“Do you mind if we sit with you?”
I was outdoors, minding my own business, but being as precariously white as I am, this alone can attract attention. Looking up, I took an inventory of the sudden, unexpected English producers. They were young, younger than me; their hair was prim and jaunty, their grins placid and probably genuine. They wore short-sleeved dress shirts with thin black ties and nametags. They seemed happy and unlined, their skin baby-smooth and pallid, their teeth numerous and straight and enormous. It looked like they had never touched a cigarette or a drop of alcohol or anything particularly fun beyond a board game in some time, or maybe ever.
There was no way they were not Mormons.
I waved for them to sit beside me. They clearly had been striking out: while many Koreans have taken to Christianity with a dire aplomb, I couldn’t imagine them reacting well to a version of it so distinctly other, so clearly and crisply starched and American. That they would need to do this in Korean would be twice as difficult. Looking at me, I think they knew success was also unlikely, but at least it would be in comforting, familiar English.
Their failure was indeed likely, though probably not for reasons they would have guessed. My curiosity about religion is deep and oceanic, my hunger for knowledge voracious to the point of being probably off-putting and alarming. Years of being a religion major, preceded further by decades of fascination with mythology and stories, has left me unrelenting when it comes to draining others for information about beliefs, structures, and rituals. I still occasionally accept offers to go to churches and temples when I am approached, but sometimes these invitations are rescinded when they suss out that my interests are purely anthropological. I might as well be wearing cargo shorts and wielding my DSLR.
As a younger man, atheistic and teenagery and thus angsty and vaguely angry at everything, I used to be something of a jerk to proselytizers. I liked religion in a theoretical sense, as something to study and investigate, but I actively loathed any times when it was advanced upon me. I made a game of being as jerky as possible. With time and also years of study, I came to a degree of peace and a laissez-faire ‘tude, and a kind of burgeoning curiosity impossible to contain. I just didn’t have it in me anymore to hate people on site for sharing something they really, really thought was important, no matter how much I might not. But I do have it in me to barrage them with annoying questions, because you don’t read as much Jung as I did and walk away without becoming gratingly interrogative.
Before the nice Mormons could even ask my name, I confirmed that they were from Utah, and began our interrogation. I asked about the state itself, their homes, how it was growing up in an LDS family. I politely prodded into their successes in Korea, and how they were getting along with the language, the food, the culture. Could they request a location for their mission? Were they disappointed or pleased with Korea? Could the decisions be changed, or was even questioning it in the first place considered gauche? Could they clear up some of my murkier ideas about Mormon theology? If my friend had not called and interrupted, I may have demanded some LDS literature, their contact information, and samples of their blood.
This unyielding interest can drive me to weird places, to accept weird invitations. Is there something weird and creepy and religious about the enterprise? Are the smiles of the people involved just a little too Churchy, if you know what I mean and I think you do? Is that the Hare Krishna chant I hear? And the food is all halal? Count me in.
Walking out of a subway station, I was once swarmed by a small cadre of Koreans. They were running some sort of outreach organization, and thrust upon me their details, their locations, their names, and their hopes. They had free Korean classes, and were really gung-ho about me joining up, but their sales pitch had left something to be desired. Upon later research, I discovered that they were likely affiliated with some sort of cult, and their fervour and energy when approaching me were apparently devotional in nature. They had been manic, certainly, but I had interpreted it as a bland, banal passion for English language–I had no idea they had hoped to suck me into Kool-aid and shaved heads and alien spirits. My likelihood of joining suddenly doubled.
I like having these conversations and seeking out these interactions, if only out of curiosity. Though if it’s not curiosity, it’s a certain unctuousness. If people are going to engage with me in a discussion of theology and religion, they had best bring their A-game, whatever the religion they would like me to take up. I get slightly offended when people approach me with platitudes and pamphlets, if they can’t tell me the real low-down. My investigation becomes frustrated. If all you have in your arsenal is a plaintive, mewling, “Hey, Jesus is cool, right?”, we will not have a good time. I will turn aggressive and petty and childish, the teen in me re-emerging, and I will do everything I can to make things difficult. I will claim to be Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or anything, and I will then set about arguing theology until the cows come home.
Part of this is from having a university degree without a great degree of pragmatic function. When you spend four years investing most of your brain power into a subject that you essentially will never need again, it can chap you, and drive you to extremes. I need to talk to these Quakers, you guys. I need to spend the next few hours in this temple. I need to argue with this person on the street about Judaism for a while, because I think their proselytizin’ could really do with some work, and besides, I’m getting rusty.
Ultimately, most religious solicitors that invade my space are usually happy to sate my curiosity, to give me what information they can, even as my questions grow increasingly deep and just-this-side of heretical. I never lead them on or give them false hope that I will convert, because I’m not going to. But I feel like most of them see my interest, and deem me as one they can crack.
And that’s fine. I’m uncrackable. Unpreachable. But at least we’ll still keep talking.