NATCHITOCHES, La., August 24, 2012 — Starting at 4:00 AM every Monday morning, buses filled with groggy young men and women leave the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah, to deliver newly trained Mormon missionaries to the Salt Lake International Airport.
By 8:00, hundreds of these 19-to-21-year-old “Elders” and “Sisters” will be found in pairs or in groups in TSA screening lines and and at half the gates in the airport. For the next few hours they’ll board flights that will eventually take them everywhere from Baton Rouge to Hong Kong to Chicago to Buenos Aires to Moscow.
And then for two years, foregoing all forms of entertainment, dating, and direct contact with friends and family, they’ll serve their God and their church.
Mitt Romney is as Mormon as they come. Raised LDS (Latter-day Saint) by devout Mormon parents, he served a mission for the church, attended church-owned Brigham Young University, was married in a Mormon temple, and served for years in church leadership positions.
American Mormons are often more politically conservative than the average American, but not always. Consider Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a fiercely partisan critic of Mitt Romney and a fellow Mormon. To infer Romney’s political philosophy from his Mormon beliefs would be a mistake. Still, understanding his church can help understand the man.
For those Mormons who go through it, the missionary experience is transformative and often defining. Missionary preparation and training were the subject of an earlier article. What happens afterwards?
New missionaries leave Salt Lake full of optimistic zeal. Heavy scripture study and memorization give them confidence that they can explain and defend the gospel. Intensive, total-immersion language training makes them certain that they can communicate in their new language and eventually speak with the “voice of angels.”
That confidence may deflate as soon as they get off the airplane. Missionaries walk into a cafe at Rio’s Galeão Airport wanting to show off their mastery of Portuguese, only to be reduced by an uncomprehending young server to pointing at pictures of menu items. They begin right away to learn how much they didn’t learn, and how inadequate their best efforts can be.
From the airport, newly arrived missionaries are taken to the “mission home,” the residence of the mission president and his family (mission presidents are always married, they serve for three years, and they take their families with them). There they get a quick welcome, are told where they will work first and who their “senior companions” will be (missionaries always work in pairs, a junior and a senior companion), then are loaded onto a bus and sent off into the field.
Senior companions are responsible for training junior companions to be better missionaries. They introduce them to local members of the church, introduce them to people who are investigating the church, and teach them how to find new investigators. A senior companion drills the new missionary on mission rules, works with him on his presentation and teaching skills, and, in foreign-language missions, does all of this in the local language.
Even an American mission demands a period of adjustment. In foreign missions, the newness of everything and the inability to communicate can leave a new missionary baffled and lonely for weeks.
But he’ll never be alone. A missionary always has a companion. They spend every hour of every day together. They may learn to love each other, but at least they’ll learn to tolerate the constant presence of someone with whom they have nothing in common but their faith.
Within a few months, a junior missionary is made a senior companion and takes responsibility for training new missionaries. He might eventually be made a “district leader” (supervisor over two or three missionary pairs), a “zone leader” (supervisor over several missionary districts), or an assistant to the mission president.
For the duration of his mission, a missionary’s sole priority is to teach people about the gospel and the church, perhaps finding them by referrals from members of the church, perhaps by knocking on doors. He’ll get used to rejection and hostility, learning to bounce back and try again and again and again, almost certain every time of new rejection. He’ll learn a basic lesson: The only failure is to stop trying. Success is a matter of perseverance, not of immediate results.
At some point, all this ceases to be a struggle. Homesickness ebbs, he stops missing the comforts of home, and he starts to love the people in his mission. For some missionaries this happens in the MTC. More often it happens later, when they finally lose themselves in service.
Some missions - Haiti, for instance - are filled with the desperately poor. Missionaries learn to be equally comfortable teaching people in a slum or in a fine home. American missionaries often learn about poverty in ways they never imagined back home. They may be called on to meet temporal needs as part of their service, teaching skills or building homes, for instance. Mormons don’t believe that the temporal and the spiritual can be separated, and you can’t lift people out of spiritual poverty without tackling economic poverty as well. Learning job skills and providing for your family is a commandment, not just good advice. Poverty isn’t a sin, but not fighting as hard as you can to get out of it is.
The mission changes people. The greatest value to the LDS Church of the missionary program may not be the converts (a missionary might easily serve for two years in France and baptize no one), but in the confident, multilingual young men and women who come home after two years. Their horizons have been broadened, they’ve matured in some ways beyond their years. They’re better prepared to be leaders in their own congregations when they come home, and they have a better understanding of what it takes to succeed in church, in business, and in their families.
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. His Portuguese finally became fluent. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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