Soul searching

A pair of young Mormon missionaries who proselytize door-to-door daily believe that warm hearts can ward off the negative effects of chilly receptions. Both say it's the finest thing they've ever done. For them, it's a pilgrimage.

Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune/February 10, 2007
By Pamela Miller

On a freezing morning last week, two bright-eyed young men in white shirts, dark ties, pleated slacks and shiny black shoes began knocking on doors on Emerson Avenue S. in Richfield to ask if they could share some good news about Joseph Smith and Jesus.

A cold wind was blowing, but Brigg Barron and Mark Williams of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints wore only light jackets and no hats or mittens. Tall and lean, young and eager, they sprang up the steps of the first house.

Knock, knock. Nothing.

"Nobody home," Barron said. Or, maybe someone was home. "Sometimes," he confided, "people see us and hide."

Next house: Knock, knock. The front door opened -- about an inch. The men leaned forward to introduce themselves. The door closed.

Down the block, a man appeared with a collie on a leash just as a second man carrying a small dog came out of a house. Barron and Williams made a beeline for them.

The men listened, a little. One said he has a friend who's a Mormon, but wouldn't want to be one himself. The other said he's Lutheran. Thank-yous were exchanged.

Across Emerson, a man pushed a wheelbarrow toward a freshly dug egress-window pit from which dirt was flying.

A captive audience! Barron and Williams bounded across the street.

Elders Barron and Williams, as they call each other, are among 180 Mormon missionaries working at any one time across much of Minnesota and western Wisconsin, most of them in the Twin Cities metro area, Rochester and Duluth. For two years, seven days a week, up to 12 hours a day, they pray and proselytize.

For Mormons, who prefer to be called Latter-Day Saints, it's a grueling pilgrimage that young people (men 19 to 26, women 21 and over) are urged, but not required, to undertake.

Barron, 20, of American Fork, Utah, and Williams, 21, of San Jose, Calif., both grew up in big Mormon families. Both are taking a break from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Church leaders assigned them to Minnesota, but it could have been anywhere in the world. Each participant pays $10,000 to be placed and supported as a missionary.

Day in, day out, they get up at 6:30 a.m., eat breakfast, exercise, shower, pray, study scriptures, then head out at 10 a.m. ("not 10:01," the rules say) to "tract" (door-knock), work crowds and meet with converts. They get an hour for lunch, an hour for dinner, door-knock until 9 p.m., and are in bed or praying at 10:30 p.m.

Once a week they are allowed to do chores and write to or e-mail family members. They may call home only on Christmas Day and Mother's Day. There's no dating, no TV, no drinking, no coffee, no tea. Music and reading material must be church-approved. It's a grueling, confining, sometimes lonely two years that is considered excessive, even cruel, by many outside the church.

But Barron and Williams have been looking forward to it since they were baptized at age 8.

"My dad always said that if people only knew what it feels like to be on a mission, everyone would want to do it," Williams said. "It's the greatest experience. You learn so much. You grow so strong."

As Barron and Williams approached, brothers Shane and Mark Lohre, 26 and 20, of White Bear Lake, looked up from their work. Their faces were wary, but not unfriendly.

"Hey, how ya doin'?" Barron said. "Say, would you fellows mind if we shared a message about Jesus and our prophet Joseph Smith and his good news?"

The Lohres looked at each other and shrugged. Barron and Williams talked a while.

Shane Lohre jabbed the dirt with his shovel. "Look, I've read a lot, and I could say some things about your buddy Joseph," he said. "I don't want to waste your time here."We appreciate that," Williams said. "Thanks for your time."

Some days, all they get is slammed doors. People are often abrupt, sometimes insulting, "but we try to see them as Jesus would, with love, as our brothers and sisters," Williams said. Mostly, what they hear is that people are happy with their own beliefs.

Sometimes, they said, people proselytize them, telling them that Mormons aren't Christians and that their beliefs are based on the hallucinations of a 19th-century charlatan. But Mormons are Christians and Joseph Smith was divinely touched, they say.

Williams and Barron like nothing better than being asked what they believe. In a nutshell: They believe in an omnipotent God, in the divinity of Jesus and that Christianity was floundering until Smith "restored" it after a series of visions in the early 1800s.

Latter-Day Saints believe people must be baptized into their faith "to be able to spend eternal life with their families and friends," Williams said.

"There's a plan of salvation that gives everyone an even chance," he said. "If you haven't heard about Jesus on Earth, we believe you'll have that chance in the spirit world everyone goes to prior to the resurrection."

The stress and deprivation that go with a two-year missionary gig can be "incredibly challenging," said Lloyd Smith, an avuncular radiologist from Tennessee who with his wife supervises the young elders of the Minnesota and western Wisconsin mission. Still, 95 percent stick it out, he said.

Williams, whose two years end this weekend, said his faith has been deepened by the rigorous focus on proselytizing and contact with thousands of people. "When I started, I had doubts that I could do this," he said. "I've come to see that I have to be who I am and not hide my faith."

Barron, who'll be done in June, said he loves "seeing someone come to the savior because of our work."

They skirted questions about their success rate, stressing that conversion is a long process. "We have days where nothing happens and days where we get four or five people interested," Barron said.

As the afternoon deepened, Barron and Williams, their noses maroon with cold, worked the bundled-up souls trudging in and out of Marshall's at the Hub.

Most mumbled "no thanks,"I haven't got time" or "I have my own faith, thank you," and hurried into the store.

The two were undeterred.

An elderly man on a smoke break listened for a few minutes, then told them that he had to get back to what he'd been doing.

An older woman they corralled next clearly didn't understand a word they said, but her face brightened when she heard the word "Jesus."Praise Jesus!" she said in a lilting African accent. "Glory, glory hallelujah!" She walked off, beaming. "Awesome!" Barron said, glowing.

But the day was ebbing, and they didn't have a single phone number scribbled into their daily planners.

Until Brenda.

Brenda, a young woman with a large backpack who asked that her last name not be published, had been standing on the sidewalk watching them. When Williams asked if he could tell her about Jesus and Joseph Smith, she said, "Sure."

For 20 minutes, they stood in the cold, talking.

Finally, Williams asked, "Would you be willing to meet with us to talk about some of these things and hear more about the scriptures?"

Pause. "Sure," Brenda said.

"Awesome!" Barron said as they headed for the car. "This has been an amazing day!"

It wasn't over yet. They would stop by their apartment for supper, then head out into the freezing night for one more sweep for the faith.

"There will always be searchers open to our message," Williams said. "It's them we're looking for. It's them we find, and who find us."

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