Mormon missionaries proselytize despite hurdles
By Mary Garrigan, Journal Staff Writer
At 5 p.m., the thermometer reads 103 degrees in the shade, and Elder Jeff Pyper, a burly young Mormon missionary with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has been knocking on doors in a Rapid City neighborhood all afternoon.
Angie Friedt and her daughter, Landry, 6, answer a knock at the door of their Rapid Valley home from three missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Steve McEnroe/Journal staff)
“I was 350 pounds this morning,” Pyper joked, “but I’ve lost 20 percent of my body weight through water loss today.”
Pyper, 22, was exaggerating his girth and his weight loss but not the high temperatures, when he and two fellow missionaries — Elder Michael Winegar, 20, and Elder Kyle Hodgson, 21, — spent a recent afternoon proselytizing in Rapid Valley.
Typically, there are 10 or 12 young Mormons assigned to be LDS missionaries in the Rapid City area. They do what Jesus Christ instructed his first disciples to do — go out into the world, two by two, and spread the gospel armed with little more than the sandals on their feet.
Pyper, Winegar and Hodgson don’t wear sandals, of course. They dress in the standard uniform that immediately identifies them as one of the approximately 53,000 LDS missionaries worldwide. Short-sleeve white shirts, ties and dark pants, along with close-cropped hair and a fresh-scrubbed look, is the required dress code for LDS elders, which is the church’s title for young male missionaries.
The beastly hot weather they’ve endured this month is only one of the hazards that missionaries face while going door to door handing out religious materials, including the Book of Mormon.
The three young missionaries admit they are more likely to encounter apathetic, rude or downright hostile people than interested ones while “tracting.” But in the missionary field, a day of successful tracting is rarely obvious or immediate, they say.
“Who can say what’s success?” Winegar said. “You never know when a knock on the door will bear fruit somewhere down the road.”
Sister Lauren Benally, 22, is one of two female LDS missionaries serving in Rapid City now. Benally said tracting tends to be easier for female missionaries than males.
“Males have a much harder time of it,” she said, noting that women missionaries are more likely to be invited into the home by stay-at-home mothers or retired women who answer the door during the day. “Everyone is usually nicer to women, and other women are more likely to relate to us as women. A lot of them are surprised that girls do this, too.”
Female missionaries such as Benally and her companion, Sister Amy Domgaard, are a bit of a novelty in the LDS world.
“There are not too many of us,” Benally said. The South Dakota Rapid City Mission Office, one of 344 mission offices worldwide, directs LDS missionary activity in an area that covers parts of Wyoming, all of North and South Dakota and parts of Minnesota. It has only seven female missionaries but 110 male missionaries.
Worldwide, about 80 percent of all missionaries are young men between the ages of 19 and 26. Thirteen percent are young women, and another 7 percent are older couples. Women must be 21 to participate, and they serve a shorter, 18-month term.
Regardless of their gender, LDS missionaries say they spend the bulk of their time teaching lessons on church doctrine, not handing out tracts. Tracting is considered the least effective way of winning converts to the growing church, which now claims 5.6 million members in the United States and about 12 million worldwide.
Most evenings, they go into the homes of people who have expressed an interest in learning more about the Mormon faith, giving short tutorials on specific theology that delineates the LDS church from other Christian churches.
Many Mormons, including the three missionaries, express astonishment at the suggestion, often made by other Christian churches, that LDS theology is not compatible with traditional Christian doctrine. Mormons say they are Christians because they, too, believe in Jesus Christ and consider the Bible to be holy scripture.
The additional scripture in which they believe, including the Book of Mormon, is also the word of God, church authorities say. It is modern-day, divine revelation via church founder Joseph Smith that restores the teachings of the earliest church. They are a Christian, not a Protestant, church.
Joel and Crystal Sarvey are active LDS church members who make a point of inviting visiting missionaries into their Rapid Valley home for a meal and prayer every month.
“They bring a good spirit with them,” said Crystal, who on a recent evening made enough pork chops, mashed potatoes and gravy to feed her own eight children as well as three hungry missionaries.
As missionaries, Winegar, Pyper and Hodgson are discouraged from reading newspapers, watching television or listening to the radio. They focus on church reading, not current events, which makes it easier to stay on task — sharing the LDS faith.
“This has made me so happy, I want to share it with others,” Pyper said of his faith.
Neither of the Sarveys did missionary work as young Mormons, but they say they will strongly encourage their own kids to do a two-year mission, and they will support them financially if they do. Missionaries often save for years to pay for their own expenses, or their families sponsor them with donations to the church.
Missionary participation rates vary greatly from country to country and stake to stake. In Utah, where the church is headquartered, as many as 90 percent or more of young LDS members go on mission. In other stakes, rates are much lower.
In the meantime, the Sarveys will keep welcoming and feeding the visiting missionaries who pass through their home. These are young people who have given up their own families — and everything familiar — for two years of sacrifice to the church, Joel Sarvey said.
“It’s certainly an act of faith on their part,” he said.
In the field
At any given time, the Rapid City Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a half dozen or so of its young adult members serving missions all over the world, according to Stake President Lonnie Dunn.
“We’ve had missionaries return recently from places like Madagascar, Costa Rica, Paris and London,” Dunn said.
Six church members — four from Rapid City, one from Belle Fourche and one from Sturgis — are serving LDS missions. They are:
-- Kalin Anderson, 19, of Rapid City, serving in Louisville, Ky.
-- Sara Beu, 22, of Rapid City, serving in Quinto, Ecuador
-- Michael Roberts, 19, of Rapid City, serving in the Mexico City North Mission, Mexico
-- Mark Roberts, 20, Rapid City, serving in Pocatello, Idaho
-- Ben Dewey, 19, Belle Fourche, serving in Anchorage, Alaska
-- Nathan Roth, 20, of Sturgis, serving in Helsinki, Finland