While students at Harvard were busy studying a few years ago, a man knocked on a missionary's door in Strasbourg, France. He was unhappy with his life and was looking for guidance. The missionary, Bentley J. Tolk '87-'90, worked with the man and discussed the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints with him, and within days the man had stopped drinking and smoking and was ready to convert to the Mormon religion, Tolk says.
When Tolk saw the man a few months later, the man hugged him several times. He had a job, he had friends and he was happy. "I have 40 or 50 similar stories about times when I was able to help people," says Tolk, who went on a two-year Mormon mission after his freshmen year.
An American reformist Christian sect, the Mormon Church bases much of its teaching on an additional gospel called the Book of Mormon. Converting others to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is an important part of the religion.
Although Harvard does not have a very large Mormon population, approximately 90 per cent of the eligible Mormon men go on such a mission each year, says Bishop Paul E. Dahl, the Latter Day Saints (LDS) chaplain at Harvard.
Dahl says that on average six Harvard students leave for a non-obligatory mission each year and return having gained "experience and maturity from their two years away." Part of Dahl's job is to advise students who are deciding whether to go on a mission. Although Dahl says he encourages everyone who is interested to go, he adds, "it is not a positive experience if you are doing it to please someone else."
There are currently 35,800 Mormon missionaries--four of them Harvard students--working at 221 missions in more than 80 countries, according to Don LeFevre, spokesman for the Church of the Latter Day Saints, which is based in Salt Lake City.
Male missionaries, who must be at least 19 years old, serve for two years. Single women, who must be 21 to go on a mission, comprise 6200 of the current missionaries and usually serve 18 months, LeFevre says. There are also 2400 married couples currently out, and their stay can be as short as a year.
While on a mission, Mormons go door-to-door, teaching about the LDS Church. They also talk with people in the streets and hold some public meetings. Missionaries are usually based at existing Mormon churches, and Tolk says that he would also talk to interested people who had been referred to the church by friends. "We present what the teachings of the church are and ask people to read the Book of Mormon," he says.
Once a Mormon decides to go on a mission, he or she sends a personal statement, pictures and medical records to the Salt Lake City headquarters and goes through a series of interviews with church officials, says Erika P. Lambert '86 who is currently waiting to leave for her mission.
She has received her "call"--instructions on where and when she will go on her mission--and will leave in November to teach in Spanish and English at the Los Angeles Mormon Church's visitors center.
The first two months of a mission are spent at the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah, where the missionaries learn a foreign language if necessary. They are also instructed on how to present the LDS Church to nonmembers.
John R. Griffin '89-'91 says that for him the MTC experience was more "a spiritual preparation than a time for language training. I purified my motives and got more focused. The best reason to go is out of sheer love for the other people you will be serving."
He termed his mission to Germany "a chance to give 100 percent of your time, effort and money. The return comes from learning to serve others."
According to LeFevre, missionaries pay for their own food, apartments, airfare and other expenses, although the LDS Church can help in situations where the missionary and his family are not able to provide all the money.
Several missionaries say they feel that the MTC didn't dadequately prepare them for communicating in a foreign country. Kristiina Harrison Sorensen '85-'87, who travelled to Taiwan, says that she could not speak much Mandarin Chinese until several months into her mission. "I got a lot better at learning to simplify my thoughts," she says.