Calling home: The best LDS missionary present

The Salt Lake Tribune/December 18, 2008

While others are wildly unwrapping piles of presents under the tree, one group of Mormon families sit quietly by the phone awaiting a unique gift of incalculable value -- a call from their missionary children.

More than 50,000 full-time missionaries between ages 19 and 30 are scouring the globe looking for potential converts for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Whether in Kansas or Kenya, South Dakota or South Korea, they are allowed two phone calls home a year: on Christmas and Mother's Day. All other communication is via weekly e-mails or handwritten letters.

Jody Yeats of Lindon can hardly wait for this year's call from her son Jesse, who is serving in Bangkok, Thailand. This will be his second Christmas away from home.

"The best part of last year's call was to hear his laugh," Yeats said. "He is the funniest, most happy young man, and I missed his laugh."

Jesse's five siblings all came over to talk to their brother. They put him on speaker phone, then each person in the room had a chance for a little one-on-one interaction.

"But we save the last 10 or 15 minutes for Mom," Yeats said, growing emotional at the memory.

The semiannual calls have become a cherished part of the carefully choreographed rituals governing the church's two-year mission assignments.

Though Mormon missionaries have been going out from church headquarters for a century and a half and the telephone was invented in March 1876, the phone-home tradition didn't become an established pattern until the late 1980s, according to LDS spokesman Scott Trotter. "Prior to that time, opportunities to call home were determined by each mission president."

William O. Wilson, a retired folklore professor at Brigham Young Univeristy who served for 2?1/2 years in Finland in the 1950s, was not allowed any phone call home. It was "out of the question," Wilson said, probably because an international call was far too expensive.

Nor were he and his wife allowed to talk with any of their four children who served missions in the 1970s and '80s. One went to Japan and the other three to Finland, where they were able to have Christmas dinner with their Finnish grandmother.

But J. Bonner Ritchie, who taught organizational behavior at BYU for decades, called home often while on an LDS mission to the Eastern United States in 1955.

"Whenever I had a challenge on policy issues or anything, like how to conduct a funeral or give a [healing] blessing, I'd call my dad," Ritchie recalled this week.

He speculates that the twice-a-year phone calls were initiated in response to some perceived need, such as reassuring anxious parents.

"Policy is funny," said Ritchie, an expert on group dynamics. "It is never decided. It evolves as a default process."

Yeats doesn't care when the tradition of Christmas calls started, she's just glad to have it.

She enjoyed calls with her older three sons who served missions to Chile, Brazil and Dallas and is thrilled to hear from her youngest son now.

"I don't think it gets any easier," she said. "You just don't want to hang up. I watch the seconds tick off on the clock and can see the time going. I know I won't get to talk to him again until Mother's Day."

When the call is over, she sobs her eyes out, Yeats said. "It's the best Christmas present ever."

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