanding so as not to fall back into unhealthy cycles. I've become regularly medicated for bipolar disorder. I've gained healthy, lasting relationships. Yet this stain is something of a scarlet letter that I will carry all my life now; not just personally but publicly. The results of having this scarlet letter caused my fiancé so much fear and sorrow that we called off our wedding and went our separate ways because she feared what it would mean for the future of our lives together. The property I live in has been sold to a property developer to make way for condos so obviously I am having to move. Every place at which I inquire does not take "people like me", the lowest of the low, the worst of the worst. So now I face being homeless in the state with the highest population of members of the most charitable church in history, because they refuse to see past my scarlet letter, despite all the evidence of rehabilitation.

My point in saying this is not to ask for pity or even forgiveness or even to make excuses. I made my choices while being influenced by both the light and the darkness. My point is to ask that at what point we stopped living what we are teaching. I don't want to sound like a hypocrite. I've done wrongs in my life...obviously. I just thought...hoped...that there would be one decent soul on this planet who could say, "I'll give you a shot. Come on in from the cold."

Maybe I don't deserve that chance. Maybe I don't deserve love or pity or forgiveness from man or God. At times I wish that they just executed people like me rather than sending us out to ultimately be hated and rejected. What kind of a life is this to live without hope of ever being able to love and be loved, to have a family and watch them grow, to work until my last breath, and to work out my salvation on this earth so as to be able to embrace my Savior without shame? I don't know anymore. I feel like I'm on that park bench again. Only this time I have no evidence of God's love, or that of man either, beyond the love of parents who weep for their baby boy that they are helpless to save.

My final point is to urge all to find charity, learn empathy, gain understanding, and be humble. There are good people on this earth who ARE deserving of love and compassion. I hope that if that opportunity finds you, that you will not turn it away. There may be no recourse for me, but there will always be someone who is praying for someone like you.


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