So What is this “Mission” Anyway?

Ralph Airport SFO

Photo and text by Gabrielle.

I’m a wreck today. Partly because I’m fighting through a head cold, but mostly because the whole family woke up at 3:30 this morning so we could take Ralph to the airport and send him off with a giant family hug. He’s flying to Mexico City today for six weeks of training and then it’s on to Bogota, Colombia. His mission assignment is 24 months, and we won’t see him again for two years. (I’m absolutely crushed to write that sentence). He can call us on Mother’s Day and Christmas, but other than that, the only communication we’ll have with him is a weekly email, or maybe an actual written letter now and then.

Though we’re delighted he has such a huge adventure ahead of him, we are all feeling pretty heartbroken to see him go. There are lots of tears and lots of tissues at our house. And sweet surprises too. After we returned from the airport and went back to bed for a few hours, we woke to find that Ralph had left a personal letter for each sibling and each parent. Really thoughtful, lovely letters. I already treasure mine.

Lots of cryfests happening. There was one last night when Ralph was officially made Elder Blair by one of our church leaders. Another as we drove to the airport this morning. A big one as we said goodbye at security. And another one this morning as we read his letters. Those are the family cryfests, but really, I’ve personally been a big teary mess at random times — grocery store line, driving kids to school, doing dishes — since we got home from France. It’s not just the mission, it’s also the very real fact that this marks the end of an era for our family.

While I’m dealing with the tears, I thought this was a good day to write up a few notes about missions for those who are curious. I need to start by saying that I’ve never been on a mission. So I’m going to tell you what I know, but I can’t pretend to be an expert.

What a mission is:
Missions have been happening since the Mormon church was established. But they’ve changed over time. Back in the pioneer days, it was often married men with young families who were sent off all over the world. But a century and a half later, it’s mostly young men and young women in their late teens and early twenties. Beyond that age range, there are also couple missionaries that head out when they retire — for example, my parents and Ben Blair’s parents both served a mission in retirement. There are currently about 74,000 LDS missionaries. Here’s a list of the trivia that I think you’ll find the most interesting:

– Young men can go on a mission beginning at age 18. They must be single. They are asked to serve for 24 months.

– Young women can go on a mission beginning at age 19. They must be single as well. They are asked to serve for 18 months. There are lots of theories about the different age requirements, and time requirements, but I haven’t heard any official word on why it’s different for men and women. Also, these ages are relatively new. For most of my life the age requirements were 19 for young men, and 21 for young women. But that changed about 4 or 5 years ago.

– You don’t get to choose where your mission will be. With the exception of a few countries where they don’t allow missionaries, it could be literally anywhere. My siblings did missions in Cambodia, Brazil, Japan, Colombia, and South Dakota. My dad’s mission was on the Navajo reservation. In retirement, my mom and her husband went on a mission to Ykaterinburg, Russia (so cold!).

Being able to speak a second or third language doesn’t necessarily affect where you are asked to serve. Ralph is fluent in French, but has been asked to learn Spanish. There is a spot on the application where you can indicate your language skills and your willingness to learn a new language. But still, you get assigned where you get assigned.

– You have to apply to go on a mission. It’s not an automatic: YES, you can go. A mission is hard work, and you have to be up to it physically. So just to apply, there are doctor visits and dentist visits and blood tests and immunization records — with the goal of making sure that anyone heading out on a mission is as healthy as possible.

– Mission applicants are also interviewed by their church leaders to make sure they are living the Mormon lifestyle — no drinking, smoking or drugs, no sex before marriage. That sort of thing. If they have done any of those things, but still want to go on a mission, then they work with their church leader to repent/recommit, and then they can apply for a mission.

– Missions start at a training center. Typically for 2, 6 or 8 weeks. If you are not learning a language, training is for 2 weeks. If you are learning a language, training is for 6 or 8 weeks (Ralph is training for 6). There are training centers in many places, but I believe the biggest one is in Provo. Ralph was originally asked to go to the training center in Colombia, but then they switched him to Mexico City for training. From the training center, missionaries fly to their mission destination — there’s no stop at home first.

– Missionaries are assigned a companion. They are with them pretty much non-stop, and they don’t get to choose their companion. New companions may be assigned every 3 to 6 months, although some pairs work together for longer periods. From what we can tell, most missionaries in Ralph’s mission are from South American countries. Very few are from the U.S.. Which means most of his companions may be native Spanish speakers. I’m sure this will really help speed up Ralph’s Spanish skills.

Many men and women who have served missions gave Ralph advice, and almost every one of them said dealing with companions — learning to be patient with them, to work with them, to love them — is the hardest part of the mission.

– Missions generally cover a large area. I think Ralph’s mission covers about half of the geography of Colombia — including the coldest and hottest parts. Missionaries don’t get to choose which area within their mission to work in. It’s assigned to them, just like a companion, and can switch around just as often. This can be challenging — just as they are getting to know an area and making good friends, they may need to pack their bags, say goodbyes, and start all over again hours away.

– Often, it’s two missionaries in a small apartment, but sometimes there are 4 or 6 missionaries sharing a bigger space.

– Missions are not paid, and they are not free. Missions actually cost $400 per month for the whole 24 months. Many kids save up for their mission for many years. Or their parents or grandparents might pay the cost. Other times, a congregation will sponsor a missionary and cover his or her costs. The fee covers housing, food, toiletries, and transportation. If the missionary wants to buy clothing or souvenirs, those purchases come from personal funds beyond the $400 per month. Also, cost of living ranges around the world, but missionaries all pay the same rate — the idea is that it’s an average cost of all missions. (It didn’t used to be this way. If you were assigned to an expensive part of the world, then bummer for you, your costs were simply higher. The average cost makes so much more sense.)

In addition to the monthly costs, prepping someone for a mission is also an expense. Luggage, suits and wardrobe, sturdy shoes, and other supplies can add up to $1000 or more easily.

– Missions are very strict. You can’t go to movies, or to concerts. You can’t use the internet (except for sending a weekly email), you can’t have a cell phone or any internet device. You can’t date. You’re not supposed to read anything beyond the scriptures and a very short list of approved church books. You can only listen to uplifting music (think: Mormon Tabernacle Choir). You get up every morning at 6:30 AM. As I mentioned, you can’t call home, except for twice a year — on Christmas and Mother’s Day. Your energy is supposed to be concentrated on the mission and nothing else. No distractions.

– The dress code is also very strict. Missionaries are supposed to look professional and well-groomed. Ralph will be wearing dark suits with a white shirt and tie. Shoes need to be polished daily. Hair must be worn very short. No beards allowed. Women have more flexibility and don’t end up looking so matchy-matchy with their companion, but they must wear long skirts or dresses (that hit below the knee), and blouses with sleeves. They can’t dye their hair unusual colors, or wear extra piercings beyond a simple set of earrings. Missionaries wear name-tags from the moment they enter the training center.

– So what do missionaries do all day? The main goal is to find people who want to learn about the gospel and teach them. They get up early, study the scriptures, pray, get ready for the day and then head out to work. They may have back-to-back appointments to teach people about the gospel. Or they may set up a street board and try to engage passersby in conversation. In many places, they are discouraged from knocking doors because it’s invasive and generally not effective, but depending on the area, sometimes they may choose to knock doors anyway. A portion of their time is reserved for service — they might volunteer or help someone move. In some places, missionaries hold English classes. They may head home in the evening to make dinner, or a family in their assigned congregation may host them for dinner. They are always with their companion.

– Once a week, they have a P-day or preparation day. On this day, they can do laundry, buy groceries, maybe play a pick up game of soccer or basketball. They don’t have to wear a suit or typical missionary clothes on P-Day.

– There is a culture of shame for missionaries who come home early. This is an awful thing and as a church it needs to be worked on. Prevention efforts are made — the interviews with the church leader when someone applies for a mission are partly to make sure the missionary is serious about wanting to do the mission. But still, sometimes a young man or young women heads out there and finds that it’s just not the right fit at all. Or maybe they are breaking some big mission rules (like no dating) which means they have to go home, or maybe they’re having unexpected medical problems. Whatever the reason they come home, as church members, we need to work harder to make sure they can change directions and come home without making it a big deal. We need to make sure these kids know they are loved with or without missionary service.

– An advantage of missions is that they often become a crash course in adulting. Missionaries are given a specific amount of money each month and they have to budget it for food and other expenses. If they haven’t already before they go, they have to figure out laundry, ironing, cleaning, cooking and shopping for themselves. They have to learn how to get along with others (specifically their companions). They have to keep a strict schedule — get up early and go to bed early. They have to be responsible with their time and resources.

A disadvantage to this, is that many missionaries feel compelled to jump into serious adulthood — marriage and parenting — as soon as they return. As someone who married at 21, I know marrying young can work out, but it’s not okay with me that many missionaries feel serious pressure to marry as quickly as possible after they return home.

– Missionary work can be disruptive to a college education. Some missionaries like to go on a mission before they start college, but many like to do a year of college first and then return to school when they are done. As you can imagine, if you start college with a tight-knit freshman class, and then disappear for two years, and then come back and all your peers are seniors, while you are a sophomore, then that is really challenging.

Related, at the Mormon-church-owned BYU schools (in Provo, Idaho and Hawaii), having students leave for missions is commonplace and the schools accommodate those changes easily. But at other universities, students have to defer for a couple of years and make sure their university paperwork is in order before they go on the mission.

– There are exceptions to everything I’ve said. I’ve heard of shorter missions and longer missions. I’ve heard of missions being served at unusual ages. Sometimes there are non-proselytizing missions — missions to do service only, or missions where you are assigned to work in the mission office. I’ve heard of missions that allow movies at certain gatherings and parties. I’ve heard of missions that use iPads. But I think in general, what I’ve written here holds true. And you can definitely read more about this stuff on the LDS website.

– As I mentioned, Ralph received lots of advice, and one of the overarching themes seems to be that missions are really hard and that they are deeply formative. Also, that even though missions are difficult, there are moments that are so rewarding that it makes all the hard work worth it.

I think that’s it for now. If you have more questions, feel free to ask them in the comments. I know there are many Mormons who read here, and if I don’t know the answer, I’m sure someone else will jump in. : )

I also have some thoughts written up about why this particular change in our family life is causing me such angst — I mean, Ralph has certainly gone off on other adventures before, but this feels different. This post is already quite long, so I’ll keep working on my other thoughts and try to share them tomorrow. Oh parenting, sometimes you kick me in the butt.

171 thoughts on “So What is this “Mission” Anyway?”

  1. Just sending love and support. Missions are all of the above and more (I served in Honduras and Belize 1999-2000) and I hope Ralph and your family have a wonderful experience.

    1. have been on both sides of the mission having served.In Holbrook arizona mission in 1980-1982 both brothers went on missions my sister did not she got married. Great things you learn as a missionary you can do anything you put your mind too. Your well rounded about different people and cultures. Main thing is you really grow up. Adult when you come home. Son had to come home early because of health reasons. Daughter made the choice to go out, She will be home in 9 weeks having chosen to serve 19 months. She was given a choice. I went on a mission its work but so rewarding. Chance of a life time in my opinion and builds your testimony Jesus Christ. Me my children and I went to the same mission area. What a beautiful blessing i knew what they were up against the challenges but, I knew what they would get out of it. So worth letting them go. She went totally by choice. She has loved her mission experience. You shall not pass this way again as this is my last child to go. I have no more to send. I would do it again in a heart beat because the person you grow to be come while you are out there. I felt longing for my children , Shed the tears , felt the worries had i prepared her enough. the answer is yes. The closeness you feel to your heavenly Father while you are out nothing surpasses it. I send my love to all Moms. You can do this and so can they.its a great growing experience and so worth it.

  2. Really great post. I have always been curious about missions, as I often see missionaries around my town. Nice to get some of the background and logistics behind it.

  3. Good luck to Ralph! I am thrilled for him, and anxious for you. As a Mormon, I concur wholeheartedly with the sentiment: “We need to make sure these kids know they are loved with or without missionary service.” My oldest is 13 and I feel the years getting shorter. I used to expect my children to serve missions, and now I hope they will simply do what’s right for them.

  4. I so can relate to this. My son left last October, and is also in Bogota! (He is in the south mission).
    He is also the oldest of six, and I was a weepy mess. I wasn’t sad for him to go, I was mourning the end of an era in our family. I’ve always been Mormon, but until I had my OWN missionary leave, I had no idea how hard it truly was. Like becoming a mother, I would never change it, but I would never say it was easy. Hang in there!

  5. Big hugs to you. My oldest is only 10 and I already feel the years moving faster. How does that happen when the days, with multiple young kids, are so long?? It’s a mystery to me. Thanks for sharing your feelings, and the information about missions–not being Mormon, I knew very little about it.

    Also, from reading the descriptions of the lifestyle he is signing on for and the fact that he left individual letters for everyone, I’m convinced: your son is a wonderful, unselfish person and you and your husband have raised him wisely and lovingly. That is inspiring.

  6. Wow, G, this was so informative and honest; thank you! I can totally see why you’re a weepy mess. Definitely an end to an era for your family and just as Ralph returns possibly another leaves. And so on. Would you mind sharing how much your family talked about mission trips as the kids were growing up? Do they have a sense that it’s expected of them or does it solely come from their own thought and decision process? I’m really curious to see if your daughter follows suit as I know you’ve mentioned her desire for a 4-year traditional college experience too. While we are not a religious family, we definitely talked about going to college for the entirety of our sons’ growing-up years and they never veered from that path. Wondering if talking about a mission is similar….

    1. I’d be curious to hear about how much y’all talked about mission trips as the kids were growing up, too! Interesting comparison to college.

    2. In our family it is, both growing up and with my kids. My oldest is only 6, but we still talk about high school, mission, college. He has an uncle and cousin on a mission too that gets the conversation going. When we talk about college, it’s you could go here like mom or choose this school etc, but with a mission it’s guessing where in the world they will assign you. The guessing is fun. As a kid, I we would pull out a globe and guess where everyone would go on a mission, this was when we were 10 or so.

      1. Since this is a strong religious and cultural expectation in the LDS church (especially for the young men), it is discussed and emphasized a lot while growing up. For instance, in their childhood Sunday classes there is a song the kids sing: “I Hope They Call Me On a Mission!” We talk about it as a given with our kids, just like the expectation of college: “So when you’re on your mission…” instead of “if”

    3. Good question, Cynthia. Ben Blair and I both have mixed feelings about missions, so I would say that in our house, we definitely talk about college far more than missions. In fact, until Ralph decided to go on a mission, we hadn’t talked about it much at all.

      But, our families on both sides, have a long legacy of sending out missionaries. And I know Ralph, who happens to really love geneaology stories, and digs through old family journals with glee, was really aware of that. So even though he wasn’t getting pressure from his parents, he was still very aware of how missions fit in to his larger family narrative. I feel like that history definitely influenced his decision to go.

  7. I know it probably pales in comparison, but I felt a lot of the same feelings when my oldest started kindergarten. I know, I know. It sounds cheesy, but I remember crying, not from missing him, but knowing that we had entered a new stage in life. He had been to daycare, and then to preschool, so it wasn’t like going to school was new, but somehow, the compulsory part just made me realize our lives were going to be different now.

    Best of luck in your family’s new phase of life!

  8. Very comprehensive summary and nicely done. We had 3 missionaries (one Sister and two Elders) serve from our family (during the 1980’s). Each of them had at least one problem companion; I agree with you that learning to live in close quarters 24/7 was a challenge. On the other hand, each of them had comps who became close long-lasting friends for the rest of their lives. Each of them matured and benefitted from their service.

  9. Wow – just two phone calls a year? Why such an extreme restriction on communication with family? Even novices in the strictest orders of (Catholic) monks and nuns generally allow more communication than that, and those are people who feel especially called to special life of self-denial. Isn’t that rather harsh, especially given that it must be many kids’ first time living away from home?

    1. Anna,

      I am LDS and served a mission in Brazil when I was 21 for 18 months. I can not offer any official LDS reasoning behind the 2 phone calls a year, but I can share my own experience. I was grateful to only be able to call home 2 times a year. It was hard to serve a mission and be away from family and all they were doing. I missed them dearly, and it would have been overwhelming to be in more regular contact with them. One aspect of a mission is loosing yourself in the service of others and part of that is giving up what is familiar and your own interests in an effort to focus on those you are serving and your relationship with The Lord. Later, I lived with my husband in Japan for over 2 years. I spent a lot of time on the phone with my mom during those 2 years that I lived in Japan with my husbands work. I relied on and consulted with her on lots of things. I was able to compare that experience with my time as a missionary and how without that connection/communication with my mom while I was on a mission, I was able to, instead, rely on The Lord and develop a relationship with Him that I still cherish almost 20 years later. I hope that helps you understand a little better, at least how I feel. I never once felt it was a punishment, or that it was harsh.

    2. I felt that this rule was actually really beneficial to me as a missionary. Phone calls home can be distracting and induce feelings of homesickness. I arrived in my mission in October, so I got to call home at Christmas two months later. While it was wonderful to talk to my family, I felt like I kind of had to start all over again with the adjustment process afterwards. And this is after I had already lived away from home at college for three years! Missions are intensely stressful and, at least for me, the rules to keep us focuses were strict but helpful.

      1. I’m glad both of you found it a good experience, but I think you do have to realize that to an outsider, that rule (and indeed most of the structure Gabrielle describes) sounds like the intention is programming. It seems to me that except for someone with an exceptionally tough psyche and sense of self, cutting off all ties to that extreme degree right at the end of childhood would be extremely destabilizing, and not in a good way – unless the goal is reprogramming the person, in which case it sounds like an excellent strategy.

        1. Maybe it will put more emphasis on written letters? It sounds like they can still write regular mail? A weekly email doesn’t sound too bad. I went to college in the mid-90s, before email and cell phones were common. Long distance phone rates were so expensive many people didn’t have constant communication with their families. I think the newer technology has made us way more dependent on it.

          1. I went to college then too, and my parents decided once a month was the phone calls we could afford. But that’s a whole lot different than twice a year. Also, to me it’s quite different to talk seldom because of financial or technical constraints, vs. an authority deliberately minimizing contact by choice.

        2. You still communicate every week with written correspondence. Before it was so affordable to make calls around the world, it was standard to write letters. Honestly, I learned a lot about my parents in those letters that they and other family members sent me. My mom kept all my letters that I sent home each week and I love to look back at them. It is a reminder of those days of service. I am sure it would sound like programming and to my husband he would probably agree with you. It is meant to be a complete focus of time and I do believe that those that serve missions have to prepare for that change and as a culture we must be more accepting of those that decide that a mission is not for them.

        3. Definitely no “programming” involved and they definitely do NOT cut all ties. The two phone calls a year is just a part of the gig, and we all know and accept it. It’s tough, but it is what it is. I can write my son a letter everyday, if I want to. And we can email each week. I look forward to the days when my missionary emails me and we can go back and forth to have a little conversation. My son is also heading to Colombia and cannot wait to serve the people there. These next two years will be the best two years of his life, thus far. He is so excited! My husband STILL refers to his mission frequently and he served his over 25 years ago.

    3. I am anxious about my grandchildren going on a mission in the coming years, and knowing they will not have any contact with family for two years seems awful.

    4. I am Mormon and have also wondered about this. It seems fairly unreasonable, especially considering that missionaries are allowed a weekly letter home–why not a call?

      I wonder if this is simply an outdated rule from a time when international phone calls were more costly, worse quality, and harder to accomplish in many parts of the world (think about what rural Colombia would have been like in 1960). A phone call may have been a huge distraction that may have even involved travel from one’s mission area to a city, an expensive transaction, etc. I’m hoping the rule changes soon as global communication becomes easier to navigate.

        1. Why do you “hope things change”? YOU can change them! I’m an atheist, so going on a mission is absurd for me to begin with, but even if one believes in “God” I’m sure the Bible or which ever book the mormons rely on doesn’t say a freakin word about letters, emails, phone calls etc. It can’t possibly be a God-made rule but a (wo)man made rule. If you let “your church” tell you what to do, then sorry. You should be “the church”, so change things rather than hoping for them to change.

          1. Saying “I hope things change” doesn’t mean a person isn’t working to change things. You can say and do both. Church organizations are notoriously slow to change. In the case of the Mormon church, there are many members actively working to make change across many fronts — often dedicating huge amounts of time and energy. And there is progress. But the success is incremental and comes very slowly.

            Though I would LOVE it if making change were as simple as you describe, it’s just not.

    5. I am not discounting what others have said here but as the mother of a former missionary, I found the two phone calls rule, isolating, inconvenient and cruel. I also believe it is another way the church is bias against women specifically, by forcing a cut of ties with their sons.

      I’ve also known several missionaries whose parents were not LDS and they called home once a month.

  10. Thank you for sharing this information. As a Lutheran, I had NO idea how intense this experience must be, and know I wouldn’t have been up to it at 18. I can see how hard it will be for the rest of your family as well. While I have no intention to convert, I find your occasional, honest posts about your religion fascinating, a peek behind the curtain, so to speak.

  11. I’ve got two thoughts to add:
    I think there should be some sort of reintegration program when missionaries return home – their schedule is so peculiar (and strict) compared to a regular college or working young person, and I think there should be some kind of guidance and continuous availability to counselling (I know there are church counselors but I think it should be made mandatory that a missionary has meetings to assess his or her wellbeing/readjustment – some missionaries see tragic and scary things, have injuries or acquire mosquito-born illnesses/diseases, or just need help re-adjusting to everyday life and need to learn coping skills they never needed before and might not have access to or even realize they need).

    Second thought: I just heard a mother say that she was emailing her son every week but then she realized that he wasn’t in a place where he could print off those letters and so mid-week if he felt like he wanted to re-read encouraging words from his family he couldn’t. She now writes occasional letters in addition to emails!

  12. This sounds like such an incredible growing experience, but oh how my heart is breaking for you and your family. Definitely a “rip-off-the-bandaid” approach to children growing up and moving out of the house! I’m sure the time will go fast, but be gentle with yourself – it’s your first time going through ANY kid leaving home, and this “change” is going to feel particularly brutal! Just think – it was MORE than two years ago when your family first moved to France, and you were there for a little over two years – I bet that time already seems like a distant memory! Maybe that will make this seem less overwhelming.

  13. An exciting milestone and transition, and a hard one for a mother. When my oldest left for college last year, I was a weepy wreck. (Note: invest in quality Kleenex so you don’t have sore eyes from the cheap tissues.) And as you said, it wasn’t so much the event itself, but the change in our family structure and dynamics and the end of an era. I see our family life now as a revolving door, with different kids in and out at different times. Hang in there!

  14. Mis-sion-ary: someone who leaves their family for a short time, so that others may be with their families for eternity.

    I think of that quote that says, “All that I am or hope to be I owe to my angel mother.” The remarkable young man Ralph has become is because of YOU and your unconditional love and mothering to him, raising him to become the man he is today.

    Because of YOU and your efforts, the amazing young man you have raised will in turn go out and change the lives of all those around him – a ripple effect with eternal value. It reminds me of the ripple effect created by the stripling warrior’s mothers. Good work mama!!!! You should be proud of the remarkable young man you have raised! SO proud of you! You will get through this!!!

    I teared up after reading about sending off your son, and I don’t even know your family! I do know the difficulty and tears that come with seeing off a family member on a mission. It’s SO hard!!! Today is the hardest day, it will get better! Ralph is lucky he has so many family members to write to him and send him love! He will definitely be one loved and supported missionary! Remember, “There are few things more powerful than the faithful prayers of a righteous mother.” – Boyd K. Packer

    Sending BIG BIG HUGS and LOVE to you and your family!!!

  15. I too learned a lot reading that. We must have an apartment nearby because we often see a pair biking past in their matching outfits.
    I’m curious if you can comment on the impression I got (not sure from where) that missionaries returning also get better jobs etc in Mormon areas, that those that didn’t go don’t get looked upon the same. Kind of what you spoke about with those returning early but different.

    1. I don’t know of any specific job discrimination like you describe, but just like being an Eagle Scout or some other achievement, being a returned missionary in LDS culture indicates certain abilities/accomplishments, such as being able to work long hours, follow directions, communicate with others, leadership experience, marketing persistence, perhaps foreign language training. So in an employment interview, it could be shorthand for all those skills.

      1. I have to chime in here, because your comment contributes to the stigma in the LDS culture around those who either do not go or come home early–that there is an assumption of “this person is better/more qualified/more worthy/harder working than this other person solely because he/she served a full-time mission”. Just because a person stays on a mission for their assigned time does not guarantee the development of good work habits, time management abilities, or communication skills. I have known plenty of missionaries who go because of a promised reward upon their “honorable return”, or because they are compelled, etc. Certainly, the rigor of missions is designed to instill these skill sets, but it ends up being the responsibility and choice of the individual missionary if he or she will rise to the occasion/opportunity.

      2. When my husband joined the Army we found out those who had earned their Eagle-Scout would enter at a higher rank.

    2. Annet, I haven’t heard anything about better jobs for missionaries. That said, I can see how it could happen. If you are hiring, and you went on a mission, maybe you have a bias toward other people who have gone on mission. The same way a person might be biased toward someone who went to the same university as they did. But I’ve definitely never heard of it (or experienced it) as any kind of institutionalized guideline.

      1. I think in some ways it’s actually a benefit outside of the Mormon community. When my husband applied to medical school his interview at one of the schools was almost entirely about his mission. They couldn’t believe that someone willingly would go for two years to another place and participate as a service missionary, especially to a foreign country. It set him apart from many of the applicants. He will openly say it was one of the hardest things he’s ever done, but it made him the person he is today.

    3. I served in the peace corps for two years and I have always had it on my resume because future employers seem fascinated and impressed. I’m not sure why – maybe it shows gumption, stick-to-it-ness, or a general curiosity about the world. Regardless, the experience has certainly given me a leg up.

  16. Oh my heart goes out to you. When our son left on his mission for Peru two years ago, I could not believe how often I burst into tears. I mourned the end of this stage of our family’s life. It was just so heart-wrenching. But then I got those first few emails and it was like a magical balm for me. I almost instantly felt better hearing how excited he was and how well he was doing. And then I lived for those emails every Monday for TWO YEARS! He had the experiences and learned the things that every parent hopes their child will learn.
    And now? He is home! They really do come home (it sometimes felt like he had gone for good), and it is the most fantastic airport welcome EVER! And I would not trade the whole experience for anything. A hug and hopeful thoughts are coming your way from a mom in Kansas. : )

  17. Sending lots of love to you and your family! I remember the day that my brother left on a mission it felt almost like he had died. We were all SO sad! Ha! Sounds silly, but it was very traumatic for all of us. A neighbor of ours brought us over dinner that night—such a warm and generous gesture! One that we had never thought of doing in such circumstances. If you lived close, I’d bring you some warm comfort food tonight!

    Your post was great. You gave lots of details and I completely agree with you on the culture needing to change when missionaries need to come home early! It’s crazy! Anyway, sending lots of love as you get used to your new normal.

  18. My son is in the Provo MTC learning Finnish. Finnish missionaries train there for nine weeks, currently the longest stay.

      1. My cousin served in Madagascar and they stayed for 12-14 weeks learning the language. I happened to work at the MTC at the time and he always talked about being so so desperate to get out there and actually work.

    1. How exciting, I wonder where in Finland he will be stationed? I know there is a temple in my hometown, how nice to hear that it gets missionaries from all over the world. And rest assured, most of us do speak English, so in an emergency he’d be able to be understood :). Good luck!

      1. The length of time for MTC stay changed with the age change. 2 weeks native speakers going a mission where their language is spoken, 6 weeks training for language using the Greco-Roman alphabet and 9 weeks for languages with a language that uses a different alphabet. Recently, the native speakers stay has changed to 3 weeks in the MTC.

        I have sent 4 sons on missions and I can say it was the best thing for them for learning to be independent men. Weekly communication via email always make you feel in touch. And, the twice yearly phone calls are very special. I loved and cherished every minute of having them serve and experience new cultures. They left boys and came home Men. What more could a parent want?

  19. Sending missionaries is not for the faint of heart! Our son has been gone a little over a year. At first I knew in theory that it would be good for him, but now I know it is. It is breathtaking to see all the ways it has changed him and made him stronger. I don’t miss him any less but it feels worth it now.

  20. Thanks for this wonderful posting! LOVED every word.

    I have had four sons, two daughters, seven brothers and one sister,
    father, grandfather, great grandfather , husband, sons-in law, daughters in law, all served LDS Missions. Most of them had marvelous missions. Missionaries are “set apart” from the world and their mission time is a “set apart” time. They have new leaders, new friends, new languages, new cultures, new food, new rules and most of them love their missions. Most experience challenging times of growing up and giving up childish, selfish things. Most of them experience some very difficult things and they learn and are grateful to learn from these hard experiences. A few marry too soon after they return, but most don’t. Some need to come home early and that’s fine. Most don’t.
    I think of my mission everyday and I am 100 % grateful for the total experience.

    1. Julia, I also volunteered as a missionary. I was assigned to Spain. I treasure the experience. I met some of the most wonderful, warm people I have ever known, and the Spanish culture and people changed me for the better. I loved sharing my beliefs about God and I loved learning about many varieties of other beliefs. I particularly enjoyed the volunteer work we did in conjunction with the Catholic church, so well established institutionally throughout Spain. When I returned, I went to law school and worked for a number of years before marrying. My mission definitely did not encourage me to marry early — it was the opposite! It gave me access to all kinds of new ideas, ambitions, and vision for my life. I also felt God guide my life in a more acute and personally meaningful way than I ever had before, and I felt His love for me and for many, many people I met and worked with, of all faiths. It was a beautiful experience for which I am deeply grateful.

  21. My brother-in-law said something very interesting about missions a few weeks ago and it has stuck with me. He had been asked why missionaries don’t just go out and do service. Why are they preaching at people all the time. He answered that teaching people the gospel of Jesus Christ can do more to bless lives and lift people out of poverty ( for example) than any service project. He mentioned that he served in the slums of Brazil and many of the families he converted were able to completely turn their lives around, improve their circumstances, get better education, and better jobs–in only one generation–simply by following gospel standards. Just keeping the word of wisdom and laws of chastity is hugely impactful. It was a big “a-ha!” moment for me and a paradigm shift. I forget how many great things I have in my life simply because of the rules I follow and the covenants I keep. Things that others see as restrictive are actually so liberating.

    1. How interesting. This sounds like what I would call “prosperity Gospel” theology. Is it a general teaching of Mormonism that living a good Christian life necessarily leads to worldly prosperity, or do you just mean that for these particular people, it happens to have done so? Would you consider it possible to be a good Mormon but still a deadbeat failure with respect to career, family, etc.?

      1. “Would you consider it possible to be a good Mormon but still a deadbeat failure with respect to career, family, etc.?”

        Oh. That’s a juicy question. And I know you’re asking Emily, but I’ll try my hand at an answer.

        I think you would still be considered a good Mormon even if you have a “deadbeat” career. There are plenty of Mormons who aren’t wealthy at all. That’s not unusual. But I think it would be much harder to be considered a good Mormon by your peers if you were a “deadbeat” parent.

        1. Thanks for your answer – that makes sense, since obviously it’s not Christian to neglect your duties to your kids.

          But I wasn’t so much asking about prosperity in the sense of being wealthy, but just the prosperity of having a nice, put-together middle-class life. You know, a decent job, regular habits, a healthy marriage, etc. Those things seem central, at least to the image the LDS church projects to us outsiders.

          I guess I’m wondering, can you be, say, a homeless Mormon? Or an addict or a drunk or social dropout for some other reason? I mean, obviously those aren’t good Christian habits, but often people have histories of brokenness (whether it be by their own doing or that of others) that mean they’re never going to be happy, healthy members of society, and at least in my church (RC) we definitely have a tradition of believing such people can still be saints and have a very close relationship with God.

          1. The image of a member of the LDS faith as a middle-class, white member of society is prevalent in the United States. But it’s also a worldwide church. There are members in Africa who are wealthy and who live in relatively nice homes and there are members in Africa who live in mud huts and who don’t have a meal every day. There are members in the Phillipines who have cardboard walls and who struggle with clean water.

            That image of the constant and only middle-class, easy-going, Mormon life in the US isn’t true. In my congregation, there are several families who have lived in an apartment for years and have lived on unemployment checks. They spend large amounts of their time looking and interviewing for a job. Some friends of mine are in this predicament: the woman/mother of the household found one that lets her work the graveyard shift while the young dad continues to look for a job while babysitting and staying home with their child. They get many of their clothes from government organizations, and are not middle class, but they’re still my friends. And they’re still faithful members of the LDS church.

            I have another friend who is currently a church-attending, married, working woman, but she grew up homeless. Her mom raised she and her two siblings without a dependable income, and they attended church whenever they could get there.

            Yes, it is very possible to be a member of the LDS church and not be middle-class. There is no form to fill out when you are baptised that asks for an estimate of your income. The missionaries don’t run credit checks, and neither does the bishop.

      2. Haha. Deadbeat? Probably not. Depends on your definition. But Job teaches us you can have heaps of struggles while being righteous. And it’s totally possible to be completely broke and still be a good Mormon. ;) Let me see if I can explain better but please know I am NOT an authority and just trying to express something I’ve been thinking about:
        Let’s take the Mormon “Word of Wisdom” or laws of health. We are told to abstain from alcohol and illegal drugs, keep our bodies healthy, and generally eat a healthy, moderate diet. So now imagine you could take all the alcohol out of the world. How impactful would that be? I am NOT judging people who drink alcohol–I’m not saying it’s the root of all evil. But it *is* the root of much evil. If you took alcoholism out of families living in a Brazilian slum, would not those families function better? Would not a sober husband be able (generally) to work harder and hold down a job better than an alcoholic husband?
        Same with immorality. How much heartache is caused by, say, a cheating spouse who brings home an STD and then later abandons his/her family leaving them struggling. What if that husband/wife had been taught, and believed, in fidelity in marriage and was fiercely loyal to their spouse? Wouldn’t that have a more positive impact on that family?
        I believe any obedience to God’s commandments can bring blessings to your life. Not necessarily monetary, but that may come as a natural result.
        Because I obey the word of wisdom, (unless I ever stop) I will never become an alcoholic or be addicted to nicotine. There are numerous spiritual blessings I gain from this. But secondary to that, I can safely estimate that I’ve saved thousands of dollars over the course of my lifetime just because I don’t drink or smoke. (I have many friends who do and their restaurant bill is always at least double mine when we eat out.)
        Please don’t misunderstand that I am claiming the most important part of someones conversion is a monetary pay-off. The most important part of their conversion is that they gain a relationship with Christ and a desire to keep his commandments. The great growth and benefits to their lives are subsequent bonuses.

        1. Sorry, didn’t see the two responses above before posting my answer.

          As for your reply to Gabby, that’s a good question and one I would have to think more about. I do know that we as a church believe in constant, eternal progression. We may end up in the gutter at some point but hopefully would be working to get out of it. Hopefully our church family would be helping us along the journey.
          One thing I can say with absolute certainty. I will not be the one determining who is ultimately a saint and who is a sinner. That job is left up to God. My job is to love everyone as Jesus loved them.

        2. Thank you, Emily. You explained this really well and it gives me more insight. BTW, can Mormons drink coffee or is that another misunderstood Mormon myth?

          1. Cynthia,
            Mormon’s are advised not to drink coffee or caffeinated tea.
            To eat healthfully, and to stay physically healthy.
            Caffeinated soda is okay, but we’re advised not to be addicted to any substance and frequently encouraged to be moderate in our habits. (I could definitely cut down on my chocolate and sugar consumption for example. Many Mormons are addicted to caffeinated soda but they don’t get kicked out of church.)

            The point is *not* to be punitive or restrictive.
            The point is this: Our body is a gift from God, we have stewardship over it, and we should do our best to take care of it.

            When we are doing our best to be healthy, we are (generally) better able to serve our families, serve at church and help our fellow-men.

            Of course, crap happens. Ill health happens. But we avoid many many trials and hardships by simply taking care of our bodies to the best of our ability.

            Many of my friends think it must be a horrible burden for me that I “can’t” drink. (I can, I just choose not to.) But I think of it as a huge leg up. I’m already at a place many people wish to be: I’m clean and sober. But I didn’t have to go through addiction and rehab to get here!
            And with five boys at home, that glass of wine my neighbor has to “take the edge off” every evening, would definitely turn in to 5 or 6 for me…at least one for each kid. So I feel like not drinking is for the best! :) (I try to take the edge off with hot chocolate occasionally but it’s not supper effective.) ;)

          2. I think the actual scriptural language is “hot drinks are not for the belly”. You can Google ” LDS D&C section 89″ for the complete reference.

    2. I would like to know the answer to Anna’s question, too. Figuring out that Brazil is mainly a Catholic country, I’d presume their gospel standards would be the same, chastity, respect your elders, weekly church attendance etc.

      1. Not sure if my answer above made any sense at all but there it is.
        As to your comment, my understanding from knowing many missionaries to majority Catholic areas is that sometimes the people investigating the church are more “cultural” or less-committed or non-practicing Catholics. (Just like there are cultural Mormons who were probably born into the church, enjoy the culture, may or may not regularly attend services, but also may or may not be fully committed to keeping all commandments.)
        I imagine if those “cultural Catholics” (for lack of a better term) became more fully committed to Catholicism , some of the blessings would be the same!
        That’s not to say there aren’t millions of very highly committed Catholics living their religion every single day. :)
        Hope that made sense…
        Emily

        1. Thanks for your answers, Emily, and it is indeed true that there are plenty of merely “cultural” Catholics. When I lived in California I met a number of ex-Catholic Mexicans who had become born-again Christians or Mormons, and their testimony usually started, “Yeah, I used to be Catholic when I was young: I slept around and did drugs. . . ” and given that’s what it meant to them, I couldn’t regret their conversion to something else!

  22. I have only encountered very nice missionaries. I am not Mormon but I saw some Mormon guys getting shamed by a non Mormon guy and the Mormon kids were so sweet. I stuck up for them. What does Ralph plan on doing when he gets home? I hope he will be able to finish college for filmmaking. He has such a talent.

  23. Do they stay in the same country/region for their entire mission? Is there a difference between doing an international mission vs a US mission?

    1. You move around within your mission. I served in six different areas within northern California. Missionary work is relatively the same. You share the gospel, but there are some missions that people serve that are entirely about volunteer work. Or elderly couples might serve a temple mission where they work in a temple. International missionaries will learn the language and obviously learn from the cultural experience much more than someone who serves stateside (although many missionaries from other countries come to the US too). Ultimately, they are very similar and the experience is super rewarding and spiritual no matter where you serve.

  24. I went on a a retreat in Ecuador this past April with the Blog About Love writers. My roomie was in immense emotional pain because her son had returned home early from his mission. It broke my heart, especially because by all accounts she and her family seemed so lovely, so full of love. Thank you for standing up for other young men and women – and their families – who find themselves home earlier than expected.

  25. As a non-Mormon, it is really interesting to hear more about the missionary program and experience. I have always seen missionaries around, but I haven’t had much interaction with them or known a lot about their work (other than proselytizing). Unfortunately I think most people try to avoid them because they have had negative experiences with aggressive evangelizing. I’m sure this makes the experience even more difficult and lonesome.

  26. https://www.lds.org/ensign/2016/07/young-adults/dealing-with-coming-home-early?lang=eng

    For missionaries coming home early, this and other information can be helpful. There are more and more resources available all the time. The church seems to be making an effort to accommodate those who have special needs or medical concerns, and those who may not be able to serve a full mission. Because of some past medical issues, my son was asked to go on a two month mission to see how he coped. He was only able to serve the two months, and is back home to adjust certain medications etc. He loved the two month mission that he served, not far from his home town. He may not ever be able to go back on his mission, but I am extremely proud of him and the service he gave. Yes, I wish he could serve again, because he learned so much in those short two months. But, I feel no shame, and I hope he doesn’t either. I know his heart is in the right place, and that is what is most important to me, and to his Heavenly Father.

  27. Oh Gabrielle! I have followed your blog for a long time and have watched your kids grow up knowing they are just a few years older than my six. This is a part of life I am dreading, so I have such tender feelings for you and your family and this transition time knowing it is just around the corner for my family. Lots of love for the Blair family from the Andros family.

  28. Having served a mission I can say that it shaped the way I am as an adult. I look at my marriage in a way that it is important to communicate with my partner. My husband did not serve a mission and some times i wish he had, because then we would be able to communicate so much better. A mission sort of forces you to do that with companions when you have comp. inventory!

    I served my mission during 9/11 and each year I think back to how my experience was so different than most other people who were able to watch the tv and watched the whole thing unfold. It is so crazy to tell people that you don’t watch tv, read the paper, listen to the radio…it was amazing to think I did that for 18months!

    And maybe to make you feel better, you might appreciate knowing that my mom missed saying good bye to me when I boarded the plane! Back before 9/11 my family walked me to the boarding gate. However, my mom had parked the car and somehow she had to park really far, and she missed it when I had to board. She was devastated because she knew she would not see or talk to me for months! I did call her when I reached Utah though. So I’m glad you got to give your son lots of hugs. Much love to you as you miss your son, but rest assured that he will be blessed!

  29. As always, thank you for sharing pertinent information, honest opinions, and especially your family. Blessings to you all as you navigate your new routines.

  30. Gabrielle, first a hug to your mommy heart tonight! And now a little tip: several of my son’s friends are at the Mexico MTC. I found a great service that offers next package service to the MTC in Mexico. They have a limited selection of items but I have requested specialty items they didn’t stock and they were able to get them to the missionaries for me. I highly recommend them! http://www.missionarypackagemx.com

  31. Wow! I’ve heard of mission trips before, but I never realized that they were so… intense. And long! And that there was so little contact between family members. I really can’t imagine it. But Ralph seems like such an incredible young man, I’m not surprised that this is something he wants to do. I wish him all the best, and all the best to your family as you all adjust to this new phase.

  32. This was such an interesting and informative post – thank you. Serving on a mission strikes me as rite-of-passage of which we have so few in American life these days. Even the idea of a gap year between high school and college is still frowned upon. Which is to say that Ralph is very wise to have realized the value of this unique experience. Best of luck to him – and to you!

  33. My daughter arrived in Argentina on July 12th for her mission, after 6 weeks in the Provo MTC.

    Being a missionary mom is an interesting contradiction of complete happiness and sadness. I’m so happy she’s there, having such life-altering experiences. In the last two weeks, she’s had lice and eaten blood sausage and cow innards, things that she’d never experience at home or even at college. So I wouldn’t want her to be any other place, but still, it makes my mama heart hurt to have her so far away.

    Also, I think that as a society we are so connected these days, in a way it makes the separation harder. My daughter and I went from texting back and forth multiple times every day to nothing. Just one weekly e-mail. Although I served in Ecuador in 1993/4 and it took 2 months for letters to arrive home, so I’d never complain about e-mail.

    Good luck to you and Ralph!

  34. I am not Mormon, and I appreciate how you clearly and honestly you explain this mysterious (to outsiders) facet of your faith. Honestly, there are some negative stereotypes about Mormons, and I think you challenge those stereotypes by being so open, relatable, and down to earth. You are a great “ambassador” of sorts for your faith. As a mother, my heart goes out to you during this tough transition.

  35. I have met missionaries in Brazil… There were two American girls who had a wrong address to dinner and they were soaking wet because of a tempest. My father invited them in (he is catholic and has the deepest respect towards those who have the courage to go talk about their faith with strangers – as the first christians did), we gave them dry clothes and dinner and drove them back to the house where they were staying. Then they invited me to lunch another day (to thank), but it was extremely weird… There was the house owner who was lodging the girls (and was an American) and he had such a patriarchal position there. He wouldn’t help with anything, he was sitting in the “top position” of the table, he would wait for the girls and women do all the tasks, he was the only one who spoke… It was so un-natural…
    Then the girls kept coming to tell us about the gospel, although they knew my family was catholic… I tried to hear and thanked them for coming and teaching me about their church, but I politely pointed out that we already had our faith. Then, one of the girls tried to suggest that the devil used twisted ways to make us believe that one religion is the true one, while it wasn’t… I told her that I could give her the same argument… and gently told them that they wouldn’t convert us, so they shouldn’t try to do it…but go seek other people…
    Then, I saw them and other missionaries again… these time, also Brazilian ones… I talked with one of the Brazilian missionary and she said that the most difficult part was indeed the companion 24hs a day with you and the total lack of privacy. She said that she couldn’t even go to the bathroom by herself, because the companion was supposed to make sure that the other wouldn’t use a bathroom pause to masturbate (!!!!). I am not sure if it is true, but this shocked me so much !
    The idea that you need to have someone 24h a day with you to “spy” upon you seemed really weird. I couldn’t understand how showing such clear distrust in one’s ethics and virtue could form the youth…. But maybe I ‘ve got it all wrong…

    1. Hi Anon,

      As a Mormon, who served a mission and knows thousands of others who have served missions, I completely agree that your experiences sound bizarre! I’m with you. I first have to say that missionaries do not go to the bathroom together and I have never heard any suggestion about trying to stop people from masterbating as part of companion responsibilities. In our faith, I believe that having the right to attend the bathroom alone would be an important part of personal modesty and privacy. Spying upon on another absolutely goes against the grain of our religious. We are to love one another, not treat each other with distrust. Spying absolutely does not fit within that paradigm. We are each responsible for our own actions and the example we set for others. It sounds like you had an experience with an odd group of Mormons.

      I have realized in my experience as a Mormon that Mormons are human, just another bunch of all kinds of people, like any society. There are wonderful, kind, generous Mormons and some who are still learning to get to those places and in fact there are a few bad apples too. I have met missionaries who are very comfortable around people and good at what they do and others who are very awkward in their abilities and conversation as well. Each has had their own life experience and preparation and are learning in their own way. There are missionaries who have had a lifetime of preparation and some who may have only been Mormon for a year or so and they have yet have a complete picture of how the rules and instructions for missionaries work and what the purpose is. I supposed the hope is that as we associate with each other, Mormon or not, that we are learning from each other and all becoming better people from what we experience, the good qualities we see in each other and even from the less than beautiful experiences that might teach us something. Thank you for sharing your commitment to your faith and family. It is beautiful and has clearly created in you a sense of service and generosity to your fellow man. <3

      1. Hi Kalani,

        I am so glad you confirmed that I had fallen upon an odd group of Mormons! It truly didn’t seem compatible with the Mormons I have been meeting virtually so many years later!
        Thank you for clarifying all this!
        And congrats in your missions, I really admire it!

  36. As a non religious person (in spite of being baptized Greek Orthodox when I was a baby) it is beyond me how young men and women nowadays (considering the internet and global influences, social media etc) living up to that age in an open environment, commit to such an experience that, in my eyes, hold back their lives for 18 or 24 months. Again, I am not a religious person and in no way judgmental, but genuinely curious about why they are choosing this way of life.
    Is it only the family’s religion? Would volunteering or ‘experience gathering’ not possible through other ways? For example through NGO’s or non religious volunteer groups?
    Why would your religion promote these missions? Do you really proselytize more people these days through this procedure? Do you “build characters” and strong young people with the sense of commitment to your religion that you think you need for keeping your community strong?
    I really am curious about the procedure. More about the sociology part of it as I can not relate to strong believes in any “God” or in only one way of thinking and not another way. And as I have the impression that you also don’t believe in the above it is not understandable to me how your way of life combines with certain believes of your religion. I do not believe this “one truth” of any religion and I am not talking about being kind, helping others, respecting, being honest etc that is without saying.
    I realize that I might be just babbling around random spontaneous thoughts and I apologize for this but I am really amazed about these chosen paths.

    1. Just a couple of thoughts: missionaries go out of a deep conviction of God and the desire to love and serve Him. It would be very hard to understand if you aren’t religious, like you were saying.

      Also a missionary isn’t really trying to change anyone’s beliefs or views, and but rather teach those that are already interested. Many are looking for a strong religion or more knowledge.

  37. I guess I would like to know what your thoughts are about your religion sending white kids into overwhelmingly brown/black countries to try to convert the “heathens” to Mormonism. It’s not even like these countries are full of atheists (not that there’s anything wrong with that) — I just did a quick google search, and apparently 90% of Colombians identify as Catholics! I am not Mormon so maybe I am missing something, but unfortunately this really reeks of the “white saviour” industry.

    1. I am a mormon and I agree, it is one of my hesitations for wanting my children to serve missions. If it was all about service to others, and learning and loving the cultures they will experience…then great. But the idea that they are something of a salesperson turns me off completely. Obviously, I am not a very traditional mormon. (Most mormons believe conversion to our faith is necessary for salvation.)

      I will say that the approach to how to interact seems to vary from mission to mission depending on the goals and thoughts of the mission president. (The person who has been asked to serve, look out for, and lead the missionaries in a particular area.) Sorry if my jumping in is annoying, just couldn’t keep me thoughts to myself. I hope Gabby will share her thoughts about it as well.

    2. Actually, the LDS Church is a global faith with more than half of its members outside the US. Many missionaries serve in their native countries, as Gabby mentioned that Ralph will most likely have native Spanish speakers as his companions. Given visa issues and proselytizing rules, there is a wide variety of situations worldwide. My nephew just returned from Ecuador and I think only one of his other companions (out of 12 total) was a gringo American, the rest were native. So despite that concern, it may not be as imperialistic as you think.

    3. I love this question, Liz. I think there are definitely kids that go out thinking they are going to “save” people. Total savior complex, and in some cases, white savior complex. But I certainly don’t think it’s the norm. Most kids going to a foreign country are intimidated by the new language and just trying to keep their head above water and adjust to their surroundings. And I don’t think it’s about converting “heathens”. As you mention, some of these missions are in countries that are predominantly Christian.

      Fifty years ago, or a hundred years ago, I think it was much more of a white savior thing. But these days, missionaries don’t just come from the U.S., and they aren’t all white. In fact, most countries try to keep the bulk of their missionary population local. Which means in Colombia, most missionaries would be Colombian.

      That doesn’t work everywhere. If the Mormon church only has a tiny presence in a country then they can’t rely on only local missionaries.

      Like Erin, I often wish the mission was 100% service based and non-proselytizing. Though if that were true, it would probably go much further into white savior territory. So, maybe if there are service missions, they should be for locals only. Not sure.

      1. “Like Erin, I often wish the mission was 100% service based and non-proselytizing. Though if that were true, it would probably go much further into white savior territory.”

        Actually, I doubt it would. Helping people with their concrete, everyday needs makes it hard to ignore their humanity – I think it would likely lead to seeing things more through others’ eyes and understanding their cultures more deeply.

        And I have to say, it would make a whole lot more sense to me that 18-year-olds should help feed the hungry and shelter the homeless, rather than preach to them about how to live, when they themselves still have practically zero experience of life. Personally, if I’m going to hear an 18-year-old missionary out, it’s out of kindness and politeness, not the belief that they can teach me what’s what.

        1. I think you and I mostly agree here, Anna. I truly favor the idea of 100% service missions. I know the Mormon church has been doing trial runs of these types of missions and I hope that they are successful, so they can be rolled out more widely.

          But depending on who the missionary is and where they are serving, it could still turn into a white savior issue. I feel like I’ve read a ton of articles about this lately — not just with missionary work, but with NGOs and non-profits. An outsider trying to solve a local’s problems is never going to work as well as an insider solving their own community’s problems.

          When my father did his mission on a New Mexico Indian reservation 50+ years ago, he did a ton of service. And I know he found it worthwhile and hopefully the community felt served. But it was still a white guy going to a Native American community. On the other hand, when my oldest brother, who is a Navajo, did his mission on a reservation in South Dakota, that seems like an improvement. Sure it wasn’t his same tribe, but at least he’s a Native American and can relate to the people he was serving in a way my father wouldn’t have been able to.

          So if the church went to 100% service missions, ideally it would be local missionaries doing the serving, and we could avoid white savior issues altogether.

          1. Yes, you’re right about outsiders trying to solve people’s problems – I’ve read about those issues too. (By the way, in our family, we’re big on micro-loans through agencies like Kiva, for this reason.) I guess I was picturing missionary work more like what Mother Theresa did- just trying to be with people in their sufferings, not trying to fix them. But no doubt the other happens, all too often.

          2. I have a lot of hope that by the time my boys are of missionary age that this is what missionary service will look like, more actual service and less (read: zero) proselytizing. Good luck to Ralph and to you. This makes my heart beat fast at the very idea.

          3. I am fascinated by this story about your older brother being Navajo! I have a lot of First Nations family members, all through marriage and adoption. How did your brother come to be Navajo? Or maybe the better question is, how come you are not Navajo? Silly question!

  38. I appreciate getting to know people’s different perspectives and beliefs and choices, and I respect them (although I admit that can be a challenge at times). That said, I do not understand. I can’t relate to this in any way.

  39. Lots of love and prayers coming your way! You owe me a Tylenol for making me cry so hard, so unexpectedly, btw.

    I served in Thailand 1999-2000, and the most striking comment I got when I returned was from my bishop: “Missions are not to build the church through converts, but by turning missionaries into leaders.” You’ve already show us that Ralph is a natural leader, but maybe this will be his refiner’s fire.

  40. I cannot imagine how hard it was for you and your family to say goodbye to him for two years. Sending comforting thoughts your way while you adjust to this new normal.

  41. I second Courtney’s (#49) comment. I am not Mormon, but I am fascinated by the religion and mystified, as well. You are so open and honest about everything, and you never presume anything about anyone, which I so appreciate. Good luck to you and the family. What wonderful children you have! A strong testament to you and Ben as parents.

  42. Its hard! Good luck t o your and you’re family, I know you’ll do great! I’m sure a lot of the hard feelings is that this is the end of the era for all your kids being under one roof. You’re out of the baby phase, and now that one has left, it’s the beginning of the rest of them leaving too. I have a 2 and 4 year old, so I obviously have no idea what this feels like, but I can only imagine how hard that must be on a mother’s soul. I’m going to be a mess when my son leaves in 14 years.

    Paige
    http://thehappyflammily.com

  43. The whole thing sounds horrible! I can’t imagine that any young person would want to do such a thing, unless they felt pressured to by their parents or their church.

    Admittedly, I am an atheist and have no patience for those who might try to “convert” me. When they do, I point out inconsistencies in their thinking, and ask for proof that their beliefs are founded in reality, they usually have nothing to say other than “because God says so”, “God will provide for me”, etc.

    While I begrudge no one their religious beliefs, I choose to take responsibility for my own life, my successes, and my failures, and do not trust some being in the sky to take care of me. And when I die, my life will be over – I don’t believe that I’m going to go start over in some other eternal place, etc. and I will feel that I lived a life well-lived.

    1. Pam, is there anything that you feel passionately about that you would try to convince others about, or that you would work hard at or sacrifice for? Something you would be willing and happy to give up a few things for? As an atheist I would imagine you can’t sympathize with the zeal of and love for God but rather surely there is something you are passionate about that seems very important to you (ie. ending climate change, equality for gender/orientation/race, building homes for people in need, etc.) and think it would be worth voluntarily working at and throwing yourself into for 18-24 months. Personally I, never wanted to go on a mission and as a female it was never expected of me (whether that gender disparity is right or wrong is essentially beside the point I am trying to make right now); however, i have several female friends (who were also not expected or ever pressured to go on a mission either by the church or by their parents) who decided that is what they wanted to do, who went on missions and had wonderful positive experiences, who returned with great people skills, sometimes fluency in a second language, developed the ability to love strangers and those who sometimes are the hardest to love, organizational/leadership/time management skills, etc. The list goes on. Can you not imagine that emailing family and friends, talking to them very occasionally, while dedicating yourself to the of service to your fellowman (and/or God) would be a positive experience? My brother went on a mission to a place where initiating a conversation with people about our religion was illegal; they could only teach people about our beliefs if they were specifically asked. Most of what he did was projects that improved the community he was stationed in. He ate exciting food, made lifelong friends, travelled all over Singapore and Malaysia at a relatively low cost, learned to be selfless, and dare I say improved his penmanship with all the letters he wrote. He had something wonderful to put on his resume that spoke volumes about his strength of character.

      1. This is a very thoughtful, well-written response. I can respect everyone’s beliefs here. That said – I’m with Pam. I can’t wrap my head around this at all. But that’s okay – I don’t have to. And I do wish the best for Gabrielle and Ralph and their family.

      2. I agree, an excellent reply, Eliza. As more of a cultural Jew than a religious one, I am a live-and-let-live or “you be you” person, but I do admire the passion and commitment of those with a strong religious identity.

        This post has been so interesting! Even though I am not a Christian or someone who believes in proselytizing (or, should I say, trying to convince someone to switch teams), I love learning about other cultures and ways of thinking. Thanks!

  44. I’m curious – how often do missionaries stick with the expectation not to date, but later marry someone they met while on mission? I mean in an ‘on the up-and-up’ way. For example, is it common for a missionary to notice a local, form a friendship, and when the mission is over, ask to upgrade that friendship to a romantic relationship?

    1. You hit on a total Mormon joke, Erin. It’s not a common thing, but it’s also not unheard of at all. More often than returning to marry a local, what I’ve seen is two missionaries from the same mission, that connect afterwards and fall in love and marry. Again, not common, but not unheard of either.

  45. Thank you for sharing! I lived in Ecuador for 8 month during my undergraduate and learned so much. I always felt that I received more than I ever gave. And it gave me a commitment that has carried me far into my own career. I know it’s likely so personal and I wouldn’t ask you to speak on behalf of your son but I’m curious about his perspective! What drove him to his decision? What is hoping to get out or put into the experience? Was he inspired by family members or friends? Anyway, obviously won’t get answers to those questions but curious!

  46. I haven’t read all 85 comments but I just wanted to point out that MANY missions have technology. It has been rolling out for a couple of years. Many get in their list of supplies to purchase an iPad. Some do Facebook. Some skype. It’s amazing how technology has taken missionary work in directions you never thought possible. Last fall, I worked on a 3+ week film shoot with lds films/missionary Dept filming real life missionaries here in AZ for technology training. Of the missions in this area (Phoenix) not all had the same level of technology. Some had none. Others had very limited use iPads. Others had more expanded ready with iPads. If you know “the district” missionary trainings, this may evolve into district 3 but is being put together in training segments for effectively using technology on missions.

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