As a contribution to this month’s topic of “International Mormonism,” I agreed to write about my experiences as a missionary in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, 1996-1998, which agreement I now sort of regret, since I’m not sure what to say. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sends out missionaries, and a significant percentage of them go to countries other than their own.  I was one of them—and I wasn’t kidding about not knowing what to say. Since my scheduled post time has come, I’m going to put bullet-points on my brainstorming and pretend that this is a carefully designed exercise to provoke discussion about international and inter-cultural aspects of Mormon missionizing.
- I find it difficult to discuss the mission and use glibness to shield my various vulnerabilities. To that end, I have constructed an easy-to-deliver set of sound-bites that, to my shame, emphasize exoticism and speak lightly of heavy things: You’ve never lived until you’ve gotten up from a toilet full of blood and not-feces! I did not defecate “like an American” until I had been home for two months! It was so hot/sunny that I had a tan line through my not-so-white shirt showing my tie and my garment “eternal smile.”There was raw sewage running in the streets in some favelas! 
- Blond hair was a big deal; in the region where I worked blond hair was not common, unlike in southern Brazil. It was not unheard of to have people want to feel the hair. No barber I found knew what to do with liso—smooth—hair.
- One of the members a few hundred kilometers from the major city said, when I showed her my family picture: “Americans are all so blond and have such big families.” On the one hand, she probably knew more Americans than any non-Mormon in her city (who had not visited the US), but her perception was very skewed by the fact that they were almost all from Utah.
- We were frequently described as “the church of the tall Germans.” Depending on the gender and age of the speaker, sometimes there was a “gorgeous” thrown in also.
- Kids on the street would call out to us, “Fala inglês, alemão”—“Speak English, you German.”
- Brazilians are very friendly: even those who were “born Catholic and going to die Catholic” would invite us in for conversation and visiting; they’d offer food or a chance to shower or take a nap; and so on. Of course, saying something like “Brazilians are very friendly” is hopelessly reductive—as if all Brazilians were the same and I know this because I met all 270 million of them. What I mean is that I worked in Georgia before my visa came and there was a difficult-to-say-how-enormous difference between my proselyting experiences in Georgia and Minas Gerais, which difference I am summarizing as “friendliness.”
- On my first visit to a favela (an urban neighborhood of densely-packed, semi-permanent squatters) my first thought was, “it’s like being in a National Geographic: there’s trash and debris and disorder and goats and everything.” My second was, “National Geographic fails to convey what the places in those pictures smell like.” (I have since traveled a fair amount and no longer think of the favela as unique: people, or at least their cities, smell like poop, unless there’s curry involved; then it smells like poop and curry.)
- When I wake up sweating at night my first conscious thought is that I’m back in Brazil. When I have nightmares that involve screaming, it’s the voice of the man tied to the stretcher across from me when I went in for treatment for face-falling-off-mango-disease. In my first-world-meets-third-world tragicomedy spiel, I usually follow this sound-bite with some touristy wisdom: If you want to get to know a country, do two things, receive medical treatment and have a dessert.
- Speaking of which, one time my companion and I attended a birthday party. There was what looked like a big sheet-cake decorated like an American cake with off-white icing (most of the “cakes” we ate did not have icing and were more like a sweetened cornbread than American “cake.”) I was very excited… until I figured out that it was potato sticks covered with mayonnaise.
- I am from Texas. Multiple times in introductions: where are you from? Texas. Oh, bangy-bangy! (/’bahn-gee ‘bahn-gee/, ie, a shoot-’em-up Western movie/TV show). Where’s he from? Utah. Where’s that? Between California and Texas. Utah associates also commented on okra and beans and rice and large insects, all of which were well within my normal experience range.
- I have lived in three countries and visited dozens; I have taught in three countries across language and culture and nationality and race barriers; I’ve been an unmarried male who wears a tie and tries to persuade often less-than-enthusiastic people to understand and act upon sometimes hard things (spirituality/religion and math/science). I think these various experiences have given me (what I judge to be) understanding about which parts of each experience were unique to it and which kind of go with me wherever I go. What I cannot do is go back and be young again. In this regard the mission is, for me, unique.
 The CJCLDS is hardly unique in sending missionaries. Other Mormon-tradition churches, other Christian churches, and non-Christian churches have formal proselyting agents. At present, however, I think the CJCLDS formal mission effort is unique in its scale, standardization, and focus on direct proselytization. I don’t know what percentage of LDS missionaries work in foreign-to-them missions. About half the missionaries in my mission (probably 400 individuals overlapped with me) were Brazilian with the balance from the US plus, if I remember correctly, one from Canada and one from Trinidad and Tobago. I knew or knew of a few Brazilians who were sent to the US and my local mission in Texas seems to consistently have from two or three non-US missionaries. I also knew a Brazilian sent to Japan. Conversations with others suggest that Central American missionaries often stay in Central America but not in their home country; ditto for Europe. There also seems to be a degree of ethnic and linguistic targeting: French-speaking missionaries from France and its overseas territories sometimes trade places; missionaries to Vietnam are (at present) ethnically/genetically Vietnamese with a Vietnamese surname.
 Nowadays I usually follow that one up with a discussion of heat in Bahrain, which would spit on Minas Gerais heat, except that it’s conserving fluid.