In the spring of 2002, as his friends were picking fall classes and preparing for the housing lottery, John Monahan, SEAS '07, was packing for Taiwan.
A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the 21-year-old sophomore took two years off after his first-year spring to proselytize in Asia. Back from the ranks of the 60,000 dark-suited and name-tagged Mormon missionaries serving throughout the world, Monahan returns to take up a newly active role in the rapidly expanding LDS Church.
"You have no idea how hard mission is," sophomore Josh Davis, CC '07, another returning missionary explains, "alone in a foreign City, a new language, day-in, day-out, being made fun of. Everything else that I am doing seems to pale in comparison."
From the work of missionaries like Davis and Monahan, the 200 year-old LDS Church has swelled to 12 million members - ranking among the world's fastest growing faiths. Judaism, a several-thousand-year-old religion, now claims the same number of believers.
"There is no doubt that the [LDS] Church is growing and is growing from the proselytizing zeal of its missionaries," Barnard Professor of Religion Randall Balmer explained. "[The program] was a strategy devised by [seminal early Mormon] Brigham Young to keep the children within the faith and as a means to keep Mormon adolescents and spread Mormonism around the world; it was a stroke of genius."
Consistent with this pattern, the two young men returned from their missions to resume active roles in their faith - participating in the young people's ward at the Mormon Temple in Lincoln Center and holding officer positions within Columbia's small Mormon student group, The Latter-Day Saints Students Association.
"A mission is as much for the sake of the missionary as it is for the Church," Balmer continued. Most Mormon missionaries are young men between the ages of 19 and 26. The missionaries and their families finance the common two-year right of passage for members of the Church.
"It's about how hard you worked, how much you learned, how much you changed," Davis said.
Both students are nonchalant about coming back after lengthy and unusual times away. "Most people are interested about why I left," Monahan said, "they have basically been curious and accepting ... [and] socially, I didn't really miss a beat."
"Of course, there are always people who don't understand why I would give up two years of my life, free time, money, and friends to go [on a mission]" Davis said. "Those people would need to look at the change in each person who [serves]."
Missions aside, the returning missionaries are differentiated from their peers by following well-known Mormon prohibitions. "No alcohol. No cigarettes. No sex," Davis jokes in discussing his decision to avoid college social mainstays. "That sets me apart and excludes me from social circles," he adds, "but there are many kids for whom that is not the biggest priority. Mostly my social circle comes from church because of similar standards."
While Davis is still close with the Columbia friends he made in his first year, he has been slower to reintegrate himself in campus social life - preferring to make friends with other young people active with the LDS temple in Lincoln Center.
Although also close with young New York City Mormons, Monahan has chosen to make many new Columbia friends since his return.
The LDS Church traces its roots back to a 19th-century American Christian, Joseph Smith. By LDS belief, Smith, confused by the varied teaching of Christian sects in upstate New York, received a clarifying divine vision that set in motion the creation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Believing that the true teachings of Jesus fell away as Christianity developed following the crucifixion, the LDS Church believes itself to be the divinely-guided restoration of the true, original Church of Jesus.
The geographically organized, unified Church is headquartered in Salt Lake City under the leadership of one prophet also believed to receive divine revelation. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has no professional clergy.
While three-quarters of LDS Missionaries are young men, many young women and elderly members of the Church serve missions as well.
Missionaries are assigned to a geographic zone and while many Mormon missions are located abroad, the LDS Church does have missions within the United States.
For young male Mormons, pressure to serve missions can be quite intense. Balmer said that while missions are, "not strictly speaking required, they are so much a part of LDS sub-culture that if you don't go on mission, you are regarded with suspicion." Balmer relayed second-hand stories of Mormon girls who refuse to date boys who didn't serve missions.
Davis and Monahan each stress their decisions to serve Mormon missions were entirely their own.
Beyond their spiritual growth and continued participation in the LDS Church, each of the Columbia missionaries has come back changed from their experiences abroad. Monahan, an aspiring doctor, is now one of two white students in his third semester Chinese course and is also in the process of transferring from SEAS to Columbia College to allow for continued study in the EALAC department. Davis, a new economics major, points to his work ethic and sense of direction as results of his mission.
Speaking on campus, Davis reminisced about his mission in Southern Italy. "I was lucky enough to witness some wonderful lives change," he said. "They felt something different in our message. Humble people looking for something more."