Crapping My Sacred Underwear
Most adult Mormons who have been deemed worthy to enter the temple wear sacred underwear called “garments”: white, two-piece fabric hugging the body from mid-arm to kneecaps. (Imagine a white fitted t-shirt and cycling shorts.) The garments represent the coat of skins God gave Adam and Eve after they ate the forbidden fruit and realized they were naked. Mormons wear the garments day and night, removing them only for bathing, exercise, or sex.
Urban legends run through Mormon circles about the faithful who were dramatically saved by the holy fabric, by deflecting a bullet or shielding the skin from raging fire. I have the opposite tale: when I was a 19-year-old Mormon missionary in Peru, I crapped my sacred garments.
It was early one morning in 1997. My companion, Elder Rosado, and I left our rented room earlier than usual because we had a teaching appointment later that night and needed to pick up a VCR from the sister missionaries across town. Watching videos with “investigators” was usually less tedious than reciting memorized lessons about church founder “José” Smith.
The morning sun was already heating up the streets. We lived in a coastal city called Paita, a port just a few hours away from the Ecuador border. According to the Internet, Paita is famous for being the home of the lover of revolutionary hero Simón Bolívar, and the place where Humphrey Bogart’s character flees after escaping Alcatraz in Dark Passage.
We trudged down the dirt roads, which had been packed hard by housewives splashing buckets of water outside their doors to keep down the dust. It didn’t take long to work up a sweat; Besides protecting us from fires and bullets and women intent on robbing us of our innocence, the sacred garments were great for trapping body heat.
That’s not to say I found the garments oppressive or burdensome. Rather, wearing the garments was a sacred privilege, a symbol of how the Lord literally covered the asses of his children, even after they screwed up—Holy armor shielding weak flesh. To obtain the garments, Mormons must first live up to the church’s strict moral, spiritual, and dietary guidelines, and then make solemn covenants in the secret temple ceremonies. Every morning when I put on the garments, I had a daily reminder of the solemn oaths I made in the temple and the eternal promises awaiting me if I lived up to them.
I got sick a lot during the first few months in Peru. Even though I took precautions against illness—washing hands before meals, avoiding street food, shaving with bottled water—my stomach took a while to toughen up. Part of it was merely adjusting to new, exciting foods like ceviche or chicken feet. Other times, I had stomach problems after the families we visited offered sketchy bits of fish that had been sitting on their stove for God knows how long. Much like the family we had visited the night before.
I told Rosado I needed to get to a bathroom. He sneered. Now, Elder?
I hated Rosado. (Not his real name.) I hated the way he dragged out our teaching lessons with interminable metaphors. I hated his snide mannerisms, and his glasses that reminded me of my hyper-religious dad. I hated the CD of pan-flute pop hits he played whenever we were in our room. I hated how readily he accepted offers to eat sketchy fish dinners from people we barely knew.
Yes, I told him, we need to get back to our room, now. There were no public restrooms in that part of the city. Bathrooms in people’s homes, where running water was sporadic, were often not fit for company—not that we knew anyone in the immediate area, anyway. The sisters’ room was too far away. Rosebud clenched, I turned around and hurried towards home, sweat covering my body.
I did a lot of praying during my mission years. Usually the prayers were for investigators to get baptized, or for my companion to stop being a jerk. But one of the most fervent, heartfelt, desperate prayers I ever prayed was that I would get back home before soiling myself. Keeping up His record, God would not answer this prayer, either.
After a couple of grueling minutes, I heard the what could have been my salvation: a sputtering mototaxi —what would result if a motorcycle, tricycle, and a love seat had a hot, oily threesome—coming up the road. Besides being one of the cheapest ways to get around town, they were excellent at breaking down, running out of gas, throwing a chain, or tipping over, but for the moment, it was the best way to get back to our room. But by the time I waved down the moto, it was too late: my sacred garments were not longer completely white.
The moto bumped and bounced down the uneven road, past scores of toilets, to our cockroach-infested room. I sat on the edge of the seat with my weight shifted to the edge of one thigh, next to Rosado. I felt awful. God had given me a gift, and I shat all over it.
We arrived to the front door of our building, and I left my companion to scurry into our bathroom, a dark, damp, doorless corridor yanked out of a Rob Zombie film. I heard him close the front door to our room. I stripped down and showered, scooping buckets of cold water out of a 20-gallon trash container. The pan-flute version of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” played from the bedroom. As much as I hated Elder Rosado, I knew he would never tell anyone about my accident. And as far as I knew, there were no ecclesiastical consequences for soiling the sacred garments. In the worthiness interviews necessary to enter the temple, church leaders merely ask if members wear the garment “in accordance with the covenant you made in the temple.” Though the church condemns caffeine, masturbation, R-rated movies, impure thoughts, or criticizing church leaders, unintentionally soiling the garments is not on God’s no-no list. Mormons get pimples and periods and sweat stains and food poisoning; sooner or later, the garments get stained.
Now cleaned up, I slipped on a fresh pair of garments. Adam and Eve may have had just one coat of skins, but at least a modern God provided multiple pairs of clean underpants.