Russia another example of changing missionary landscape

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Emily Hoskins
MTC teacher Emily Hoskins enjoys the snow while on her mission in January 2015 in Vyborg, Russia — one of the first places in Russia where the church was established. (Emily Hoskins)

Former Washington Federal Way Mission president Rob Eaton found great success in knocking on doors of apartment complexes and neighborhoods to find investigators when he was a young full-time missionary. However, Eaton found this method to find investigators was less effective during his time as a mission president.

Many places now have strict rules and laws on proselytizing, such as “no soliciting” policies. Such difficulties regarding this historically successful proselytizing method have presented themselves in recent years in more places other than Washington. These difficulties present a growing need for member missionary work in an increasingly dynamic global missionary landscape.

“When missionaries are no longer allowed to knock on the doors of people in entire apartment complexes, the only way we’ll reach some of those people is when members with their friends or neighbors or acquaintances reach out to them in other places in other ways,” Eaton said. “And interestingly enough we see some parallels between that and some other countries with more restricted religious freedom, where the way the gospel will roll forth in those countries is with the members really being the ones to at least find investigators initially, and then come to church in some other way or meet the missionaries.”

Recent changes worldwide in missionary work continue to adapt to local situations, and Russia is no exception with the recent law restricting proselytizing.

The LDS Church released a statement Monday, Sept. 5, 2016, announcing the reassignment of 30 of the volunteers in the Missionary Training Center who were originally going to serve in Russia.

“With recent changes in the law, volunteers in Russia may not proselyte publicly, but instead focus on supporting the church and its members and on engaging in community and humanitarian service,” said church spokesman Eric Hawkins. “This has decreased the number of volunteers needed and has made it necessary to adjust some assignments.”

Josh White, a senior in BYU’s Russian program, served in the Russia Rostov-na-Donu Mission. White said he saw these kinds of changes coming, and a lot of it was related to the Russian perspective of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as being an American church.

This Russian Orthodox Church is called the Church on Spilled Blood, located in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Emily Hoskins)

“I think a lot of the problems that Russian missionaries are having now, my mission experienced a long time ago, because we were right on the border with Ukraine,” White said. “We had to take off our name tags, stop street teaching and contacting people in a missionary sense a long time before some of the other missions did. The big catalyst for that was the Ukrainian civil war which cast Americans in a bad light … That was honestly the portrayal in the Russian media, so I’m not really surprised that two years later Russia has put this law into place.”

MTC Russian teacher Emily Hoskins teaches some of the missionaries who were just reassigned. She said the missionaries have taken the news rather well.

Hoskins mentioned the zone coordinator gathered the missionaries together to give them words of encouragement. At the meeting the coordinator was surprised to find the missionaries were ready and willing to adapt to the change.

“I think for some it’s disappointing, but they are doing really well,” Hoskins said. “They are just moving forward. I think the MTC has really helped them strengthen their testimonies about that.”

Hoskins said the volunteers in Russia have adapted to the restrictions on proselytizing.

“The volunteers do lots of activities with the members and I know they visit members a lot in their homes,” Hoskins said. “They help the members run family home evening. They study their Russian, and I know they’re involved in volunteer work in their communities. They have regular church callings just like the Russian members do. One of my companions told me how she is in the nursery right now and she just loves it. I think their focus is really helping the members and strengthening them.”

Christina Young, a junior in the BYU international relations program, also served in Moscow and said she isn’t worried about the recent changes.

“I think that maybe, at first, it might slow it down a little bit because things are obviously changing a lot, but I think that the members will pick up the slack,” Young said. “I actually did an internship there over the summer and the members were already talking about how it’s already in their hands now.”

White thinks the new changes could be a good thing in the long run.

“It’s never good to have less missionaries but I think that reliance more on members pays off,” he said. “So I mean I guess there is a silver lining to the storm cloud.”

Regardless of where the mission is located, Eaton agrees the way the church approaches missionary work is a dynamic process even when the principles are constant. For the Federal Way Mission, the change that had to be made was encouraging the local members to reach out to non-members through technology.

“It’s always been a combination of constancy as to the things that matter most and flexibility and adaptation as to things that are more tactical,” Eaton said. “We’re always experimenting and evolving trying to find the best ways in any given time and place to share the gospel most effectively with other people.”

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