On a Mission: Mormon missionaries' lifestyle is filled with structure and sacrifice

The Midland Daily News/January 9, 2003
By Debbie Hummel

Their apartment isn't unlike those of other women their age. A bare-bulbed lamp is perched near the entry. Walls are decorated with posters, (albeit most are images of Jesus Christ). A round trampoline is stuffed in a corner.

But Sister Jody Elsner, 23, and Sister Luse Manu, 22, lead lives very different from most of their peers.

As missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Elsner and Manu left their homes, families and friends, and came to a place where little seemed familiar.

"It's kind of a self-discovery time," said Elsner, a native of Fresno, Calif. "We are strained, stretched and stressed. My experience has made me feel like I can do anything. Every day, you're doing something that you never expected you'd be doing."

The women are two of six Mormon missionaries assigned to Midland. The other four are men.

Male missionaries serve 24 months; females, 18 months. Elsner and Manu explained that mission service is expected of men but more optional for women.

Prospective missionaries fill out paperwork and wait for church leaders to prayerfully decide where to send them. Then they are trained in how to behave as LDS representatives and present six one-hour lessons about their faith.

Missionaries may move as frequently as every six weeks. New assignments come on Mondays and they must be at their new sites the next day. For most people, the idea of moving in less than 24 hours is unimaginable. To missionaries, it's just the way it is.

"We don't own anything, really," Elsner said.

On her desk are a few framed photographs and, literally, a handful of odds and ends. Manu's desk is even more sparse but both women have several books, including The Book of Mormon and the King James Version of the Bible.

Souvenir shopping is limited. "I do have a Petoskey stone," admitted Manu, who grew up in Hawaii but whose family now lives in Provo, Utah.

Missionaries' lives are very structured.

They wake up each day at 6:30 a.m., study the Bible and Mormon scriptures until 9:30 a.m., then "hit the streets," said Elder Jeff Curtis, a 20-year-old from Spanish Fork, Utah. They go door to door, trying to spread their faith. They are home from noon to 1 p.m. for lunch, then go back out until 5 p.m. After supper, they continue their mission work until 9:30 p.m. Bedtime is 10:30 p.m.

Wednesdays are "preparation days." That's when missionaries do laundry, clean their apartments, get groceries, write letters and socialize with each other.

Even when socializing, they refer to each other as "Sister so-and-so" or "Elder such-and-such." They don't call each other by their first names and don't expect others to, either.

"It's a great title to have; it's a privilege," said Elder Daniel Miller, 19, who grew up in Santa Cruz, Calif.

"I think it kind of shows respect, as well," Curtis added.

The media are off limits: no television, radio, newspapers or magazines. In fact, those who were in service last fall have yet to see footage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

They also aren't supposed to listen to popular music. ("Nothing with a repetitive drum beat," Elsner said, which is the kind of music she and Manu said they listen to at home.)

Missionaries are sent in pairs and must be within speaking distance of each other at all times. Elsner said they help each other resist temptation.

Elsner and Manu get excited when they see a mail carrier at their apartment complex. "If he's here while we're home for lunch, we stalk him," joked Elsner.

The postal service is an important connection for missionaries, who are not allowed to phone their families except twice a year: Christmas and Mother's Day.

"It's about focus," Elsner said. "For me, after I talk with my parents, I mean it's really nice to talk to them, but it is so hard to get back on track."

Missionaries' apartments are rented by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Missionaries and/or their parents send $375 a month to a church pool, used to pay expenses. Missionaries don't worry about rental leases or utility bills, which is important because they move so suddenly.

"Landlords love us," Elsner said. Rent is always paid on time, she said, and neighbors never complain about loud music or late-night parties.

Elsner and Manu each receive $158 a month from the fund to buy food, toiletries and books. The men get a slightly smaller stipend because, as Manu joked, "We need to buy things like hair spray."

Wearing white shirts, black ties and slacks, the men are clean-shaven, have short hair and avoid face piercings. The women wear blouses, sweaters and skirts and are no less conservatively groomed.

"I certainly think we do stand out," Curtis said.

Black name tags identify them as LDS missionaries.

All say they most miss their family and friends, but what else is high on the list?

"I'd have to say sleep," joked Miller.

"Seriously, I think of the things I left, I've gained a lot more here. & Not everyone gets to wear a tie and a black name tag."

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