Young Mormons gain much perspective from their missions


Christian Brewer, 22, at left, is visited by The Church of Latter Day Saints missionaries Elder Wilde, at center, and Elder Goodrich, of Utah, at his home in southwest Gainesville on Thursday.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, October 19, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 18, 2013 at 9:51 p.m.

After two knocks and no answer, Elder Paul Goodrich and Elder Cameron Wilde — both clad in white button-downs, dress pants and nametags — stepped off a stranger's doorstep and walked toward the house across the street.

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Christian Brewer, 22, at left, is visited by The Church of Latter Day Saints missionaries Elder Wilde, at center, and Elder Goodrich, of Utah, at his home in southwest Gainesville on Thursday.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer

Noticing a woman sitting on a porch nearby, Goodrich and his fellow Mormon missionary headed over to say hello.

When they asked her if she'd heard of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she said she had and didn't have any ill will toward Mormons. "It's a neutral thing for me," she told them.

The woman, an Episcopalian with short, dark hair, said she didn't have much time to talk. She was just having a cigarette before heading back inside to her sick husband, who has stage four liver cancer.

The missionaries asked his name. "His name's Jay," she said. "He's a good man."

They offered to pray with her for him.

"Thank you. I would love that," she said, standing up.

Goodrich started the prayer off light-hearted, telling their father in Heaven that he and Wilde were thankful for the woman's gracious spirit in putting up with them. Then they prayed together for her and her husband as they go through this difficult time.

The three of them said Amen, and then Goodrich offered his hand for her to shake.

"I'm not going to do that," she said, and pulled him and then Wilde in for a hug.

She wiped away a tear as they said goodbye.

Elders Goodrich and Wilde are two of around 80,000 Mormon missionaries stationed throughout the world. Men serve two years as missionaries while women serve for 18 months, and they do it all on their own dime.

While they are serving, missionaries cannot see their family and can call family members just twice a year on Mother's Day and Christmas, although they can email them once a week.

They avoid all worldly forms of entertainment. No television, movies or radio. No surfing the Internet.

They only listen to religious music and aren't even supposed to wear headphones because it separates them from their companions.

Giving up video games and Netflix isn't the hardest part of missionary life, said 20-year-old Goodrich, who had to cut short his first stint as a missionary for medical reasons before returning this year to complete his service.

"The second time around it wasn't hard saying goodbye to those," he said. "It was hard saying goodbye to my family."

Goodrich and Wilde are part of the Florida-Jacksonville Mission, which covers much of northern Florida and part of Georgia. Within the next week or so, the mission will have about 275 missionaries, around 45 percent of whom are sister missionaries, said Paul Craig, the president of the mission.

Earlier this year, only about 10 percent of missionaries worldwide were women, Craig said. But more women are serving now because the minimum age for sisters was changed from 21 to 19 about a year ago. The minimum for men also dropped from 19 to 18 years old.

Missionaries serve in different towns within the mission, typically spending four to six months in one spot. In each place, they are assigned a companion who will be their roommate and with whom they will spend almost all their time.

Goodrich and Wilde are companions. They wake up at 6:30 a.m. every day and spend time in personal and joint religious study before doing mission work from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. They teach those who wish to convert about the LDS church and visit with local Mormons, often helping them step into their roles as member missionaries.

There are 4,039 Mormons in the Gainesville area, which includes 12 congregations, or wards, spread throughout Gainesville, Ocala and other nearby towns, according to Craig, the mission president. The LDS church says it has 15 million members worldwide.

When they don't have an appointment with someone, Goodrich and Wilde may walk around the University of Florida campus or go door-to-door in a neighborhood, spreading their message to the people they meet.

Goodrich prefers approaching people on the street to knocking on doors because they tend to be more welcoming.

"Honestly, boredom is the least of our worries as missionaries," Wilde, 19, said. "We're busy all the time."

Their goal isn't to convert people, although Wilde admitted they're obviously happy when someone they meet is interested in becoming a Mormon. Their real purpose as missionaries is to invite others to come into Christ, regardless of denomination.

They also hope to clear up misconceptions people have about their church.

"I've heard that Mormons don't believe in triangles," Wilde said. "I'm like, where do you get this stuff? We're not that weird."

When people occasionally ask about polygamy, which is part of the church's history, Goodrich just jokes that he can only handle one woman before explaining it isn't part of the church's present.

Sister Christine Cram, 20, and her companion, 21-year-old Sister Sydney Allred, know how strange misconceptions about Mormons can be.

One woman asked Allred why she wasn't bald because she was a Mormon, and she is sometimes asked how many mothers she has. (Just the one.)

Allred, whose parents were both missionaries, always wanted to serve.

"I love how hard it is, I guess. I just like the growth that comes from it," she said. "Every single day, we see miracles."

Cram never planned on becoming a missionary, but when the church changed the age limit, she reconsidered if it was right for her.

"So for me it was a matter of prayer," she said. "And then I got the answer that it was, and even then it was like, 'Oh, I'm really happy where I'm at, though.' "

Cram, who is new to missionary life, has found its strict structure makes her happy.

"You know, we're on the Lord's time and we don't want to waste it," she said. "I can be selfish later."

Although men and women have different lengths of service and a one-year gap in the age minimum as missionaries, they are treated the same and do the same work when they serve as missionaries, Cram and Allred said.

The maximum ages at which single men and women are allowed to serve also differ. It's 26 for men and 39 for women, although sister missionaries usually serve while they're in their 20s, Craig, the mission president, said. Married couples tend to serve missions in management capacities and don't have an age limit.

The maximum for single men is lower than for single women to encourage men to concentrate on education and building careers and families at an earlier age, Craig said. Women are in control of their education but may be less so in issues of marriage and family, Craig continued.

"The elders are much more in control of, I guess, their destiny when it comes to marriage and things like that," he said.

There is more of an expectation in the Mormon community that men will serve than women.

"It's not even a question. All males are expected to serve a mission," he said. "Now whether they do or not, that's a different story, because no one is forcing them to do that."

That expectation can be tough to handle. Goodrich's brother couldn't be a full-time missionary for medical reasons, and some people gave him a bit of a hard time about it, Goodrich said.

"It was hard for him," Goodrich said.

He and Wilde are learning lessons as missionaries that will be useful when they return to their lives in Utah.

They've learned not to judge people by their appearance. Goodrich remembers approaching a man with a teardrop tattoo leaning against a Crown Vic who got emotional during their conversation, even though he looked like a tough guy.

Not everyone is as welcoming or open as that man was. Rejection is a daily part of missionary life.

When they knocked on the door of one man's house this week, he emerged in a blue baseball cap and immediately told them to leave.

"If you're coming here to talk about religion, you can go ahead and keep going," he told them.

They asked if there was anything they could do for him, even if it was just a household chore. The man declined.

"I have always been angry about religion and I'll stay angry," the man told Goodrich and Wilde.

Wilde said the man was a little ruder than most people who turn them away, but at least he was straightforward.

Wilde and Goodrich are used to rejection, but the little connections they make with people they meet remind them their mission work is worth it.

It was later that same day, after all, that they met the woman on the porch and were able to give her a bit of comfort with friendly conversation and a prayer.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gainesville.com.

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