CORRECTION APPENDED: This story said one person translated the Book of Mormon from gold plates. Eleven other men and one woman claimed to have seen the plates and the 11 men signed statements about seeing and handling the records.
CORRECTION APPENDED: This article misspelled Elder Mackintosh’s name and also misquoted the missionaries by referring to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the Church of Mormon.
Amid the Diag bustle on a recent Thursday evening, two men, roughly the same age as everyone else, stood apart from the rest of the crowd.
You’ve probably seen them before. Impeccably groomed, wearing identical white up shirts buttoned to the top and sporting black nametags, their names are Elder Stoker and Elder Mackintosh, and they’d like to give you a free copy of the Book of Mormon.
Mormon missionaries like Stoker and Mackintosh have been a fixture of the Diag for years, and though there are only six of them in Ann Arbor at any given time, they put in enough hours to be a formidable presence.
That day, they set off on a winding path around the Diag and the surrounding area, approaching young people who were sitting or walking alone with lines like “Have you heard of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?” or “Would you like a free book, the Book of Mormon?”
In 30 minutes, seven of the 20 people they solicited refused their card. Five addressees paused to hear at least a few moments of the extended pitch and one student independently approached the missionaries with interest in Mormonism.
The day’s street contacting work was relatively successful for Stoker and Mackintosh, who are the missionary team currently assigned to the University area by local Mormon ward officials. Every bit of success in promoting the Mormon faith is significant for the pair, who will have spent the near entirety of every day doing nothing else for two years.
The life of a Mormon missionary is wildly different from most of the other 20-year-olds living on campus, even the roughly 100 practicing Mormons. Their days are strictly regimented, they enjoy privacy only in the bathroom and they don’t have access to the phone or the Internet. Converting other young people with a wholly separate frame of reference seems like an impossible task, but it isn’t. Stoker and Mackintosh say they’ve met with considerable success on their Diag rounds.
Stoker and Mackintosh are one of the three missionary pairs currently assigned to wards in the Ann Arbor territory of the Michigan-Detroit mission, which is one of several thousand mission locations in a highly structured, worldwide missionary system in which young Mormons like Stoker and Mackintosh shed their first names for the title of “Elder” or “Sister” and take time off from school or work to live the strictly ordered life of a Mormon missionary.
For generations, young Mormon men – and less frequently young women – have taken these two-year mission trips as a sort of rite of passage, said Steven Hedquist, stake president of the Ann Arbor area Mormon wards.
“Our children grow up anticipating that they’ll participate,” Hedquist said. “The put college on hold, courtship, romance, girlfriends on hold – mother’s good cooking – and go out and proclaim the message of Mormonism.”
Hedquist said mission trips are landmark events in a Mormon’s youth and have the effect for many, including himself after his own mission to Bavaria, of changing their life perspective.
“We take these young kids in the flower of the youth and take them out of the most narcissistic, self-absorbed time of life and plant them somewhere on Earth,” Hedquist said.
On the missions, they “realize for the first time that there are other people on this planet besides themselves.” Missionaries often fund their trips themselves – a cost of at least $10,000 that covers room and board and about $125 per month for food.
Mission trips can land young Mormons in one of 176 countries – which country, though, they have little control over. A council of eight men whom the church esteems as living apostles pray about the assignment of each missionary and decide where in the world he or she would best serve.
During their two-year assignments, missionaries live in different cities within their mission’s territory for varying lengths of time, changing partners and locations at the discretion of the local mission president and his wife.
Stoker and Mackintosh currently work in the Hill Street Ward, a congregation of unmarried Mormons from 18 to 30 years old that has mass in Ypsilanti and holds meetings across from the University’s Ross School of Business in the Institute of Religion building on Hill Street. Stoker said wards of youths separate from the main congregation are created so that the family-centric sermons of Mormon mass can be tailored to be relatable to people who haven’t yet started a family. The ward’s membership draws mostly from the University, about 100 of 135 members are University of Michigan students and nearly all are college students.
Mormonism is the fourth largest religion in the United States, despite being the youngest recognized Christian sect, founded in the United States in 1830. Mormons do not believe their religion to be derivative from the Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant churches, but instead that an American prophet, Joseph Smith, restored the original ministry of Jesus Christ before the formation of the prevailing Christian establishment.
The religion’s dismissal of 2,000 years of Christian history often provokes an aversion to Mormons among members of other Christian sects. The Mormon claim of a third text in the Christian canon in addition to the two testaments of the Bible, recovered and translated by Smith from hieroglyphics written on gold plates never seen by anyone but him and which he found buried in the New York countryside, doesn’t help relations.
A past history of polygamy and misinterpretation of Mormon practices like baptisms for the dead also dog the religion’s public image. Many people still associate Mormons with having multiple wives despite the church having forbid the practice in 1890. And before the act was prohibited in 1995, Mormons performing baptismal for deceased Holocaust victims offended many, even though the ritual’s performers believed the recipients would be able to reject the christening in the afterlife.
But on campus, Stoker and Mackintosh said they rarely encounter harassment or confrontation by students. When they have it has generally been political chastisement from liberals who incorrectly identify them as representatives of the religious right.
“They take out their frustration with George Bush on us,” Mackintosh said.
The peaceful relationship between the missionaries and students can be chalked up to the contrast between the Mormon’s approach and the melodramas of campus’s other street preachers, who have elicited outrage and incredulous crowds by screeching slurs and even pantomiming hypothetical gynecology appointments in which you find out how that one-night-stand you had in college resulted in a Herpes infection years later.
Stoker and Mackintosh said the philosophy of Mormon mission work isn’t to scare or hassle people into joining the flock, it’s to make sure the chance to learn their faith is available to all who are interested.
That doesn’t mean the missionaries won’t be persistent in affording you the opportunity to experience the church. Right now, Stoker and Mackintosh have a pet project in two Mormon graduate students whom the missionaries were informed have yet to attend church since they started here in the fall. The pair’s mother called the ward with concerns about her children’s religious activities and gave their residency’s address. Stoker said when he and Mackintosh stopped by, the graduate students said they’ve been busy. Presumably, their heavy class load consumed Saturday night as well, because they no-showed the single ward’s Halloween party last Saturday even though Stoker and Mackintosh invited them.
Even without a mother’s worried call, the missionaries would have looked into the situation of the absent graduate students. When a Mormon moves away, his church sends records about him to officials of the ward he moves into so his membership can be tracked.
“They don’t know that we already know,” Stoker said.
Stoker said he and Mackintosh prefer to fill the daily nine hours allotted for outreach work by meeting with people when church members refer them to or checking in on the scripture study of investigating prospective converts, but that an inability to fill their schedules puts them on the street most of the time.
Business School sophomore Kristin Bates said she appreciated the missionaries’ plans to follow up on her when she returned to Ann Arbor after having converted at home in Texas during the summer. Bates said she was confused about where to find a Mormon church and how to incorporate her new religion into her life on campus.
“I was still struggling with ‘So, I told my family, can I tell my peers?’ ” she said.
Bates’s introduction to the singles ward by the missionaries eased her transition and led her to add the ward activities organizing committee to her other extracurriculars, Alpha Delta Gamma and Relay for Life.
Dressed as Dorothy and smelling of flowery perfume, Bates bustled around the large meeting room of the Institute of Religion on Hill Street, a stately brick building which houses the local Mormon leaders’ offices, which she had helped decorate black and orange for the singles ward Halloween party last Saturday. Between laughing with friends and posing for pictures, she checked on her chili and the caramel apple bar, prepared the night’s activities and commented on the costumes of the party’s 20 to 30 attendees.
After some general mingling, the partygoers played games, including one that involved two people trying to get the first bite out of an apple on a string. When the games quickly got old, or too awkward, the group retreated into another room of the office-like building to watch a movie.
Bates said she easily found a place among the young Mormons, whom she’s only known this semester.
The recent convert said her experience investigating and accepting Mormonism under the guidance of missionaries consisted of independent research and soul searching and was free of persuasion by members of the church. Bates’s Mormon friends from home never suggested Bates join her church, but when Bates expressed her desire to learn more, one introduced her to the local missionaries, who started her on her way in an investigating process that she said lasted two months.
Stoker and Macintosh said it’s harder to find investigators, interested potential converts, in Ann Arbor than in the mission’s Detroit station, where they said people are more likely to talk for longer and be more religious, but they said people they get to investigate the religion here are more likely to follow through with personal scripture study.
“They’re used to doing homework, I guess,” Stoker said. “They’ll do what they say they’ll do, but a lot of them are honest that they won’t do it.”
Despite frequent strikeouts with students, Stoker and Macintosh, both 20 years old, prefer Ann Arbor to past assignments because of the lively atmosphere and dense population of people their age.
“There are crazy stories from this area,” said Stoker, who has stayed in the Ann Arbor mission for six months. “It’s one of the most coveted areas in the mission.”
Smiling a little sheepishly, Stoker told about how the missionaries in Ann Arbor last year said they were chased by bikini-clad mud wrestlers. Stoker said talking to people around the stadium before and after football games has been an experience.
“Saturdays are interesting with football games and parties,” he said. “We try to find sober people to talk to. Never found someone who was really interested.”
Stoker and Macintosh said they find it amusing when the attention of pre-gaming students turns to them, like before a game a few weeks when a group of guys tried to get him and Macintosh to drink out of their beer bong.
“I told them I was a designated driver,” Stoker said. “Then when they found out we were Mormons, one of them said ‘Hey, respect their religion.’ “
Lately, the missionaries have received questions from students about Mitt Romney, a Republican presidential hopeful and Michigan-raised Mormon. Stoker and Macintosh said they aren’t very qualified to field those questions, though, as missionaries are prohibited from watching television, browsing the Internet or reading anything but scripture and selected religious texts.
The Mormon missionary guidelines are similarly Draconian for socializing. Part of the reason Stoker and Macintosh favor Ann Arbor is that snippets of conversation with hurrying students on the Diag or maize and blue drunks has been the majority of their interaction with people their age. The uniform hourly schedule dictating the Mormon missionary life doesn’t include much time for communicating with friends and family. A missionary can only write to friends in letters, e-mail family one day a week and call home on Christmas and Mother’s Day.
The monastic set-up isn’t exactly lonesome, though. Each missionary does have a companion with whom to work, live and do almost everything else with. Missionary companions must never be without the other, except during arranged swaps, where one pair trades places with another in a different location. If one missionary companion wants to run during the mandatory half hour of 6:30 a.m. exercise, but the other likes palates, a compromise must be made. If Stoker and Macintosh don’t enjoy each other’s company, they’ve had to learn the grace to deal with it while sharing a one-bedroom apartment, a cell phone and a 3 to 5 p.m. mealtime over an unpredictable number of weeks or months.
But strong friendships can be made even in the face of binding social codes. Stoker said a friend he made here, one of the nine people he says he guided toward converting, is visiting him over Christmas Break after Stoker’s term ends in three weeks.
At that point, Macintosh will be paired with a new partner. Stoker will return to life as usual. At least as usual as Halloween parties that culminate in bobbing for apples – a typical party for the singles ward – are going to get.
Stoker, a clean-cut blonde who enjoys playing the guitar and jokes and smiles easily, said he’s looking into enrolling at Utah State University and pursuing a career producing rock music. It will be the first time he’s heard a rock song without religious themes in two years.