Single Mormon women serve church in pairs

South Coast Today, Massachusetts/January 19, 2008

New Bedford - Sister Elizabeth Sullivan, 74, is proud of her ancestry. She traces her lineage back to one of the direct followers of Prophet Joseph Smith.

"His children made the trip," she said, referring to the journey of thousands of Latter-day Saints who crossed the United States from 1840-90 and established settlements throughout the West.

Born in Thatcher, Ariz., Sister Sullivan is the mother of four children and grandmother of 10. A resident of Emit, Calif., she has lived away from home for much of the past 10 years, serving as a senior missionary in the Mormon faith.

Sister Sullivan said she embarked on the new vocation after the death of her husband.

"I always wanted to go on a mission," she said. "I decided it was the time."

For nearly a year, Sister Sullivan has shared an apartment in Fairhaven with her missionary companion, Sister Becky Ruka, 61. Their mission is to carry out Christ's instructions to his apostles: Travel two by two from village to village, speaking to anyone who will listen. The village where they proselytize is New Bedford.

Sister Sullivan is completing her third mission. Her first assignment took her to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where she was secretary to the president of the mission office. Two years later, she accepted another 18-month mission, boarding a plane to Adelaide, Australia. There was another two-year lapse before the summons to SouthCoast.

Born in Louisville, Ky., Sister Ruka moved to Stamford, Conn., when she was 10 years old. Raised as a Presbyterian, she is the divorced mother of one daughter.

"I married before I joined the church," she said, adding that she converted to the faith at age 33.

Sister Ruka moved to Simi Valley and Sacramento, Calif., before residing in Orem, Utah.

As a single sister, she has served on four missions during the past six years. She worked with American Indians in Albuquerque, N.M., served in Salt Lake City on a genealogy mission and proselytized amongst the Maoris of Wellington, New Zealand. She arrived in SouthCoast on March 5.

Senior missionaries begin their days with one hour of personal study, followed by one hour of companion study. The rest of the day is spent ministering to church members and to those who have fallen away from the church. Sometimes they proselytize in the street.

"The first time I approached someone, I just wanted to pass out," Sister Ruka admitted. "But you become a different person; you get more confidence. You're not afraid to speak out."

Sister Sullivan's greatest challenge was of a different sort: the physical demands of the missionary life.

"One of the hardest things we do is climb stairs," she said.

The women agreed that their strength is in reading Scripture, "helping people to know there is a God." They also teach English as a second language, work for the Red Cross and transport members to the North Dartmouth church building and Boston temple.

"It is very rewarding," Sister Ruka said. "We are busy every day."

After being inseparable for nearly a year, the sisters will part. Sister Sullivan will serve in Boston until the end of February, before returning to SouthCoast to be paired with a new companion, Sister Long. Completing her mission, Sister Ruka will drive to Georgia to visit her ailing mother.

Sister Ruka said she will miss the ocean, the changing seasons and her SouthCoast acquaintances.

"This is just a great mission. We were able to have the freedom to only think about the Gospel, do good service, rekindle faith and bring hope. That's a good feeling - that your life is worthwhile and you're doing what the heavenly father wants you to do. All that feels fantastic."

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