Gracious Ruin

On the cover of the book my parents bought, there’s a bearded man holding a small Chihuahua. He looks over a vast wasteland covered in the broken shards of people’s lives, including his own. The trailer park resembles nothing like a home. I remember studying this photo more than any other in the book when I was young. It was if I could feel his pain. I wanted to feel his pain—like I could somehow understand what it was like to be that broken.

Now, I still see a sadness within his eyes that is indescribable, yet there’s something more there, too. Something like strength, or hope.

I try to imagine what that world must have been like a week earlier. The bustling neighborhoods of Southern Miami. People going about their day as if it were any other, unknowing of what power neared them—what insurmountable terror headed their way. They could not know what pain they were about to experience. If it could have been anticipated, maybe they could have avoided the storm.

I suppose there’s an obvious answer to that question. Of course they would have avoided the storm. A hurricane destroys everything it touches. When it reaches Category 5, it creates catastrophic winds greater than 155 miles per hour. It can raise the height of the ocean by over thirty feet. It can wipe out anything we try to protect ourselves with. Of course people would avoid such a thing.

Yet, as I flip through pictures of Hurricane Andrew’s aftermath, I find several that show people helping each other. A girl handing out bags of potato chips. An army doctor holding an older woman, smiling down at her. Children playing together in a space that looks like it may have been a house. A small girl wrapping her arms around another—perhaps strangers, but brought together through strife. They united because of the storm.


“I’m starting to think about hurting myself,” I told my mission president, the man in charge of my area—the man who could send me home. He sat behind a wide, old mahogany desk. Scattered across the surface lay little trinkets: a set of crystal birds, a few picture frames turned away from me, old and worn out scriptures.

“Hurting yourself how?” His eyes regarded me softly.

“Stepping in front of a car. Not to die, just to injure myself.” I peered down, shifting my feet around the legs of my chair.

“Why would you want to hurt yourself?”

“I just need a second to figure things out,” I told him. “I need a break. I need to go home. I don’t know why I’m here.”

“Things sort themselves out when you dive into the work,” he told me as if the answer were simple. As if I should have figured it out for myself. “You’ll feel better once you do.”

I was three months into my mission—three months out of the two years I would be spending away from home. I wasn’t even a quarter of the way through, and I had no idea how to make it through the rest. Things hadn’t gotten better. The urge to hurt myself had only grown since that first week. I’d finally summoned enough courage to call my mission president about it.

Now, he sat there, his brow furrowed in concentration. “How about you stay at the mission home for a week,” he told me. “You can ponder on all of this and see how you feel then. Maybe that will give you the time you need. I really feel like you want to be here.”

Not knowing how else to respond, I agreed. After our conversation, I spent days reading scriptures and studying doctrines. I sat for hours in a white-walled study with two other missionaries, silently reaching deep within to find what was wrong with me.

With a yellow highlighter, I marked every word Jesus Christ spoke in the Bible. I don’t know what I was searching for specifically. Maybe some sort of answer as to why I couldn’t just be happy or a phrase that would tell me what to do next. Maybe even just one shred of proof that could tell me I was doing the right thing. I read through the entire book, and I was left feeling more hopeless than before—an ocean of doubt rising within me as I desperately tried to keep my head above it.

After a week, my mission president called me into his office again. He was in charge, and I knew he could send me home if I just convinced him I needed it. More than ever, I knew I couldn’t last two years out there. I wished I had never gone to Switzerland. Not like that.

After a vague conversation filled with many I don’t know’s from me, my mission president shook his head and said, “What is this really about, Elder Romriell?”

I paused. I had realized over that week in the mission home what I needed to say to be sent back. I didn’t actually believe it was truth, but if he could believe, maybe he would send me home. It would be the first time I said anything about it to anyone.

“I’m having homosexual feelings,” I whisper.

He hesitates.

“What kind of feelings?”

“I’m attracted to men.”

“And when did you start having these feelings?”

“Since as long as I can remember.”

He stared at me, dug through me. Maybe, like me, he also tried to recognize a piece of me still fit for God—a piece that may have been buried deep, a piece I had been struggling to unearth.

“As I said before,” he said, though more soft this time, “I think you should stay. I think you can work through this.”

He paused again.

“But if you need to go home, I will send you back. It’s your choice.”