Trains. Sitting by the window seat on the inter-city express from Hamburg down to Münster watching the yellow fields of raps (the canola in canola oil) speed by was the first moment of semi-peace I had felt since the long flight across the Atlantic to begin my assigned labor in the corner of the Lord’s vineyard known as the Frankfurt Hamburg mission. After a restless night spent in a bed without sheets in the mission home (no SHEETS? What are they over here, monsters?!), the German zone leaders had taken us goldens (as they affectionately referred to new missionaries here) to do some street contacting in the city. Stiff with fear, and stumbling with my German, I was convinced that every moment of my mission would be one long unending panic attack.
But at least I would have a few free moments on trains right? One of the elders had said it was technically illegal to proselyte on trains, so I could consider that a brief respite to find my bearings. Even that was terrifying at first: not only did I feel like everyone tried to avoid eye contact once they say my nametag with “Kirche Jesu Christi” emblazoned in big capital letters, but I also was hauling around 3 large suitcases that made me feel like a burden to every single person that passed. I just tried to make myself as small as possible. In sum, I was a mess.
My new companion seemed to know what he was doing though. He seemed to be very comfortable in his own skin, no visual signs of embarrassment. And he also seemed to always know just who to talk to when street contacting, and didn’t seem to feel burgeoning guilt when he let one person pass un-talked to. He spoke German beautifully, but whether he spoke English or German, he had a noticeable drawl, despite coming from Utah just like me. Already, I looked up to my trainer, Elder C., and on that train ride, he gave me a beacon of hope that I could find a measure of confidence some day.
Elder C had an appointment for us the very evening we pulled into town. I would have just enough time to set down my things before we headed out for an appointment. And I wouldn’t have to worry about dinner, because this was an eating appointment. What a treat for a new elder! The person we were teaching was a unique one. He was an African prince, who, for reasons we didn’t know, was spending an extended stay here in Münster. Perhaps he had a summer villa here? Was that a thing? It sounded too picture-esque, but then, who new what happened in the magical land of Germany? This was our second appointment with the prince, so we briefly outlined a review of the first lesson. There are a total of four missionary lessons, the first focusing on the basic tenet of Mormonism, including a belief in God as our Heavenly Father, the centrality of prophets, the pattern of dispensations and apostasies throughout history, the founding of the Church on the earth by Jesus Christ, and the Restoration of the true gospel by Jesus Christ after the long dark period of apostasy. We would be teaching this one in English, so I didn’t even have to worry about screwing up my German. But of utmost importance, as we were teaching a prince, Elder C. told me to follow his lead. We wouldn’t want to offend the prince, and he already knew proper procedure for interacting with him. Good call.
That evening, we waited on the curb near our apartment for to prince’s chauffeur to pick us up (he had a chauffeur?!). He spoke English too, and we exchanged a few pleasantries before arriving at the prince’s apartment-villa-thing. It seemed to be in a fairly normal-looking neighborhood, but I didn’t know what normal was supposed to be here. We followed the chauffeur, who also seemed to double as the butler, to the second floor. The door led into a central hallway that was filled with finery: a beautiful table of some sort of dark wood filled with exotic-looking trinkets and antiquities, fine china, and the like. The rugs and carpets were beautiful. This guy was legit. The chauffeur-butler led us towards the last door on the left where the prince would be receiving us and announced, “The missionaries are here for you, your Majesty.”
I followed Elder C. cautiously into the room. The prince was sitting on a throne of sorts. It had a curved half-moon seat that definitely fit the description of throne. He wore a sort of wrap around his waist, but no shirt. And he had a pendant on his head instead of a crown. Elder C. knelt on the ground and bowed his head, and I quickly did the same, so as not to incite the prince’s wrath. We sat down at the two chairs prepared for us. The prince spoke loudly to reach his butler: “Drinks!” After a few awkward-feeling moments of silence, the butler arrived with large glasses of a dark brown liquid with foam on top, and I feared what I was seeing. That had to be beer, right?
Elder C. and I took our glasses, and the prince started away at his. Elder C. spoke up, “Thank you so much for the hospitality, your Majesty. But do you remember or discussion about the Word of Wisdom? We aren’t allowed –”
“DRINK! Or I throw you in prison!”
That escalated quickly. Can African prince’s do that? He is used to being a despot in his home country? Authority aside, I now felt that I was in a nightmare. My companion would know what to do though. I looked over at him, and he was putting his lips up to the foam pretending to drink, but I could see the liquid falling onto his nice suit pants: he was spilling it all over himself. Well, I wasn’t going to do that, and I didn’t care if I risked going to prison! So I just help the cup to my lips without taking a drink, hoping the prince wouldn’t notice the obvious fact that I hadn’t drank any.
“I have prepared a special meal myself. I go get, “said the prince, arising from his thrown and heading towards the kitchen.
The moment he was out the door, Elder C. motions towards the house plants that are kept near the window. He whispers, “Pour the drink here. We can pretend we drank some.” Relieved, but the sneakiness involved feels very un-servant-of-the-Lord like.
The prince returns with a steaming dish of rice and a chicken curry dish of some sort. He invited us to the table, one at each side. We all dish ourselves up, and begin eating in silence. The quiet begins to unnerve me. I expected that Elder C. would take the lead, but he makes no move to. So I try to think of the most natural question to begin a discussion with a prince: “So…., do you have any palaces?”
He begins listing off locations of all his palaces: “I have a palace in South Africa, I have a palace in Maylasia, I have one in Switzerland…”
I continue: “Those are a lot of palaces! Do you have a large family?”
The prince answered enthusiastically: “I have 49 children and 6 wives! But I am looking for a seventh. Can you help me find another?”
I start to turn red at the way this line of questioning ended. He must know a little about the Church’s former practice of polygamy from the 19th century. I tried to explain, without getting thrown in prison, “Well, you see, I wouldn’t be able to, because we don’t do that anymore–”
“Elder, do you know what today is?”
“It’s April 1st!” I answered. Realizing a way out of the awkward questioning, I try to bring up the American holiday: “In America, we have a holiday called April Fools Day.”
“We have it here too!”
As it happens, the prince was just a brother from the local branch, or congregation. He wasn’t even from Africa; he was actually from India, and had grown up in Jamaica. My companion had planned out the elaborate scheme with him in the long-standing tradition of scaring the heck of your golden. It worked!