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The Mormons Are Coming!

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the fastest growing religions in the world. Daniel Brook takes you on a tour of a Mormon missionary training center.

Each year, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sends 20,000 missionaries around the world. These highly devout Mormon youth are the force behind the rapid expansion of what is arguably now the world's fastest-growing religion.At dusk, Elder Mortensen and Elder Warby escort a flock of 19-year-olds on a quick walking tour of their training grounds. Between the dim evening light and the fact that the buildings are all identical yellow-brick structures, Warby concedes, "it takes about a week before you really know your way around." At the end of the tour, Warby points to the snowcapped mountains beyond the parking lot and the fence: "That's the outside world," he says. "You won't know that again."Warby is half joking. This is not a military installation, nor a prison. It's the Missionary Training Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormons. These missionaries-in-training will, of course, know the outside world again, but far from this picturesque 10-acre expanse in Provo, Utah. As in the military, though, recruits go by a title-in this case "Elder," followed by their last name-and the training is rigorous. "I don't even know if we have first names anymore," one missionary quips. "I forgot mine," another replies. And after two months of doctrinal and foreign-language training, graduates will travel the world as part of the most successful missionary force on the planet. Warby and Mortensen are just two of the 20,000 recruits to come through the training center each year who go on to convert roughly 300,000 people annually.
Missionary service is expected of young Mormon men, who pay $10,000 for two years of training.\n
Despite the trying mix of social control and social isolation, in addition to the academic demands of learning a foreign language at breakneck speed, the MTC does not lack for volunteers. Recruits pay their own way to the tune of about $10,000 for the two years. It's like a proselytizing version of the Peace Corps-except the Mormons have seven times as many volunteers in the field as the Peace Corps, and they're in 145 countries-as opposed to the Peace Corps' 75. In many parts of the world, a Mormon missionary is the only American the locals will ever meet; the clean-cut, idealistic young face of our nation. With foreign-language fluency and the perpetually sunny demeanor of the true believer, they're incredibly successful at winning converts. In 1950, there were just one million Mormons; today, there are nearly 13 million.Benjamin Mortensen was born for this. He grew up in an idyllic Mormon home- his older brothers and his father, the sole proprietor of Stone Mountain Carpet in Farmington, New Mexico, all served in missions. He looks the part, too: Tan, tall, and charismatic, with a sincere intensity in his eyes, Mortensen is a natural missionary. Shorter and paler, with protruding ears exaggerated by the mandatory crew cut, Weston Warby plays sidekick to Mortensen's superhero. Warby's parents are active in the Church, but his older brother and sister are not. "As my beliefs grew in the Church, I wanted to share the message," he says.\n\n\n
In many parts of the world, a Mormon missionary is the only American the locals will ever meet; the clean-cut, idealistic young face of our nation.
Already halfway through his training, Mortensen appears to be right at home. "Growing up in the Church, you always have that goal set in your mind," he says. "But then you have a point you reach in which you have to decide which is more important to you: staying home and continuing your life or going to serve the Lord for two years." At age 16, he worked with a local missionary to successfully convert a Navajo boy who lived on the reservation near his hometown. No surprise, he's been tapped to be a Zone Leader, the enforcer of the rules in his dormitory. Ultimately, he plans to go back to college and major in industrial organizational psychology, the study of how to control large groups of people. The MTC, he believes, constitutes a perfect lab. He's also interested in politics and is closely following the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, a former governor Massachusetts and a prominent member of the Church, who went to France as a missionary in the 1960s.Today, he and Warby are relative veterans on-site; just hours earlier, the new recruits wept as they said goodbye to their parents. The welcoming ceremony was reminiscent of a college freshman assembly, with a mix of inspirational exhortations ("You have now joined the ranks of over 53,000 missionaries throughout the world who are carrying out the Lord's work") and the mundane details of institutional life ("Don't lose your meal cards.") But here you'll find no floppy-haired nonconformists, little racial diversity, and only a handful of women. Apparently, conformity breeds camaraderie: After one drill, an instructor congratulates his underling: "That was awesome! Damn! Great explanation of why we need to be baptized!"Though the Church now has more foreign members than Americans, the missionary corps and Church hierarchy remain overwhelmingly white and middle American. Male recruits, with short-cropped "missionary" haircuts and identical dark suits and ties, make up about 90 percent of the missionaries (service is expected of young men and optional for young women). The women wear dresses, sweater sets and skirts, or pantsuits-unified only by their uniform dowdiness.
Despite the fact that the Church has more foreign than American members, the missionary corps is largely white and middle-American.\n
"You probably noticed an eight-foot fence around the Missionary Training Center," drawls the tall, grandfatherly President Joseph "F as in foxtrot" Boone, a retired Air Force chaplain who is the religious leader of the MTC. "This is not to keep the missionaries in, but to keep the grandmothers and mothers out." The joke draws laughs from those who can make out his words over the crying babies. (Because they prohibit birth control, Mormons have apparently developed a remarkable tolerance for screaming babies; Boone himself has nine children.)Encouraged by the laughter, Boone continues his folksy shtick, though he can't hide his military background. Referring to the missionary textbook, [i]Preach My Gospel[/i], Boone says, "If you're not familiar with it, don't worry. Bright and early tomorrow morning we're going to give you that opportunity. In fact, I think that you will eat, drink, sleep, and dream about Preach My Gospel while you're here." Boone's full metal jacket-style pep talk is no surprise. Early in his career, he served at lackland air force base in Texas, the installation where new recruits are brought for basic training.Before hugging goodbye and departing through doorways marked by imitation road signs reading "Family Exit" and "Missionary Exit," the assembly sings the hymn "Called to Serve Our King," a reference to the "call letter" each initiate has received, signed by the leader of the Church, exhorting them to "[leave] aside all other personal affairs." He wasn't kidding. Weekly letters to parents are encouraged but telephone calls are forbidden. At lunchtime, a female trainee frets about not being able to call her sister, who is about to have a baby. And Elder Warby, who grew up just 15 miles from the MTC, says he feels totally cut off from his friends. "I could be 15,000 miles away for all I know," he says.Once in the field, missionaries are permitted to call home just twice a year, on Christmas and Mother's Day, and during their service they'll only return home under the most extraordinary circumstances. Brad Burton, a psychotherapist on staff at the MTC infirmary, who allows that he sometimes prescribes antidepressants to missionaries, explains which family deaths would justify a trip home: "Not with grandma, I don't think. With a parent, I think [so]." Vernon Christopherson, an operations manager at the MTC, agrees, adding that the local mission president would have final say on such a trip. "It would depend on the circumstances."
Family and friends say their goodbyes; visiting is strictly prohibited throughout training.\n
Missionaries rise at 6:30 each morning and study more or less straight through until bedtime at 10:30 sharp. Beyond forfeiting control of one's life to the Church hierarchy, throughout their service, each missionary is assigned a rotating "companion"-a system of constant surveillance that makes it all but impossible to stray. Mortensen and Warby, who were elevated to Zone Leaders four weeks into their sojourn at the MTC, are one such pair. As the little white Missionary Handbook reads, for email "use only, the filtered service established by the Church.… While using computers, always stay next to your companion so that you can see each other's monitors."Perhaps the toughest part of service is learning a foreign language; missionaries are required to learn one of the 50 offered. As President Boone jokes, "I think we can say that the folks at the Tower of Babel did a number on us." Upon graduation, Mortensen, Warby, and the rest of their class, all of whom wear orange dots on their black nametags, officially called "celestial dots" (though the more experienced trainees refer to them as "dork dots") will spend the next two years trying to bring people to the faith.The method of instruction at the center is varied. In an afternoon session, Warby and Mortensen practice speaking Portuguese with Jeff Zwick, a missionary who recently returned from Portugal and is now a student at Brigham Young University who works at the MTC as a language teacher. Zwick roleplays being a Portuguese Mormon who has invited Warby and Mortensen over for dinner, casting himself as a convincing and hilarious Portuguese everyman. First Zwick rants about the unhealthiness of American fast food. In the next breath, he urges the missionaries to eat another heaping portion of his homemade roast pork."So where are you from?" Zwick asks Mortensen."New Mexico," he replies."I thought you said you were American? I didn't realize you were a Mexican," Zwick says, goading Mortensen to explain further."What? There are two Mexicos?" Zwick continues, playing dumb and forcing Mortensen to explain more clearly.Warby and Mortensen arrived at the MTC just five weeks ago without a word of Portuguese between them, but they can already hold their own. Before the meal ends, the missionaries casually ask Zwick if he knows of anyone interested in learning more about the Church. The conversation flows, though slowly.
Elders Mortensen and Warby sit in a meeting at the MTC.\n
Missionaries are trained to make interactions which are in fact highly scripted seem natural. Another "life rehearsal" involves making a purchase in a department store. The missionaries are instructed to buy something and then chat up the clerk explaining why they're so far from home in the hope of parlaying it into an appointment to teach them about the Church. In missionary materials, the word "friendship" is turned into a verb. Missionaries are taught that through "friendshipping" individuals, they can enlarge the Church. They are also instructed to tailor the message to the individual. As President Boone explains, "If you had lost a child, we could talk about the eternal nature of the family, and that would appeal to you and resonate in your heart."Each week, the missionaries fill out a document noting the number of potential converts they have contacted. The form looks like something out of a Fortune 500 company's sales and marketing department. The information is then passed up the chain of command all the way to mission presidents. Once a baptism and confirmation are completed, the new convert gets a file at Church headquarters in Salt Lake City. Preach My Gospel urges missionaries to "focus on people [even though you] use numbers" and yet numbers are the key to the Mormons' proselytization strategy, which is, essentially, "flood the zone."\n\n\n
Mormons believe we are living in the latter days, that the end is near. Families are instructed to stock up on canned goods and wheat to prepare for Armageddon.
On average, each missionary only baptizes six converts a year. But when you send out tens of thousands of missionaries, those numbers add up. Any small evangelical church in the Sun Belt can send members down to Honduras to preach in Spanish. But only the Mormons, due to the scale and sophistication of the MTC, can preach the gospel in Hmong and Haitian Creole. Through their willingness to learn languages no one else studies, the Mormons make themselves available to as many of the world's peoples as they can. And their willingness to study obscure tongues helps them corner the market on conversions in certain parts of the world.Lane Steinagel, a middle-aged linguistics scholar, is in charge of language instruction. In the late 1970s, Steinagel served as a missionary in the Cook Islands and discovered his gift for languages. He remains an expert on Cook Island Maori, a language most people haven't even heard of, let alone studied. Steinagel has also taken classes in Spanish, French, German, Russian, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Korean, Mandarin, Japanese, and Tongan. Under his guidance, the MTC teaches tongues you can study virtually nowhere else. "For some languages we have produced our own printed materials," Steinagel explained. "It's hard to find a good text for learning Icelandic or Albanian."When the MTC was founded, the staff modeled its language training after the U.S. military's. Now the military comes to the Mormons. Recent observers have visited the MTC from the Defense Language Institute, West Point, and the Air Force Academy. As Christopherson recounts, "Their question was, ‘How do you get your students to stay in class all day? We can't go more than about six hours with our students.' I think the answer is just plain and simple motivation."
Mormon missionaries are sent to 145 different countries seeking new converts.\n
The strategy of mainstreaming seems all but official Church policy. In his presidential campaign, Mitt Romney has highlighted the similarities between his faith and those of most Americans, at times blatantly misrepresenting what Mormons believe.
One often gets the sense among the Mormons that time is out of joint. The religion was founded less than 200 years ago, giving Mormonism the missionary zeal of Christianity circa A.D. 200 or Islam circa 800. Like those two groups, the Mormons endured an early period of persecution and then embarked upon a rapid proselytization push. But while Saint Paul trolled the Mediterranean by ship and Roman highway and Muhammad crossed the sands of Arabia on horseback, Mormon missionaries travel to the ends of the earth by 747, lifting off from Salt Lake City International Airport. And there is no time to tarry. Mormons believe we are living in the "latter days," that the end is near. Mormon families are instructed to stock up on canned goods and wheat to prepare for Armageddon. The Church itself stores 19 million pounds of wheat in a Salt Lake City grain silo.Saving discussion of the faith's most difficult sacrifices and most unusual beliefs for late in the conversion process is key. The Mormons are famous for bans not only on smoking, drinking, and premarital sex, but even coffee and tea, yet none of these prohibitions are mentioned in the Church's visitors' center on Temple Square in Salt Lake City (which, incidentally, can be reached via a free Church shuttle bus during layover at the Salt Lake airport). At the visitors' center, only one of the Church's most unusual claims is presented front and center: that the current president of the Church is a prophet who speaks with and for God, no different from Moses or John the Baptist. At the center, an exhibit on prophecy includes waxworks of Old and New Testament prophets as well as of Joseph Smith, the first Church prophet who lived near Rochester, New York, and founded the faith in 1830. At the end of the exhibit is a blown-up photograph of the church's current president, a 97-year-old man named Gordon B. Hinckley. He is flanked by his two counselors; his 12 apostles are featured in an interactive computer terminal below. Mormon theology is not discussed in any depth.This strategy of mainstreaming themselves seems all but official Church policy. After World War II, Mormon apostles shaved the flowing beards that had distinguished them since the founding of the Church. More recently, the Church redesigned its logo to make the words "Jesus Christ" much larger, possibly in an attempt to minimize the differences between Mormonism and traditional forms of Christianity. Mitt Romney has adopted a similar strategy in his presidential campaign. In a Republican primary debate, when asked about his faith, Romney responded, "I believe in God, believe in the Bible, believe Jesus Christ is my savior," highlighting the similarities between his faith and those of most Americans. At times, he has gone even further, blatantly misrepresenting what Mormons believe. When asked by ABC News where Christ will appear in the Second Coming, Romney responded, "Jerusalem"-not exactly church doctrine.
The MTC's language training is state of the art; the U.S. military uses it as a model.\n
"We're going pretty deep into this theology thing," President Boone says a bit uncomfortably. When Jesus returns, he says, the New Jerusalem will be located on the Missouri side of suburban Kansas City. "The church has many holdings, property-wise, real estate-wise there," Boone says. He also confirmed what is arguably the Church's most unusual teaching of all-the polytheistic doctrine that one day, righteous Mormons will become gods and live with their families forever. As Boone explains, the fifth prophet of the Church taught, "As man now is, God once was. As God now is, man may become." Boone quotes chapter and verse from the Old and New Testaments to support the claim that Christianity was always intended to be polytheistic, with righteous human beings eventually becoming gods. "In the creation account in Genesis it says, ‘Let us make man in our own image'… and we believe that. I'm not sure about everybody else. When Christ was giving the Sermon on the Mount, he directed them ‘to be perfect, even as their Father in heaven was perfect.' Well that's quite a charge. So most Christians would say and most Jews would say and most Muslims would say that we ought to be more God-like in our activities. So where do you draw the line. Is He happy if we're 5 percent like Him? If we're 10 percent? Fifty percent? The charge is ‘Be therefore perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.' So we take that very literally and that raises the ire of some. They say ‘You're dragging God down to human level' but it's just the opposite."Boone assured me that I, like all people, had the potential to become a god. "The fact is, sure. You would have procreative power, you would have your own offspring, you would create your own worlds.""Could I create a universe?" I asked incredulously."Absolutely."The promise of one day becoming a god is seductive. And Mormonism promises its believers blessings in the here and now as well. "We're blessed for serving a mission and I look forward to receiving those blessings," Mortensen tells me matter of factly. As one of his charges puts it: "Our zone is known for obedience. We follow the rules because we want the blessings."Relentlessly upbeat, no one at the MTC mentions God's punishments for disobedience. But the following day, I overhear an elderly Church volunteer explain in hushed tones that the Prophet had told his flock that the drought that has plagued Salt Lake City in recent years is God's punishment for not keeping the Sabbath holy. "The valley is less than 50 percent Church members at this point," she confides with a conspiratorial scowl to a fellow Mormon on our tour of the Church's humanitarian supply center. There is no problem, it seems, that cannot be solved by winning obedient converts for the Church.In my final Portuguese class at the MTC, Jared Critchfield, a young returned missionary, taught the verb form called the present subjunctive. Critchfield wrote on the board, "The present subjunctive is used to express doubt, uncertainty, emotions, desires, imposition of will, etc." His examples were, "We ask that You bless us," and "I hope that we learn the language." To practice, he had the class stand up and pair off, with one missionary playing Aladdin making wishes, and the other playing the genie granting them, in a human-divine quid pro quo reminiscent of the Church's own teachings.The lesson worked. The students quickly got the hang of the present subjunctive. Critchfield never once gave an example of a sentence expressing doubt, or uncertainty.

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