Limson Souelian has traveled more than 8,000 miles for the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. But one roadblock could have stopped him in his tracks.
He was 15 and living in his native Saipan, in the Northern Mariana Islands, when he first heard the message of the Mormon Church. But his mother, a Catholic, did not approve of his conversion or his becoming a missionary. But Souelian, now 22, persisted and is a missionary elder sharing his faith in North Carolina.
"I know it's right, and it's what our heavenly father wants," he said. "One day, she'll accept me as a different faith."
There are more than 55,000 Mormon missionaries worldwide, and Souelian is one of 156 in Western North Carolina. An additional 200 cover Raleigh to the coast. All pay their own way to be here.
The younger missionaries - ages 19 to 26 for men and over 21 for women - go door-to-door to spread their faith. They also do community service. For instance, several recently lent a hand with painting and cleaning up Hobby Park.
Silara Gillespie says she got the idea to become a missionary when her brother did a two-year mission to Brazil. Gillespie, who came here from Iowa, knows a little bit about North Carolina; her family lived in Laurinburg until she was 8.
She said she didn't mind that she didn't get an exotic locale like Brazil. "That's OK," she said. "I've come back to serve my own people."
The missionaries work in pairs, and some of them are married couples. Among those are Robert Noel and his wife, Darlene, from Orem, Utah. Noel, a former pitching coach at Brigham Young University, is 2 1/2 years into a three-year mission as the president of the church's North Carolina Charlotte Mission. After the mission, he'll return to BYU as a physical-education instructor.
Duane and Joyce Terry are from Fullerton, Calif. He is retired from a job in nuclear research. Missionary work isn't always easy, he said, but people respond well to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which aids the mission.
But some people simply aren't receptive to the message. Most, if not all, of the missionaries have had doors slammed in their faces. They say they've heard lots of curse words, and Gillespie said that, in at least one instance, a homeowner sicced a dog on a female missionary.
"The only thing that hurts is when they are not open, when you have something important to offer them and can bless their lives," said Gillespie, who plans to attend BYU after her mission.
"The hardest part," missionary Eric Hoyt added, "is when they won't have an open mind. We want to share what we know is true."
Still, the missionaries say that it's been a blessing to minister to North Carolina. "It's been a life-changing experience," Gillespie said. "It's the best thing you can do in your life, the most rewarding."
"You have to overcome yourself," Hoyt added. "You get to see your weaknesses, and you get to see what you need to do to serve God."
Rut (pronounced Root) Beltran, of Culiacan, Mexico, says her mission to North Carolina has been an eye-opener. "I've learned that, without the Lord, I can't do anything," she said. "Before, I thought I could do anything I wanted just by relying on my own strength. Now, I know I can't."
Duane Terry turned 75 recently, but he said he has lots of work left. "I figure I have another 20 years in me," he said. After a pause, he added, "And probably four more missions."