Thursday, May 24, 2012

Broken Trust

I arrived as a missionary in Norway a few days before Easter, which is one of that nation's major holidays, and which like its many other religious holidays, is observed in a mostly non-religious manner. I was amazed to see the whole country (except for convenience stores, tourist spots, and limited mass transit) shut down from noon on Wednesday until the following Tuesday morning.

I was soon feeling queasy in a smoking car on a northbound train. Two missionaries met me at a train station many hours later, where for the first time I saw a bizarre gang of punk rockers. The missionaries helped me haul my gear to their apartment where I crashed on the floor for the night. The next morning I boarded a train bound for a town in North Norway where the next nearest full-time LDS missionaries would be 300 miles away. There was still a lot of snow up there.

Norway is a long, skinny county that stretches some 1,200 miles from top to bottom. Regardless of where they live, most Norwegians will concede that North Norwegians are different from those that hail from the far more populous southern third of the country. Those from the south often say this with some derogation. North Norwegians wear it as a badge of honor and seem to revel in their cultural peculiarities.

I was soon introduced to Sister Å., who for years had been a surrogate mom to the missionaries that served in this town of about 18,000. Her husband, Brother Å. was not a member of the church. But he was a very nice guy that would help us out whenever needed. He was also pretty good at playing the fiddle. Their son was serving as a missionary in England.

The Å's were wonderful people. Although our apartment was far from their home, they lived close to the center of town, an area we frequented. They allowed us to drop by just about anytime. We sometimes went there for a respite from the hard realities of proselyting among irreligious people.

On some visits I was allowed to pull out large hardbound comic books that belonged to the Å's son. It was surprising how much useful Norwegian I picked up by reading these books, which put words and pictures together in a most propitious manner.

Most visits to the Å's were pleasant occasions that left us uplifted and often fed. Then one day was different. Sister Å. was somber when she let us in. She seemed to want to be alone. I suggested to my companion, Elder Pease that we leave. But he felt that this was precisely the time that Sister Å. needed someone.

Elder Pease was right. Before long Sister Å. started talking. Her composure increasingly gave away as she talked. Eventually she blurted out that Brother Å. was having an extramarital affair. "Don't get me wrong," she said; "He's a good man at heart and I love him. He's a good father to our son."

Sister Å. explained how she had known for many years that Brother Å. had a mistress on the other side of town. Despite her husband's infidelity, Sister Å. intended to remain loyal. But she admitted through tears of anguish that "Sometimes it just hurts and I have to cry."

Elder Pease was far better at providing comfort than me. But in the end, our efforts seemed clumsy and ineffective. What did I know at age 19 of such matters? After a while, Sister Å. apologized for burdening us. We prayed with her before heading on our way. I always felt awkward whenever I was in Brother Å's company after that.

Within a few weeks I was transferred hundreds of miles away. A few months before the end of my mission while I was traveling with the mission president I saw Sister Å. at a church meeting. We were only in town overnight, so we didn't get time for a personal visit. I don't know how Sister Å's story ends.

Sister Å. was a loyal sort with a big heart, ever willing to reach out and help anyone in need. She made those first few months in the mission field more bearable by acting like a second mom to me. She introduced me to the only person with whom I worked as a missionary (of which I know) that both joined the church and remained faithful.

After Sister Å's disclosure to us, it was difficult for my 19-year-old self to understand why she insisted on staying wither her husband. I was too inexperienced to understand such real life complexities.

Brother Å. never had an unkind word for his wife. Unlike some others I knew, he was always gentle both verbally and physically. But I think his infidelity harmed his wife in less visible but more insidious ways. It still saddens me to think of this good woman being mistreated so. I wonder if Brother Å. ever saw in his wife the pain we saw that day. Though many years have passed, I still wince inside when I think about it.

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