Young Mormons spread the faith

The Argus/July 4, 2004
By Melissa Evans

Fremont -- Ensions were high when Tyler Westover's letter came last month.

Raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Washington High School graduate had been preparing for most of his 19 years to share his faith with the world.

But holding that piece of paper, he said, was a different story.

"You are hereby called to serve for the church," the letter said.

Sent from Salt Lake City, where the Mormon church is based, the letter went on to list his community service assignment for the next two years: Lima, Peru.

"Not many people get to go to Peru," Westover said.

"I get to live there for two years. It's not something I'd want to pass up."

Roughly 60,000 Mormon youths, most of them men, go through the same anxiety each year when they decide to accept the "call" for a mission. It is a highly encouraged rite of passage that church leaders say is as much about proselytizing as it is about building character.

Church officials estimate thousands of people are converted each year to the faith through the work of missionaries, who walk, ride buses or pedal bicycles in their trademark white dress shirts and ties through designated territories here in the United States as well as in 165 countries across the globe.

They live by extremely disciplined schedules, rising at 6 a.m. to study scripture, then immersing themselves in the community through volunteer work or other community activities.

Their goal simply is to share their faith.

"They learn how to relate to people how to explain religious concepts to them," said Hank Tillman, a Fremont Mormon who has one son away on a mission and two sons who have already completed their assignments.

"People either feel it or they don't. You can't really talk them into something," he said.

There are roughly 12 million Mormons worldwide, church officials say.

The religion is based on revelations that a prophet named Joseph Smith said were brought to him in the 1820s by heavenly messengers.

Followers believe the Christian faith as Jesus Christ intended was abandoned and corrupted after Biblical times.

The church, they believe, later was restored to earth in its pure form.

Missionaries undergo several weeks of training before they leave to learn how to communicate their beliefs to others.

Winning coverts is the obvious goal, but church members say missions have a way of deepening the faith of the missionaries themselves.

"They grow from being homesick to a (place) where their faith grows," said Wendy Clark, a Fremont resident who spent three years overseeing a mission in Spain with her husband, David.

"It's really amazing to watch."

Depending on the assignment, the youths also receive language and cultural training before they are paired with another "elder," as missionaries are called in the church.

They live in apartments or rented housing, and are supervised and cared for by a missionary team such as the Clarks, who returned from their assignment a year ago.

Missionaries are responsible for their own travel and living expenses, and can not work for money while away.

Fremont resident Adam McDaniel, 18, has been saving for several years in anticipation of his mission.

He expects to leave later this year, after he turns 19, the required age for men. Women must be at least 21.

Like many missionaries, it will be the first time McDaniel is away from home.

He will be allowed only two phone calls home each year, on Mother's Day and Christmas.

"I'm more excited than nervous," he said.

"I'll go wherever they send me."

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