My coworker and friend posted a note on Facebook today titled “The Missionaries in my Neighborhood” that caught my eye.  At first, I thought it would be a complaint about those pesky, nerdy, door to door missionary tracting, but it turns out she liked regularly seeing these missionaries in her neighborhood!  Wow!  Blew my mind.

Here’s what she said:

We know them by their white shirts and their black pants. They go in pairs, on bicycles. They wave sometimes. One day while I was pushing a baby stroller and being pulled along by a large dog, one of them shouted, “Happy Family Time!” I think if he hadn’t been zipping along on his bike he would’ve gotten an earful of why doesn’t he try having a freaking happy family time while struggling to restrain a dog from chasing after rabbits and capsizing a baby stroller!!! But at that point in early motherhood I was too tired to speak and only managed a bleary smile in return.

Mostly I am curious about them, and amused by their presence. I would like to know what missionary board in what far off place decided to send them to the jungle that is Savoy of Josey Ranch. I don’t know, it seems like a nice normal suburban neighborhood to me. We could use some gentle nagging about weed control and fence maintenance, but it is not exactly the kind of place where you need to dig wells, build bridges, or construct schools. (I could use some help watering my flowerbeds, though.)

What’s more amazing is that it’s not just two missionaries who accidentally took a wrong turn on the way to Kenya. It took me awhile to realize this, since their haircuts never change. But I finally noticed: They never get older! Obviously, no one has a mission lasting from 1997 to 2011. It’s year after year, a new crew coming in, trying once again to inspire the heathen hordes. This spring, passing the brick house where they seem to stay while here, I noticed a chubby black guy in a white shirt and black pants. He is definitely a new one! I worried whether he would be able to keep up on the bicycle in the Texas heat.

Lately I have been looking around for them. Where are they? Do missionaries go on summer vacation? Did they decide that the bikes were impractical, and they should drive cars like everyone else? Or are they finally giving up and shutting down? Wait, I think we might need you here after all! I’ve often referred to this neighborhood as a mini-UN. We have neighbors from Switzerland, Germany, Thailand, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, Korea, Japan, China, Mexico, Colombia…. We have people of all ethnicities, religions, and political persuasions. Why shouldn’t we have missionaries, too? Come back, we need your perspective! We need your smiling faces! This time, I swear, I will listen to your advice and have a happy family time. What missionary board do I need to write to, to set this straight?

Well, in case she doesn’t know, I’ll out myself right here online… I was once a white shirted, black trousered missionary like these guys!  So I thought I’d give the perspective from the other side of the bicycle and respond to her queries, however rhetorical they may or may not have been:

The missionary board decides where to send these young missionaries based on need throughout the world.  The world is divided geographically into “missions” and a missionary will be assigned to spend both years within the same geography.  Most of north Dallas is in the “Dallas Texas Mission” which goes east to Arkansas, south to Austin and north to Oklahoma.  As with most things in the Church, this is intensely organized and centrally managed at Church HQ.

Most of the young men and women (yes, there are women – just less conspicuous) who go on missions serve proselyting missions.  Their main goal is to help introduce new people to the church.  So, though we have plenty of service missionaries (usually retired couples) digging wells and building schools in Africa, the most visible missionary effort by the young people is in conversion.

We get sent everywhere, and since the world is a big place with varying atitudes toward organized religion, results vary.  My mission to Brasil saw many more conversions than my wife’s to Bulgaria.  I was regularly taunted by the local children in the streets of Brazil, who are playing one giant perpetual game of street futebol, with them calling me Papai Noel (Santa Claus) and Diablo Loiro (blonde devil, one of their famous futebolers).  It was fun when you had a companion (as I did once) who was a real soccer player and could school these street hoodlums.  Such diversions were always fun until they whipped out the only English that had stuck after years of studying english in their primary education:  “F$&% you”.

I blame hollywood for that.  It still rings in my ears to this day in a terrible portingles accent.

It was educational to see different attitudes toward religion.  Some were stauch in their beliefs but very courteous, others were staunch in their beliefs but quite rude, while most were just simply apathetic to the idea of religion at all.  When you knock on 100 doors or more per day wearing the name “Jesus Christ” on your name badge, you get a sense of what people think about Him – and – sadly – some people don’t have a lot of nice things to say.

But I digress; the missionaries’ hair never changes because there are pretty strict guidelines for dress and grooming.  One big recent change was that women missionaries did not have to wear nylon stockings anymore.  Guidelines for men haven’t changed in nearly 50 years.  White shirts, dark pants, conservative ties.  But it gets more particular.  In my mission a poorly translated letter from Church HQ told us in portuguese that we weren’t to use hair gel.  In the original English this read “wet look styles.”  Since hairspray and other “dry” hair products were not abundant (and ineffective anyway), my hair looked like I had stuck my finger in a light socket for the better part of the two years.  I had to cut it short, but could not use much product in it.  It was goofy.  But I did it.  A lot of hay gets made about mission rules, as you can imagine when you start telling 19 year olds what to do.  Some cook up elaborate justifications or blessings that can be attained by precise rule keeping, but the truth is that most rules are there to either preserve the image of the Church or because some idiot missionary had, at one time or another, gotten a bright idea that went terribly wrong.

So what happened to your missionaries?  Most likely they just moved off your street.  If it’s a single family home neighborhood, they were likely living with a church member in their home, which can be both a blessing and a curse both to the missionaries and the members – so they don’t stay more than 2 or 3 years in a single home.  Rest assured there are still missionaries covering your area, you just probably don’t see them as much because they moved — or were issued a car.

Yes… a car.  Cars are the holy grail of missionary work.  If your geographic area is large enough, you will be issued a car.  I walked all twenty four months of my mission, because you couldn’t walk 10 feet in Sao Paulo without seeing a new face on the street to talk to.  Here, where everyone stays in their insular suburban cocoons, cars are essential for missionaries to cover enough ground and make it on time to their appointments.

Your missionaries never get older because they can only serve if they are between 19-25 and they are only assigned for 24 months (men) and 18 months (women).  There are older missionaries, but they usually serve after retirement with their spouse and don’t follow quite as rigorous a schedule as the young ones.

And vacations?  Ha.  Are you kidding?  You go two years with no vacation and only two calls home a year (Mother’s day and Christmas).  You get six hours of one day a week to “prepare” for the week ahead – laundry, writing home, etc – but that’s all the time off you get.

Finally, are they giving up and shutting down?  Never!  Well, almost never.  There was a couple of areas in my mission that did get shut down.  These are usually rural communities that don’t have enough members to form a congregation, or where there have been significant problems in the church.  Even so, there will be missionaries assigned to that area in case there is interest, they just aren’t supposed to actively work the area.

In case you do ever want missionaries to stop by, you can go to http://mormon.org/missionaries and submit your address, or just call the local mission office at (972) 788-5060.  Missionaries are always ready to share a message about Christ and the importance of the family.

A mission is routinely referred to as “the best two years” of a young Mormon’s life.  In a sense, they are right.  It was (and probably will always be) the only time in your life where you had NO worries at all.  Your needs were completely taken care of.  You spent 24/7 thinking about others’ needs.  It was heartbreaking work, physically exhausting, mentally challenging, socially difficult, and emotionally draining.  For the missionary, though, this experience is what sears all the religious upbringing you have had into your heart and soul.  It is a defining time which sets the stage for how you will commit and conduct for the rest of your life.

On the other side, though, I wouldn’t give up my wife or little boy and the two and a half years we’ve known each other for another mission.  I think these have definitely been the best two years of my life.  And the next two.  And the next two.  And the next.  …

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6 Responses to The view from the other side of the bike

  1. A2 says:

    I think we should get your co-worker one of those jumping mormon tee-shirts 😉

  2. Laurel says:

    Oh, gosh, I hope your readers who don’t know me won’t take it wrong. I like the “family time” idea a lot, and loved his saying that. Thanks for sharing your view. It must be an intersting experience, wherever you go. I do feel sorry for the boys assigned here, though. They’re dreaming all their lives, wondering what exotic destination is in their future, and then it’s…. Carrollton?! Texas?! What a letdown!

  3. Oh – no worries – I don’t think anyone who has ever had kids (or pets) could take that wrong.

  4. A1 says:

    Love seeing the perspective from the other side. Nathan was peeking over my shoulder and his comment, “Why is it always so long and without pictures?” Nice long post (without pictures). 🙂

  5. The Grape says:

    Good blog…I never had the blessing of being able to serve a mission, but did support my three sons who served. I had hoped to serve with Grandma Grape but she was called home at a early age to serve a mission beyond the veil of mortality….so I keep serving and trying to help others here in my little corner of the world/. One thing I have tried to do is if I see the missionaries out and about, I see if I can buy them lunch or dinner. I can boast and be very proud that 20 or so of my family members have served missions (men and women).

  6. Ron says:

    Great post! You should contact the missionaries in your co-worker’s area and suggest they stop by your co-worker’s house and offer to water her flower beds.

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