Joanna Brooks wrote a very good article for the on-line magazine Religion Dispatch. The article is titled Where are the Mormon "Nuns on the Bus?" The point of the article, to me, is about how other faith-based organizations and churches view our charitable work. The iconic nun-in-the-working-class-or-poverty-stricken neighborhood is very much associated with Catholicism. The preacher marching with his parishioners for Civil Rights became a symbol for the Southern Baptist churches. And though the image has received unfortunate taint in recent years, many Catholics will gladly remember a kind priest who ran the boys' club that kept many wayward youth off the streets.
But the Mormon icon in the same strain is the missionary. Suited and clean cut. In a world of waning formality, even at Church, the conservative dark suit is seen as attire of bankers and businessmen. The broadest public faces of our Church are little Mitt-Romney's-in-training. Or, Brooks argues, so it seems to people who don't really know all that we are about.
The title of her article made me laugh. On my mission, my companions and I were often mistaken for nuns, particularly on days when we dressed conservatively. We didn't always, of course (even before the "new" sister-clothing guidelines sisters pretty much did as they pleased), but I did have this one particularly plain and serviceable (read: ugly) navy blue skirt that I often paired with a very unfortunate white polyester blouse. And with the "Sister" title on the name tag . . . well, you can hardly blame the vaguely religious Aussies for assuming things.
But I remember one day that I was the nun on the bus. And I remember how happy and humbled I felt that day. And I felt the barest amount of understanding (and envy?) for the life chosen by such a one as Mother Teresa.
It wasn't actually a bus, it was a train. And it was a very full train. So full in fact that many people were standing in the spaces in the ends of the compartments where people get on and off. We usually rode there because we often took our bikes on the trains. But that particular day, a woman was riding in the end compartment, slumped against the wall and exhausted. I have no idea why she looked so haggard. She probably wasn't any older than my 21 years at the time. A young and rambunctious child was with her, and he was getting many looks from the other passengers, who regarded the mother with judgmental eyes as well. It was clear from just a couple of minutes, however, that mothering (not to mention a host of other things) was just beyond her that day.
I wasn't really that great with young kids then, having had little practice, but I could see that help was needed. I sat on the floor of the train in the tiny space available, pulled out my scripture marking pencils and a scrap of paper and started drawing pictures for the little man and listening to him chatter. He sat down near me and stayed away from the other passengers. His mother mouthed the word "thank you" and leaned her head back and closed her eyes.
The moment was brief, maybe ten minutes, but I understood a real lesson there. I might have stood and looked down at her on the floor and wondered what kind of mother she was, and in times before and times since that has been my mindset. But in that moment, I understood about serving with no other reason than love. I didn't try to convert or preach. I didn't pass along contact information or hope to get praise. I was just the nun on the bus, and All I represented was, for a shining moment, a million times more important than my individual self. No surname or even Church was needed, the only two names on the tag of any significance were "Sister" and "Christ."