Mormon missionaries face days of austerity, rejection

The Miami Herald/May 11, 2004
By Roberto Santiago

Hooters and Starbucks would fold like the Soviet Union if every 19- to 26-year-old man became a Mormon missionary.

These clean-cut young men don't drink, smoke, dance, listen to hip-hop, sip coffee or tea, or even hang at the beach. All are considered distractions from the singular mission of finding new members.

Male missionaries -- called Elders -- work six days a week, 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., struggling to bring converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The message must be getting through. Miami-Dade had 7,535 Mormons in 2003, up from 2,478 in 1990, according to the church, while the the number in Broward has jumped from 3,048 to 4,236.

Most new members in South Florida are working-class Hispanics, Caribbean blacks, and African Americans, said South Florida Mission President Dr. Wynn H. Hemmert.

While missionary service is not mandatory, it is highly encouraged, elders say.

''It is a hard, tough, disciplined life,'' said Elder Joshua Wood, 21, of Idaho Falls, who is a month away from completing his two-year, unpaid term as a missionary covering Hollywood, Hallandale Beach, and Pembroke Park.

''It can be very lonely. There is plenty of daily rejection and frustration,'' Wood said.

Elder Andrew Swindle, 20, who during the past 16 months has covered West Miami, Coral Gables, and portions of Little Havana for the Church, agreed.

''We can only speak to our parents twice a year -- on Mother's Day and on Christmas,'' said the Salt Lake City native, who looked forward to his three-hour call to Mom on Sunday. ``But it is very satisfying work when you see people that you brought to the church living lives as Christ intends us to live.''

100 a Month

Hemmert, a physician who oversees the 180 missionaries who work in Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Monroe, and the Bahamas, said their goal is to baptize 100 new South Florida members every month.

Currently, there are 56 missionaries working throughout Broward and 93 throughout Miami-Dade.

Most are 19 or 20 years old.

The men are easily identifiable by their classic '50s-era suburban looks: white short-sleeved shirts, ties, crew cuts, dark pants and shoes, and black name plates over their shirt pockets.

They carry knapsacks, ride Trek bikes or drive Ford Tauruses or Toyota Corollas.

Male missionaries travel in pairs. To avoid making anyone feel uncomfortable, they will not enter a home unless the woman inside has a male companion present.

Spartan Digs

They live in apartments provided and paid for by the church. Incidental costs like food and laundry are covered by a monthly church stipend.

The decor of a Mormon missionary bachelor pad would not make the pages of Esquire: Mismatched thrift store furniture and a kitchen filled with economy-size boxes of cold cereal, oatmeal, pasta, and peanut butter. No TV. No computers.

And the only thing close to alcohol in the apartment is economy-size bottles of Listerine.

Yes, the young men have pin-ups on the walls, but they are of Jesus Christ, not Britney Spears.

Their only day off is Monday -- but that is usually reserved for doing laundry or food shopping. They can play basketball, soccer, tennis, or work out. But they cannot take a dip in the ocean or a pool.

''The closest we can get to the beach is where the sand begins,'' Wood said.

Rejection Blues

But the toughest job of all is working all day facing rejection from people they try to introduce to the church.

''Nobody's home!'' a voice answered from one of the many doors they knocked on.

The missionaries say rejections like that are funny. What isn't funny is being yelled at, cursed at, spit at, having doors slammed in their faces, and even having people claim they were going to look for their gun.

''All you can do is leave and continue elsewhere,'' said Elder Leobardo Montero, 19, of Sonora, Mexico, a missionary who has worked in North Miami for a year with Swindle.

Huge Obstacles

But there are some challenges even Mormon missionaries won't tackle. As evidenced when Montero and Swindle walked past two drag queens wearing giant orange Afro wigs on Calle Ocho.

''Too many obstacles to overcome,'' said Montero, who explained that first the drag queens would have to give up homosexuality, if indeed they were homosexuals, and cross-dressing -- both prohibited by the church -- even before they began to discuss the Book of Mormon.

Even for those who request Mormon literature after answering ads on TV -- the biggest stumbling block remains accepting The Book of Mormon, the foundation of the church.

Gospel Truth?

The Book of Mormon -- which is not considered true scripture by Catholic and Protestant biblical scholars -- is a sequel to the New Testament. It chronicles the life of Jesus Christ in North America, following His resurrection in Jerusalem.

Mormons say that a Palmyra, N.Y., teen named Joseph Smith founded the church in 1838, shortly after unearthing 10 gold plates he later translated into The Book of Mormon.

''I prayed to God and I accepted the Book of Mormon as being the true word of God,'' said Francisco Knight, 28, a construction site supervisor who credits the church for making him a happy, healthy, successful person.

But others, like Alexia Paul, 25, of Hollywood, struggle to accept The Book of Mormon as gospel truth.

During an early afternoon lesson with Hollywood missionaries Wood and Lunt at her home, she expressed skepticism and doubted she would be baptized come May 23.

''I will have to pray to decide if baptism is the right thing to do,'' said Paul, who had never heard of The Book of Mormon until she met Wood and Lunt.

Wood agreed, saying only through prayer will she know if The Book of Mormon is true scripture.

He quoted Hebrews 11:1: ''Faith is the conviction -- or better, the evidence -- of things not seen,'' he said.

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