Please watch the video – or just read below for my story:
As I mentioned in a previous post, London has been a significant location in my life’s story. I first came to London when I was 20, on a choir trip with the Florida State University Singers and Dr. Andre Thomas. What a wild trip – we sang in the Coventry Cathedral, gave a gospel concert with the Birmingham City Orchestra and Choir. I think nearly the entire African population of Birmingham showed up for that concert, which has been one of the musical-spiritual highlights of my life. We toured the Canterbury Cathedral and spent the last half of our trip in London.
It had been a tough year – I had worked for two years to gain admittance into the voice performance program at Florida State, only to get myself into a studio with an extremely abusive teacher. This lasted about 6 months before I just couldn’t take it any longer. Singing – my soul’s lifeblood – became a torture. Being in the practice room was like walking on nails, it was so painful. A situation with a guy went awry, and I spiraled into an intense period of depression and anxiety – nearly didn’t finish the school year. It was one of the lowest, darkest times of my life – it was so bad some days I just wanted to end it. But the choir had this trip to England planned, and something in me knew, deep in my gut, that I needed to find a way to be on that trip. It was one of only a few lights shining through the darkness that year.
I managed to stumble through the rest of the school year somehow. My mother spent a lot of time on the phone with me, offering support and encouragement. A couple weeks before I left, my bishop at church – the Mormon equivalent of a priest – pulled me aside and admonished me to prepare to serve a mission and get divine confirmation. The year before I had experienced what I believe was a communication from God that I was to go on a mission, but I wasn’t open to the idea at the time. Now I was in a more humble state of mind, and I asked. I didn’t get anywhere with the asking, though, and I felt I needed to be in England before the answer would come.
We got to England and I was thrilled. Thrilled. I kissed the ground when we got off at Blenheim Palace! I felt I had come home. Everything in my spirit jumped with life. It was a wonderful trip. I kept searching for an answer – I was able to reach a friend of mine who was serving a mission in Birmingham at the time, and we had a good chat. Then, when we were in London, I attended services for the singles congregation in the Hyde Park Chapel, and that’s when I got what I was looking for. The answer came in a way that was crystal clear to me that I needed to serve a mission, and that it was the right time to go. So I went home and turned in my application. I remember feeling in my bones on the flight home that I was going to return to England. But I wasn’t prepared for just how quickly that would happen.
Three weeks later I got a big white envelope in the mail – I was called to serve as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – in the England London Mission. The address of the mission office was the exact location where I had received the green light from Above. I was to report in a matter of weeks.
This, to me, was a tremendous confirmation of the will of God. It was no accident, no coincidence. I was meant to serve as a missionary in London beyond all doubt – it was a sign I would hold to dearly over the coming months.
I went on my mission, starting off with a couple weeks in the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. Just after Christmas I flew to London, where I met my mission president and his wife and a few other missionaries for dinner. The next day I was in Cambridge to start my mission, green as grass. We spent a lot of time knocking on doors in Cambridge and surrounding towns, including Soham and Ely. We met people whom I loved. Some frustrated the snot out of me. I grew close to fellow missionaries and a couple members of our church there, and we taught one woman, Joan, who was later baptized. She would be the only person I worked with in England who converted.
My second area was in London, covering W1, W2, and SW1 – the West End, Baker Street, Pimlico, even the Queen of England were within my jurisdiction as a missionary. We spent a lot of our time approaching people on the street with the message of the Gospel. I hated street contacting – it was a very difficult thing for this closeted introvert to face every day, approaching people like a sales-person, sharing our message. One that I believed in and still do. It was tremendously uncomfortable! But we did meet some wonderful people. One of these was Rashida and her son, Foyjur. Rashida, a young woman of Bangladeshi descent, was going through a rough divorce. We met her in a playground in a posh side of London. She was Muslim and never interested in converting, but we became fast friends and were able to share messages of hope with her, and offer moral support as she worked through her heartbreak. She gave me a bracelet and a stuffed dog that I still have to this day.
I loved my mission in England. I loved being there with all my heart. But there were many difficulties. I put myself under tremendous pressure to be a good missionary, and I came face to face with what felt like every single limitations, fear, insecurity, and anxiety. At the same time. My emotional life has always been very intense, but I had few tools with which to take care of myself at that time. And I had no down time, no alone time, no chance to catch my breath and just be. I was really struggling by the time the seventh month came along, and I kept finding myself in companionships with fellow missionaries who just as strong-willed and stubborn as I was. Wonderful women, whom I love to this day, but the companionships were difficult, and generated even more internal distress.
I ended up meeting with a therapist who gave me some tools use to better manage my thoughts and stresses. Two weeks later, completely exhausted with the effort of trying to re-route my mental processes whilst keeping up the pace and labor of mission life, I called my mission president. I went in late at night for a long talk about what would be the best thing for me to do. I wanted so dearly with all my heart to stay, but after months of battling my inner demons, I just couldn’t keep going.
I was on a flight home the next day.
I was absolutely heartbroken. I had fought through seven months of depression and anxiety, struggling to keep going, knowing beyond doubt I was meant to be in England serving that mission. And here I was, going home.
I went on medical leave for four months, got into therapy and on medication, and I was eventually able to finish my time as a missionary. I was reassigned to the Tampa Florida area, to be close to my doctor and therapist for regular checkups. I even added on an extra month to make up a little for the time I wasn’t able to serve. I was determined to finish, and so grateful that I could. But I grieved and grieved over not being able to finish my time in England.
My trip to the UK this year has been a pilgrimage, a home-coming of sorts. A coming to terms with the loss of my mission experience, and reconnecting with that time in my life, the people and places I have loved and missed so dearly. The past two weeks have brought back many memories and tender feelings. And grief. I guess it’s finally time to work through these feelings and give them the expression they’ve needed.
I have felt so keenly all these years that I still have unfinished business with this land of England and the city of London. This feeling has never left my heart, even now towards the end of my time in the UK. My heart keeps pulling me back.
Something tells me I haven’t yet reached the End of the Story . . .