5 LDS missions that break the mold

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Zayne Callahan answers messages from online investigators at the Provo MTC Referral Center. Callahan, who was born with spina bifida, served two years at the referral center. (Courtesy of Zayne Callahan)
Zayne Callahan answers messages from online investigators at the Provo MTC Referral Center. Callahan, who was born with spina bifida, served two years at the referral center. (Zayne Callahan)

Every mission is unique, but as the Church expands, some missionaries are called to serve in ways that would have surprised their pioneer ancestors.

1. Online missionary

The companions typed out the closing prayer as they finished another day sitting in front of the computer.

Typing out prayers eventually became second nature for Zayne Callahan, a BYU student from Montana. He served in the MTC Referral Center Mission in Provo. His mission was structured entirely around online work.

There were only 11 missionaries when Callahan arrived. Missionaries usually had a health condition that prevented them from serving in the field. Callahan was born with spina bifida. “Everyone was there for different reasons,” Callahan said.

Callahan’s first priority as an online missionary was to answer chats from mormon.org. The exciting part, Callahan recalled, was when they were able to make return appointments, which were conducted via Facebook or Skype.

Callahan taught individuals from all over the world, and because the missionaries were online almost all the time they responded to investigators’ questions within minutes. “We had a lot of unplanned lessons that way,” Callahan said.

A large part of answering chats was figuring out the individuals’ intentions. Callahan laughed as he recalled dealing with “Internet trolls.” Some websites will get large groups of people to message at the same time, “and you have to answer everyone.”

Serving via online chatrooms meant Callahan did little searching, because people found him. “I learned how to really help people because they are coming to you for a reason; you have to really think about what that reason is and what they really need.”

Former full-time missionary Alex Farnsworth and fellow service volunteers practice for a puppet show performance in Belarus. They usually performed two or three shows a day. (Alex Farnsworth)
Former full-time missionary Alex Farnsworth and fellow service volunteers practice for a puppet show performance in Belarus. They usually performed two or three shows a day. (Alex Farnsworth)

2. Puppeteer

No name tags, no proselyting and going to work five days a week is the normal routine for LDS service volunteers in Belarus.

BYU student Alex Farnsworth served in the Baltic Mission, which includes Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus. He was assigned to work in Belarus, where he worked as a volunteer for a native Belarus nonprofit organization. “Church relations (in Belarus) are tenuous,” Farnsworth said. The government prohibits the influence of non-recognized foreign religions; this makes proselyting and openly carrying religious material illegal.”

The 100 active branch members had to split up in small groups for church meetings when their meeting house was condemned. “It’s very interesting, as a missionary, to turn to your companion and ask, ‘Do you know where we are going to church on Sunday?'”

Farnsworth and his companion were prohibited from teaching or performing church services as foreigners. This included helping with the sacrament or giving talks in church, regardless of the meeting place. “We basically have day jobs; it was normal schedule till 8 a.m., and then we walked to work,” he said.

A majority of their time was spent doing puppet shows. They performed for children and youth groups at libraries, schools and summer camps, emphasizing healthy living topics such as eating, dangers of smoking and alcohol abuse. “We promoted good values through an established system,” Farnsworth said.

Any religious discussion consisted of small friend groups in non-public locations.

“Who you are is a member of the Church, and you be the best member you can be,” Farnsworth said.

He emphasized that as volunteers they didn’t try to hide who they are, but they did obey the laws. “Without a tag, I didn’t have people staring at me; we felt normal, but we had a calling to be disciples of Christ. Serving in Belarus taught me a lot about being called in life to good whether you are wearing a tag or not.”

The Madagascar Antananarivo Mission covers the islands of Madagascar, Reunion and Mauritius. Missionaries called French speaking serve in Reunion and Mauritius and never see the mission home on Madagascar. (Google Maps)
The Madagascar Antananarivo Mission covers the islands of Madagascar, Reunion and Mauritius. Missionaries called French speaking serve in Reunion and Mauritius and never see the mission home on Madagascar. (Google Maps)

3. Tropical island

Evan Long, a BYU student from Oregon, expected malaria pills and poverty when he opened his mission call to Antananarivo, Madagascar. He was called to serve in a developing nation but ended up on a first-world island and never even going to Madagascar.

Long received an email informing him to apply for a French visa, but not everyone called to Antananarivo, Madagascar, got the same email. “We had no idea what was going on or what to expect,” he said.

The French visa Long applied for was for Reunion Island. Reunion has an entirely different culture and is developed in comparison to Madagascar, Long explained. “In Madagascar, people loved the missionaries. Reunion is the opposite; no one really even wants you in their home.”

The mission president was only able to fly to Reunion every couple of months, because the mission home was in Madagascar. The distant leadership meant Reunion missionaries had to handle more logistical matters such as finding new places to live. “No one knows exactly what they are doing. Sometimes the direction you do get feels like it’s not even for you because Madagascar problems were so different from Reunion problems,” Long said.

Many of the people Long encountered, including Hindus, believed in God. The problem was they doubled up on religion. “They say they believe you, but they don’t take it to heart,” Long said.

Only 16 missionaries served on Reunion Island while Long was there. “You have to figure out how you were going to make it through the week; life was really hard; you feel isolated,” he said.

Long fondly remembers the experience despite the challenging isolation. “I really learned that everyone matters, whether it’s a missionary or a member who just needs someone to laugh with; sometimes your job is making people feel good, and not only is that good enough, but that’s great.”

Former full-time missionary Alexis Conley laughs with students from the University of Florida YSA ward. Conley served for a time on the UF campus. "It can be so easy to act 'normal' when it's people your age, but you have to keep a missionary attitude," she said. (Courtesy of Alexis Conley)
Former full-time missionary Alexis Conley laughs with students from the University of Florida YSA ward. Conley served for a time on the UF campus. “It can be so easy to act ‘normal’ when it’s people your age, but you have to keep a missionary attitude,” she said. (Alexis Conley)

4. Campus missionary

 A drinking game invitation turned into a baptism for missionaries serving at the University of Florida.

Alexis Conley, a BYU student from California, served in the Florida Jacksonville Mission. She didn’t expect to spend a third of her mission on a college campus. “I was trying to get away from school,” she joked.

Teaching students presented a different set of challenges, she explained. “We had to show them that the gospel is not just another ‘to-do’ on a checklist.”

No one was home Fridays or Saturdays, holidays or finals week, and on game days everything shut down.

“I knew the drill, it was game day, and everyone on campus would be drunk, but my companion was new to the area and decided to plan out an entire day on campus,” Conley said. “All the sudden we were in the middle of this huge tailgate party, and this student is asking us to play a drinking game.”

The next day Conley and her companion tracted into that same student. The student was still drunk, but the two sisters taught her and her friends anyway; the students eventually got baptized. “We jokingly called it the university of Babylon, but as a missionary sometimes it really felt like Babylon,” Conley said.

She explained how serving on a university campus involved a lot of trust. She elaborated on the importance of standing out as representatives of Jesus Christ. “It can be so easy to act ‘normal’ when it’s people your age, but you had to keep a missionary attitude.”

Conley loved to watch the gospel change the students’ lives; even their apartments seemed brighter and cleaner with each lesson. “I learned to never assume things about anyone; everyone’s fighting a battle. We knew the solution, but they had to find out for themselves that the gospel really betters all aspects of life.”

MaryKathryn Herman poses with fellow missionaries at a model cabin at the Mormon Battalion Historic Site Museum. Herman thought her mission would be like serving at Temple Square, but it turned out quite differently. (MaryKathryn Herman)
MaryKathryn Herman poses with fellow missionaries at a model cabin at the Mormon Battalion Historic Site Museum. Herman thought her mission would be like serving at Temple Square, but it turned out quite differently. (MaryKathryn Herman)

5. Battalion mission

Museum tours and pioneer dresses are part of the daily routine for sister missionaries serving at the Mormon Battalion Historic Site.

MaryKathryn Herman, from Midway, was called to serve in the California San Diego Mission. “I expected it to be like serving in the Salt Lake visitor center,” she said.

However, the historical site was nothing like a visitor center. Half of Herman’s day consisted of giving museum tours in which proselyting was not allowed. The museum took visitors through a virtual journey of the march made by the Mormon Battalion. Almost half of the people who toured the museum were nonmembers. “I had to figure out how to have the Spirit so the person can feel the Spirit through me,” Herman said.

Herman said many of the visitors were drawn to the Spirit in her unique mission.

“All the time we had people walk past (the museum), turn around and come in,” Herman recalled. She had several experiences with people who would explain, “I don’t know why I’m here, but I felt like I should come in.”