My personal website is now up and running! www.larkporter.com I created it to aid in future job searches and employment. If you want to find out more about my research and West African child trafficking field work, take a cyber stroll through the site!
Ten years ago this weekend (March 9, 2003) was the beginning of a major turning point in my life.
A big one.
You see, 10 years ago I made the decision to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And I can say that bar none, that was the best decision I have ever made in my entire life.
I think it’s safe to say that most people who knew me as I grew up – especially my family – always figured that I would serve a mission. No one ever said anything about it, no one ever pressured me to serve one. But because my religion was such a big part of my life, I embraced it voluntarily and whole-heartedly – and I was in the habit of working with the missionaries in my hometown and often gave Books of Mormons to my friends and elementary and high school teachers – I think people naturally assumed that I’d follow in my father’s and both of my sisters’ footsteps and serve a mission. So you can imagine people’s shock when I announced sometime during my first two years of college that I wasn’t going to serve one. I had decided to focus on my studies and finish up the art program quickly so I could graduate and move on with my life. And I was ok with that – females aren’t required to serve missions, and I figured that I’d be able to contribute to missionary work by serving in my church and continuing the good habits I’d already developed.
So you can imagine how completely blindsided I was when I received the impression that I needed to serve as a missionary. I mean it literally came out of nowhere and at a time when I least expected it. The experience was so unique, so powerful, and as I said above, so life-changing that I remember the exact date it happened, where it happened, who I was with, and if I were to return to the room where it happened, I can tell you exactly where I was sitting.
March 9, 2003 was stake conference (a church meeting comprised of about 1500-2000 college-aged students who lived in the same geographical area), and the meetings were held in the Wilkinson Center ballroom on the BYU campus. I was in the middle of fighting a cold, so I wasn’t in the best spirits – my throat hurt, my nose was runny, my eyes were really itchy, and I had a pounding headache. To put it frankly, I was not too thrilled about being at the meeting – in fact I had absolutely no desire to be there. I would have much preferred to be home in my nice warm bed sleeping. I sat grumpily in my chair and promptly tuned out what the speakers were saying. From time to time I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, wishing that my head would stop hurting and that I could just go back to bed.
Elder Butler, an area authority, and his wife were there presiding over the meeting. Evidently the Butlers had just finished a 3-year assignment as mission presidents of the Massachusetts Boston Mission (at least that’s the mission I think they presided over), and two of their former missionaries were in our congregation. Elder Butler asked those individuals – a male and a female – to come to the rostrum and bear their testimonies. The young man went first. I have no recollection of what he said. My headache prevented me from really focusing on what he was saying, and even if I could have, remember dear reader, I was being a total brat and I had categorically refused to enjoy the meeting.
Then the woman stood up. She was one of those individuals who have the energy of three people and are so cheery and bubbly that they make you sick. You know the type, the ones you’d love to punch in the face because really, it’s just not healthy to have an attitude like that. I rolled my eyes, rested my elbows on my knees, plopped my head into my hands, and watched her from the corner of my eye. My roommate, DeAnn, was sitting next to me and she started to rub on my back. The girl at the podium was going on and on and on, and in my head I was willing her to be quiet. Near the end of her address she said something to the effect of, “I encourage all of you women to serve a mission. It’s the best thing in the world.” At that I rolled my eyes again and dug the base of my hands into my eyes trying to get the pain in my head to go away. I thought to myself, “Man, chica! Shut up! And no thanks, I don’t want to serve a mission.” And I promptly tuned out the rest of her remarks. Finally she stopped speaking and backed away from the microphone. I was still bent over my knees with my head in my hands and I muttered to myself, “At least that’s over!!” In the 10 seconds that lapsed from the time that the girl left the podium to the time that Elder Butler stood up to speak, the quiet words You need to serve a mission popped into my head. I quipped, “Nope. No way. Don’t want to.”
I don’t really have the words to describe what happened next. The closest thing to even begin to portray what happened is to say that an invisible force hit me like a ton of bricks, almost like it had grabbed me by the shoulders and shoved me upright. It was practically tangible, and I sat straight up in my chair. I sat up so fast that I scared DeAnn – she even jumped, poor thing! My other two roommates were sitting on the opposite side of me, and they turned and looked at me, too, trying to figure out what was wrong. Needless to say, that snapped me out of the negativity I was wallowing in. All of my attention was directed at the words that accompanied that “shove.” They weren’t louder, but they pressed upon my mind with a lot more force. You need to serve a mission.
I replied, “But I don’t want to serve a mission. If I serve a mission I’ll end up going to France, and I hate speaking French.”
The quiet, piercing words responded, That doesn’t matter. You need to serve a mission. Then a calming warmth enveloped me, and it felt as if my heart was on fire.
Tears came to my eyes and I said, “But I don’t want to speak French.”
I immediately felt those same words. You need to serve a mission.
I quickly enumerated the reasons why I “couldn’t” go on a mission – i.e.: I was making significant headway in the illustration program, I was almost done with school and it didn’t make sense to take a break from my studies, there was a young man that I was interested in and was willing to see where our relationship went and plus, I really didn’t want to go to France.
None of those things really matter. You need to serve a mission.
Needless to say, I didn’t pay attention to the rest of the meeting (par for the day). I vaguely remember seeing Elder Butler deliver his address, but I have no idea what he said. I sat in that chair arguing back and forth with that voice (and for the record, no I am not schizophrenic). I presented all of the things I thought were valid reasons to why I couldn’t or shouldn’t serve a mission, and each time I did, that burning feeling increased to the point that my whole body shook and tears streamed down my face.
Finally the meeting ended, and I made a bee-line home. I don’t even remember the walk back, nor do I remember if my roommates returned with me. The next thing I knew I was locked in my bedroom, kneeling at the side of my bed and trying to gather my thoughts before I prayed to God. Finally I said, “Heavenly Father today I have had many impressions that I should serve a mission. I know that they came from Thee. But Father, do I–” I was about to ask if I had to serve a mission. But this thought came: God doesn’t force anyone to do anything… no one has to do anything. So I began praying again and rephrased the question. “Father, is it really in my best interests to serve a mission?” Immediately that burning feeling intensified, and I felt – rather than heard – the word Yes.
That was it. That’s all I had to know.
I took a deep breath and said, “Ok. I’ll do it. But I need Thy help with three things. Please take care of my schooling. I’m in a competitive program and I cannot afford to regress in my artistic abilities. Please help me with my relationship with P so I can feel more at ease with putting that on hold. And finally Father, I hate speaking French. I had terrible experiences my senior year of high school with my French teacher. I only took French 202 here at BYU so I wouldn’t have to take math classes because I hate math even more than I hate French. I know if I serve a mission that I’ll get sent to France… so please help me to learn to love French again.”
I got up from my knees and crawled on top of my bed. I laid down and cried. I really wasn’t too thrilled at the prospect of serving a mission. I was almost devastated. For those readers who aren’t familiar with how members of the LDS Church are assigned to missions, the applicant doesn’t decide where s/he serves. Rather, members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles review his/her application and recommends a mission to the President of the Church – a man who we believe to be a prophet, a man with a calling similar to Moses – and he essentially makes the final decision. He then issues the applicant’s mission call by letter. I had absolutely no control over where I would go.
Yet I knew that I would be sent to France.
So I called my sister Amber and asked – or rather demanded – that she come to Provo and pick me up so I could talk with her. I didn’t say why, but she’d figured out why by the time she arrived at my apartment. According to her, she said that she knew I’d gotten “thumped.” Seriously, that’s what she said – with a smile and laugh pulling at her lips. She took me out to Village Inn and bought me pie, and we talked about her mission and how it had blessed her. She was beaming the whole time because she was so happy that I was going, and I was hiccuping over my sobs because I didn’t want to go to France and I knew I would. I was heartsick.
But I was true to the promise that I made with God in that prayer – I would prepare myself, and then serve. And He was true to what I asked Him to do. Within one week all three of the things that I asked for help with were taken care of. I spoke with my art professors and learned what I had to do to reserve my place in the program, events happened enabled my heart to be at ease in regards to P, and I went out and bought a French translation of The Book of Mormon and began reading it from the beginning.
Many other things that I consider miracles happened between that day and the time when I was eligible to turn in my mission papers. (I was 3 weeks shy of my 20th birthday, and back then the age at which females could first serve a mission was 21. Applicants could send in their papers 3 months before their birthday). One of those miracles occurred during the October 2003 sessions of General Conference. The general leadership of the LDS Church address the church membership, and the broadcasts of the conference are sent via satellite to chapels all over the world and are simultaneously translated in over 80 languages. My roommate Ginger and I were able to go up to Salt Lake and attend the conference in person. When one of the Apostles, Elder Richard G. Scott, stood to speak, one of the most amazing things happened. He began talking about the blessings one receives for serving a faithful mission. Despite sitting in an auditorium that seats 21,000 people, it seemed as if he and I were the only ones there. It was like he was talking directly to me, just for me. He addressed concerns that I had. Overall his talk acted as a confirmation that the decision I had made in regards to serving a mission was correct.
Fast forward to Thursday February 19, 2004, 11 months after that stake conference with Elder Butler and his cheerful sister missionary. My papers had been at Church Headquarters for approximately 2 weeks, and on that day I was sitting in the relaxing quiet of my figure drawing class drawing the live model. Out of the blue I felt these words come to mind: Your mission call has just been decided by Elder Scott. My eyes filled with tears and I had to stop drawing because I couldn’t see what I was doing. Fortunately our professor called a 10 minute break, so I ran up the stairs and went to the computer lab to email my sister, Autumn. Since I knew that Elder Scott’s recommendation would be sent on to President Gordon B. Hinckley within the next couple of business days, I wrote to tell her what had just happened and that I would receive my mission call and packet the next Wednesday, February 25th. Later I spoke with some of my closest friends and said that I’d have my call the next week. They asked how I knew and I said, “I just know it.” One of them said, “You know, Lark, my brother’s mission call took 4 weeks to get to him, and he was here at BYU. Your papers have only been in two weeks – there’s no way you could possibly know when it will arrive.” I shrugged my shoulders and changed the subject.
On the morning of the 25th I woke up and was as excited as could be. I knew that my letter would be in the mail when I got home that day. It was all I could do to focus on my classes. Finally I finished up on campus and rushed home. Sure enough, there it was on the table. Some of my closest friends came over to watch me open it (thanks, Nielson family!!), and I called my parents and opened my letter with them on the phone. I read
Dear Sister Porter: You are hereby called to serve as a missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You are assigned to labor in the France Toulouse Mission… [and signed by President Hinckley at the end]
France. Big surprise.
But I was so excited and so happy! By then I’d read The Book of Mormon all the way through in French – I’d already done so numerous times in English – and true to what I’d asked for in that prayer, I’d regained my enthusiasm for French.
My mission was by far the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I had to overcome lots of challenges. I met people who were really rude and antagonistic towards my church and the message that I had to share. But I served the full 18 months, and I was blessed beyond measure. I made several lasting friendships, both with the persons I served and those who I served with. My love for the Savior grew a thousand-fold, and I came home with a deep and abiding love for France, the French culture, and the French-speaking people I met and taught.
Today, ten years later, as I reflect back on what happened on March 9, 2003 and on what I prayed for that afternoon, I am humbled and grateful that God hears and answers prayers. My prayer was quite simple, and in many ways, it was kind of selfish. Remember that I didn’t pray for the people that I’d eventually meet and teach… They didn’t even enter my mind – I prayed that I would learn to love French again.
Well, I got a lot more than what I bargained for.
Little did I know that that one request would launch me on a path that has allowed me to use my French in some way every single day since I entered the Missionary Training Center on June 2, 2004. Little did I know that that path would lead me to earn a bachelors degree in French Studies, a masters degree in French literature, and – in the near future – a PhD in French and Francophone African literatures. Little did I know that I would teach French at BYU and at UW-Madison, little did I know that I’d return to my mission area in France and teach in a French high school. Little did I know that ten years from that day I’d be living in Dakar, Senegal conducting doctoral research and gaining a love for the Senegalese and their culture.
Lots of people ask me why I served a mission for my church. I served a mission because I wanted to be obedient to what I felt that day. I knew where those impressions came from, and I knew that God knew it. I also served a mission because I know how much happiness the teachings of this Church can bring to people. I served a mission because I knew that God loves His children, and I wanted to help people feel that love.
Who knew how far reaching the simple words of you need to serve a mission could be?
So as most of you know, the President was in Senegal this week. And it was nuts. Those of you who know me well also know that I am not, nor will I ever be, an Obama fan. But this was just too good to pass up.
The Jones’ attended the meet & greet that was held at his hotel, and the little kids and some adults got to shake his hand. The adults were mostly Senegalese employees who pushed, shoved, elbowed, and totally crushed everyone else in line… it was really a really unfortunate display of behavior. He also decided to pose with the little kids.
In one of the moments not to turn all shy, the normally extremely gregarious Cecilia wouldn’t even look at him, let alone acknowledge him or shake his hand. So when he sat down next to her, she scooted around and hid behind him. Despite being prodded by some of the adults she knew who were around her, she wouldn’t stand up or even be seen in the picture. All you can see is a teeny tiny bit of her blond hair sticking up behind the left side of his neck. Tristan and Mariah were just fine (Mariah is directly to his right).
Tonight at dinner Darla was telling the story again and so I turned to Cecilia and asked, “Do you know who that man was?”
“The president of what?”
Without hesitation she replied, “Senegal!”
It’s after midnight here in Dakar so that means that technically, I fly home to the United States in two days. Yep, two days from now I’ll be back in Madison, hugging my dad (and probably crying), eating some really yummy food, and sleeping in my bed for the first time in 10 months. And the day after my mom will be flying home from Utah and the hugging and crying will start all over again. We’re criers in our family. But they’ll be good tears.
While I am profoundly grateful for the experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve met, the places I’ve visited and the things that I have learned, I am absolutely thrilled and even more grateful to be going home.
My first two weeks will be a whirlwind of activities, including finalizing things for my new apartment, getting things settled with my car, going through belongings to see what things I can get rid of, seeing my extended family over the Fourth of July weekend, and moving into said new apartment. And from the minute I step off of that plane at O’Hare – wait, probably from the time I board the plane in Dakar – I will get questions like, “Why did you go to Senegal?” “Why did you choose that particular topic when you could have chosen so many more positive things to write your dissertation on?” “Why Africa?” Those are all good, valid questions. But more often than not, I’ll also get the more banal, humdrum, run-of-the-mill, barely-scratch-the surface questions like “What was your favorite thing/place/person you saw/visited/met in Senegal?” “Do the Senegalese have TVs and drive cars?” “What’s the food like?” “How was the weather?” And my all-time favorite: “In three or four sentences, tell us about the highlights of your trip.”
HUH?? As Genie says in Aladdin, “What? Doth my ears deceive me??” I just spent 10 months over there and you want me to distill all of the sights, smells, tastes, people, joys, frustrations, things-I-wish-I-did-differently moments, cultural adjustments, soul-searching, fear, bewilderment, helplessness, empowerment and happiness I experienced into 3 or 4 sentences? You’re nuts! (And evidently, so I am I because I just quoted a line from a 21 year-old Disney film in an otherwise very somber, intellectual post. Seriously, guys, I haven’t watched that movie in at least 15 years. But that’s beside the point).
I know that these types of questions are coming because those are the exact same questions people asked me when I came back from my other two residencies abroad… except for the TVs and cars one… And in all fairness, those types of questions aren’t an affront to me or what I study. The people who ask them have good intentions, and they’re trying to express interest in what I do and understand what makes me and my research tick. So I can’t get miffed about it. And usually I don’t. Because I understand. I’ve asked those stupid questions myself in the past, even when I knew better. But they’re not the best kind of questions that one should ask another person who has dedicated the last however many months or years to a single topic/area of expertise and who will continue to dedicate – or at least be heavily interested and involved with it – for the rest of his or her life.
So what types of questions should be asked by others – including by the one who had the experience (aka – during moments of self-reflection and pondering)? Well, in essence, the ones that you have to think about in order to formulate and the ones that become springboards to substantial elaboration. Here are a few off the top of my head:
- What are some of the most important things you learned during your time abroad?
- What aspect of their culture touched your heart the most? Why?
- What do you appreciate the most about those people/cultures/experiences and why?
- How has this time made you a better person?
- How are you going to take what you have learned and make a difference in your life and the lives of the people you will touch in the future?
- What would you want someone like me to understand about x, y, or z?
- What were the things you experienced over there make you more grateful for your upbringing/cultural heritage/family/job/blessings?
- Are there any people/places/things (yes, that is the definition of a noun) that you hope to never take for granted again and why?
- How have you changed for the better?
- What did you do when times got tough and you wanted to throw in the towel? What kept you going?
- How did you see the hand of God directing you or the people you worked with?
Those are hard questions, and your friend may have a little difficulty answering them. Or at least putting all of those feelings into words for the first time. But those are the ones that really show interest, and more often than not, those are the questions that s/he wants you to ask because their answers will embody the complexity of the most important aspects of their experience. Some of those questions are quite personal and depending on how well you know him/her, they might be inappropriate for you to ask. However, those questions will get him/her thinking and will help that individual identify and process the richness and uniqueness of their experiences. If they can’t share them with you, at least you’ve helped them put feelings and heart beats into words.
So by all means, when you see me, ask me those questions. As soon as I stepped off the plane into the stifling humidity that envelops Dakar in September, I’ve been asking myself those exact questions, trying to wade through some of the answers and trying to formulate them into one cohesive whole. It’s hard because they’re multi-faceted and don’t lend well to quick, off-the-cuff conversations.
A lot of you ask me why I don’t write more specifically about the things I’m researching and seeing with the children. Well, there are several reasons. First, some of the things I’ve experienced here are so completely unbelievable that if I hadn’t seen them myself, I’d question my honesty as I reported them. Second, you have no idea how much suffering these people go through, nor can you readily identify with how happy most of them remain throughout their horrendous difficulties. You have to see it and experience it for yourself. Most of us Westerners really need to suck it up, stop whining, and look for the blessings in our lives. Because we flip out if we can’t get the smartphone we want or go on that trip we’ve been looking forward to, etc. We think our life is “over” if we have to go without this or that or don’t do this or that. Give me a break, guys. These people are pretty down far the ladder in terms of material wealth and bodily health, and yet their smiles are some of the biggest and brightest I have ever seen, and their laughs have more life and sincerity than the majority of ours. And yes, I am chastising myself just as much as I’m chastising you. Because I flip out unnecessarily, too.
Third, a lot of what I’ve been doing will turn into intellectual property and play major roles in my dissertation and future publications. So it isn’t necessarily in my best academic or professional interest to have them plastered on the internet for others to take and use for their own purposes without being able to control how they’re used. Fourth, and most importantly, I have seen and experienced things that are so terrible and evil… that I don’t think I will ever be able to talk about them – and if by some miracle I do, it will be several years down the road.
But I can tell you the following.
I am proud and humbled to be an American. I love my country, I love my freedoms, and I hate seeing them being stripped away by people who think we need to be more like other countries and other cultures. I will not apologize for or be ashamed of what we hold dear, nor will I bow down to what other people think we should do/be or not do/be. Because I have seen what such actions can do to a whole society. And Senegal is a model in West Africa and the surrounding area. The Senegalese have it good compared to other countries. Think about that one for a while. Are they good people? Do they have things to offer me and others as far as values and the way they treat others? Do they have just as much inherent potential and value as you or me? By and large, have I enjoyed my experience with them? To all of these questions, I respond, by all means YES! But I cannot tell you how much my heart swells with gratitude when I see my flag and think of the myriad of things it symbolizes.
Similarly, we all need to be careful of smooth talkers – no matter what profession they practice, no matter what social class they belong to, no matter what religion they adhere to, no matter how beautiful or popular or rich they are. Because they do not always have our best interest at heart. This is true in politics, and this is especially true in leader/follower or mentor/mentoree relationships. In my current context, I have seen this time and time again as families entrust the care of their young children to individuals who they think are good men. But they turn out to be the worst kind of charlatans and do unspeakable things to children who range from the age where they just barely cut their teeth to the late teens and early 20s. Things are not always as they seem, and we owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to study it out from every different angle possible, and especially to not fall into traps that so often come with the proverbial bandwagon. We do not have to be like everyone else. We do not have to keep up with the Jonses (sorry, Dan and Darla!).
Families are the most important thing that you and I have, and they are society’s most important unit. Nothing can replace loving parents who honor their marital commitments and strive to raise their children in kindness, with soft voices and warm hands, and with the purest of love. Parents, don’t get sucked into the media and money-crazed world that we live in. Put the phone, laptop, iPad down (or anything that is similar metaphorically) and pay attention to that little voice who is asking for your attention or to the little hand resting on your knee in the hopes that you will pick him/her up and hug him/her close. The phone will be there when you get back. So will the computer or the TV or that book or that project you’re working on. Stop allowing yourself to be distracted by the things that matter the least and ignoring the people that mean the most. I have always been very sensitive to the needs and actions of little children – and if anything, these last 10 months have made me even more so. Play with them, speak gently to them, hug them, kiss them. Remember that when they’re little they’re still learning – don’t develop unrealistic expectations for a young child that s/he cannot achieve. If you do, you’re setting both you and him/her up for heartache and disappointment, and the little one will learn to fear you and not trust you. Help your kids know and understand by your words – and most importantly – your actions that they are loved and that no matter what happens in the world or what stupid (or serious) mistake they make that you will always, always, always love them. Don’t let your bad mood dictate how you treat them – it’s your problem, not theirs. Because they will remember it, and their little spirits will break.
Remember that the relationship you have with your spouse affects them in ways that you can’t even fathom. So if you and your spouse aren’t doing so great, love yourself, him/her and especially your child enough to evaluate where you went off track. Stop getting mad over stupid stuff. Stop yelling. Stop arguing. Be adults and learn to work out your differences like adults. The other person isn’t entirely at fault. You share part of the blame. So stop deluding yourself into thinking otherwise. Of course there are situations where splitting up and divorcing is inevitable and the best solution in the end. But by and large, your problems can be fixed fairly easily. So be a man (or woman as your situation dictates) and suck it up. Stop being so selfish. Because it’s not just you who is unhappy. Your spouse is, too. And remember that there is a little pair of eyes watching you from around the wall, eyes that are filled with pain, tears, and fear because you are his/her world. And if your world falls apart due to ridiculous reasons, so will his/hers. I don’t care how old the child is – even if s/he is an adult. I promise you that they will have the harder end of the deal than you.
I realize that these are harsh words. Most of you know that I have no tolerance for those kind of things. But as one who has seen to the bottom of the cesspool, please realize that I only have your best interests (and those of children) in mind when I say what I say. Can children and child-rearing be difficult? Yes, of course. Don’t think for one minute that I don’t recognize this or that I haven’t experienced it just because I’m not yet a mother. But remember that your child can test your patience, love, and metal without you reacting or retaliating in a way that is unbecoming of their parent, the person that should love them unconditionally. They don’t force you to react one way or the other. They have no control over your reaction. You chose how you will respond. Not them.
Cherish your families and treat them accordingly. Live so you won’t have any regrets if you don’t wake up tomorrow. Live so your children know, see, and understand that they are loved.
Lastly, God lives and He is good. Despite of what I have seen and experienced lately (and even in my past), I know that He is aware of us as individuals and that He cares very much about what we are all going through. I’ve heard the following expression over and over since my arrival in Senegal: “God? What God? How can He see this suffering and not do anything about it? If God exists, He must be dead.”
God is not dead. He is always reaching out to us, always willing to relieve our pain, always willing to enfold us in His arms of love. But just like any other relationship, we must put forth the effort to know Him and embrace His goodness. How can He help us if we give into despair and refuse to find the good in the world and people that surround us? How can He help us if we have adopted a fatalistic attitude?
Let us be better friends and disciples, let us seek for and fight for the good. And we will find that He is and always has been right by our side.
There is always hope. There is always light at the end of His tunnel – we just have to choose not to dynamite the cavern and block our path to what lies ahead.
So in a nutshell, that’s what Senegal and studying/working with victims of child trafficking have taught me. There’s certainly a lot more, but in essence, my time here has helped push aside the fluff and focus on what’s important.
I pray that I may keep this perspective uncluttered and move forward with faith, hope, the determination to work hard, and the courage to love when it is difficult to do so.