Local Mormon churches’ membership growing through active missionary work

Woodridge-Shepard

Tyler Hemenway and Sean Marett haven’t been home to Utah in nearly a year and a half. They talk to their families on the phone only twice a year, on Christmas and Mother’s Day.

They receive letters, which they say helps with the homesickness, but are not permitted to watch TV, listen to the radio or to read newspapers and magazines. When they go jogging, they do it without an iPod.

Hemenway and Marett, both 20, are part of the current crop of 51,000 Mormon missionaries spread around the globe.

The two young men seem to relish following the rules.

But, as Marett points out: “For the most part, missionaries are a pretty obedient bunch.”
That obedience and service to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is part of the reason Columbia’s Mormon community is expanding.

There are 14 wards and branches within the Columbia stake, or region, that encompasses an area from Macon to Jefferson City and from Fulton to Boonville. It’s served by a constant flow of missionaries who come to Columbia from various places around the world.

The mission trips last two years for the men, who are called elders, and 18 months for the women, called sisters. Their trips are entirely self funded, costing each participant about $400 a month.

Once they’ve signed up, they can be sent anywhere.

“Our church believes in prophecy,” Hemenway said. “So when deciding where to send us, the church elders lay out all of our materials and learn everything they can about us. Then they pick a location for us to serve in.”

For Hemenway, that location turned out to be St. Louis.

“I thought to myself: perfect,” he said. “That’s just perfect because that’s exactly where God wants me to be.”

The daily ritual

Hemenway progressed westward and has been in Columbia for five weeks; Marett, 12 weeks. They live together and begin each morning the same way, seven days a week: up at 6:30 a.m., breakfast, a bit of exercise and then reading from The Book of Mormon.

From 9 until 10 a.m., they study the Bible with the two missionaries who live above them in their apartment building. By 10 o’clock they are out the door and on the streets of Columbia and its campuses, talking to people about Mormonism.

Through their conversations with people, they set, on average, between three and five follow-up appointments every day. Those appointments result in varying degrees of success.
“It has proven a little more difficult talking to people in Columbia,” Marett said. “This city is a little faster-paced than places I’ve been before, and people are busy — always on their way to class. Also, it seems people our age don’t take us as seriously.”

When the pair introduce themselves, they offer a new business card supplied by the church. Ten smiling faces of varying skin colors, with an emphasis on youth, beam from the front of it. A bright yellow line across the center of the card bears the website address, mormon.org.

“People really like the new website,” Marett said. “It is set up with a real Facebook kind of feel.”
Mormon.org is a subdomain of the Church’s main site, lds.org, and is filled with personal profiles of members and answers to questions. Visitors can also chat online with a pair of missionaries any time of day, seven days a week.

Between the website and the missionaries, conversions to the church have been pretty successful. According to the 2008 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the fourth-largest church in the U.S. with 5.8 million American members and 13.5 million members around the globe.

Even more impressive is that the Church is one of only four churches that has grown in membership since 2003, averaging annual growth of 1.64 percent. The data also show that more than half of this growth is from converts who’ve been won over by people like Marett and Hemenway.

Although the data is put out by the Church, it is considered reliable because the Mormons employ professional demographers to track their numbers.

Family focus

Both Hemenway and Marett talk about their encounters with people who have been ready to hear what they have to say. Hemenway was especially proud of having brought a family of five in O’Fallon into the church.

They say part of the appeal of the Mormon Church is its focus on families. At a recent Sunday service, kids of all ages sat in folding chairs alongside their parents. Tired infants wailed, toys fell in a clash to the floor and parents whispered for quiet while several speakers gave the sermon.

Church leader Bishop Jim Creed, 78, a partially retired MU veterinary professor, converted in 1972 at the age of 40 after the Methodist Church began producing young ministers “with some far-out liberal ideas,” Creed said. “We finally left the church when the ministers started burning their draft cards.”

His family decided on the Mormon Church after his daughter joined and asked her parents to give it a try.

The family focus has appeal to Americans, but the majority of Mormons, 54 percent, are from outside the United States.

“Conversions have been very high in Central and South America,” Creed said. “There is a growing Latino membership in Columbia and around the world.”

Ray Ethington is part of a Columbia congregation where Spanish can often be heard.

Ethington, 81, who also converted from Methodism 55 years ago, attends the Mormon church on Old 63.

“We have a very large Hispanic congregation,” he said. “Some people are not very fluent in English, so we have a small separate group on Sundays to translate.”

Ethington married a Mormon woman after he got out of the Army in 1953.

“One of the things that impressed me about the Mormon community was the lifestyle,” he said. “They seemed harmonious and, in general, I think they were. They had the same stresses and issues as everybody else, but they seemed to handle them better.”

Toeing the line

Moral guidance comes from what members refer to as the “Mormon rules,” which limit dating until after 16, not viewing excessively violent or sexual movies, being modest in dress and abstaining from alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, swearing and sex before marriage by order of what’s called the “Law of Chastity.”

Karen Smith, who was born in Utah but has been in Columbia for 15 years, said she understands the attraction.

“The Mormon Church has a big appeal, and I think it satisfies a hunger we all have, a hunger for meaning, for a more spiritual attraction to our lives,” she said last weekend after a large service at the Highlands Stake Center in south Columbia.

The service was part of a weekend gathering called a stake meeting. The meetings happen twice a year and bring together church members from the entire region. About 1,300 people attended from the Columbia stake, some driving almost 200 miles round-trip.

For Hemenway and Marett, Sunday was a relatively restful day. Both were at the stake meeting in their standard missionary uniform: black suit, black shoes, white shirt and backpack. But their duty was limited to listening to the sermons, some prayer and accepting a canister of Swiss Miss hot cocoa mix for the cold months ahead.

Both started their mission trip with two suits apiece, two pairs of shoes, 10 white shirts and a few ties. When talk turns to ties, they smile and glance at each other.

“The ties are kind of an indulgence,” Hemenway admits.

And a mode of self-expression. Although they each have only $130 a month to spend on food, toiletries and anything else they might need, Hemenway has a whopping 55 ties and Marett 30.
“We pick them up wherever we can. From brothers finishing their mission trips, from thrift stores…” Hemenway said, trailing off with a lopsided smile and a shrug.

Both confessed they’ve learned to sew, partly to maintain their growing tie collections. Hemenway held out one of his 55 ties and pointed to the label in back where he’s inserted the slimmer end.

“These are always coming apart, and we sew them back on,” he said.

Not a lot of steak dinners

They’ve had better success improving their tie variety than their diet, which includes a lot of frozen pizza, burritos and Ramen noodles. They both smiled at the mention of Ramen.
“The chicken teriyaki is by far the best,” Hemenway said.

“I’d totally have to agree with that selection,” Marett added, nodding.

They seem to have fun despite the austerity, though there are some dead-serious moments. Like the time a full can of Dr. Pepper was thrown out of a car window at Marett in Troy, narrowly missing his head.

Or the time Hemenway was cut off so dramatically and intentionally on his bike that the car almost hit him. A police officer stopped to ask if he was OK before speeding off and ticketing the offending driver.

They both paused before mentioning Elder Daniel Lukens, who they said was hit in the back with a brick this summer in Pagedale. His assailant got away. Dangers like these are why elders only go out in pairs and must be home by 10 p.m.

“It’s an equal mix of people who give me a thumbs up and of people who give me the finger,” Marett said.

None of this deters them, though.

“I feel like I have the greatest present in the world,” Hemenway said of his faith, with Marett nodding, “and all I want to do is share it.”

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