On a mission

The News and Advance/January 22, 2005
By Beth Rodriguez

The four young men in dark suits are polite and well-mannered, offering warm handshakes and smiles in greeting. They could be young professionals, maybe working in a bank or law office.

But they're not.

Justin Sorensen, Ryan Gelvin, Ben Douglass and Clint Child are missionaries with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

According to Phillip Bosen, mission leader for the local ward, or congregation, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Lynchburg area usually has 20 Mormon missionaries proselytizing in and around the city over the course of a year. The majority of the missionaries come from the western United States, where the LDS population is more dense, and stay about two years.

Bosen said the majority of missionaries are young men. Women in the Mormon church must be at least 21 before they can go on mission, and many are married or busy with jobs by that age, Bosen explained.

Bosen himself served as a missionary in Montana, and describes the time as "a sobering experience" that helped him to mature.

Mormon missionaries in the Lynchburg area work through the mission headquartered in Charleston, W.Va. Missionaries will spend three to four months in one city or county before moving on to a different area in the region to continue their work. While in the Lynchburg area, the missionaries live in apartments maintained by the local Mormon church. The young men receive money for rent and other living expenses from a general missionary fund. Douglass explained that they each pay $400 a month into the fund, which is redistributed to missionaries around the world based on local cost of living.

Child and Douglass are currently working in Lynchburg, while Sorensen and Gelvin focus their efforts on the surrounding counties. The four range in age from 19 to 21 and hail from Arizona, Wyoming and Idaho.

Although older missionaries might have more religious experience to draw on, the young men believe their devotion and enthusiasm and devotion make up for their relative youth.

"This is probably the one time in our life when we can devote everything - all of our time, energy, strength - to this," explained Gelvin.

The devotion is total, and impressive at an age when many of their peers are devoted to drinking and partying. For the length of their mission, dating, movies and television are all verboten, and contact with family and friends from home is limited to letters, e-mails and twice-yearly phone calls. While such stringency might be difficult for some, these are sacrifices the young men are happy to make.

"We put aside the worries of the world to focus on something important - sharing the gospel," explained Douglass.

"God has helped me through a lot of difficult problems," said Child. Missionary work is about "sharing the love God has for us."

The young men must dress in suits and ties every day, attire that frequently draws attention, "especially when we're riding our bikes," said Douglass, with a laugh.

Sometimes the formal dress is a conversation starter. Recently at the Texas Inn restaurant, "an older couple started asking questions about what we do," said Gelvin. While a brief encounter rarely elicits a religious awakening, "it does provide an opening (and) & maybe a seed was planted there."

Restaurant encounters aside, they frequently share the gospel by working with members of the community, said Gelvin.

They recently organized a stop-smoking workshop, and frequently volunteer at Daily Bread. Within the congregation, "they work with less active members and help with general ministry," said mission leader Bosen.

In their missionary work, the four have found that many people have misconceptions about Mormon beliefs.

Correcting the misinformation "is one of our jobs," said Gelvin. The "Latter-Day Saints" part of the denomination's name often confuses people.

"Jesus Christ is the center of all our teachings," explained Gelvin. "Where the church differs -very much so - from mainstream Christianity, is that we believe God has continued to call prophets and apostles to this day, and it is through these apostles and prophets that we receive continuing revelation."

They also use the Book of Mormon, a religious text "written by ancient prophets, just like the Bible was, except in a different time period and on the American continent."

People's receptivity to their message varies, said Child. While smaller communities in West Virginia were more interested in hearing about the Mormon faith, "people around here basically have their religion and don't want to change. We respect that."

"Success (as a missionary) is not measured by conversion rate but by the conversion of self," into a better and more virtuous person, explained Gelvin.

Although they do go door-to-door sometimes in their efforts to bring new people to the Mormon church, they don't expect instantaneous conversions. A conversion is more likely when "you build relationships," explained Sorensen.

During the time spent in volunteer work, serving at soup kitchens or teaching English to immigrants, "these people become friends," added Gelvin. "It's not a stranger trying to convert a stranger & usually the most successful conversions evolve gradually."

"Converts can come from any walk of life" or religious background, said Douglass.

"Conversion is based on where they're at spiritually. We try to just establish a foundation of common beliefs and work off that."

The missionaries benefit almost as much from their work as the people they serve. Gelvin and Douglass are both trained to work with Spanish-speaking populations and say the exposure to people of different cultural backgrounds has helped them "grow tremendously."

The young men "learn to be very outgoing and more articulate," said mission leader Bosen, and the strengthened belief in their faith "provides a foundation for the rest of your life," said Sorensen.

Future plans for all four include enrolling in or returning to college. Sorensen is interested in architecture and Gelvin wants to pursue aerospace engineering, while Child and Douglass are still deciding which fields to pursue.

Each says he will have mixed feelings when his mission comes to an end, because they will miss the friendships they have made here. Child says he plans to come back and visit at some point, to show his family where he lived and worked.

They know their normal lives "will be there when we get back," said Douglass, but "nothing compares to being on mission," Sorensen concluded.

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