Francis was my first convert. I met him on my second day in Fredericton, six months into my missionary service. He had committed to meeting with the missionaries who had been stationed there before me. When we arrived at his studio apartment, one block north of the university, he wasn't put off by our strangeness. His one room was square and wood-floored with a kitchenette and a bookshelf along one wall and a twin-sized bed along the other wall. After a little bit of reading from the Book of Mormon, from my seat on the edge of his bed, I asked him if he wanted to be baptized. He didn't move from where he was (leaned up against the sink) or react in any meaningful way. After a moment he said quietly that he would like to think about it.
A year later, when Francis decided to be baptized, from a different apartment, with a different set of missionaries, he asked through the proper missionary communication channels if I could perform the baptism. I got the call from the mission president and soon after made the six-hour drive from where I was stationed in New Glasgow to Moncton where he lived with his five-year-old daughter.
There’s a picture of us, flanked by other missionaries, in front of the 1980s accordion door (which when unlatched opens to reveal a blue tile baptismal fountain). Francis is tall and stern in a white button-up and a pair of polyester temple pants which a congregation member lent him. He's holding his daughter up against his chest. She's wearing big rosy pink snow boots and a brightly colored bead necklace. I'm next to them looking manic, hands in my pockets. After the photo was taken, the digital camera was handed back to me and I pocketed it and baptized it alongside Francis.
On day one of my mission, one year prior to Francis' baptism, I landed at Halifax International airport where a white 10-passenger van shuttled my luggage of suits and shoes and scriptures to the mission home. There I ate a meal of bread rolls and caesar salad and the mission president and his wife told me, fresh-faced, suit pressed, that it was very unlikely I would baptize anyone during my two years of service. They told me that the Canada Halifax Mission's baptism average was .25 baptisms per missionary. They told me that, in terms of conversion, the Canada Halifax Mission was seventh lowest in the world.
It's rare in Mormonism to get direct access to these bleak statistics. There's a sense, among the members, that the White missions don't see a lot of converts. But it's neither fun nor encouraging nor racially nuanced to dig into, so this was probably the first time I heard it on authority.
Many missionaries see this improbability and decide to only swing for the fences from then on. Mormons are sociologically, possibly biologically, emboldened by unpopularity.
On days two, three, four as a missionary, I got to see that pathology first hand. My trainer showcased to me the peculiar hope of approaching strangers and asking them to be baptized. It was perverse, possibly holy, this kamikaze attempt at conversion.
But, as the scriptures say: fortune favors the bold.
I had my share of those moments, over the years. But it wasn't that way with Francis. It couldn't have been. He wanted it too bad. Francis, soft-faced, young, booksmart, honest. He was on the slow rode to providence. He didn't want baptism, or Mormonism, or Joseph Smith. Not really. He wanted alchemic waters to rush over every part of his hopeless life. He hoped there was something more, with room enough for his daughter.
Soon after his baptism he moved about an hour outside of Fredericton, back to his birthplace, a one road town centered around a petro station. In short order Francis was put in charge of the town. Francis was the only college educated member of his local First Nations tribe, the only owner of a computer.
It was a couple weeks before the end of my mission when I saw Francis again. We haven't talked since. A group of four of us missionaries were passing through on a training trip. We crowded around the ovular table in the kitchen of his single-wide trailer and he told us stories, one prophet to another, of tribal corruption and greed. There was a pride cycle, he said, which was damning his community, keeping them from blessings. Someone had recently stolen his laptop out of the town hall. He refilled our glasses with orange soda from a two-liter bottle.
As it got dark we said a prayer and went our way. On the drive into the city, I lost control of the car and spun a full rotation up onto a margin of hard ice which walled in every street over the course of the winter in New Brunswick. We called the mission home and they sent a tow truck to pull the car down from its high-centered position atop the ice. We packed into the truck driver's cab to keep warm while he did his work. He took us a few miles closer to the city, where the snow was better plowed. In parting he told us that he too was Anglican and gave us a $30 dollar discount for doing God's work. I didn't correct him. I felt like if he knew we were Mormons he would change his mind and rescind the discount.
“...immersion in water derives from that of water itself, and signifies not only purification (...) but regeneration through the effect of transitional powers. In alchemy (...) the bath symbolizes the dissolution and also the purification of gold and silver.”
A Dictionary of Symbols, Revised and Expanded
Juan Eduardo Cirlot