Missionaries are here to serve

More and more young adult members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are proselytizing and performing community service these days as missionaries for the church.

The decision to allow men to begin serving at age 18, instead of 19, and women at age 19, instead of 21, was announced at an LDS biannual conference in October 2012. Applications to serve missions increased dramatically following the announcement.

Missionary service is not compulsory, nor is it required for young people to retain their LDS church membership, yet male members are expected to serve a two-year mission unless physical, mental or emotional health issues prevent their service. The men, who are addressed as elders, serve two-year missions.

Young women, who are addressed as sisters, serve 18 months. Unmarried women are not under the same expectation as the male members; they may make a personal decision to serve, generally for a term of 18 months and there is no maximum age for missionary service.

Two young women, Sister Gordon and Sister Andersen, are among the missionaries serving in Minot. They aren’t as “visible” as the young men who are often seen walking from place to place. The women often use vehicles to get around; it is a safer way to travel. Sometimes they ride bicycles or walk.

The days of missionaries are structured and routine. They arise at 6:30 a.m. and go to bed at 10:30 p.m. They stay with their assigned companion, who is another missionary of the same gender. They don’t date and avoid being alone with members of the opposite sex. Watching television and using the Internet, except to write emails to family members, is also against the rules. Telephone calls are made twice a year on Mother’s Day and Christmas.

Gordon, 22, from Mount Pleasant, Utah, has been serving as a missionary for 13 months and Andersen, 19, whose home is in St. George, Utah, has been serving for only two months. Andersen made her decision to serve as a missionary when the age announcement was made. Gordon served as a missionary for six months in Fargo and six months in Casper, Wyo., prior to coming to Minot and Andersen started her missionary work in Minot.

Transfers, which also can be referred to as a change of location, are not uncommon and sometimes missionaries are in an area for only six weeks before they are called to another stake/area. For missionaries who come to Minot their calls could be to wards in North Dakota, South Dakota and parts of Nebraska, Minnesota and Wyoming. Their “calls to serve” come with rewards and challenges because the sisters and elders find themselves spending weeks on end living and working with someone they’ve never met before.

What’s it like for these young people to be away from family and friends for the 18 months?

“Just being out for two months has been really hard,” Andersen said. “There’s a lot of homesickness but I’ve gotten over it with a lot of prayer and studying. It’s different. It’s definitely different because I haven’t lived away from home before. I am out here and I can’t talk to them. I can only write to them once a week.”

Andersen added, “It’s definitely hard but I love it because it allows me to put all my trust in the Lord and I realize he is taking care of me and everything will be OK.”

Gordon agreed with Andersen.

“Sometimes it is hard because some of my family members aren’t living the way that I teach people to live. I sometimes feel like I would do a lot better being at home to help them. Then I realize I’m doing better for them being here being an example for them.”

The sisters dress much differently than the elders. The elders wear white shirts, ties and black dress pants.

“It’s different,” said Andersen. “We used to dress in drab colors but now we are encouraged to wear brighter colors so we are more noticeable.”

“People who would listen before will still listen, but lots of people who’ve written the (sisters) off thinking, ‘here are two people who want me to join their drab-looking religion,’ will instead think, ‘here are two cute people who want to share some bright message with me,’ ” Dana Blackburn, a sister recently called to the Calif., San-Fernando Spanish-speaking mission, said. “It’s been a long time coming. They changed all the things making sister missionaries feel like they’re dressing drab.”

Missionaries are expected to fund their missions themselves, or with the aid of their family. A mission costs about $400 a month for the food, lodging and transportation, which comes out to $9,600 over the course of a two-year mission for men, or $7,200 for an 18-month mission for a woman.

The missionaries’ visits aren’t made door-to-door in this area. They visit members of the LDS church who are called “less active,” those people who don’t come to church every Sunday and may be struggling in their faith in Jesus Christ. They also visit “investigators,” the people who want to learn more about the LDS faith and what the members believe. The “investigators” are often friends of LDS members.

“The mission work is so rewarding,” Gordon said. “It’s really hard. There are times when it really stretches you. Through service I have been able to forget about myself and my needs and focus on what other people need in their lives. It has truly helped me become the person who I am today.”

Andersen agreed with Gordon’s sentiments. “I love it. It’s a lot of fun and seeing how we can change people. I have had some incredible experiences.”