“I’m here because I love my Saviour,” says Elder Charles. His voice cracks as he coughs back his tears. “God loves the people here, and I can’t live another day without telling people that. I just can’t do that.” The 163 young men surrounding him, including three faces on skype, clap their hands and Elder Charles falls back in the wooden pew. Elder Beatty rises: “My Father in heaven has blessed my life in so many ways. I’m not more important than the people of Argentina so why would I withhold my blessing from them?”
These are the modern day saints. Personally selected by the 12 Apostles who head the Mormon Council back in Salt Lake City, Utah, these young men have come to Argentina to spread God’s love.
In South America there are more than 50 Mormon missions, and each year they welcome in thousands of new members. Over the next 24 months the men and women present today will trawl the streets of Buenos Aires for the long-suffering. They’ll preach on the Subte. They’ll preach on the bus. They’ll preach in the pouring rain. They’ll preach on the way to the supermarket. And when they hear no for the hundredth time, they’ll preach some more.
Soldiers of God
Mormon missionary service begins at age 19 for boys, and age 20 for girls. “We devote ourselves to Christ,” says Elder Jones who is coming up on 18 months in Argentina. Missionaries are permitted to speak to their families twice a year – Christmas and Mother’s Day, and they get one day off a week.
“Is it hard not talking to your family for all that time? Of course, I have seven siblings. I left home when my brother was one so I spoke to him for the first time this Christmas. But I’ve been called here. This is where God wants me.”
“We teach that first impressions are very important. We must always represent the Lord,” says Richard Gulbrandsen, president of the Buenos Aires North Mission in Virreyes. “In the heat the young men can take off their jackets.” Under the southern sun, the president and his wife boast not a wrinkle, nor a bead of sweat between them.
“When a young man or woman desires to go on a mission they fill out their papers and the 12 apostles look at a photo and seek an impression as to where they should serve.” He slows down on the subject of purity. “Its about worthiness. Sex, health, eating well.” And indeed, scanning the assembly of young missionaries, not a soul is bursting at their trouser seam. The soapsuds literally lift into the air. If Crest were filming, this would be the scene.
Learning the Missionary Way
Today is missionary training day. Tomorrow the new members will hit the streets with the gospel in hand. The president and his wife move along the pews, with Gulbrandsen embracing the men, one-by-one, and Hermana Gulbrandsen reaching out her arms to the 18 female members. Three missionaries are tuning in over skype from Ushuaia and Bariloche. Class ranges from Spanish instruction, to practice missionary scenarios. Throughout the lesson, anyone is invited to share their revelations and many members take the stand to describe when they felt God by their side. “Yesterday at a supermarket, I was just thinking…” begins one of the sisters.
But above and beyond a heavenly calling, completing a mission also requires some earthly engagement. “I’ve worked in my dad’s business since I was 10, and each year I put away half my wages so I could do this,” says Elder Godfrey, 20, from Utah. The Mormon Church has tallied a blanket fee that applies to all missionaries across the globe. Remarkably well spoken and steady with his response, Elder Godfrey is miles ahead of his bawdy 20-year-old peers back home. But in this particular church hall, his dedication and sobriety barely stands out against the stern demeanor of every boy in the room.
The train is hot and stuffy, as expected for a BA summer. But the boys know that public transport is great place to preach. The city, so famous for its exhaust spewing buses, has found a special friend in the Mormon missionaries. “Buses are a good place to make contacts and do missionary work. Get used to standing. They are usually very full,” instructs the North Mission website. “When we see a family we always talk to them,” says Elder Jones, “they’re the best.”
But rejection is far too common a thread and the learning curve is steep. Elder Jones began the mission a wide-eyed teenager from a large, loving family in Utah. He had worked to stay pure, he played basketball in High School, and he had God in his heart. He turned down a sports scholarship to join the mission; when he returns home he will attend The University of Utah. He still doesn’t know what he wants to study, but he knows he will bring his family up in the Church.
Back at the mission, President Gulbrandsen is proud of the young men’s hard work. All of them, he explains, brave the elements everyday, walking for miles in the pouring rain or under the beating hot sun. Mostly people say no. Sometimes they’re outright ignored. “But the Heavenly Father lives. That’s why we’re here. It’s why we wake up every day at 6am, it’s why we get rejected everyday. We’re not called the Latter Days Saints because of what we are. We’re called this because of what we’re trying to be.”