Mormon Soul Patrol

Young Mormons Spend Two Years Spreading the Word of Their Faith

The Ledger, Lakeland Florida/February 10, 2007
By Patrick Winn

Chapel Hill, North Carolina -- 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.

"You know, I chilled with some Mormons on a trip out west. We went black widow hunting," Perry says. "It was sick." (He's being friendly. "Sick" is dude-speak for "awesome.")

Loftus and his companion missionary, Jody Zimmer, kneel beside Perry, getting comfortable but staying on script.

"Did they give you a Book of Mormon?" Zimmer asks.

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

Zimmer and Loftus 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.

A mission from God

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 UNC-CH's 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 TV.

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 says. "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 says. "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 says. "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 says, referring to the finalizing ritual that brings someone into the faith. "That's how they tally their success."

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 says. "We're not here to cram religion down people's throats."

Missionaries can't really talk about pop culture. Or sports. Or Top 40 music.

Dating is also forbidden. So they can't talk about girls.

That leaves them to bond over ties. They debate tie fabric, silks vs. polyesters, like other college kids debate NBA franchises.

And don't get them started on ink pens, an everyday tool out in the field. Missionaries often define themselves by three pen brands: Parker, Cross or Zebra. They go on about satisfying clicks, felt tips and overall sturdiness.

"I'm a Parker missionary," Lott says. "Found one under the couch and never wanted anything else."

Spreading the faith

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."

Mission President W. Budge Wallis, who works out of a strip mall office on Raleigh's Falls of the Neuse Road, 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 says "But the other 95 percent does quite well.

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

Public relations is the lesser-known side of missionary work. Some days, missionaries spend more time defending their religion than teaching its basic principles.

"When you say 'Mormon,' people think a lot of different things," Feller says. "Half of them are wrong."

Even if someone isn't interested - or professes a different faith - the missionaries offer a card with instructions on ordering a Book of Mormon online or by phone. If you order one to your address, they'll be back at your door.

Before leaving, the missionaries always ask: "Is there anything we can help you with?"

They actually mean it. Missionaries, as goodwill ambassadors for the church, will take out your garbage and even rearrange giant decorative rocks in your lawn. Feller has done both.

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