Living the Missionary Life

Lincoln County News, Maine/June 6, 2007
By Sherwood Olin

Every morning at 6:30, the alarm goes off in the small Newcastle apartment shared by Daniel Sowards and Stephen Weight.

Six days a week, except Monday, the two young men roll out of bed and begin their daily routine; Mornings usually consist of study and prayer until 10:30 or so before they hit the streets of Lincoln County.

There the two approach strangers where they find them, to spread the Mormon word.

Each day usually ends with some community service followed by lights out at 9:30 p.m.

When they are not proselytizing or studying, Weight and Sowards are performing community service or assisting the local congregation.

Sowards and Weight are Mormon missionaries. Like roughly 53,000 of their fellow church members currently in the field, they are working to complete two years of dedicated service for their church.

Weight and Sowards are both natives of the American southwest.

Weight, 22, hails from Gilbert, Ariz,, a neighbor city to Phoenix. Before beginning his mission this spring he operated a successful welding and fabrication business, which he shuttered while putting his affairs in order.

Sowards, 19, is from Albuquerque, New Mexico. He completed a year of college before deciding to undertake his mission.

"It just felt like the right time," he said.

Of the two, Sowards has more experience in the field as he approaches his first year away from home. Before coming to Lincoln County he served in St. Johnsbury, Vt., and Ellsworth.

This is Weight's first posting. He began his two-year commitment last month ane is now in his second full week in the field

Undertaking a mission can be a challenge for even the most committed believer.

Six days a week the schedule remains unvaried. Monday is the team's down day. The day when they have time to do the laundry, or catch up on household chores.

Both men admit the 14 hour days can be a grind, but at the same time, both say the experience is personally and spiritually rewarding. "It's really a character builder," Sowards said. "I have changed a lot since I came out."

Undertaking a mission is a cultural touchstone for Mormons. Both Weight and Sowards confirmed that their going on a mission is a point of pride for their families. There is however, no disgrace in not going on a mission.

Sowards said he has two brothers, one who has completed a mission and one who hasn't, and the community in New Mexico makes no distinction between the two.

"If you don't do it, nobody is going to look down on you," Sowards said.

While on a mission, missionaries have limited communications with home. In fact, barring unforeseen circumstances, Sowards and Weight will not see their friends or families for the two years of their service.

Mormon missionaries have no control over where they are sent; no choice as to how long they stay in any one location, nor do they have any input regarding who they are teamed with.

Missionaries are rotated every six weeks, although they don't know until the night before transfer day who will be transferred, if anyone; or why or where the transfer will be going.

"It's kind of exciting actually," Weight said.

Generally missionaries work two years straight through to complete their mission.

In accordance with the requirements of their mission, Sowards and Weight do not watch television. Their access to a telephone is limited, although they are allowed to make two calls home a year on Christmas and Mother's Day.

"The reason for all these rules is it's for our own welfare and it helps us stay focused," Sowards said. "It would be a lot harder until you realize why you are here, if you believe you are doing the Lord's work."

If they are lucky, as Sowards and Weight are, they have a car to reach outlying areas, but there is a monthly mileage limit they cannot exceed. Summoned to mission headquarters for a new posting, they must travel there at their own expense.

Both men are overseen by the New England mission which is headquartered in Manchester, N.H. Upon being transferred, the transferred missionary must make his way to Manchester where he will be told who his new missionary companion is and where he is going.

For all of their work, Sowards and Weight are not paid. On the contrary, Sowards said, they are paying to do it. They live on a small stipend, which they will have paid for themselves and which is doled out by the church elders.

According to Weight, missionaries and or their families contribute $400 a month to the church which the church uses to support Mormon missionaries worldwide.

"It's a family thing," Weight said. "I know some kids who wanted to pay the whole thing themselves. My family wanted to do it."

In spite of the restrictions regarding their task, Weight and Sowards firmly believe they are doing the Lord's work and their efforts are paying off. In spite of popular belief, they say they are not trying to convert anyone. Instead they are trying to spread the message so people can make up their own minds and hopefully convert themselves.

Neither man has seen the recent Frontline documentary aired on PBS, that detailed the history of the Mormon Church from its founding until the present day. However, having heard about the documentary, Sowards wanted to address a specific point.

In the Frontline show, one young missionary was out of the country on a mission when his mother died. Although not addressed specifically, the broadcast left the impression the young man was not allowed to return home for the funeral.

Politely but strongly, Sowards asserted that if a missionary did not go home for the funeral of his mother it was that missionary's personal choice not to go.

Although the requirements of their mission are rigid, they are not inflexible he said.

"If my mom died, I would be home in a second," Sowards said.

According to Sowards and Weight, the church is not completely inflexible. Some allowances can be made for illness and serious injury.

"If you get sick in the States, it is not as hard to get treatment," Weight said. "If you are outside the States, they might bring you home for treatment."

As missionaries, one of the most challenging parts of their task is spreading the word to those who may not be disposed to hear it.

For the most part, Sowards and Weight say their reception in Lincoln County has been favorable although admittedly few people have more than passing interest.

"It varies," Weight said. "People are usually very polite even if they don't want to hear our message."

"It's obvious some people try to avoid us," Sowards said. "One time I went up to a door and the chicken had just come out of the microwave. You could see steam coming off it."

Strangely and somewhat humorously for the two Southwesterners, is the tendency of Lincoln County residents to confuse Mormons with Jehovah's Witnesses.

In the Southwest, Mormons are more prevalent than Jehovah's Witnesses, Weight explained. There, people could reasonably expect a missionary coming to the door would be a Mormon. In New England, the exact opposite is the case.

"Sometimes the reaction we get when we open the door is 'just give us a pamphlet'," Weight said.

"I think people think we are here to tell them, we are right and they are wrong," Sowards said. "That is not the case, it is a learning experience."

"What it comes down to is we are not the converters, we are just delivering the message," Weight said. "We just give them the math and the Spirit gives them the answer… It's not the numbers. We are not here to get five million people. We are out here for that one. That's the whole objective, to get that one. We look at everybody as individual, not as a group."

Touching on other points about their religion, Sowards and Weight said they are usually asked about polygamy, a practice the church once formally condoned and has since disavowed.

Both men said they didn't know much about Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and practicing Mormon who is making a bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Even if they did know something about him, Weight said, now is not the time for them to discuss it.

"As missionaries, we are told not to get into political things at any time," Weight said.

After they complete their mission, Sowards and Weight will return to their private lives. Weight said he hopes to relaunch his welding business. Once that is established, he is considering pursuing a history degree with an eye toward teaching and coaching track.

Sowards said he is considering medical school.

"Maybe dentistry," he said. "Eventually I would like to travel the world and maybe do some dentistry in Third World.

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