By Ryan McIlvain
Art by Chad Danger Lindsay
My first missionary companion was named Willer, a squat, wide-faced Brazilian from the south of the country. One morning he spread the map of our area on the apartment floor, swept his hand across the populous heart, and said, “I’ve tracted all this with other companions. Pretty much all of it.” He moved his index finger to the far corner of the map, an unmarked section, background beige.
“Here,” Willer said, and he looked up at me, nodding solemnly. “I’ve prayed about it.”
“‘Here’ what?” I said. “There’s nothing.”
“There’s nothing on the map,” Willer said.
We spent the next several weeks knocking doors on those invisible outskirts. They housed the newest, hardest poverty: rows of orange-brick favela huts lining the hilly dirt roads, no street lights or sidewalks, no gutters to channel the orange-brown mud-making rain. In Contagem, a city in the southeast of Brazil, you could more or less calculate the hardship of a neighborhood by plotting its distance from the center of town. In the outskirts, we were miles and miles from it. We had to take an outbound bus all the way to its terminus, then a kombe all the way to its last stop. Then we’d walk some ten minutes more down a dirt road lined with tall grass, the insects combining like high violins, civilization fallen away at our left and right. At the entrance to the neighborhood hung a handmade banner, twine-tied between two telephone poles: CADÊ NOSSO ASFOLTO, PREFEITURA? (Where’s our asphalt, town hall?) We called the neighborhood humble. We called it receptive. On some days I bristled to realize just how mired in optimism we were—chest-deep, neck-deep—and one evening I said as much to Willer. He turned on me, glaring. Did I not think these people needed the gospel? Did I not think they deserved it? What was I—nineteen years old? Willer knew I was. He was twenty-three, rather old for a missionary, and not above lording his age and experience over me. He said I was a greenie on the mission too, but not that green. I should know better. What he’d learned firsthand in a year and a half in the field—and what I needed to learn, better late than never—was that the poor in worldly goods were the poor in spirit also, meek of will and blessed of the Lord. They opened their doors, and their hearts, to the gospel message. That’s what mattered. That’s why we came out here.
“What are you boys even doing here?” a man asked us on another evening. He stopped us not far from the handmade banner, wearing a white button-down shirt open at the neck, a gas company’s crest on his right breast pocket. He carried a clipboard under his arm.
“What business is it of yours?” Willer said.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m trying to get these people some gas,” he said. “Something to cook with, something to heat their homes with at night. You think religion’s what they need? Religion’s the problem. You come around and tell these people how God hates condoms and so they make more babies they can’t afford to feed.
“We don’t tell them that,” Willer said. “You don’t know the first thing about us.”
“You’re the Mormons,” the man said.
“I know enough.”
“You don’t know the first thing about us,” Willer said.
We kept walking, and I kept quiet. God or gas? God or gas?
Our footsteps thudded and scraped in the dirt.
An imagined conversation, an argument, really, was playing itself out in Willer’s facial features. He chomped madly on a piece of Big Red gum, a habit he pursued with unconscious vigor. During teaching appointments he stuck the pale pink gob to the top of his nametag, where it perched like a very small brain, and afterward he popped it back into his mouth. “It’s still good,” he said once. Willer chomped and chomped beside me. The imagined conversation boiled over.
“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, moron! So he gives them gas. So what? What questions does gas answer? We didn’t always have gas back home, but we had the gospel. I knew why I was here. I knew the big picture. I was happy.”
An hour later, we decided to call it a day. The evening’s crop of contacts had been meager. I’d suggested we get a late dinner in us, get off our feet a while, and then, if we wanted, we could knock some more doors closer to home.
Willer kicked at the dirt. “Fine.” He spit his gum out, booted it midair into the gathering darkness, then fished another piece out of his breast pocket and popped it in his mouth. “Let’s get out of here.”
We walked in silence for several minutes. Above the unlit street the stars already shone, the mass of them spilling their light in a sort of haze so that the night sky looked overexposed. A passage from Rachmaninoff drifted up into my mind and I tried to coax it all the way to the surface, the beautiful music as soundtrack to the beautiful view. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament . . . I began to feel light on my feet, the end of the day and that oceanic darkness overhead—I began to float up into it, but then Willer stopped walking.
I turned around to see him paused before a squat little hut, utterly earthbound, a gap-toothed brick box of a house, like all the others on the street. Willer looked at the house intently. “One more door, Elder. I’m feeling this one.”
I sighed through my nose, loudly, I remember, but then I followed my senior companion to the house. He’d already done his signature rap rap-rap rap at the thin metal door by the time I drew up next to him.
“I guess you’ve got this?” I said.
“I’ve got this.”
The door opened to a portly woman in an oversize t-shirt and shorts. Behind her we saw a thin man and an even thinner boy sitting in the blue cathode glow of a television set.
“Good evening, ma’am,” Willer said. He flashed his introductory smile, then gestured to our nametags. “We’re missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I’m Elder Willer, and this is my companion, Elder McLeod. ‘Elder’ is a title, by the way. It means we represent the Lord. He’s sent us to your home tonight to share a message about the true Christian church. May we share it with you?
The woman gave a timid half smile. She leaned one shoulder against the edge of the door, looking at us somewhere just shy of eye level.
“Oh,” she said, “well, we’re Catholic . . .”
“You’re Catholic?” Willer said, recoursing to a favorite line. “So was I!”
I didn’t like this line, but I’d never said anything. Willer sometimes made vague, brief references to his Catholic childhood, family problems that the mother church hadn’t solved.
“What’s your name?” Willer asked the woman.
“Vera?” she said.
“Vera, is that your family behind you?”
Willer peered around her shoulder and waved at the man and boy in the cathode glow. The boy waved shyly back. The man looked away.
“My husband and son,” Vera said.
“And what are their names?” Willer asked.
“My husband is Roberto. My son is Davi.”
“And you love them, don’t you.”
Vera paused. “Yes.”
“You love them more than anything in the world.”
Again a pause. “Yes.”
Willer nodded, smiled his best warm-feelings smile. Then Vera turned sharply at the sound of sandals slapping the packed dirt floor behind her. I stood to Willer’s right and watched the silent exchange that followed: the sudden sternness in Roberto’s face, his jutting chin, Tell them already; the dip of Vera’s shoulders, the tilt of her head, What do you want me to do?
Willer intruded, said, “Vera?”
Roberto spoke up: “Tell them to go away already.”
Vera turned to us with a drowning look in her eyes.
“Vera,” Willer said, dropping his voice. “I testify that God has restored his true church to the earth. We have the power to seal families for time and eternity.”
He dipped his head in an effort to meet Vera’s eyes, which she was angling away, and his own eyes gleamed with sudden emotion.
“For time and eternity, Vera. You need to hear this message.”
Vera’s gaze framed the knot of Willer’s tie. Her head moved on her neck like an ostrich’s, bobbing slightly.
“Maybe you boys could come back tomorrow?” she whispered.
The darkness was total by the time we passed back under the banner at the entrance to the neighborhood. Willer said we needed to run to make the last kombe out or else, and he was already running. It didn’t occur to me to feel frightened at the prospect of stranding at the edge of a favela after dark. I took my cues from Willer, who was laughing as he ran.
“Huh? Didn’t I tell you? How about your old senior companion!”
We saw the white van pulling up to the stop, the kombe’s crier and collector sliding open the door, calling out the route. Willer shouted for him to wait. We piled in last, breathless, handing over a real each. Only later, back at the apartment, did I realize I’d given the collector a five real note by accident.
For the next several weeks we visited Vera and Davi about every other day, teaching them the missionary lessons. At the start of each visit Vera would apologize for her husband’s absence. He was out looking for work, she’d say.
We taught the first principles and ordinances of the gospel. Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance. Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins. Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost. We taught about Joseph Smith, restorer of lost truths. We taught about prophets and continuing revelation, about the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price, how each complemented the saving truths of the Bible, and how the heavens, and the canon, were still very much open. We taught about the true and restored priesthood of God, and about the power to seal things on earth as in heaven. All of which Vera took in at a distance, wearing a shy, unwavering poker face. She smiled at what we told her, laughed politely at our little jokes. When the questions we asked her, the open-ended ones anyway, met with painful, protracted silence, we switched to yes-no questions, which she nodded at, smiling. Could she see the need for modern-day prophets? Could she see why a restoration was in order? Did she see the importance of baptism by full immersion? She nodded and nodded and nodded.
Davi nodded, too, if a little more earnestly, and more often at Willer than at me. He sat beside his mother on the couch, looking big-eyed, curious, a ten-year-old version of his father: the high crowning forehead, the upturned nose, the pair of narrow, vaguely sloping cheekbones. We never saw Roberto in the flesh, but we saw him in Davi. The resemblance shone from the family portrait above the couch, and on the day Willer and I taught about eternal families, Willer gestured to the portrait and said how beautiful it was, how pleasing to the Lord. The sheen of emotion came back to Willer’s eyes. He wiped them quickly with thumb and forefinger, looked down at the floor, and touched my knee.
I recited the next section of the discussion from memory, though I probably could have elaborated on it. At five months out I spoke passable Portuguese, and I understood almost everything I heard. What I lacked was an ability to think quickly on my feet, to stay with the type of conversations Willer thrived on: polemical, extemporaneous, fast. I woke every morning before first light, the air already buzzing its warmth, to study Portuguese grammar and vocabulary. Still. I felt most at home in the lessons I’d memorized word for word, palavra por palavra, in which I felt free to gesticulate, make meaningful eye contact. During the discussion on families only Davi looked meaningfully back.
At the appointed time I opened my Bible to 1 Corinthians 15. I handed the book to Davi, who’d read for us before. I asked him to read aloud verses forty through forty-two.
“Wait,” Davi said.
He jumped up and darted out of the room. He came back bearing an open Bible nearly half his size. He balanced the tome on two small hands, spread under the hardcover as under a platter of hors d’oeuvres. He sat the book down on his knees, or it sat him down.
“I found this the other day,” he said. “It was in my mom’s room.”
Davi flipped back and forth, back and forth through the pages. They rose in a hump toward the binding, sloping gently away toward the edges. At length Davi looked up and said, half defeated, “Where is it again?” Willer chuckled. I crossed the room and showed Davi where to find 1 Corinthians. The pages, thin as tissue paper, were yellowed at the edges, though not from use. I put my finger on verse forty, then Davi shooed the finger away.
“First Corinthians chapter fifteen,” he said, imitating Willer’s mild, measured voice, “verses forty through forty-two.” He read the passage with only one or two mistakes. Willer stood up and tussled Davi’s hair, gave the boy a low five. Davi blushed and beamed through the next section, then he raised his hand.
Willer chuckled again.
“You don’t have to raise your hand. This isn’t like school.”
“Can I be a missionary like you someday?” he said.
We started calling him Davinho. Little Davi. We played soccer with him after school, bought him ice cream. Willer gave him gum. On Sundays we actually escorted him to church, along with a handful of other investigators from Davi’s neighborhood. Willer had persuaded the local church leaders to put up the money for an old school bus. It transported the isolates, the have-nots, to church and back. Did the leaders not think these people needed the gospel? Willer had said. Did they not think these people deserved it?
On Sunday mornings Willer rode shotgun, as it were, sitting in the front bench of the bus, directing the driver to the various pick-up points. On a few occasions Vera boarded the bus along with her son. We introduced her to other women in the congregation, tried to make something stick. The women sang the Church’s praises, of course. Vera only smiled and nodded.
But Davinho boarded the bus every week without fail. He sat between Willer and me in the front bench, bouncing at intervals. He said he bounced to keep his butt from burning, and we laughed and said we understood. The vinyl upholstery was sizzling by 9 a.m., and the trip to church took almost an hour. If a window stuck, we despaired of it loudly. The inside of the bus smelled of melting rubber.
I’d given Davinho the smallest button-down I owned—he still swam in it—and Willer had donated a tie covered in little Brazilian flags. The tie came, properly, to the middle of Davinho’s belt buckle, but it did so at the expense of the knot, which was the size of an avocado.
On the long, hot rides to church and back Willer often loosened his own tie, unbuttoned his top button, and panted histrionically. Davinho would mimic him, giggling. They developed a routine—straight man, little man.
“Would you rather be a blow fish or a snook?” Willer would say. “Stop laughing,” he’d say. “This is serious business. Puffy like this? Or mopey—like this? No, no, don’t tell me,” he’d say. “I want you to show me.”
Weeks more passed. Davinho never seemed to tire of us. If anything his demeanor brightened, amplified. He rode the bus seat between Willer and me like a carnival ride, his face wild and silly and content by turns. Only in the moments before he needed to disembark did the face slacken a little, a hint of clouds. He wanted to know when we’d visit again, and once we reassured him that it would be soon, he descended the bus to his brick box of a house, waving as we pulled away.
One morning during companionship study Willer said it was time for us to challenge Davinho and Vera to baptism. He said he’d prayed about it. I asked about Roberto.
“What about him?” Willer said.
“Okay, but what about Vera?”
“That’s what I prayed about,” Willer said.
To my surprise he asked me if I wanted to issue the baptismal challenge. It was a vote of trust, which I did appreciate. Willer had warmed to me in the last weeks; we had warmed to each other. We talked more, and much less formally. He complimented my Portuguese. I taught him words in English. At night I put Rachmaninoff on my tape player, letting the beautiful cadenzas lull us both to sleep.
But the baptismal challenge, vote of trust or not, intimidated me. It was a simple question, with a simple declarative statement implicit in it, and maybe that was where my nerves took root.
“Will you be baptized in the true church of Christ?” Willer asked that afternoon, as calm and confident as ever.
He asked Vera and Davinho both, of course, but only Davi nodded his head and said yes, his eyes wide and solemn, mirroring Willer’s
“Davi?” Vera whispered to her son on the couch.
He didn’t look at her. He looked at Willer, nodding his head. I remember the set of Davinho’s mouth—how tight it was, how determined—and I remember the dip of his mother’s shoulders, the strain of her eyes, Meu filho, did you hear him? Are you sure? I remember the genuine plaint in my companion’s voice.
“Have you felt nothing with us, Vera? Won’t you follow your son’s example?”
She almost met our eyes then, but not quite, not quite. A long silence followed.
“We’ll need you to sign something for your son,” Willer said.
That night we called the mission president from a payphone near our apartment. Willer talked; I listened. I heard him lay out his version of the pertinent facts. A golden investigator. The president should see the testimony on this kid. An out-of-the-mouth-of-babes type testimony. Not that he was a baby. He didn’t mean it that way. He was young, admittedly—youngish—but rock solid in the faith. Goes to church every Sunday. Reads the Bible and the Book of Mormon every day. Intelligent, dedicated, but humble. The whole package. The phone squawked cartoon-like in Willer’s ear.
“He’s ten. Closer to eleven, actually.”
“The mother’s okay with it,” Willer said. “The father’s never around. But the mother’s really okay with it. And the kid’s golden, President. Golden.”
Willer answered a few more questions, repeated his reassurances, then hung up. He frowned. He turned his face to me, his eyes as doleful as a blood hound’s. “What is it?” I said.
“It’s a go.” Willer broke into a wide smile, which in the excitement of the moment I matched inch for inch. I think the two of us may have even hugged. Or shook hands heartily. Or something of the sort. In any case—and here I come to my point—only in retrospect did I begin to feel guilty about Davinho, a little angry even, as if I’d been jilted by Someone or Something.
It’s strange. Retrospect is polar, pulmonary in movement: it expands with nostalgia, contracts with regret; expands with forgiveness, contracts with bitterness. It is, by definition, knowing, demystified and demystifying. To look back is to undress yourself of faith; anything else requires conscious effort. And yet I remember, and remember well, that in that moment beside the payphone I felt enthralled to faith, grateful to it. I’d suspended my natural, critical faculties (for the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit), and now, and at last, I beheld the fruit. A golden investigator. My first conversion.
A week later a handful of members stayed after church to witness Davinho’s baptism. Vera wasn’t there. Of course Roberto wasn’t there. The font was in-ground, tiled in aqua. A stiff accordion divider opened onto it from the chapel’s main hallway. We all watched as Willer led Davinho down the stairs into the clear blue water. The water was waist-deep on Willer, and chest-deep, almost neck-deep, on Davinho. We watched as Willer raised his hand to the square, as if he were taking an oath on someone else’s behalf. We closed our eyes, heard the words of the prayer—in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, amen—and then opened our eyes as Davi closed his, covering his nose with his hands, bending down and back, just like we’d showed him, just like we’d practiced in the hallway beforehand. I’ve got you, Willer had said. Just lean back and I’ve got you. Like this, okay?
Two months later Elder Willer got transferred to another area, and all at once Davinho stopped coming to church. A few weeks after that the local church leaders cut the bus, citing a tithing slump. They told me how truly sorry they were. They said they’d pray for Davinho and the other investigators from his neighborhood. I said I’d do the same, and I did. Every last one of them dropped out.
My new missionary companion was Elder Bernardo, a bony but athletic type from the north of Brazil. He was my senior companion, though we operated as equals, at least for the first few weeks. We visited Davinho about every other day. We asked how he was doing. He asked about Willer. We gave him fare for the kombe and the inbound bus to get to church on Sundays. He never showed.
One evening after a long visit at Davinho’s—the boy limp, reticent, his eyes mostly downcast—Elder Bernardo pulled rank. He said we needed to cut our losses. We were wasting precious time. Facts were facts, and they needed to be faced. In the near distance, the handmade banner loomed up and Bernardo gestured at it as if it had made his point for him. Elder Willer had been wrong to invest so much effort so far from the church.
“If it’s a pilgrimage every Sunday,” Bernardo said, “people aren’t going to make it. We don’t even know what Davinho does with the bus money.”
“I’m sure he uses it to buy glue,” he said.
“I’m sure we’re feeding his longstanding glue addiction.”
Bernardo looked at me sharply. “I’m not the bad guy here.
“This isn’t my mess.”
“What?” Bernardo said.
“Do you even know what you’re saying?”
“Of course it’s not my mess. How would it be my mess that your investigator apostatized? He shouldn’t have been baptized in the first place.”
“No?” I said. “He doesn’t deserve the gospel? Is that what you’re saying, Elder?”
Bernardo set his jaw and redoubled his stride. I kept up on sheer adrenaline. Of course I didn’t know what I was saying. In my confusion, only then beginning to darken, harden, I knew nothing, or so little. I only hoped.
We walked all the way out of the neighborhood in silence, rode the kombe, the bus all the way back in silence. Not until the next morning did I finally apologize to Bernardo. I never saw Davi again.