By Erika Spaet
Melissa Morgan is a pretty girl with tight auburn curls and cyan eyes. She’s quiet, well spoken and has a genuinely contagious laugh—typical for a coed of 22.
Unlike most young women her age, however, Morgan knows exactly what she’s doing with her life.
“My purpose is to teach people about the church and invite them to become baptized,” she says. “We focus on the message we share; that’s why we’re here.”
She and Julie Hathaway, also 22, are missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—more commonly known as Mormons. The life of a young Mormon missionary is something that few can imagine—they’ve traveled across the country, Morgan from Utah and Hathaway from Idaho, to take up residence in an Ithaca, N.Y. apartment while they complete their 18-month missions. Being away from family is a huge change from what Hathaway, one of six kids, is used to.
“I miss home,” she says. “The East Coast is so different from the West Coast, so yeah, I miss it. We only get to talk to our families on Christmas and Mother’s Day. And we email once a week. They can write us through the mail, but other than that, that’s our only contact.”
They’re just two of the 120 young men and women that have made this big sacrifice to come to the central New York area to share their message, what they call the most important message anyone will ever hear.
These two women start every day by waking at 6:30 a.m., exercising, meditating independently, studying the Scripture—the Book of Mormon—together, and then setting off for their daily appointments with members of the community. Sometimes, though, they take to the streets to find the rare receptive ear that will listen to their message.
“First, we tell them that we’re missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and we’re sharing a message of God and how the Gospel was restored through one of God’s prophets, Joseph Smith. Then we ask them if they would allow us to come and share more with them, because usually when we meet people they’re not ready for us to teach them,” says Morgan.
Not only are they not ready to be taught, but the Sister Missionaries (they prefer to be called Sister Morgan and Sister Hathaway), have found that many people simply don’t want to listen.
“There are definitely ups and downs because a missionary gets to help people find their faith in Jesus Christ; it’s one of the most exhilarating feelings to have. And to be able to see a change in people, in their personal life, it really makes everything worth it, but there are times where it’s really hard. Not everybody is interested in what you have to say, and that aspect is really hard,” says Hathaway.
“It’s very emotionally draining in both ways. It’s very exciting and brings a lot of happiness, but it also brings a lot of sadness. It’s hard to have people yelling at you, but that’s just part of the job. In a day, there are always people who want to listen to you and people who don’t want to listen to you. I’ve had some experiences where people have not been very nice, but that’s just a typical day.”
These two young women are just two of millions that live their lives according to their belief in the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. “Restoration” refers to Joseph Smith’s prophetic revelations through golden plates he unearthed in 1827. After Jesus and his apostles were killed, Mormons believe the Priesthood—the power and authority of God—was taken from the earth. What followed was “The Great Apostasy,” a time when the world was void of the gospel. It returned when Joseph Smith was called by God to lead Mormons—a people who believe they are saints of these current Latter Days. They believe in the scripture of the Bible but maintain that no one is a true Christian unless they believe in Smith’s revelations in the Book of Mormon. Their ultimate goal is to live a saintly life that will allow them to become gods in heaven alongside Jesus.Thus Mormons are in the business of preparing for the afterlife. Saints refrain from drinking, smoking and sex before marriage. The Gospel Principles, a handbook to teach prospective members about the church, and its “Law of Health” make sure that Mormons won’t break the rules.
Another part of preparation for a young Mormon is the completion of a mission. Smith is believed to have been granted the highest priesthood authority, the Melchizedeck Priesthood. The responsibility of the Priesthood now remains with the president of the church and all of its male members. One of the duties as a member of the Priesthood is to complete a mission. Men are required to fulfill one; women aren’t even asked.
“We believe that missionary work is a Priesthood responsibility, and the young men are parts of the Priesthood, so that’s why they’re asked to go. Of course, we have a role in the Priesthood, so if we feel that we want to do a mission we’re encouraged to do that,” says Morgan.
There is, however, one minor clause.
“If there’s a possibility to get married and raise a family, they encourage you to do that instead. We’re also encouraged to get an education, but we’re not supposed to postpone marriage if the opportunity arises.”
In fact, female missionaries, at the age of 21, are an anomaly for the church. They’re not married or engaged; if they were, they wouldn’t be on a mission. Thus, for some young female Saints, it’s a negative thing to go on a mission.
Liz Redd, a 19-year-old freshman at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City, has no interest in being a missionary.
“For girls, it’s an option. There aren’t that many girl missionaries, but there are some. It’s just sort of you do what you’re doing in your life right then; it’s a choice,” she says. “In Mormon culture, we get married earlier than everybody else—a lot of girls my age are getting married soon, which is kind of young—so I guess for me I would get married at the end of college, ideally.”
Marriage is a big deal for Mormons, and for Redd, matrimony may come even sooner than she thinks. Until recently, the median age for a Mormon’s first wedding was 22. This makes sense considering the emphasis on family in the church and their high birth rate: 93.1 live births per 1,000 women. This is 41 percent higher than the national average of 65.9 births.
“My ultimate goal is to be a mom; if you have a career, that’s ok, but only if you need one—it’s not that important,” says Redd. “I just really want to have a degree. Ideally I’ll just graduate with a degree and settle down right after.”
Americans are getting married later in life—or not at all—as divorce rates soar. So as not to be carried along in the current of a singles society, the church has been going to great lengths to encourage early marriage. Family values are what hold the church together, and it is imperative to maintain the ideals of family. And not just any family.
Last January, the small Mormon community of Kanab just outside Salt Lake City unanimously approved a resolution that would require all families living there to be “natural.” In other words, they must consist of a working husband, a stay-at-home mother and a “full quiver of children.”
This is something that young Mormon women are expected to look forward to and means that dating while in college is imperative.
“The Apostles have talked to a lot of the single people through a program called ‘Institute’ for young single adults ages 18 to 30,” says Morgan. “There are these—they call them ‘Fireside Sittings’—they’ll talk via satellite to young people and say, ‘you need to be dating instead of just hanging out.’”
Redd has received that lecture on campus at BYU.
“We were told recently not to hang out in groups but to go on real dates so you can meet people. There’s still some hanging out, but I would assume there’s more dating here than in other places. We all want to settle down and get married.”
And this itch for wedlock has an inevitable effect on the campus dynamic. With a majority of the boys gone on two-year missions, dating (which a Mormon teenager is not permitted to do until the age of 16) is, according to Redd, all but impossible.
“All of the freshman guys you see this year will be gone for the next two years. A lot of [those] guys are anti-girls because they don’t want to get into serious relationships. We tend to hang out with older guys, because the guys our age are gone.”
This is just one of the deterrents holding young Saints back from settling down young. In another effort to put some hustle into Cupid’s arrow, many areas have started up LDS congregations just for members in the 18 to 30 age bracket. In the past five years, there has been a dramatic increase in groups such as this, bringing the total to about 500 congregations formed with the sole intent of bringing together young Saint singles.
Some young people are looking to find their ideal Mormon mate on Internet dating sites such as LDSHearts.com, where some of the profile questions include “My Favorite Scripture,” “Why I Love the Gospel” and “My Favorite Temple.” One potential male partner might respond that that his “Ideal Lunch Partner” is “def. my mom.”
This saintly Romeo probably won’t have to wait long until his prayers are answered by an equally eager Mormon mate. But not all young LDS women are boy-crazy; education is extremely important to Morgan. Between fulfilling her mission and getting her degree in dental hygiene (from which she is taking a sabbatical), she has her hands full.
“The church is very structured in that we teach a lot of values. I plan on going to school, but whatever happens, happens,” she says. “I don’t really worry about [marriage] because I believe in the Lord’s timing.”
Thinking about school, dating and marriage are tough enough for any young adult. But Morgan knows that, just like any other belief, it takes faith.
“I know that everything in [The Book of Mormon] is true because I’ve prayed and asked God, and he has told me that it is. All you have to do is ask Him, and He’ll tell you that it’s true.”
Erika Spaet is a sophomore journalism major who wonders how both of her articles ended up in Upfront. Email her at email@example.com.