Mormon missionaries patrol for souls

Centre Daily Times, Pennsylvania/January 27, 2007
By Patrick Winn

Chapel Hill, N.C. -- His face is soft. His shirt is pressed. As the 19-year-old missionary speaks, he sounds rehearsed but sincere.

"And if you don't mind, I'd like to tell you what Joseph Smith saw in his own words. ..."

Patrick Loftus goes on to talk about pillars of light in a forest, a teenage boy unearthing ancient tablets, testaments of Jesus Christ's journeys through North America.

Nodding along is Stockton Perry, 21, a member of Chi Psi fraternity. He wears flip-flops, fleece and a dash of scruff. He's sprawled under a tree on UNC-Chapel Hill's picturesque south quad, eating Chick-fil-A as he listens.

Like the other students Zimmer and Loftus approach that day, Perry leaves with a crisp copy of the Book of Mormon.

Loftus and his companion missionary, Jody Zimmer, are Mormons -- two of four young men sent to Chapel Hill by the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The missionaries are responsible for guiding the college town's inhabitants toward one of the world's fastest-growing faiths.

Like many college students, they're bright-eyed. They're broke. They sleep two to a room on bunk beds in a bare apartment.

But these young men aren't students, nor are they coming of age via hangovers and hook-ups.

Their adolescence-to-adulthood journey is marked by rigid discipline, a soldier's selflessness and the steady drumbeat of rejection.

They will make it to college eventually. But for now, they're on a mission from God.

Mostly college students live in Shadowood Apartments, a nondescript complex several miles north of the campus.

The missionaries' apartment is the one with a blue-eyed likeness of Jesus laminated and tacked to the outside wall. They used to leave their bikes leaning against the railing nearby. That was before somebody stole one right under Christ's nose. Now they keep the bikes inside the apartment, a stripped-down barracks of a living space with patchy walls and no television.

Three of the missionaries living here are from Mormon-majority towns in Utah -- Loftus is from Salt Lake City; Josh Feller, 21, is from Utah's Dammeron Valley; and Calvin Lott, 19, is from Pleasant View. Zimmer, 21, is from a Mormon-minority city, Medford, Ore.

Before coming here, each spent roughly three weeks at the church's central training center in Provo, Utah. A sort of boot camp for missionaries, it teaches the proselytizing basics.

The two-year missions are not about free-spirited self-discovery.

"This isn't my time now," Zimmer said. "This is God's time."

They begin their day at 6:30 a.m. with exercise, grooming and prayer. They wear uniforms: dark slacks, white button-up shirts, ties and nametags.

They replace their first names with the title "Elder." (John Smith becomes "Elder Smith.") Missionaries try not to repeat their given first name until the mission ends.

They can make two phone calls home each year. One on Mother's Day. One on Christmas.

"Even those should stay limited to an hour," Zimmer said. "You don't want a phone call to drag on and distract you from your day."

Almost every earthly pleasure -- even talking to your mother -- is a distraction from God's mission. The adjustment, Loftus says, can be very difficult.

"I'm naturally a little shy," he said. "I've grown up all my life excited about this mission. But when I first got here, it was just plain hard on me."

Most college students don't want to talk religion on their way to class. Or on their doorstep. Or at the bus stop.

"A lot of missionaries, their ideal of success is coming out and having a lot of baptisms," Zimmer said, referring to the finalizing ritual that brings someone into the faith.

He admits that he brought those unrealistic hopes with him to North Carolina. But now, with seven months to go before his mission ends, Zimmer still feels as though he's waiting for his first baptism.

"I just have to keep working until we find someone who does want to listen," Zimmer said. "We're not here to cram religion down people's throats."

Roots of the Mormons

During the 1820s, a teenager in upstate New York was visited by an angel. Go into the forest, the angel told him, and unearth a set of golden plates.

That teen was Joseph Smith, and those plates were inscribed with the Book of Mormon, a third Bible testament describing Christ's time in the Americas.

The Mormons, Smith's followers, have been busy ever since.

Healthy, single Mormon men -- and women to a lesser extent -- are strongly encouraged to spend two post-high school years in an unfamiliar area, spreading the faith to strangers. More than 52,000 full-time missionaries are now working in more than 150 countries.

Thanks to the missionaries, the church now expands its 12.5 million membership by a quarter-million annual baptisms. (That doesn't count the 93,000 children born each year into the faith.)

The church has carved the world into more than 300 proselytizing zones or "missions." North Carolina has two. In the Raleigh Mission, which covers the state's eastern half, the religion's 26,000 registered members grew by 400 in 2005. That's 66 more than the year before.

Mission President W. Budge Wallis, who works out of a strip mall office in Raleigh, gives most of the credit to his 170 or so missionaries.

Every few weeks, he picks up fresh missionaries lugging suitcases from Raleigh-Durham International Airport. They are typically 18 or 19, just out of high school, often from parts of the western United States where Mormons are better established.

"Some have a hard time adjusting and have to go home," Wallis said. "But the other 95 percent does quite well.

"They learn so many life lessons out there," he said. "It takes a lot of courage to knock on doors. I'm here to help build them into strong men."

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