By Katherine Leahey
You may wonder how people make a living in the middle of nowhere, Texas. One answer is logging. Where I lived, when I was doing missionary work in east Texas, two towns took their name from the business—Woodville, Lumberton. A two-lane highway was our only connection to the outside world, and it was a sleepy one, but even on quiet days, you were apt to see a logging truck or two. We learned to keep our distance from those trucks because debris sometimes flew off them. Once a tiny pebble crashed into our windshield, making a terrifying sound and leaving a crack.
Logging is dangerous, sweaty work, and I never saw it done up close, but I did meet a logging family once, in a thickly wooded part of town, adjacent to an area that a lumber company was messily chopping down. I confess I liked knocking on doors in the most sparsely populated parts of town: I liked the long walks between houses, the longer recovery time between rejections. Sister Taylor was my companion that day. We were tracting on my favorite kind of street: thousands of trees and only a few houses, set far back from the road. We walked up one long dirt driveway and found four little houses in a jagged clearing, a miniature neighborhood with the feel of a strange wasteland. The houses were neat and appeared newly built, but they sat on bare, uneven dirt. No effort had been made to smooth the dirt, or plant grass, or make the clearing look inviting for people to live in. By the time we got to the first door, our shoes were caked with dirt.
A black-haired woman answered to our knock. No hablo Ingles, she said sadly. We didn’t speak Spanish, so we left. Some weeks later, however, I was assigned two Spanish-speaking companions. Sister Young and Sister Nelson were used to working the vibrant immigrant neighborhoods of Houston, and they begged me to take them to someone who spoke Spanish. The request seemed naïve in a remote town like Silsbee, where the only linguistic variation was in the strength of the southern twang. But after some careful thought, I remembered the sad-faced woman Sister Taylor and I had met.
Her name was Rosa, as I later learned. I had no particular hope , taking my new companions to her. I saw the visit as only a bit of variety, a chance to be turned away in Spanish instead of English. But from the moment we knocked on the door, the encounter had a seamless magic to it. The woman with long black hair answered the door, two toddler girls clinging to her legs, and she laughed when Sister Young and Sister Nelson introduced themselves in Spanish. I couldn’t understand anything beyond the smiles and the warm tones in everyone’s voices—Ella no habla espanol, Sister Young explained apologetically on my behalf—but I could sense wonderment in the woman’s eyes. Here in Silsbee, Texas, three white girls had come to her door unannounced and two of them addressed her in Spanish. Within a few minutes, we were inside the house, sitting at the kitchen table while Rosa fiddled with the stove.
“She’s cooking lunch for us,” Sister Young told me happily. That was a good sign.
The house, a modest four-room place, was neat and strange. The linoleum floors and vinyl walls gave it a cheap, industrial feel, but some effort had been made to personalize the space. A crucifix and a picture of the Virgen de Guadalupe adorned one wall. A few children’s toys were strewn about the room. A dining table had a brightly-embroidered table cloth covered by a sheet of clear plastic, which I later learned was a signature feature of Central American immigrant homes.
Rosa’s two daughters toddled about the room while the Spanish-speaking adults talked, and I listened dumbly. The older child wore thick glasses, and appeared to have a disability of some sort. She was a cheerful, adorable toddler, given to frequent fits of giggling, but she never spoke, and one of her eyes wandered. Her limitations were made more poignant by her younger sister, who was barely out of babyhood but seemed further along developmentally.
Nothing was expected of me; I’d been studying Spanish for only two weeks, and my earnest efforts had yielded no comprehension yet. My complete inability to participate both relieved and disconcerted me. A break from the pressure and tedium of our salesmanship was nice, but I felt out of place and handicapped, an awkward guest. Rosa’s eyes occasionally met mine and I smiled at her, trying to convey with my gaze alone the thousand things I was feeling: gratitude to be in her house, sympathy for what looked like a difficult life, hope that she would be interested in the gospel.
I knew the appointment was going well because my companions got out their visual aids and their scriptures. I also knew it was going well because of the way Rosa cooked for us as she listened. She heated the tortillas directly on one burner, flipping them with her bare fingertips, smiling. The other three burners were going, too, with rice, beans, and a chicken dish. I couldn’t remember anyone every making me such an elaborate, impromptu meal with such ease and enjoyment, and I felt particularly undeserving of the hospitality, as a stranger who could communicate only through smiles, like a doll. Within twenty minutes, Rosa had placed a heaping plate of food and a can of Coca-Cola in front of each of us. The food was wonderful—my first truly authentic Central American meal, better than you’d ever find in a restaurant—and by the end of it, I struggled to keep my eyes open. In part it was the heaviness of the food, in part the challenge of staying focused when you cannot understand a word of the conversation around you. After a while I made myself count things in the room to try to stay awake: the number of tiles on the floor, the number of panes in the windows. Even so, my eyelids kept drooping, and when Rosa noticed, she pointed at me and laughed. Ella esta dormiendo!
On the way home, Sister Nelson and Sister Young filled me in: Rosa seemed earnestly interested in the gospel, but she had a life full of difficulties that might present barriers to conversion. The house belonged to her husband’s boss. It was worker housing for the laborers who worked at his lumber company. Rosa and her husband and their daughters had one bedroom; two other loggers had the other rooms. Rosa cooked and cleaned for all of them. She didn’t mind, but they drank too much. It wasn’t good in front of the children.
Going to our church would be a problem, Rosa said, because the boss also provided a church for the workers and he expected them to attend it. We’d seen it up the road, a decrepit trailer with a sign that said Iglesia de Cristo, painted in messy letters. When we passed it earlier, I’d thought it was a sad-looking church, and a little poignant: the worshippers probably gathered there because an old, rusty trailer was all they could afford. But news of the trailer’s actual purpose and origins gave it a sinister feel. Not only was the boss making his employees attend a church, but the one he provided looked filthy and uncomfortable. The arrangement seemed feudal: a boss provided your home, your job, and your church, and you could lose it all if you didn’t worship the boss’s god. It was illegal certainly, but the employees were all undocumented immigrants, and the boss probably thought he was doing them a favor. I felt up in arms for this poor family. Even our own aggressive evangelism didn’t go that far. We should call the ACLU! But then, any sort of intervention might lead to more grievous problems: a lost job, a lost home, a hungry family, deportation. What could we really do?
Rosa said it was an improvement over picking grapes in California, which she had done before: her first American adventure. She was from Honduras, where she had left her two oldest children behind. She met her husband picking grapes in California. He was a nice man except when he drank. Which lately was a lot. Every night.
We visited Rosa most Thursdays after that, and she always had a delicious meal waiting for us. Mormon missionaries call anyone who might be considering conversion an “investigator”, and Rosa was the rare investigator who’d always done the reading we’d assigned and seemed eager to accept the carefully crafted commitments we asked of her: to pray daily to our Mormon god, to stop drinking coffee and tea, to ask God if she should be baptized. She was, in missionary parlance, an investigator who was progressing. But after four visits, our progress was side-lined by a new difficulty in Rosa’s life. Meeting us at the door, she told us that she hadn’t been able to make lunch for us that week. Her husband had crashed the car two weeks before, driving drunk, and there was no way for her to get to the grocery store. Someone had towed the car from the scene of the accident. Rosa didn’t know where the car was, or how to get it back, or whether it was even salvageable. She prayed they would get it back because they couldn’t afford a new one, and without it, she would be stranded in her little house in the woods, five miles from anything resembling civilization.
The car crash provided an opening for us to help Rosa in a practical way. Sister Nelson called the police who referred her to the local towing company. We all listened in on her conversation with the towing company. It was depressing.
“You have the car? Can we come get it?”
“Not until you pay me $300 for storing it.”
“What! Three hundred dollars? Is that even legal?”
“Yep. Law says we can charge $13 a day for storing a car. It’s been almost three weeks. But that car is junk. She don’t want it back.”
“She wasn’t informed where it was! She doesn’t speak English!”
“Not my problem, ma’am. A notice was mailed to the car’s owner. Listen, I can sell it for scrap for $300. Why don’t you let me do that and I’ll forget about your bill?”
And that was how it went. The car was gone. Sister Nelson explained it all in Spanish, and Rosa shook her head stoically. It all felt so unfair. Despite our ability to negotiate with the English-speaking world, we could not help.
Rosa asked if we would adopt her daughters. I only learned about this later. I had no chance to discern from her tone whether she was serious, or just idly expressing desperation. The question might have been purely wistful, but I think she might have given her children to us if we had accepted them. Rosa doted on her daughters, but she also seemed to adore us and to trust us so completely that we couldn’t help but adore her back. I also guess her request came out of a special worry for Carmen, the older child, who was disabled in some undetermined way and needed resources her struggling parents could not provide.
Hermana Nelson and Hermana Young took this as a call for action. Hermana Nelson pointed out that Carmen was a U.S. citizen: she was born in California. She would be eligible for services of some kind, even though Rosa was undocumented. I didn’t know how Sister Nelson knew about this or knew what organization to look up, but within a couple of weeks, we had an appointment for Rosa at the Department of Social Services. The department was supposed to provide a translator, but in order to avoid any delays, Hermana Nelson decided to go with Rosa as her translator. We all drove to the appointment together. Hermana Young and I sat in the waiting room while Hermana Nelson went in with Rosa and the girls. Even though I couldn’t speak Spanish and was making no actual contribution to helping Rosa, I felt proud, sitting there in the waiting room: I felt my team was improving a life in a measurable way, and I rarely had that satisfaction as a missionary. I felt proud of Sister Nelson, our senior companion, who never wavered from this task, even though it wasn’t proselytizing, and service work like this was a gray area for us. The Mormon Church regarded service as a lesser form of work than proselytizing, and our mission president discouraged all but the least time-consuming forms of it. Converting a soul could change the eternal happiness of a person, he said, while practical service had only a temporary benefit. Instead of performing acts of service ourselves, we were advised to enlist local congregation members for investigators who needed some sort of help. That would be killing two birds with one stone, the mission president told us: we’d engage local Mormons in missionary work without cutting into our own proselytizing time.
When Rosa came out of the appointment, beaming, I felt elated. Carmen was eligible for occupational therapy and Medicaid, it turned out. She didn’t have a diagnosis for her condition, but she would get one, and depending on what it was, more resources might be available. Sister Nelson and Sister Young and I drove home, basking in a spiritual high. We had been profoundly useful to a struggling human being. I felt sad, though, that an outing so meaningful to me could be transgressive in the rigid life of a Mormon missionary. I wondered how we would frame this two-hour break from proselytizing to our district leader that night, when we called in the daily numbers. He would probably raise his eyebrows and ask: Couldn’t you have found a member to do that for you?
We did, in fact, convert Rosa, although that memory is far less sweet to me than the memory of her beaming smile at the Department of Social Services. I left Silsbee soon after and only learned the end of Rosa’s story from a letter Sister Nelson wrote to me. Rosa was baptized! she wrote. But the next sentence relayed tragic news: the day after the baptism, Rosa left her husband. She left Texas. Her husband had begun beating her, she couldn’t stay. She didn’t have enough money to return to Honduras but enough for bus tickets to Missouri, where her brother lived. She would stay with him until she could earn enough to get home. I imagined that Rosa’s brother, also a struggling immigrant, probably wasn’t much better off than she was. I wondered if she would be able to reconnect with a social worker in Missouri. I wondered if Carmen would get any medical help or occupational therapy.
When I think back to the short list of people I converted, I remember Rosa as the one most helped by her new affiliation with the Mormon church. Maybe it was her new faith in God that gave her the bravery and hope to leave an abusive relationship. Maybe she would take advantage of the powerful social capital of the church community when she moved to Missouri. If she stayed with the Mormon church, she would have a new safety net if she ever was hungry or homeless or friendless. She seemed close to those straits when she left. I don’t know what became of Rosa, but she haunts my memories. I wish her well. I wish I could have done more.
Katherine Leahey is a UX writer and content strategist based in San Francisco, California. Even after eight years on the west coast, she still accidentally refers to Boston as home. She’s working on a memoir about her time as a Mormon missionary in Houston, Texas.
Copyright 2017 Katherine Leahey. All Rights Reserved.