Riding with elders

Oct 27, 2004 at 12:00 am

Two missionaries go knocking on a door in inner city Detroit, just like they do every day. They knock for several minutes and wait patiently on the porch, the Book of Mormon safe in their backpacks. Suddenly, the door is yanked open and, without words, a woman rushes past them, jumps into a waiting vehicle and speeds off.

It happens all the time, says Taylor Smith, a 20-year-old from Utah. Apparently, Detroiters mistake clean-cut Mormon missionaries in their suits for cops or FBI agents or maybe the IRS. Or, maybe like most people in this busy world, Detroiters often don’t have time to hear what strangers on their doorsteps have to say.

“That’s one of the most frustrating things,” Smith says. “We know how important our mission is, and they don’t, and they won’t give us 20 minutes to talk about it.”

It’s not easy being a young Mormon missionary thousands of miles away from home, holed up in downtown Detroit trying to convince Baptists and Protestants and Catholics and agnostics — and maybe the occasional Anabaptist or druid — to follow the Mormon faith.

But these young men are on a mission from God, by way of Utah. You’ve probably seen them riding bikes sporting ties, starchy white short-sleeved shirts and bike helmets. Perhaps they came to your door. Perhaps you slammed it in their face. Perhaps you took off running.

Fifty or so of these men every year crisscross metro Detroit looking for converts. As dictated by their faith, they’ve dedicated two years of their lives to spreading the word of the Book of Mormon in hopes of gaining members for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church has 3,600 members in metro Detroit in five congregations and aims to increase that number.

The Latter-day Saints used to be a primarily white, Rocky Mountain church before it moved across the West and headed toward Eastern convert-grounds. Now it’s increasingly focusing on the inner cities of America as well as Third World nations around the globe. More Mormons today speak Spanish than English, and the church’s recent history has been marked by its internationalization and growing diversity, says Kathleen Flake, a religion professor at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School. Flake recently published a book focusing on the changes the church made in adapting to the 20th century.

“The Latter-day Saints do not make a distinction among whom they proselytize. When they knock on doors, it’s whatever’s there behind that door. They make no distinction,” Flake says.

That’s a change indeed, because during most of the Latter-day Saints’ history, the church doctrine instructed that blacks were an inferior, cursed race; blacks couldn’t become church leaders or serve on missions. The Mormon church made the priesthood available to all races in 1978. Now, with 12 million members, the church is the fastest-growing and the fifth-largest denomination in America, Flake says, due in no small part to the outreach efforts of missionaries preaching just about everywhere, including in Detroit.

The young missionaries aren’t paid for their efforts; in fact, many pay their own way. Most never imagined they’d visit Detroit before being sent here as part of an army of 56,000 serving Mormon missions throughout the world.

Cruising with elders

Dubbed “elders” by church members, Tim Costello and Taylor Smith, both 20, look more like courteous private-school boys.

The two share an apartment near the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Grand River Avenue. Far from family and friends, they follow a rigid daily routine of study and evangelizing that begins with 30 minutes of exercise at 6:30 a.m. and ends at 10:30 p.m.

They’re not allowed to watch movies or television, read materials not relating to their church or their mission, or listen to music. They can’t date, and spend almost all of their time with each other.

They have limited contact with family, whom they may e-mail once weekly and call twice annually. Contact with friends is restricted to postal mail. They live on $5,000 a year each, doled out by the church.

There’s nothing glamorous about being a Mormon missionary.

At the corner of St. Antoine and the I-94 service drive on a recent cold and sopping wet day, Costello and Smith are asked to leave an apartment building where they’ve been knocking on doors. The missionaries say people usually take pity on them when it’s raining, often inviting them in from the cold. They plod on.

On Warren, a compassionate soul does give the missionaries a warm respite. His name is Arthur, and if he’s surprised when Smith and Costello begin talking about the church, he doesn’t show it.

“I wish there were more people your age who went out,” to preach, he says. “I’m still learning.”

Arthur’s house is old and musty; knickknacks are everywhere. Religious-themed art covers the walls. A nearly drained bottle of gin sits at Arthur’s feet.

Smith and Costello settle onto the plastic that covers the couch, and Smith questions Arthur about his faith. The missionary reaches into his backpack to pull out a book of flashcards depicting various prophets. Arthur talks to the young men about Jesus. Soon, Arthur shifts the conversation from Jesus to himself.

The missionaries try to redirect the conversation to the meaning of the prophets and the story of Joseph Smith. Appropriately, the faith they’ve been sent to teach began with the prayer of a boy even younger than themselves. Joseph Smith, the church founder, was born in 1805 in Sharon, Vt. At 14, while living in New York with his family, Smith went into the woods to pray for guidance in choosing a church. A pamphlet distributed by Mormon missionaries says that God and Jesus told Smith to “restore” a true church for them on Earth.

Arthur announces he’s got to leave to baby-sit his great-nephews. Determined to extend the relationship, Smith and Costello make an appointment to meet with Arthur the following Saturday. They ask him to continue reading the Bible and to look at passages from the Book of Mormon, which they leave at the house.

Arthur never calls back.

“There are good, God-fearing people out there in the world,” Smith says. “But there always have been and always will be people who don’t like us.”

Toward the end of the day, Smith and Costello visit Ralph Hampton, a 55-year-old Mormon who was converted by missionaries six years ago. They visit Hampton periodically to discuss Scripture and to help him around his apartment. They consider him a success story.

Hampton says he got interested in the church while watching missionaries pedal bikes around his neighborhood. One day, curiosity got the best of him and he invited the men to his porch to talk.

“A few years ago I would’ve been like, ‘You can’t tell me nothin’. I’m 30-some years older than you,’” Hampton says. “Now I heed their words. We listen to each other. We learn from each other. Because of who they represent, I listen.

“If it wasn’t for these missionaries right here, I’d be
lost today.”

Detroit has five Latter-day Saints congregations. William Winegar, who coordinates missionaries for southeast Michigan, says growth in membership has been “pretty slow,” despite the work of the missionaries. During their two-year stints, local missionaries work in many areas, such as Ann Arbor, Plymouth and Hamtramck, as well as Detroit.

On exit interviews, most say they enjoyed working in Detroit — despite the hardships — more than the surrounding towns and cities, Winegar says. “There are so many struggling,” Winegar says of Detroit. “Missionaries feel needed there, they love it.”

Costello says: “It’s a break from life. You can just stop and look around and see how blessed you’ve been in your life.”

Who are these people?

Costello’s red hair and jovial personality distinguish him from his more sarcastic and darker-complexioned companion. He explains that physical conditions almost kept him from his calling.

Costello suffers from attention deficit disorder, making it difficult for him to study. As a result, he graduated from high school “by the skin of my teeth.” He also suffers from a spinal disorder and a hearing impairment, and had to undergo extra interviews before he was accepted for a mission. Most Mormon missionaries have the chance to get assigned in 156 countries. Costello had to remain stateside in case he needed medical treatment.

Still, he says he was surprised when the mission office assigned him to Detroit. “I thought, ‘Detroit! That’s not where I’m supposed to go!’”

Smith, like Costello, says since childhood he’s wanted to be a missionary. He started saving up for the trip during his senior year in high school. The venture isn’t cheap — a U.S. mission costs about $10,000, Smith says. Missionaries hold primary responsibility for paying for their own tour, though the church and family members can kick in funds. The money is disbursed by the church in monthly stipends.

In order to make the mission work, Smith turned down a scholarship to Brigham Young University. Instead, he accepted a scholarship to Weber State near his home in Mountain Green, Utah. Smith always wanted to attend BYU, but says the sudden opportunity at Weber State was a “miracle” because it allowed him to live at home and work while in school, to save money for the mission.

Smith stocked shelves at a grocery store from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. He says the hectic schedule of school and work prepared him for the exhausting missionary routine. “When they say it’s the best two years of your life, it’s probably the hardest two years,” he says. “As tired as I was working the graveyard shift, here I’m more tired.”

The strict schedule keeps missionaries focused, says Amy Derogatis, associate professor of religion at Michigan State University.

“It gives them the incredible luxury of spending two years watching their own spiritual growth,” she says. “In some ways it’s a contemplative practice. They have two years to grow and mature as adults, and also as spiritual adults. Presumably they’ll never have the opportunity to do that again.”

For Costello, a self-proclaimed music and movie buff, it’s tough to forgo entertainment. Both Costello and Smith admit it’s hard to ignore TV and radio in public places, and in the homes of people they’re trying to teach.

Both say they’re working on cleanliness and organization, faults that are more prominent for Costello than for Smith. Smith eventually wants to teach church doctrine, spends much time studying and reflecting, and says he works hard to be neat, adding playfully that it’s hard “when your companion is a slob.”

They were both disappointed to miss the latest Lord of the Rings movie.

But, Smith says, It’s a small price to pay to serve the Lord.”

Katie Walton and Jennifer Miller are former Metro Times editorial interns. Send comments to [email protected]