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Mormon missionaries have become so much of a cultural joke that there is a Broadway musical about them. Everyone knows what Mormon missionaries look like: classic dark suits with white shirts and ties, and that iconic name badge with “Elder Last Name” or “Sister Last Name” and the full name of the Mormon church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Mormon missionaries are always trying to get you to take a copy of The Book of Mormon and to tell you about their crazy cult, right? They just want to get you baptized so you count toward their points to heaven. And so the only thing to do is to close the door in their faces or run away and hide. If you don’t, they’re sure to bore you for the next three hours talking about Joseph Smith, their special bible, and getting married in their secret temple ceremonies.
I know all the clichés. We Mormons sometimes make fun of them ourselves. But as a mother whose daughter recently returned from the Houston, Texas mission, I’ve found that I have new insights about what is the best thing to do in various situations.
A few facts about missionaries that might help you understand who they are and why they do what they do:
1. Male Mormon missionaries are usually between the ages of 18 and 20, sister missionaries between the ages of 19 and 21. That’s pretty young. The older I get, the younger it seems. These are practically babies out there. They’re barely out of high school.
2. Many Mormon missionaries fund their mission from their own savings, sometimes with the help of their parents, sometimes with the help of the church as a whole. They save their whole lives to go on a mission. When other teens are saving money to buy clothes, a car, or for college, many Mormon teens are instead saving to go on a mission.
3. Missionaries are supposed to live on a fairly strict budget during their mission. With this money, they buy their own clothing and food, have a limited number of miles they can use if they have access to a car, and often have no money/miles at the end of the month for food.
4. Mormon missionaries are only supposed to do work related to their mission except on “P-day” (once a week they have a preparation day where they can dress down a bit and do laundry, but they still have a lot of rules they’re following). They really can’t just sit down at a restaurant to go to lunch unless they’re teaching the gospel. They can’t go to movies or other entertainment.
5. Mormon missionaries aren’t supposed to talk to family and friends basically for the course of their entire mission. For sisters, that’s 18 months; for elders, it’s two years. That’s a long time for kids this age to go without family contact. They can email once a week only. And they get to Skype or make a phone call on Christmas and Mother’s Day. That’s it. They can be very lonely and crave some kind of positive human contact.