They walk through urban slums in sweltering heat, struggle with native languages to try to be understood, and explain the teachings of a religion some have never heard of.
They suffer through self-doubt, constant public rejection, marathon days, barren months of door-knocking and teaching “investigators” of the faith without converts to show for it.
They are the young female missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who are seeking, during their 18-month assignments, to spread the American-born faith in unfamiliar cultures in far-flung places. Though four times outnumbered by their more familiar counterparts, the young “elders,” or male missionaries, the LDS “sisters” work with similar zeal but face separate challenges.
Experiences of 21 female missionaries from 1985 to 2005 are told in “18 Months: Sister Missionaries in the Latter Days,” a newly published book edited by Melissa Baird Carpenter of Mesa, who served on a mission from September 1997 to March 1999 in the El Salvador San Salvador West Mission.
“Eighteen months seems such a lengthy commitment when so many other wonderful opportunities await these young adult women: higher education, study abroad programs, challenging careers and temple marriage,” Carpenter writes in the introduction of the book (Millennial Press, $12.95).
While the church strongly encourages males to “prepare and be worthy to serve a full mission, it is left up to each woman to seek the Lord’s guidance to determine if a mission is appropriate,” she notes. Carpenter cites a 1997 statement by President/Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley that “young women should not feel that they have a duty comparable to that of young men,” but if they do, they should counsel with their bishops and parents. “If the idea persists, the bishop will know what to do.”
Women most commonly start their missions no younger than 21, while men typically start at 19.
“I was a little bit older (23),” Carpenter said. “I didn’t feel ready to take the plunge. For me, it seemed risky, wanting to be in my comfort zone, so I decided I would rather graduate from college first.”
Carpenter, who graduated from Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix and earned a degree in English and journalism from Brigham Young University in 1996, found herself living in El Salvador with four native Spanish-speaking missionaries, and, with her college Spanish, she quickly became fluent in the language. “But I didn’t have the chance to kind of rest my brain and speak in English very often,” she said.
In her own chapter in the book, “Dos Hermanas: Becoming Sisters in San Salvador,” Carpenter is frank about experiences. She went home for lunch on her first day, “ducked under my mosquito net and cried my eyes out in bed” because of stress, lack of sleep and culture shock. But before long, she would find herself teaching new missionaries.
She writes about teaching about the Mormon faith to a family living in a cemetery. “We collected school clothes for the children, found sponsors who would pay their elementary school tuition, and filled out their registration papers,” she said, lamenting that the family pocketed some of the money. “I often felt let down by my investigators,” she said, referring to potential converts. “It took a lot before I would give up on them.”
“One time in San Salvador, I was robbed at gunpoint by a group of gang members,” Carpenter said.
“They had a gun to my companion’s head, and she told me to give them the stuff,” but Carpenter said she didn’t want to turn it over. “I was too busy thinking about the contents of my bag: keys, Scriptures and visual aids that had taken me two preparation days to make.” But she complied and learned later that the backpacks were the thieves’ real target.
A fifth-generation Mormon who teaches composition at Mesa Community College, Carpenter said the idea for the book was spawned in her class where students must write essays about their experiences. In reading their work, she acknowledged she hadn’t taken time to “write my own stuff” and realized how much her mission had affected her. Realizing one female missionary’s story might not be marketable, Carpenter decided to collect compelling stories and provide young Mormon women and their families with an understanding of what to expect.
Besides inviting stories from women she knew, Carpenter put out appeals at BYU and a Web site. “Some of these women just knew what they were doing, and they were excellent writers and gave me exactly what I wanted,” she said.
Common threads were missionaries’ dedication to the work and their perseverance to confront opposition to their message, she said. “Each woman had specific trials that they faced,” she said. “They really had to have a desire to overcome whatever it was that was challenging them.” Once the missionaries reconciled their fear and self-doubt, they “were able to kind of complete their missions with a sense of peace about how they approached the mission” and “that the work that they had done was acceptable to the Lord.”
Many of the women’s essays talk joyfully of baptisms and lament coming up empty in quests for new followers.
“They kind of keep track of them as milestones,” Carpenter said, who is married and has two children. “But probably it depends on what country you are in.”
Where Christianity is well-established, there is a strong starting point to explain the Mormon faith to strangers, she said. “There is the expectation you would be able to meet more people that are going to be more accepting,” she said.
Carpenter said, “For me, it did seem like a long time to be separated from people that you love.” But she said it steeled her. “You know you are going to be committed to following the rules, and you know you will have to be living as Christ would want you.”
Whereas a young Mormon male might say “my family wants me to go,” Carpenter said she had no pressure to be a missionary. “So for me, it was something I had to do for myself.”
The book is available from Seagull Book, 409 E. First Ave., Mesa.
Carpenter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From women missionaries’ stories in “18 Months,” edited by Melissa Baird Carpenter:
“After a day of unsuccessful tracting, my dear companion, Hermana Hinojosa, turned to me with a comment capturing the essence of so much of our missionary work: 'I feel like we’re trick-or-treating and no one is giving us any candy.” — Patricia Sutton Hilton of Pleasant Hill, Calif., who served in Guatemala Guatemala City North Mission, 1995-97.
“One of the things we had to do all the time was ask people to renounce their vices — or at least what the church considered vices, including coffee, tea, alcohol, tobacco and premarital sex. A lot of people were willing to agree to our requests — they’d read the Book of Mormon, they’d pray — until we reached the fourth discussion ....Then, when we asked them to give up tea and tobacco, they’d balk.” — Holly Welker of Erie, Pa., who served in the Taiwan Taichung Mission, 1985-97.
“Oftentimes, we measure our success as a missionary by the number of people we taught and baptized, but that it not what it’s all about. Success is measured in something greater, something deeper. It is measured in the hearts that we touched, in the people who are able to feel the Spirit and recognize it.” — Laura Vasilescu of Provo, Utah, who served in Utah Salt Lake City Temple Square Mission, 2004.
“I did not manage every moment perfectly. But because I did not choose these people or the events we shared, neither could I have predicted the joy they would bring me. God brought us together, and only God anticipated the redemptive results. When I submitted to the circumstances God placed in my way, I refashioned myself according to his image in me.” — Rosalynde Frandsen Welch of St. Louis, who served the Portugal Porto Mission, 1996-97.
“Theoretically, you could do no more work for the rest of your mission, and be inspired to knock on one door and meet your family. Unfortunately, the Spirit rarely will tell you which door to knock on while you are sitting in your apartment. Usually, it will only help you when you are 100 feet from the door!” — Kathryn Glenn Speckart of Alexandria, Va., who served the Pennsylvania Philadelphia Mission, 1997-99.