Young Mormons leave behind all they know to spread their faith

By MATT PEIKEN

Fairfield Daily Republic; February 2, 1997©

FAIRFIELD — Matthew Boggess doesn’t take no for an answer. He takes it as a sign.

“Every time we’re turned away, I see how much we’re really needed,” Boggess says as he and his companion, Michael Schake, move on to yet another home on Fenne Court.

There’s a black-and-red sign on the white door: No soliciting. Schake and Boggess look at each other, then face the door. Schake knocks.

“We usually knock on everything unless they say ‘No Mormons’ or ‘No Jehovah’s Witness,’” Schake says. “Besides, we’re not selling anything. We’re giving it away.”

The door opens 6 inches to reveal a woman in curlers and a red silk robe. It’s 12:35 p.m. on a Monday.

“Ma’am,” Boggess begins, “we’re just in the neighborhood today sharing a message about Jesus Christ and — “

“No, thank you,” she says. “Not interested.”

“Well, you have a nice” — the door shuts — “day now.”

Visibly unfazed, Boggess and Schake turn away and, one at a time, approach four more homes on the block before another door opens.

“Hi, how’re you doin’ today?” Schake asks a man, who pauses for a moment to look over the two smiling, young men on his porch. He mutters something to himself and closes the door.

On the next street down, Boggess and Schake find a man too engrossed in his ham-on-white to talk about Jesus. They get nowhere with the guy next door: He only speaks Vietnamese. Two houses down, a woman says she’s just heading out to see her sick mother.

“Is there anything we can do for you?” Schake asks her.

“No, thank you.”

“Could we come back another time then?”

“Now is not a good time for me,” the woman says as she closes her front door. And on it goes, just like that, for the next hour and 15 minutes.

Only one in every 1,000 door-to-door encounters results in a baptism, say Mormon missionaries, many of whom finish their service without one such convert.

But Boggess and Schake say they aren’t discouraged, that they learned long ago to accept this as part of daily life as missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints.

Answering the Call

Each month, thousands of young Mormons leave behind family, friends, girls, jobs and dreams — everyone and everything they know — to go, they say, where God needs them most.

Missionary work is voluntary, but it’s also a traditional rite of passage for Mormons, particularly boys, on the crest of adulthood.

Nearly 200 of the 55,000 missionaries worldwide are called to the Santa Rosa mission, a vast territory spanning Ukiah south to Benicia and east to Davis.

Missions last two years for men, 18 months for women. Missionaries could serve in a half-dozen towns during that time, but will never leave the geographical boundaries of the mission they’re first assigned.

Of the 200 missionaries serving in the Santa Rosa mission, about 20 at any given time live, work and spread the Mormon gospel in and around Fairfield.

“A lot of people live their whole lives and never hear anything about Jesus Christ,” said Brian Powell, who came from Mesa, Ariz., to serve his mission here. “But our whole belief is that everyone is a child of God and deserves to discover the blessings we can have from Him and know how to gain eternal salvation.”

That’s a statement of faith — a testimony — these young Mormons carry so close to their consciousness at a time in their lives when they carry little else.

All missionaries are between 19 and 26 years old and, for most, it’s their first significant time away from home.

Missionaries live much like monks. They can’t watch television, go to movies or go on dates. They can’t read any books, magazines or newspapers published outside the auspices of the Mormon church.

They’re only allowed to use the phone for missionary business and can only call home three times a year — on Christmas Day, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Otherwise, postcards and letters are their sole contact to family and anyone else they know outside the mission.

The isolation, the theory goes, keeps missionaries focused on their singular purpose.

“If people ever want an impartial jury, they should get missionaries,” said Powell, who was at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, as the O.J. Simpson murder trial closed. Simpson was free for three weeks before Powell heard about the verdict.

Despite the seclusion, Mormon missionaries are never alone. Whenever one is transferred to another town, he’s paired up with another missionary.

The “companions,” as they’re called, work, eat, sleep, travel and spend free time together for as long as they’re serving in the same district. A missionary can’t go shopping, sit in his apartment or even go to church without his companion.

It’s a buddy system with important purposes. Companions watch out for each other in a world that doesn’t understand them, keep each other committed to their missions and, in the inevitable moments of personal despair, a companion is often the only person around who will listen.

Pitching practice

Like peace officers, on-the-job missionaries wear badges marking them as members of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints. The badge identifies a missionary as an “elder,” a title of hierarchy within the Mormon church.

Though, technically, all Mormon boys become elders at 18, only missionaries formally use the title before their last names. Missionaries can spend months together without knowing each other’s first names.

Here, they meet at the church on Travis Boulevard every Monday morning, grounding each other with two hours of prayer, song, testimony and lessons from the missionary handbook.

But today, Bryan Lords is clearly straying from the handbook..

“This Kool-Aid represents faith,” Lords tells the nine other missionaries in this morning’s group as he stands before them and empties a cup of pink powder into a tin pitcher.

“But faith isn’t enough, so we add sugar, which represents work,” he says while pouring a cup of sugar atop the powder. “But you can’t just have faith and work, so we add water, which represent righteousness.”

“Um, Elder Lords?” a missionary interrupts. “Your faith has clumped on the bottom there.”

A short burst of laughter comes from the other eight missionaries here. Lords smiles at this, too, but continues stirring.

“You see,” he says while stepping back to admire his brew, “when you mix it all up, it combines to equal someone’s salvation.”

Lords pours some of the punch-flavored deliverance into glasses and hands one to each missionary.

“Thank you, Elder Lords, for that tasty and enlightening demonstration,” says Trent Anderson, a zone leader among the missionaries here, who heads up the Monday meetings.

The meetings are geared to sharpen the tools a missionary uses while working with “investigators.” An investigator is someone exploring the possibility of joining the Mormon church.

Missionaries hope to foster an investigator’s interest to the point of baptism, and Monday’s meetings are rife with lessons, exercises and mock conversations to help make missionaries more effective.

Jason Hodges steps to the front of the small assembly room and explains the importance of follow-up in guiding investigators toward their baptisms.

“One of the things we have to do as missionaries is be there for the investigators when they have doubts, when they fall back,” Hodges says.

He then calls on the other missionaries to help him with a role-playing demonstration. He asks Ryan Lyman, the newest missionary here, to play the part of an investigator and stand on a table. Hodges then has the other missionaries line up behind Lyman in two narrow rows.

“Now,” Hodges says, “the investigators should feel we are there for them when they fall back.”

Hodges nods to Lyman, who tentatively leans backward. The missionaries snicker as he falls toward them, but catch him as he gets parallel to the floor.

Before they close the meeting, the missionaries each give a short, personal testimony of faith. They then stand together as Anderson directs them, like a choral conductor, through a rendition of “Called to Serve.”

The missionaries recite this hymn as if it were a collegiate fight song. And on that high note, they leave the church, unlock their bicycles and ride away in pairs, hoping that the lessons they learned inside make a difference with people they’ve never met.

Harvey’s first step

Harvey Wooten can’t remember when his bad luck started, but he knows it got worse around six months ago, when he lost his job at a Kmart in South San Francisco.

When people weren’t accusing him of stealing, dealing or doing drugs himself, Wooten found himself around people caught up with that much and more. He once got yanked from his car and beaten up. Another time, someone threw a ring full of keys into his face and knocked out his front teeth.

Worse, nobody would hire a 43-year-old with no education.

In desperation, he thought about joining any number of churches — Pentecostal, Lutheran, Methodist, even Jehovah’s Witnesses – before moving into his mother’s house in Fairfield.

Pat Wooten, baptized Mormon last October, talked her son into considering the Mormon faith.

“I ain’t never been religious,” he says. “But at this point, it couldn’t hurt.”

So he agreed to sit down this morning with two missionaries — elders Hodges and Powell — and go through the first of six formal discussions all non-Mormons must go through before they can be baptized.

Harvey Wooten greets the missionaries in matching jeans and button-down shirt, a pack of Marlboro Golds in the front pocket and the sleeves rolled up to the elbow. His right forearm sports an ink-blue tattoo of a half-man, half-lion with a bird’s head and wings.

Hodges and Powell sit opposite the Wootens at a table in the Wootens’ dining room. The missionaries pull out copies of the Book of Mormon and a booklet called “The Plan of Our Heavenly Father — Discussion 1.”

Powell leads them in a prayer, then Hodges turns to Harvey.

“One of the basic principles of this church is that there is a God with absolute power,” Hodges says. “Harvey, can you tell me your thoughts about God?”

“Well,” he says, “he can take you out any time he wants to.”

“Yes, he can take us out at any time,” Hodges agrees, “but we believe Him to be a loving, kind, merciful god, who only wants us to be saved so we can return to Him. We often refer to him as Our Heavenly Father.”

“We’re only human,” Powell adds, “and we commit many sins.

“That’s true,” Harvey says, raising his eyebrows.

“But Jesus,” Powell continues, “is here to save us from our sins.

Powell opens a small booklet to a drawing of Jesus Christ, then stands the booklet upright on the table so that the picture faces Harvey.

“All we need to do is to believe in Christ and everything he taught,” Powell tells him, “and then we can overcome our sins and have everlasting life with Him.”

To this point, Harvey Wooten has spent most of the discussion with his jaw planted in his right hand. Powell asks him to read a passage aloud from the Bible, but Harvey shakes his head, and Powell instead turns to Mrs. Wooten for a reading.

“So how do you feel knowing that what you just heard is true?” Hodges asks Harvey.

“Good,” he says. “Blessed.”

“Great!” Hodges beams, sensing for the first time that he might be making progress with this new investigator. “That’s exactly what you’re supposed to feel.”

“Now,” he adds, “we do have free agency. By that, I mean that we’re free to do as we wish. God doesn’t make any choices for us. But every action we take has consequences. We can either make our God happy or we can make him unhappy and, by doing so, tell Him that we don’t want to live with Him. It’s Jesus Christ telling you, in your heart, what is right.”

“But it doesn’t make any difference us telling you about it,” Hodges adds. “The only thing that will let you know, in your own heart, is for you to pray about it.”

“To the man upstairs,” Harvey says to himself while staring down into his own clasped hands.

“Yes, but you must ask him with reverence and with respect,” Hodges says. “And if you do, you’ll receive the same answer we have.”

Lives on hold

For boys who grow up Mormon, the question is generally “when,” rather than “whether,” they will serve missions.

Jason Hodges, a fourth-generation Mormon, is among many missionaries here who have followed older brothers, fathers and grandfathers into service. Still, he says, leaving for his mission took all the strength he could muster.

Hodges danced professionally and, by the time he turned 17, owned a car-restoration business in Tampa, Fla.

“I started with a ’66 Mustang,” he recalls with a grin. “When I got that, I was in love.”

He was also engaged to be married. But the longer he waited to go on his mission, he figured, the harder it would have been to pull away. So, at 19, he left behind his business and fiancé to fulfill his commitment by birthright.

Bryan Lords grew up in a Mormon household and, like Hodges, had built a personal life that tugged him away from the church.

After scoring 80 touchdowns in four seasons of varsity ball at Bonneville High School in Idaho Falls, Ida., Lords earned a football scholarship at nearby Chadron State University. There, during his freshman season, he cracked the starting lineup as a wide receiver.

At that point, Lords says, serving a mission was the last thing on his mind. But as the third of four boys in his family, Lords also felt compelled to look through what he believed was a window into his own future.

Lords’ oldest brother had served a mission, his next-oldest brother hadn’t, and Lords was moved by the contrasts he saw in their lives.

“My oldest brother is very patient with his kids and he works things out well with his wife,” Lords says. “He just knows more what he wants out of life, whereas my other brother had a lot more trouble getting his life together. I saw them and knew what path I wanted for myself.”

Lords stepped away from his scholarship in spring 1995, confident that another offer would come his way when he returns home this May.

Brian Powell is among the relatively few who serve missions shortly after committing to the church, themselves.

Powell’s parents divorced when he was 8, and he spent much of the next 11 years drinking, smoking and bouncing back and forth between his father in Arlington, Tex., and mother in Mesa, Ariz.

His aunt and stepmother first exposed him to the Mormon faith, and Powell attended his first Sunday service and met with a missionary the year his younger brother died of cerebral palsy

Powell went through all six formal discussions in nine days, and he left for his mission just 18 months after his own baptism.

“Dear John”

Nearly every missionary goes through some sort of homesickness. Most miss family and the familiarity of their home towns. Many, though, long most deeply for girlfriends or fiancés back home.

At a time in life when others their age are just starting to explore their sexuality, missionaries aren’t only barred from dating, but can’t be alone in the same room with someone of the opposite sex.

Compounding the frustration is the near-certainty — historically 90 to 95 percent, missionaries say — that those attached to someone back home will lose that person long before they return from their missions.

They call it getting “Dear Johned,” coined from the inevitable letter in which missionaries not only find out they’ve lost their sweethearts, but often that their former girlfriends or boyfriends are about to marry someone else.

Powell got “Dear Johned” after nine months. Michael Schake’s girlfriend left him, as many do, to marry someone who has already returned from his mission. Jason Hodges received his last correspondence from Amy McCoskie five months into his mission. It was a typed form-letter titled, appropriately, “Dear John.”

“I got this big, thick envelope, and I just said ‘Oh, no.’ I didn’t even have to open it,” Hodges says. “Some guys just get a card. You don’t have to open that, either, because you just know it’s a wedding invitation.”

Despite the storied trail of heartache, Matthew Boggess is confident his girlfriend will be there for him in 19 months, when he returns to Papillon, Neb.

“I don’t think she’s gonna ‘Dear John’ me,” Boggess says. “We said we could date other people.”

Schake overhears this and laughs.

“Oooh, bad mistake. Bad mistake,” he says, shaking his head. “How can you agree to date other people when you can’t date anybody yourself?”

Boggess sits silently for a moment, as if he’s just now grasping the implications of the one-sided arrangement.

“Well,” he says. “I’m still getting letters from her.”

“Oh yeah?” Schake says. “When was the last one?”

“It’s been a couple of months,” Boggess says. “But that’s the way she is. She’ll wait two or three months and then I’ll get a bunch of letters at once.

“Oh, man,” Schake says. “She’s gone.”

Clean living

A scuffed, white wall separates the bedroom Powell and Hodges share from the one Lyman and Anderson occupy at Sunset Manor apartments, off Tabor and Sunset avenues.

A copy of the last “Calvin & Hobbes” comic strip and a screaming headline from the Weekly World News — “Heaven Photographed By Hubble Telescope” — are the only signs of personality on walls otherwise dotted sparsely with images of Christ and other holy scenes.

This particular apartment has been a bunkhouse for missionaries since the 1980s.

The living room couches are worn and frayed, the golden shag carpet stained, streaked and matted with years of bicycle grease and tread. The bedroom furniture is a hodge-podge of salvaged bureaus and bed frames, and many missionaries who have stayed here before have carved their signatures into the legs and drawers.

The rent is paid for from the $375 each missionary’s parents or guardians pay each month for the privilege of having their children serve. That money also provides the $125 each month a missionary gets for living expenses.

It may not seem like much to live on but, unlike most kids their age, missionaries need little in the way of cash.

There are no girlfriends, CDs, movies, concerts, sporting events, long-distance phone calls or weekend beer runs gnawing at their wallets. Missionaries ride bicycles so they don’t have to maintain and buy gas for a car. The church takes care of the utility bills, and missionaries have long made a habit of accepting invitations to dinner at the houses of local church members.

The cupboards in this apartment are filled with Spaghetti-Os, Top Ramen, Tuna Helper, a box of Whoppers malt balls and a can of Nalley’s “Lima Bean and Ham, with sauce,” along with other minimalist staples. On rare nights here, Hodges whips up something more palatable for his housemates.

Missionaries come and go with such regularity that the fewer personal trappings, the easier it is to pick up and move. Transfer day in this mission is the last Tuesday of every month, and a missionary doesn’t know if he or she is staying or leaving until the night before, when the zone leader calls to deliver the news.

Missionaries rarely stay in one zone for more than three or four months straight, and they’re notorious for the ability to pack everything they own in an hour and two armloads and meet the morning van that takes them God-knows-where.

The movement is to keep missionaries from growing too comfortable or attached to their companions, as well as to other church members and the area, itself. When a missionary transfers from the area in the midst of working with an investigator, an incoming missionary steps in seamlessly.

Missionaries used to live in Travion Garden Apartments, up the street from the church on Travis Boulevard. That’s where they met Myrtle Jarrett, whom they have come to regard with endearment as The Eternal Investigator.

So many missionaries have transferred in and out of Myrtle’s life that, at 72, she keeps a “Book of Angels” to remember them all. Inside her “Book of Angels,” sitting on the coffee table next to her Book of Mormon, are snapshots and index cards of well-wishes from every missionary who has dropped by her apartment.

They started coming by two years ago, when her husband was sick. Myrtle went through the formal discussions, but never committed to a baptism. Her husband has since died and missionaries are no longer in the apartment above her, yet Myrtle continues calling on “my boys,” inviting them to dinner and hosting the occasional birthday party for a missionary.

Elder Lords recently asked her when she’s getting baptized, she waved him off.

“Oh,” she said with a chuckle, “you know I don’t have time for that.”

At last count, there were 53 missionaries enshrined in Myrtle’s “Book of Angels.” And though the missionaries are always ready to talk shop, by now, they figure Myrtle wants the company more than the faith.

A spiritual investment

Darron Singleton first heard about Mormon beliefs through Jeremy Custer, a boy down the street. The 13-year-old boys would meet at Jeremy’s house to read scripture and, when Darron’s curiosity grew, Jeremy invited him to church. Soon after, they called on missionaries.

Today, elders Schake and Boggess are leading Darron through the fifth formal discussion and introducing him to the concept of tithing.

“It’s an expression of faith,” Boggess tells him, explaining that Mormons are spiritually obligated to give 10 percent of their incomes to the church.

“If you don’t pay your tithing, you’re pretty much robbing God,” Boggess tells the boy. “But if you do pay tithing, you’ll be returned more blessings than you’ll know what to do with.”

Boggess pulls 10 dimes from his pocket, asks for Darron’s hand, then places the dimes in the 13-year-old’s open palm.

“Imagine that this is the money you’ve earned from your job,” Boggess says. “Now, what tithing means is that for every 10 dimes you earn, you give one back to the church.”

At Boggess’ request, Darron hands a dime back to the missionary.

“See, that still leaves you with nine dimes,” Boggess says. “That seems fair, doesn’t it?” Darron nods slowly.

“Sure,” he says.

“So, will you pay tithing after you’re baptized?” Boggess asks him.

Without hesitation, Darron answers “yes.”

Boys will be boys

Missionaries have every Wednesday off. In their world, though, free time is never quite free time, and excitement comes in short, organized doses.

They ceremoniously burn a tie after six months of service, a shirt after one year and a pair of pants after 18 months. Just before going home, a missionary sets a complete suit ablaze.

Missionaries often initiate newcomers by wrapping them shoulder-to-toe in green cellophane. One of the more inane, fraternity-inspired contests calls for drinking a gallon of milk in one hour without retching. Few people ever win.

Missionaries rarely go more than month or two without suffering some sort of battle scar.

Jason Hodges once sprayed mace on a dog that had cornered him on a porch. A man in Clear Lake chased Brian Powell and his companion off his property with a shotgun. A few years ago, as another story goes, someone robbed a room full of missionaries at gunpoint during a Monday church meeting.

And every missionary on a bike, it seems, is peppered daily with what they call “drive-by shoutings.”

“We like to think that with every persecution we get, our future wife gets better looking,” Schake says.

Powell, who says he entered with a “sugar-coated impression” of missionary work, was so discouraged by his lack of success early on that he fell into self-doubt and depression. Powell’s companion told him this was normal, but Powell believed the roots of the problem branched deeper than sheer hard luck.

“What it came down to was my faith,” he says. “The truth was that I hadn’t been doing well on my morning and evening prayers. So my companion helped me pray with all my heart and soul and, eventually, I got my faith where it’s supposed to be.”

To date, neither hard-luck Harvey Wooten nor young Darron Singleton has been baptized. But while baptisms are a tangible goal, missionaries say their impact can’t be defined or measured by the number of people they bring into the Mormon faith.

Through their mere presence, they say, people consider their own commitments to religion and, ultimately, their own morality. If nothing else, one missionary says, there are 55,000 missionaries — young people — who, at any one time, are finding their own places in the world.

“It says throughout the Book of Mormon to spread the word, and that’s what we do. But I really believe the missions are for us, too,” Hodges says. “Back home, I didn’t have a direction for how my faith fit into my life. Now I’m thinking about what kind of example I can be to my family and my community”

“I was told this would be the best and worst two years of my life, and that’s all true,” Powell adds. “I came in a boy and I’ll leave here a man.”