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World Travelers With a Purpose

Harvard Mormons on Missions

By Wendy R. Meltzer

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.

The missionaries work 60 or 70 hours a week, with no vacations. "For 24 hours a day, we are trying not to think about ourselves and trying to help other people," Tolk says. One day a week is reserved for preparations such as laundry, grocery shopping, letter writing and some relaxation, such Griffin says he thinks total dedication to the church is important, because the work is very intense. "You are always thinking about it, praying about it and mulling it over in your mind."

Missionaries do not go home during their missions and phone calls home are usually limited to Christmas. The rule varies at each mission, however, and Griffin says he did not call home at all during his two years away. He explains that the rule makes sense because a phone call make a person homesick, which can take energy away from his work.

Each mission has a mission president, who assigns missionaries to the areas where they will work. The president is usually 40 to 50 years old, has taken time off from work and receives no pay for supervising the missionaries, Tolk says.

Each missionary works with a roommate/companion for three or four months at a time before switching areas. Luke M. Lambert '90 says that his mission to Mexico taught him how to live and work with someone else 24 hours a day, because "your companion is never more than nine feet away from you."

Lambert says that he received a mixed reception from the Mexican people. He attributes their suspicion of Americans to the fact that Mexico is in debt to the United States. "Also, the Catholic Church is so strong that the people are reluctant to hear anything else," he says.

The most exciting part of Lambert's mission therefore was "seeing how people were able to change for the better and be happier about themselves and their lives," he says.

Because a mission is such an overwhelming experience, Griffin says the first few months give the missionary "a feeling of total dependency on God. You go up to complete strangers on the street and talk to them in a language you can barely speak and understand, trying to get to the heart of the matter and their values."

Sorensen says that her mission to Taiwan was both the best and worst experience of her life. "During the 95 degree days with 100 percent humidity and cockroaches all over, I thought I couldn't possibly bear another day," she says. But while she was at a Christmas party, hearing updates on people she had helped, Sorensen says she was "crying for joy. At Harvard, there is so much to do, that you don't get very involved with people."

For some missionaries, the experience gave them new insight into what they wanted to do with their lives. Griffin, a biochemistry major before his mission, is now majoring in history and science, focusing on modern German history. "My desire to do pure science definitely changed, and I also wanted to interact with people," he says.

Charles C. Rich '87-'89, who went to Taiwan, says his mission convinced him to switch his major from bio-mechanical engineering to East Asian Languages and Civilizations. But he has continued his pre-medical studies. He says his missionary as visiting historic sights.

work made him realize his desire to become skilled in an area where people would seek him out, unlike missionary work, which is a type of "selling."

Because women cannot go on missions until they are 21, most of them wait until after graduating from college. Erika Lambert, who has been working in Boston since her graduation in 1986, says she thinks she will find it easier to go on her mission because the things that undergraduates miss--such as dating, parties and hanging out with friends--do not seem as important several years later. "A year and a half will seem a lot shorter now than it would have then," she says.

While Erika Lambert, who has thought about going on a mission for the past ten years, says that her family supports her decision to go on a mission, she also says that "going on a mission is less emphasized for women and more expected for guys."

Sorenson, another female missionary, decided to go on a mission after her junior year and returned just in time to write her government thesis and take several Chinese classes. She went on her mission during college instead of after graduation, because "it would be harder to come back and go right into the real world."

It is also possible to waive the age limit of 21 years. Erika and Luke Lambert say that their parents recently left to become mission presidents in Cleveland, and their 19-year-old sister was allowed to go on her mission to Madrid so that she can be away at the same time as her parents.

Most men go on their missions after their freshman year so they must cope with returning as sophomores while most of their friends are seniors. But Bishop Dahl says that Harvard is a relatively easy place to leave, because "there is a lot of encouragement to take time off and have other experiences. When the students come back, they seem to fit right in."

Several Harvard students mention, however, that it would be easier to leave schools such as Brigham Young University and the University of Utah, where the majority of students are leaving for, and returning from, missions.

Rich, who decided to go on his mission right before sophomore year and incurred a late fine for cancelling his enrollment, solved the problem of coming back to Harvard by rooming with his freshman year roommate, then a senior. This year he is living with two other returned missionaries, Edward C. Peterson '88-'90 and Benjamin H. Ball '88-'90.

And Tolk devised a different plan for returning to school several years behind his friends. He got married to a Harvard classmate a year after he returned. Tolk, who went to France, Belgium and Luxembourg after his freshman year, says that his mission "helped me with discipline and gave me a lot of direction."

Luke Lambert, who travelled to Mexico, was spared the problem of returning to his college after an absence. He spent his freshman year and sophomore fall at Dartmouth College, and when he left for his mission, the school's rules required him to withdraw. He says he had been thinking of transferring to Harvard, and, when he returned from his mission, the separation made it easier for him to do so.

Each of the returned missionaries highly recommends the mission experience, although, according to Rich, "there are major possibilities for messing up, wasting your time or making [the mission] the greatest two years of your life."

Another Mormon student, Benjamin R. Kahrl '89, is currently deciding whether a mission is the correct choice for him. Kahrl converted to the Mormon Church after his freshman year at the age of 19, and converts cannot go on a mission for at least a year after their conversion.

Kahrl says that he prays about the decision a lot, and that he has to figure out if he believes everything that missionaries teach. He says the decision is not an "intellectual" one, and that the answer, which will come from prayer, "may not be the answer that is expected."

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