Unlike the opening number of the musical, The Book of Mormon, my first two Elders didn’t ring the doorbell. Rather, I was outside chasing down our dog after coming home from visiting my parents. The two men were walking past the foot of my driveway when they spotted me.
I was the one to wave at them and invite them into my home. I’m not really sure why I did it, to be honest. It might have been because when they got closer, I realized they weren’t men, or at least, were barely past the age of eighteen. Standing in my driveway, holding my dog, I was looking at boys the exact same age as the ones I had just finished mentoring in my last year as a guidance counselor. They still had acne, and while they carried themselves with confidence, they had the residual timidity that clings to sheltered boys when talking with an unknown female.
I don’t think they realized what they were walking into when they began talking with me, and I know that I had no concept of how extensive, challenging, and thought-provoking our conversations about God, faith, and grace would become. From my point of view, I had two boys, who in any other circumstance, would be in college, studying for mid-terms, and dreaming of spring break. Instead, they were dressed in uncomfortable uniforms, walking miles upon miles in the humid Bible belt, and talking to strangers about their faith. From their point of view? I was a potential convert.
Soon they were sitting straight-backed, hands folded, on my living room couch, their knapsacks placed at their feet. I was perusing my fridge for something to offer them to drink when I quickly realized that all I had was sweet tea. Shutting the door, I offered them tap water, knowing they wouldn’t accept anything but that or lemonade.
I had forgotten that small tidbit until just that moment. I remember asking my mother, years ago, why there was only water and lemonade at a wedding reception for a Mormon family member. Mormons don’t believe in drinking most hot drinks, especially tea or coffee (some say it can be tied back to the Mormon pioneers moving from Illinois to Utah; among other reasons, it’s hard to grow coffee and tea in that climate, so it was one of many ways to separate themselves and form a distinct religious identity. That, and it’s one less thing to pack in the wagon).
They kindly accepted the ice water and I settled on the chair to talk. It took three tries, but they eventually told me their first names. I told them that I simply wasn’t going to remember all the titles and such and they might as well give me their first names. Mormon missionaries will introduce you as “Elder (Last Name)”, and won’t give you their first names unless pressed (at least in the five I’ve had in my home so far). The title of Elder is used by LDS when a male is in ministry full-time. Since their church doesn’t have vocational ministers, if you come across someone who introduces themselves as “Elder ____”, they’re either a missionary or a top-tier Apostle (who’s over the entire church).
If you’ve ever had a Mormon missionary in your home, quickly find that they are more than willing to talk about you, your family, and your background. Family is at the heart of the Mormon religion- God is referred to as Heavenly Father, and the goal of Mormonism is to maintain the family unit in the afterlife. Spouses who are sealed in the temple are considered eternally bound to one another; their family unit will remain intact (and even grow) when they reach the Celestial kingdom. In fact, only those who are married and sealed are able to reach the highest level of heaven and create spirit children (reference verse: Doctrines and Covenants (D & C) 131:1-4).
Missionaries use the family as a jumping off point for the presentation of their gospel. I saw it coming- they began to reach for their pamphlets- and I quickly turned the conversation to learn more about them. I was finally able to dust off some of the skills I had acquired from years of guidance counseling. I could talk with a sleepy, bored, uninterested teenager about their career goals and manage to get enough information out of the grunts and the nods to give them a modicum of guidance on scholarships and majors. Talking with two incredibly polite, articulate Mormons? Piece of cake.
It was with my guidance counselor mindset that I began learning more about the two young men. Neither were from the south- both were from the pacific northwest. They were overwhelmed by the humidity and pleasantly surprised by the hospitality. However, the kindness of strangers rarely went past the front door.
They were both eighteen years old, and were in the sixth month of their two-year mission. Neither had seen their parents since the beginning of training; they won’t see them in person until the mission is over. They’re allowed short phone calls home each Sunday, and are allowed to video-chat with their family on Christmas Day and Mother’s Day for 45 minutes. Otherwise, all communication is through email or letters.
Missionaries are required to travel in pairs. They use the instance in Mark 6:7 where Jesus sent out the apostles as a guide. It’s also for safety and accountability reasons. From my readings of the 2006 missionary handbook , the only times they are allowed to be alone is in the bathroom, while meeting with church authorities, or when they are swapping out ministry partners. They are required to wake up and go to bed at the same time. My first pair of missionaries had met at the beginning of their assignment to the area. I can only imagine what it would be like to live in such close quarters with a complete stranger!
Becoming a missionary is a rite of passage in the Mormon church. It’s considered a “priesthood duty” for young men to commit two years of their life to full time ministry after the age of 18. Women are allowed to serve as missionaries, but it’s not emphasized like it is for men. After training in Utah, men are given their calling and immediately travel to their mission field- it can be anywhere in the world.
Given their breadth of places they could be sent, there are physical requirements for missionaries- prior to signing up, and while they’re on the mission field. According to the LDS website, missionaries are required to be able to walk 6 miles per day and bike 12 miles per day. One handbook I came across forbade missionaries to play basketball while on mission, in hope of preventing any injury that would keep them from their duties. I asked the boys how they were able to walk and bike in the heat of the summer, and also given how spaced out their territory was. One of them owned a small sedan that they were able to drive judiciously- more specifically, they were not allowed to put more than 1,000 miles on the odometer each month.
Missionaries are expected to support themselves from their savings and family donations throughout their time in service. The boys told me that they lived off $150/month. The majority of their meals came from church members who would have them over for dinner several times a week; they would take the leftovers home and eat those for lunch.
The daily schedule of a missionary is set—in fact, you can find it posted online. Rise at 6:30 am, exercise (at least 30 minutes), and pray. Thirty minutes for breakfast and then an hour for individual study, followed by companion study and discussion with their partner. Proselytizing begins at 10 am and ends around 9 pm, with breaks for lunch and dinner as needed. Bedtime is at 10 pm and the cycle begins again, unless it’s Sunday or Monday evening.
Sacrament meetings are at the local stake (church) on Sunday mornings. Since there are no full-time ministers for each church, a member is called (ahead of time) to give a sermon. Once a month, the ward (congregation) fasts and gives spontaneous testimonies. In addition to the large group meetings, Sunday School is divided by age. After Sunday School, the members are divided by gender for either priesthood meetings or Relief Society (women’s group), and the children go to Primary. In all, it’s a three-hour event each week. Monday evenings are dedicated to family study at their homes.
When the boys were explaining this, I asked how many people were part of local branch. To my surprise, they said there is a large group of approximately 120 Mormons about 6 miles outside of town. Turns out that the forefathers of this group were part of the first group of Mormons, and took their families out to Utah. They didn’t enjoy living in that area of the country, so they came back. They were fruitful and multiplied and now have a very strong ward, especially given the location.
It took about an hour for them to give their background and how their day to day lives operated. They also told me quite a bit about their families and personal lives, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to broadcast that on a blog. When they realized how much time had passed, they offered me a pamphlet and asked if they could come visit again.
I knew that they wanted to talk about religion when they came back, and I really didn’t want to do that. I wasn’t sure if I was prepared to go toe-to-toe with a Mormon missionary and debate the way to eternal life. It had been years since I had shared the gospel with someone. While it’s something that I know in the depths of my being, verbalizing it can be hard. It’s scary. And if I mess it up, these guys would poke holes in whatever I said.
So while I was unsure if I would ever lay out the gospel to them, I wanted to at least demonstrate it while they were in my home. I wanted them to see that I cared about them as people; that they each had their own story and life experiences that shaped the decision they made to become a missionary; and that I would treat them with dignity and respect, regardless of our differing religious views.
As my mind was crafting a kind way of saying no, my mouth said, “Sure thing! How about next Tuesday?”