Five to Nine Things You Maybe Didn't Know About Mormon Missionaries
(All prefaced by the phrase "Believe it or Not," spoken or sung)
1. They Are Not All the Same Person
Sure, you know in theory that every human being is a complicated piece of work, but in practice it's always easier to lump together those who belong to a group a) we don't understand, b) we don't like, c) we do like, or d) whose constituent members dress almost exactly the same. Same-dressing is less of a problem for female missionaries than for male, since females are allowed a little variety, although for a time they too tended to blur together thanks to skirt-lengths that threatened to reach Antarctica. But male or female, there are serious differences in personalities, language-skills, social-skills, and bodily-hygiene-skills, not to mention beliefs, conviction, and motives.
2. The Male Missionary Outfit Wasn't Always a Religious Habit
If you're a male missionary, it's not easy for people to see beyond your white shirt, tie, and nametag. The outfit has become something of a habit (in every sense), in that it started out (sans nametag) as the unfathomably ordinary look of a given place and time, but when the look went out of fashion the outfit was kept anyway as a sort of trend-defying badge-of-honor. Most males own around seven increasingly translucent shirts, a couple of stainless-steel suits that will last into the next Millennium even if you don't want them to, shoes with a 60,000-mile warranty that you'd never wear in real life, and an assortment of ties. Origins of the look are vague, but circumstantial evidence points to a wardrobe-guy for Ward Cleaver.
3. They Aren't Required to Go But They Get a Lot of Nudges That Way
Especially males do, both culturally and officially, but now females do too, only culturally and not officially (that's another subject). So whereas about 80 percent of missionaries were for many decades usually young men, now about half volunteering to go are young women, who will no doubt soon be ubiquitous enough to have a musical made about them as well. The addition of all those women is the main reason the total number of current missionaries has jumped to a record-breaking 80,000.
4. They Don't Choose Where to Go
You can certainly state your preferences here, and occasionally you go to one of them, but mostly you don't have a clue as to which of the 400 or so missions in the world you'll be sent to. This explains why the opening of the big white envelope containing your mission call is a gigantic ritual, replete with your 300 closest friends come to hear you read out your exciting place aloud. Although in theory all places are equally exciting, in practice the farther and harder the place then the more exciting it seems, as evident in the stunned silence and forced enthusiasm that usually follows the reading-out of something like "Bozeman, Montana," which will actually almost certainly turn out to be a happier place to go than somewhere exciting like Stalingrad.
5. They Don't Choose Their Companions
Although you are always in pairs, it's not because you necessarily want to be (see #1). Your companion is assigned to you by your mission president. There's the possibility of a transfer every six weeks or so, in case you're not getting along or are engaging excessively in the favorite pastime of arguing over such high theological matters as whether this Mormon teen-celebrity or that should go on a mission. Pretty soon you learn that you're best off just trying to make things work with whoever you're with, which isn't a bad thing to learn for real life. Although just like in real life you still might, despite your best efforts, end up in some serious existential crises.
6. They Don't Just Knock on Doors
Although the classic image of missionaries knocking relentlessly on doors is still the stuff of punchlines, their methods now also involve not only social media but non-proselytizing sorts of things. In fact some do exclusively humanitarian sorts of things. Almost all do a few hours of such things each week, and plenty would be better off doing a lot more, so they'd feel like they were doing something other than mostly engaging in one-sentence conversations that end with a rapidly-closing door. In fact if general patterns of Christian missionarying hold, they might all end up someday doing mostly humanitarian things, especially if the rate of converts per missionary keeps going down (about 5 in 2010, it's about 3.5 now).
7. Their Training Lasts From a Few Weeks to a Few Months
Before heading to your actual mission, you get training at one of 15 training centers around the world, where you learn the basics of your new language, if necessary (anywhere from 6 to 12 weeks, depending on degree of difficulty), a little (not enough) culture about the place where you're going, some practical basics, and assorted proselytizing techniques, some of which you might later discover were unknowingly taken straight from the books of sixteenth-century Catholic Jesuit missionaries.
8. They Haven't Gotten Any Popularity-Dividend From the Musical
Anyone who stands out like a white-shirted male missionary does is going to have a musical made about him, that's just an unchangeable law of the universe. And nothing's necessarily wrong with that. But when a recent Pew Poll shows that opinions of Mormons haven't budged an inch in the show's still formidable wake, you pretty much have to conclude that the show, despite some real humanizing of missionaries, is probably reinforcing old stereotypes more than refining them. And that's allowing for the accompanying universal law that a popular musical isn't exactly the ideal forum for trying to refine views of anything, including missionaries or Ugandans.
9. They Also...
Pay their own way (about $400 a month); get up at 6:30 every morning and go to bed at 10:30 every night; are allowed only two telephone calls home a year to family; write letters/emails home only once a week; don't date; don't always finish their mission for reasons of health, disinterest, and more (a recent semi-official figure is around 15 percent), and sometimes even die while serving (three to six per year since the 1980s)--mostly from accidents, sometimes from sickness and violence.
For more official and surely reliable facts and figures, see the church's website at http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/topic/missionary-program.
Craig Harline's new book is called 'Way Below The Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled but Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary"
ALSO ON THE HUFFINGTON POST