March 23, 2017
Mission Stories I Left Out of My Homecoming Talk: Ceviche
My husband served a mission in Peru from 2010 to 2012. He wrote this series of posts to share what his mission was really like.
Ceviche is the culinary pride of Peru. Peruvians talk about ceviche the same way that Texans talk about barbecue ribs. Similar to sushi, the meal consists of raw fish "cooked" in lemon juice, and served with sweet potato, choclo corn, and cancha nuts. The cities that I served in were dotted with cevicherías, serving up the meal to hungry locals and tourists.
In my mission, we were forbidden from eating ceviche. Because the meal involved raw fish, and some restaurants did not have sanitary food preparation practices, there was a chance of food-borne illness, especially for gringos with sensitive stomachs. It was better not to risk it, so our mission president made it a strict rule that no missionary was to eat ceviche.
Well, kind of. See, sometimes ceviche was allowed. One month, my zone had the most baptisms in the whole mission. The mission president came by, congratulated us, and then with a smile invited us all to go out eat ceviche with him at a nice restaurant. I remember the thrill I felt inside as he ordered for us. I had heard about this meal for months, but, as an obedient missionary, I hadn't tried it until that moment. The meal did not disappoint.
It did bother me a little bit, though. Why was ceviche forbidden most of the time, but allowed at other times? Later in my mission, my mission president explained the inconsistency. He said that if he was around, he could ensure that we were going to a reputable place, where he knew the meal would be prepared safely.
That would make sense. Except, after that meal, we were still forbidden from going back to that restaurant to order ceviche again. Even though the mission president regarded that restaurant as safe. A few months later, when our zone had a bad month for baptisms, the mission president came back to visit us. No ceviche that time.
Really, there was no consistent rule for eating ceviche. There was no whitelist of approved and safe ceviche restaurants. If the mission president said eating ceviche was OK today, then it was good. If the mission president said ceviche was a sin today, then it was a sin.
My missionary brain was fine with this. After all, the mission president was the one who received revelation for the mission, and it was our job to be obedient. There didn't need to be a consistent rule for ceviche. That's why we have continuing revelation, so that we're not condemned to using consistent principles to decide what is right and wrong. After all, the Book of Mormon teaches this clearly. Polygamy is usually an abomination, except when God commands it to raise up seed. Murder is usually wrong, but sometimes God can command you to behead someone if you really need one of their books. Ceviche is usually a dangerous food, but if the mission president is around and your numbers are good, then it's safe. Obedience to God's will is the only consistent principle we need, and whether by God's own voice or the voice of His servants, it is the same.
Now, five years removed from my mission, I see things in a different light. Ceviche was a tool of control wielded by my mission president. It was how he rewarded the missionaries who had earned his favor, and punished those who had not. The food safety explanation was a front, a lie.
I know this isn't a story of some terrible abuse by an ecclesiastical leader. It's about a meal and an arbitrarily enforced rule. I know people are imperfect, and I didn't leave the church because I was offended by my mission president. But missions are a big deal. It was two years of my life--two years under a system of total control and perfect obedience to authority. And, as this story shows, that authority was not always used fairly or honestly. Still, I never criticized my mission president for his faults. There was a missionary who did, and experienced the consequences. But I'll save that story for another post.