“Every missionary has a signature knock,” according to Laura Stringham, a missionary herself, who at 20 years old has approached her share of doors representing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Usually, people aren’t interested in the message, said Sister Stringham, whose title reflects the Church’s injunction to “look at everyone else as a brother or sister” (male missionaries are called “elders”). Missionaries learn to understand rejection, and just move on.
But then there are exceptions: the curious ones, the people searching for answers, and best of all those who stick around and become Mormons, as Church members are commonly called.
“You can just see their faith grow,” Sister Stringham said of that last group. “It’s probably the most beautiful thing in the world.”
Sister Stringham, a native of Calgary, Alberta, never considered missionary work until October 2012, when the Church lowered the age requirement to apply for full-time service. For men, the minimum fell from 19 to 18. For women, the change was greater, dropping to 19 from 21.
Many young Mormons, including Sister Stringham, took the announcement as a call to action. A record number are currently missionaries: 86,000, according to a July Church report (the total includes a small number of married couples and retired people). Of that group, 29 percent are women — a historically unprecedented chunk.
The growth has prompted the 15 million-member Church to establish more geographical regions to which missionaries are assigned. Nearly 60 new missions, as they are known, have sprung up worldwide. Ohio has three missions, based in Cleveland, Columbus, and, as of 2013, Cincinnati.
About 250 missionaries are based in the Cleveland mission, which encompasses about a third of the state, extending from Toledo down to St. Mary’s and east to the Pennsylvania border.
Location assignments, which missionaries do not choose, come in the form of a signed letter from Church president Thomas S. Monson. Getting that letter — “to hold in our hands where the prophet of God told us we needed to go” — is incredible, said 21-year-old Kelly Foust, originally of Missoula, Mont., who recently completed her service with the Cleveland mission.41.56987 -83.59752
Once missionaries arrive at their site, their daily life revolves around more than door-to-door encounters. Duties include canvassing, volunteering, and visiting those studying the faith. There is also restriction and routine: missionaries must wake, study scripture, and even exercise at certain assigned hours. Access to electronics is severely curtailed.
“I knew that would be my life for 18 months,” Sister Stringham said.
Yet restrictions on technology, once as solid as those bold black name tags, are beginning to ease up. The Church, which has advertised on YouTube and made its website mormon.org sleek and user-friendly, has been experimenting with more media on the ground. Recent developments include a greater emphasis on Facebook and Twitter and a program to equip 32,000 missionaries with iPads.
Northwest Ohio Church officials have planned a social media campaign for December, which will coincide with performances of The Book of Mormon at the Stranahan Theater. Conceived by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the raunchy musical comedy tells the story of two clueless elders stationed in Uganda. Songs include jokes about HIV/AIDS and genitalia, not to mention LDS scripture.
The musical’s success has prompted real Mormons to take advantage of the educational opportunity created by their fictional counterparts
“It’s fine for people to go see the show and be entertained,” said Karen Eckel, the director of public affairs for the Church in northwest Ohio. “But also understand who we really are.”
Mrs. Eckel hopes the upcoming media campaign will aid that understanding. A similar campaign in Cincinnati, held in January, was a success, as was a trial run of the northwest Ohio campaign, which took place in July.
Opportunities to use media may change the day-to-day aspect of missionary life, but not its overall effect on the young people who choose to live it. “You put everything you have into Jesus Christ. Every conscious thought, every ounce of energy,” said Sister Foust, reflecting on her service shortly before her departure. “To go home? I can‘t even think of it.”
Contact Marissa Medansky at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6368.