City mission

They were an odd sight. Two clean-cut white kids wearing black pants and white shirts with neckties, wandering through the rubble of a burned-out house in the middle of a littered field on the east side of Detroit.

The pair, who go by the names Elder Porter and Elder Sturzenegger, are full-time missionaries sent by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Utah to spread the word far from home, sometimes in dangerous places. On a sunny morning they were in a shell of a Detroit neighborhood near Van Dyke and Harper, momentarily sidetracked.

"We were just taking a picture of ourselves across there," says Porter cheerfully, as he stands on a clump of black cinders. "I have like 516 pictures. We see some pretty interesting stuff, and so I'm always like taking a picture, sending it home to my mom and my dad."

They're referred to as "elder" per Mormon missionary tradition, despite being all of 20 years old. The title replaces their first names — Porter's is Blake and Sturzenegger's Matt — symbolic of identifying with their station instead of themselves. Their mission is to tell the world that there's another set of Christian scriptures, revealed to founder Joseph Smith Jr. in the 1820s in the form of tablets that only he could decipher. These form the basis of their church.

With their dark suits, close-cropped hair and name tags, the two look like door-to-door insurance salesmen from the 1950s. They're polite, old-fashioned, and always smiling — flush with the earnest inner happiness that spiritual certitude sometimes grants believers. Missionaries just like them can be spotted around town on bicycles or walking through neighborhoods most outsiders wouldn't even drive through, always in twos, always in those dark suits.

The young men's task is to knock on the door of every home in a given neighborhood, including the crack houses, the homes of the deranged or violent, the squatters' dwellings, homes where shut-ins hide and, sometimes, the home of someone with a sympathetic ear. Their day lasts from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. with a two-hour lunch break, seven days a week. That's 63 hours of explaining their beliefs about Jesus to occasionally friendly, hostile or puzzled inner-city residents.

"In this area, of course it's poor, but a lot of these people are humble so they're more willing to listen to what we have to say," Porter says. "Whereas if you go out to some of the richer areas, they're more content with everything, so it's harder to talk to them about something new."

Not that it makes much difference when it comes to actually making converts. The young elders speak of only two during their time trolling for souls.

They have no car. Home is an austere little apartment at Gratiot and McClellan, where there is no TV, no computer, not even a radio; only the Bible and the Book of Mormon and a little basketball hoop on the wall to play P-I-G. They're given just enough money in allowance for basic necessities like food and rent. Both have been in Detroit about a year so far. They've got one more year to go in their assignment here.

"Nothing surprises us anymore," Porter says, smiling. "Back where I'm from, you didn't get a lot of the things that go on here — gunshots a lot, peeing in public, you see fights, drug deals go down. I remember back home I never saw that. I don't know; it's pretty funny." Moments later, six quick gunshots pop off a block or two away. His face lights up. "There you go!" he says excitedly.

Walking through blown-out neighborhoods has its perils. "The other day we got robbed," Sturzenegger says. "A guy came up with a gun, actually pointed it to us, but you know it's funny 'cause we've heard other things happen to just regular people around here, they get shot afterwards, but to us that didn't happen; the guy just took the money, just four bucks, so it was cool."

"Yeah, we're poor anyways," Elder Porter adds, laughing.

They and their fellow elders in Detroit have been attacked by wild dogs, shot at and robbed. They've developed a calm fearlessness, earned by time on the streets and emboldened by the conviction that they are being protected from above. During the spring, someone stole their bikes right in front of them. Porter gave chase, found out where the thieves lived from an elderly neighborhood snoop who tipped him off, went to that house and personally took the bikes back. "It was amazing," he says, grinning.

A large man from the neighborhood crossed the field, and gave the pair a frowning stare as they poked through the field rubble for souvenirs. The two smiled and said "Hi!" He kept walking.

"I've actually started a bullet casing collection," Sterzenegger says. "There's a missionary that's up above Six Mile, and he's got over 200 of 'em. It's pretty crazy. You just find them in the street. We have a contest going. He's winning, of course."

When their mission is up, they say they'll head back home to Utah, go to college, find girls to marry, go back to a comfortable life that's nothing like the squalor they dive into every day, as they put their beliefs to the test against the worst of the real world.

"But it's cool," Sturzenegger says, smiling broadly. "It's fun. I love it."

Detroitblogger John scours the city for hidden gems. Send comments to [email protected]
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