When the saints go marching in

Mormon missionaries abroad lead a life of evangelism, community service and mind-numbing austerity.

By Tara Zahra

Published November 20, 2000 8:30PM (EST)

It's not easy to attract attention in the capital's Vaclavske Namesti. Thousands of tourists pack the streets, almost as many cellphones ring and people in Mozart costumes foist concert tickets on you. It's not easy unless you're a gang of 10 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint missionaries, and you are in the midst of conducting a weekly "street display." With clean-cut, clean-shaven faces, white shirts and ties -- no matter the heat -- and North Face backpacks, the Mormons look a bit like a very lost American high school debate team, except that they sing hymns and work the streets in fluent Czech.

And they take themselves far more seriously. "We see ourselves as ambassadors of God and our country," one sister (or female missionary) says.

Their mission: to make "contacts," who might then become "investigators" and receive instruction on church doctrine, and ultimately to "bring people to Jesus" by converting them to full-fledged membership in the LDS Church. There were more than 300,000 such conversions around the world last year, in no small part due to the efforts of over 60,000 missionaries, 77 of whom are stationed in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The term "missionary" evokes images from the past -- Jesuits in South America or the London Missionary Society in Africa. Rarely do we think of 19-year-olds from Utah proselytizing in Prague across from Dunkin' Donuts. But the mission is a rite of passage among young Mormons, or at least among young unmarried males deemed "worthy" by the church (i.e. observant of the church's ban on alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and premarital sex). Men serve for two years and are eligible beginning at age 19.

Women's missions begin later, at 21, and last only 18 months. While the mission is considered a duty for male LDS members, for women "the church would say you should not put off marriage just to go on a mission; you should only go if it really feels right," explains Trisha Randall, a 23-year-old former missionary in the Czech Republic. Since so many Mormon women are married by the time they are 21, almost 80 percent of those who choose to serve are men.

But conversions seem like an unlikely consequence of the street display I observe. One man seems to mistake the missionaries for Disney World characters, handing his camera to his girlfriend and strolling over to have his picture taken. An elderly woman insists on teaching the missionaries a hymn or two of her own, which she sings for them and all of Prague. Another woman comes out of her apartment across the street to ask the singing elders how they like her new haircut.

The "flirt to convert" strategy is strictly forbidden by the church, and officially, male missionaries in the Czech Republic are allowed only to "contact" (or touch) other men, and women only to "contact" women. But it seems that exceptions are made for women of a certain age. I ask how missionaries choose their contacts.

"Most times you pray before you start, and one of the things you ask is that you'll know whom to stop. But when I was feeling lazy I would just talk to old women and men," says Randall. The street display ends when two drunken men start beating each other up in the flower bed behind the choir.

Even if only for the sake of public relations, talking to strangers is considered an integral part of a missionary's work. But getting strangers to respond sometimes requires creative tactics. Randall usually begins with the typical queries: "Have you heard of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Do you believe in God?"

She quickly discovered that there are easier ways to break the ice in a country known for its ambivalence toward organized religion. So she would ask: "Can you tell me the singular form of 'hranolky' (french fries) in Czech?" Another pair of sisters developed a strategy that allowed them to use the language barrier to their advantage: First, sit down on the train next to a potential contact and begin reading the Book of Mormon. Second, find a word in Czech you don't know. Third, ask the contact for a translation. "Five times out of 10 the missionary would end up giving away her Book of Mormon," Randall says.

The decision to do missionary work isn't made lightly. To start, missionaries have no input about which country or region of the world they are sent to. Nor do they enjoy the comforts that most American students studying abroad would consider basic necessities. The rules vary from mission to mission. But in the Czech Republic, alcohol, tobacco and caffeine are forbidden. So are phone calls home, except on Mother's Day and Christmas, when they're mandatory. No Internet and e-mail, no dating, music, movies, TV, radio, going to the gym or newspapers and magazines. Spiritual music and reading, however, are encouraged.

Around the world, missionaries get up at 6 a.m. for three hours of language and religious study, then head out to make contacts, teach investigators and perform community service until 9 p.m., when they are expected to be home. They are in bed by 10:30 p.m., in a room they typically share with their "companion," a junior or senior missionary with whom they are required to work, live and travel 24/7. The missionaries in the Czech Republic receive only about $200 a month to support themselves, even though they (or, more likely, their parents) each pay about $375 a month into a common fund. The church then allocates money from the pot to missionaries around the world according to each country's cost of living.

The Czech missionaries are, however, allowed to eat, so I head out to a cafeteria with them, where we feast on traditional dumplings. They banter about basketball rivalries (they do seem to know how Brigham Young University has done this season) and tease one another about getting "trunky," which I learn is slang for homesick, as in "sitting on your trunk ready to go home." Only the weak get trunky.

The reasoning behind the restrictions is partly doctrinal, partly pedagogical. It's hard to be "Christ-like," the missionaries explain, if you watch the Czech weather report delivered by a naked woman. But the restrictions are also designed to isolate the missionaries from worldly needs and obsessions, to sharpen their devotion to their task and to cultivate obedience and loyalty to the church.

"The whole point is bringing people to Christ," Randall explains. "Anything that is a distraction is something to avoid. Too much thinking about home is a distraction. Too much thinking about current events or being beautiful is also a distraction."

The practical effect of the missionaries' unity in isolation is that, for two years, they live in a cultural twilight zone. They are fully part of neither American nor Czech society; they're exposed to foreign cultures (many for the first time), and also strictly sheltered from those cultures. How, then, do the mostly American missionaries understand the Czech population they serve?

One thing doesn't seem to have changed in the past few centuries. Historically, missionaries often gained the trust of their target communities by offering something they wanted or needed -- medical supplies, education, consumer goods. While Prague missionaries don't seem to consider themselves part of a "civilizing mission," BRT -- "Building Relationships in Trust" -- is frequently accomplished by offering free English lessons. Missionaries say that offering to teach English is typically their last-ditch effort when going door to door. Officially missionaries don't talk about religion during English lessons, which is considered a nonreligious service activity, but it is through these classes that a lot of people first get interested in the church.

"People get curious about why we're teaching English, why we're different from other people they meet," Randall says. "Missionaries are very happy and upbeat."

Of course, being American can also sometimes be a hindrance. "When NATO was bombing Yugoslavia, we got doors slammed in our faces," recalls Elder Mattingly, a 20-year-old missionary from Salt Lake City.

There are other cultural obstacles: In a country where beer is often cheaper than water, the church's prohibition on alcohol -- not to mention caffeine and tobacco -- makes Mormonism a particularly hard sell, as does the practice of tithing. (Mormons are expected to contribute 10 percent of their income to the church.) Randall notes that prevailing sexual mores are also a challenge.

"They lack basic morals," she says of the Czechs. "Things like not sleeping with someone before marriage or being faithful after marriage are totally foreign concepts," she claims.

I visit the Mission House in Prague on "transfer day," when new missionaries arrive from the United States, others travel from one assignment to the next and those finishing their missions return to civilian life. The atmosphere is festive and insular, almost camplike, with hugging and gossip all around, and newbies standing on the sidelines overwhelmed and jet-lagged. We head out to Bohemian Bagel, the one place in Prague where you can get a New York-style bagel. Those going home seem disoriented, and their plans are vague -- school, work, something. It's tough, apparently, to stop being an ambassador of God.

"When missionaries first come home, they just glow. Gradually they have to come back to normal and it's actually a painful process," Randall recalls.

Many ultimately return to their mission countries under less demanding conditions, or use their language skills to pursue international careers. Randall now hopes to obtain a Ph.D. in Eastern European history. For others, the impact is less tangible, but no less significant.

"I think they come back older, wiser," Randall says. "They've learned a lot about what it means to put someone else's needs before their own. They make better husbands and students."

Elder Mattingly tells me he'd like to publish some science fiction stories he has written, and asks me if I have any advice as a writer.

"Expect a lot of rejection," I tell him.

"That's OK, I'm used to rejection," he replies, without missing a beat. And before saying goodbye he gives me some well-rehearsed advice of his own. "Have a good time here, but don't drink the beer."

Tara Zahra

Tara Zahra is a writer living in Germany.

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