Dr. Anton Rets doesn't think it's a coincidence that he was placed with a Mormon family when he first visited the United States as a teenager.
Then a 16-year-old exchange student with an incomplete grasp of English, Rets learned almost nothing about the faith of the family he lived with in Knoxville, Tenn. Now 27, the native of Perm, Russia, is back in the United States. And — here's the ironic part if you believe in irony — he's now known as Elder Rets, the term for a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as Mormons.
Of the 160 Mormon missionaries working in the western New York area, only a handful are foreigners, said Mission President Alan S. Layton of Utah, who is himself serving a three-year mission.
Rets has worked in the Palmyra, Wayne County, area and in Irondequoit since his arrival eight months ago, but six weeks ago was transferred to the Mormon Church's Pittsford Ward, which meets in Perinton. He was to learn this week whether he would stay on that assignment or move to another as part of his two-year mission.
"It wasn't a coincidence," Rets said of his exchange student placement as a teenager. He believes the rules of the organization that arranged for his student exchange prohibited the Tennessee family from sharing their religion with him, but some divine plan put him with the family. Brought up in the Russian Orthodox tradition, he knew only a little about his own religion, let alone the Mormon faith.
"After the fall of communism, religion has become part of the culture" in Russia, Rets said recently at the Perinton chapel. "It has become something of a stylish thing to go to church." As a teenager and college student, though, he was more concerned about studying to become a medical doctor, following in his grandmother's footsteps.
But one day during medical school, Rets was approached on the street by Mormon missionaries from North America. They showed him a blue book with gold writing on it that he recognized as the Book of Mormon. In a hurry to get to a class, Rets hastily agreed to meet the men that night.
"When I started to read the Book of Mormon, I felt it was right," Rets said. Over the next nine months of study and prayer with the missionaries, he became a Mormon. After obtaining his medical degree and a position in the Perm State Hospital as a pathologist, more prayer led to Rets' decision to become a missionary, a common practice for young Mormons.
"It was a hard decision to make, but I don't regret it," Rets said. "I just felt I had to serve a mission."
The Bible, in the book of Matthew, says, " 'Go ye and preach the gospel to all the nations,' so it was something I felt I had to do," Rets said.
The young doctor had no idea where he would end up once he submitted his application.
Most recently, Rets' missionary companion has been Lino Footracer, 21, a biology student and potter from the Navajo Nation in Arizona who had been serving at the Mormon chapel at the Cattaraugus Seneca Indian Reservation in New York's Southern Tier.
"It really is a funny combination: a Navajo and a Russian," Footracer said.
Rets wears a name tag identifying him in Russian as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Footracer's name tag is in English, but he carries a Book of Mormon written in Navajo. "Our languages are totally different," Footracer said, but they're both fluent in English.
As they talked in the Perinton church, they seemed comfortable bridging their cultural gap.
"To me, European people are very direct. It's yes or no," Footracer said. Navajos, "culturally speaking, beat around the bush before getting the point," he said.
The two men share a small apartment in the village of Pittsford and a dislike of silverfish, the feathery bugs that they sometimes encounter there. "We both have the same needs," Footracer said. And both get, occasionally, frustrated and tired after long days in the field, he said.
Rets said he has met many Russians in the missionary work, but because he has spoken English for so many months, he now finds himself stumbling for the appropriate religious terms in Russian. That likely will not be a problem when he returns to Perm in 2008.
Rets will be "a great ambassador for the United States back in Russia," Layton said.
Rets said his mission in the United States has changed him in a fundamental way.
"I've seen so many miracles — people who change their lives completely, strengthen their families. My faith has grown because of that."