SideLines: Discovering the missionary’s call

The past couple weeks I’ve been working on a story about missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, better known as Mormons, and how they are experimenting with social media as a means of spreading the word, as opposed to going door to door.

Like most people, I’ve had missionaries drop by from time to time. I’ve always tried to be polite, but I’ve never really thought too much about them until now. In researching this story, I’ve discovered they’re really very interesting.

Mormon missionaries are young men and women between 18 and 25 or retired couples without children. They devote two years serving wherever they are assigned by their church leaders, based on what they claim are revelations from God. Missionaries can go anywhere in the world, whether they speak that language or not.

Missionaries work in pairs, called companionships. They can change companions quite frequently during their service. In DeKalb, Elder Jeff Black is in his fifth mission assignment, while DeKalb is Elder Andrew Limon’s first call.

I didn’t know this, but missionaries are expected to pay all their expenses themselves, as a way of showing their devotion to their cause. An extreme form of tithing, I guess.

I was surprised by the very stringent schedules they must adhere to. Elder Prince, who covers Rochelle, said missionaries usually wake up around 6:30 in the morning. After a couple of hours of study and prayer, they leave the apartment they have been provided and are out the rest of the day, meeting appointments or knocking on strange doors seeking new converts. Missionaries work until 9 or 9:30 at night, when they can return to their apartment. Bedtime is at 10:30 p.m.

Missionaries work seven days a week, although they are allowed time off one day a week to shop for life’s necessities. For recreation, Elders Black and Limon play basketball.

Although they are allowed to email their families once a week, I was told missionaries can only call home twice a year, on Christmas and Mother’s Day. They are also prohibited from watching television, going to the movies, reading fiction and listening to any music that may have romantic content.

“It can be tough on them if they have a girlfriend back home,” an elder member of the church confided in me. “But it is a learning and growing experience for them.”

Elder Limon gets so involved with the people he deals with he totally forgets about himself. Like every other member of the church I met, he is a very polite, respectful, well-dressed young man. A woman I know once told me she was drawn to the Mormon faith because the men always wear suits and ties. At the church I attend, ushers and communion helpers often wear shorts and blue jeans. To each, I guess.

Like priests and nuns who devote their entire lives to serving God, this kind of missionary work requires a devotion I respect and even envy a little, probably because I could never do it myself. Living your life according to strict guidelines someone else sets for you requires a huge leap of faith, something I’m probably too cynical - and maybe stubborn - to follow. That may also explain why I never joined the army.

Of course, no one has ever asked me to do either.

Religion is such a personal issue, it’s hard for a lot of us to tell others what we believe., let alone share it with complete strangers. That’s another reason I’m impressed with those who do, even if I don’t necessarily share their beliefs. As I finished interviewing him, Elder Black handed me a copy of the Book of Mormon, which Mormons claim is another testimony of Jesus Christ, and asked me to read it.

I said I would and, out of respect, I will try, but I seriously doubt anything will come of it. If for no other reason, I like Diet Mountain Dew and “Shark Tank” too much to convert.

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