Friday, July 6, 2012

Heaven Up Here by John K. Williams

To: Abbottsville Fourth Ward
From: Donna Banta
Subject: Another Ward Gossip book review!

John K. Williams

I never served an LDS mission. But I have known my share of Mormon missionaries and have viewed them from varying perspectives.

First I watched my friends leave on their missions. Almost all of them were nineteen-year-old boys. When they returned they looked and acted like thirty-five-year-old men. I knew this transformation occurred because they had just come back from a deeply profound and gratifying experience. The reason I knew this was because each one of them stood in Sacrament Meeting and described his mission as being "the best two years of his life."

Later, as a grown-up doubting Mormon, these "thirty-five-year-old men" went back to being boys. --Boys who came to dinner at our house every month and spent the better part of the meal encouraging us to help them annoy our neighbors. 

After that, as an ex-Mormon, I saw them as squirrelly, self-righteous little twits who sometimes compelled me to slam my door in their faces. 

Then in April 2011 I went to Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theater and watched a couple of adorable goofball Elders do their darndest to win the hearts of a small Ugandan tribe.

Elder Price: Africa is nothing like The Lion King. I think that movie took a lot of artistic license.

Fun romp that it was, The Book of Mormon reminded me of how young and clueless these "thirty-five-year-old boys" really are. While LDS leaders claim that the musical is inaccurate and "anti-Mormon," Parker and Stone's play goes a long way toward showing outsiders why LDS young people choose to serve and complete missions, even when their presence in a culture makes absolutely no sense. Since seeing the play on stage, I've been less inclined to slam my door. I imagine others who have seen it have had a similar change of heart.  

Then last month I read John K. Williams book, Heaven Up Here. And finally, thirty-some years after seeing my friends leave on their missions, I understand why so many come home looking fifteen years older.

Heaven Up Here begins in the pristine setting of Brigham Young University where Williams spends what most college students would consider a bizarrely sober and chaste freshman year. Then, upon receiving a call to serve in Bolivia, he enters the Missionary Training Center where he learns Spanish, memorizes missionary lessons, and is taught that Bolivia is well-equipped with modern conveniences and that the people will beg to be baptized.

Thus prepared, Elder Williams embarks on what he knows will be "the best two years of his life."

His first area is high in the Andes, where he is immediately stricken with altitude sickness. After that he falls prey to various parasites, as do most others in the mission. He describes "brown outs," a slang term for on the spot diarrhea emergencies, and a siege of nausea that causes him to vomit six-inch worms. He endures filthy living conditions, a painful treatment at a horrific medical facility, and dangerous outbursts of political unrest that in one instance almost costs him his life. Such stressful conditions take a toll on many of his companions who grapple with depression, near insanity, and suicidal tendencies. Some of the Elders even drink and become sexually promiscuous. But painful and bizarre as his conditions are, the thought of returning home early is even more painful. So Elder Williams commits to staying the duration, and even lies to his parents about his health and well-being. On top of that, when he is given the opportunity to extend his mission from eighteen months to two years, he immediately agrees.

In spite of the negative experiences, Williams' narrative never presents itself as an expose of Mormon missions, nor does it condemn the LDS Church. It is an elegantly written memoir told in the voice of a believing young man who doesn't rely on tiresome faith-promoting morals. And not all of his experiences are negative.

At what is perhaps the lowest point of the story, Elder Williams glumly realizes that he has completed eighteen months of his mission and could be going home. Soon after that he is transferred to the Bolivian rainforest where he picks cashews off of trees and a macaw alights on his companion's shoulder. The heat is oppressive, but after eighteen months in the country, Elder Williams is used to climate extremes. Also his experience finally enables him to navigate the culture with ease. He interacts with some interesting Bolivian characters, takes shopping trips to Brazil, and has a humorous encounter with a mid-level drug dealer. He spends an unforgettable Christmas with a humble and loving Bolivian family. Then on his last day in the country, he rides a bicycle for the first and only time. It is an ending that is far more faith-promoting than any Sacrament Meeting homecoming talk, and even makes this cynical ex-Mormon feel grateful that Williams decided to extend his mission.

Heaven Up Here is a must read for believing Mormons, ex-Mormons, and anyone who is interested in an honest account of an LDS mission. Hopefully it will encourage more forthcoming stories about Mormon missionaries, as it did postmormon girl recently.

Heaven Up Here is available in both paperback and as an ebook.
Or purchase a signed copy from the author himself at the upcoming Sunstone Symposium July 25-28. I'll be there too signing copies of The Girls, as will C.L. Hanson, author of ExMormon. There will be more great titles on sale from the Mormon Alumni Association as well.


  1. pm girl, I'm glad you think I did his book justice. You know what a good read it is.

  2. buddy, can ya (consider) changing the highlight color. Super old 43 y/o dudes like me can't see it. Of course, i could be the only one, and I am going blind-n-stuff, I think i need reading glasses, I'mgonna keep babbling, something something, yada yada, OK, I'm done.


  3. If Williams' book and Postmormon Girl's post are any indication, the LDS needs to take better care of its missionaries in overseas environments.

  4. I know John and am a fan.

    When I was a missionary in Japan, I kept a journal every single day, never missing once. After I left the church I ended up transcribing my missionary journal and posting it online, interspersing it with commentary from an ex-Mormon's perspective.

    So yes, there are more forthcoming stories about Mormon missionaries. :-) See:

  5. @Ahab: Even in domestic environments, the situation is very bad - the rules are so strict, missionaries just don't get any breathing room outside of their proseletyzing duties. My brother served his mission in a very rough part of Los Angeles and I have also heard some horror stories - one of the guys he baptized was shot a couple hours afterwards; there was an elementary school in one of his zones with concrete walls and barbed-wire surrounding the playground, as it was in the cross-fire of two competing gangs; etc. I didn't understand at the time but when he came home, he looked simply shell-shocked. And again, the only times he talks about his mission nowadays, he sticks to the standard "best two years of my life" script.

  6. Dr. Shades thanks for the link, I'm going to check it out.

    Ahab, pm girl is right. It's a tough haul for most, and they're pressured to say it was wonderful when thy return.

    Okay, Kriss, I'll look into it, but 50ish old people aren't all that computer savvy...

  7. Fantastic post as always. I've been off the blog wagon for awhile and miss it!!!!!!

    I'll check out the reads... I need some right now. =)

  8. Heather, it is a truly great read.

  9. Great review of a great book!

    More of these are appearing, working on my own as well, I think many of us are .. now's the time, I guess.

    I have a bit of editing on mine, but posting bits and pieces: Fictionalized a bit, in Mexico mid-nineties. The similarities with John's account are astounding..!

  10. Thanks for the link, Paul. I'll check it out.