Young Mormon missionaries have one request: Don't be mean to them

Kennebec Journal Morning Sentinel/June 9, 2009

Carter Howell had one request when, at the end of an hour-long interview, I asked if there was anything I should tell people who read this column.

"Tell people not to be mean to us," he said.

"We are just 19- and 20-year-old guys and we're not different than other people."

I'm glad to pass on that request -- and to echo it. There is no reason to be mean to Howell or to his associate, Seth Munger.

Howell is 19 and from Snoqualmie, Wash., a small town east of Seattle. He graduated from Mt. Si High School in 2008.

Munger, 20, is from Lehi, Utah. He graduated from high school in 2007 and attended Brigham Young University for one semester.

They are Mormon missionaries assigned to central Maine.

We met recently at the Mormon Church in Waterville to chat about life as a missionary.

In one sense, Howell is right. These guys are not different than other young adults you might meet. Both were high school athletes -- they keep in good shape -- and worked at part-time jobs. They are smart, easy-going and nice to be around.

In another sense, they are different from most of the teens you'll run into at the mall.

They are committed to their religious belief and eagerly welcome challenges most young people would avoid. You need not be Mormon to recognize and respect their dedication.

As missionaries, Munger and Howell carry the title "elder" -- which, considering their youth, may seem strange. The title refers not to age but to a level in the Mormon priesthood.

I imagine most readers have had some contact with Mormon missionaries -- the young men wearing white shirts and ties. They travel in pairs, knocking on doors, hoping to share their religious faith with people. It's not an easy task, but they relish it.

"I've been wanting to do this my whole life," Howell said.

A missionary makes a two-year commitment. After training, they are dispatched, usually a long way from home.

"We go where we're most needed in the world," Munger said.

Munger has been in the Waterville area about eight months; Howell has been here about three months.

The area covers a lot of territory, ranging from Unity to China and other parts of central Maine. It's a good thing they are in good shape. They travel everywhere by bicycle.

A missionary's assignments can be -- and usually are -- frequently changed.

"You get a call on a Sunday night and by Tuesday, you're gone," Munger said.

They don't move as a team. If one is transferred, someone else will show up to replace him.

Munger and Howell did not know each other until Howell showed up to replace a missionary who was reassigned. Both said they expect the friendships they make with their missionary companions to last a lifetime.

Their life of a missionary is highly structured. Most teens and young adults would consider it terribly restrictive.

There is no television, no radio, no movies -- none! They can call home twice a year, Christmas and one other day, usually Mother's Day. They can write and receive letters and are allowed Internet access for e-mail 30 minutes a week.

"It's not as bad as you think," Munger said -- and I could tell that he meant what he said. "It's for our benefit to keep us more focused on what we're doing."

The day begins at 6:30 a.m. and follows a schedule that includes time for prayer -- both solitary and with others -- and planning for the day. There is time for meals -- an hour for lunch, another hour for dinner -- and then more door knocking in the evening. Their curfew is 9:30 p.m. Lights out at 10:30.

Curfew may imply that somebody is watching. Not so. These young men know and embrace the rules -- and follow them.

And they pay for the privilege.

Both worked to save the money to pay to support themselves as missionaries. That means about $10,000 a year -- a large sum for a teenager to earn and save.

"I didn't make it all myself," Munger said. "My dad helped me out. He said he'd help with either college or the mission."

Knocking on doors is not always easy, both said. Some people are not interested and they slam the door. Some see the missionaries coming and refuse to answer the doorbell.

"But it all pays off when you meet someone really nice who wants to hear your message," Munger said.

In addition to its religious value, Howell and Munger said being a missionary is valuable life training. Missionaries must learn budgeting skills. They are allowed to spend $150 a month -- nothing more -- for food and personal expenses. I think lots of teens could benefit from that experience.

Both said they are enjoying Maine but Munger was not enthusiastic about our winter. "In Utah it snows but then it melts," he said. "Here it just stays. But the people are great. Laid back and friendly."

Both said they are too busy and too committed to be homesick.

"Zero homesickness," Howell said.

"This is so fulfilling," said Munger.

Both plan to return to college when their missionary commitment ends. Munger hopes to become a physician, Howell a physical therapist.

As our interview ended, I asked these young elders what they found difficult.

"Some people look at us like we're from a different planet," Munger said. Before becoming a missionary, he said, "I was a person, too."

That's when Howell said: "Tell people not to be mean to us."

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