A long way from home: the lives of Mormon missionaries

A long way from home: the lives of Mormon missionaries

A long way from home: the lives of Mormon missionaries
January 29
23:52 2014

Obed Manuel // Senior Staff Writer

Sister Zohner and Sister Christensen sit inside a classroom of the Latter-day Saints Institute of Religion on Mulberry Street with puzzled looks on their faces. The two try to recall the last time they signed in to Facebook.

Christensen said it was Jan. 8 for her, the same day she left Newcastle, Utah, to begin her 18-month mission.

“Before June 12,” said Zohner, who left her home in Idaho Falls, Idaho, seven months ago with a confident tone in her voice.

Though the two 19-year-olds fit descriptions of college students in Denton, their lives outside of spreading their church’s gospel have effectively been delayed until they complete their duties as missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

These two missionaries represent a small sample size of the many that leave their homes, traveling to places all around the world to share what they believe in. Denton is no exception to the practice.

Zohner and Christensen said they prefer to not use their first names because being called ‘Sister’ is a show of respect to the commitment they’ve made.

“We have authority in our calling,” Zohner said. “And that shows authority.”

They also said that using that title keeps the people they meet focused on their message instead of them.

Leaving the norm behind

A little more than a year ago, Zohner and Christensen would not have been eligible to play the part of missionaries, but they are now part of a new generation of younger Mormon missionaries who have been granted permission by the leadership of the Mormon church to partake in the process.

Thomas Monson, president of the Mormon church, announced in October 2012 that the church leadership would lower the age requirement for men and women looking to go on missions. For men, the age was lowered from 19 to 18. For women, it was lowered from 21 to 19.

“Many young women also serve, but they are not under the same mandate to serve as are the young men,” Monson said at the bi-annual conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. “We assure the young sisters of the church, however, that they make a valuable contribution as missionaries, and we welcome their service.”

Zohner was studying journalism at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, at the time of the announcement.  Without the age requirement change, Zohner would not have been eligible until the middle of her senior year in college.

“It was more like you could choose. It’s always been that way for girls,” Zohner said. “For guys, it was more of a push for them to go.”

The Mormon church’s missionary program currently has 80,000 missionaries serving worldwide, according to its media resource page.

Committing to personal sacrifice

The commitment Zohner and Christensen have made to serve as missionaries was voluntary, but they must live by a strenuous set of rules.

Inside the Denton apartment they share, Zohner and Christensen have no computer or television access. They share a portable DVD player to view missionary training videos and an iPod loaded with religious music. They are not allowed to use headphones.

“It has to be uplifting, good music,” Christensen said. “A lot of people make musical arrangements for iPods.”

The two share a BlackBerry cell phone that belongs to the Texas Fort Worth Mission, but mission leadership regularly checks the usage. The phone can only be used to stay in contact with their mission president and the people interested in learning more about the Mormon faith.

“We only use our phone for this area,” Zohner said.

The last time Zohner actually spoke to her parents and four siblings was on Dec. 25, 2013 one of the days missionaries are allowed to call home. For Christensen, it was Jan. 8.

“You get to make a phone call before you get on your plane to friends or family,” Christensen said. “I just called my family.”

Their daily schedule is stringently formatted to only allow time for personal and joint study and reaching out to possible converts. Zohner and Christensen said they must return to their apartment by 9 p.m.

“We come home at night and we plan the next day,” Zohner said with a smile on her face. “We just keep doing it 24/7.”

Home away from home

Dan Ritchie, institute director at the Denton LDS Institute of Religion, said that even though the institute, which sits directly across the street from the UNT Art Building, was not set up to specifically serve missionaries, he is glad Zohner, Christensen and other missionaries in the area find comfort there while away from home.

“Our church is the same no matter where you go,” Ritchie said. “In other words, all the clergy teach the same things.”

The availability of the institute building also gives the missionaries a place where they can invite possible converts and meet fellow Mormons.

“When we meet people here, they see everybody else,” Zohner said. “We come and go, but everybody here, they live here. They go to school here.”

Ritchie, who served his own mission in Buenos Aires from March 1987 to April 1988, said he knows how difficult being away from home can be for a young missionary.

“Back then, I could only communicate through written letters, but I would not trade the experience for a minute,” Ritchie said.

Every response Zohner and Christensen give is followed by a smile. They greet every person who enters the building with a friendly handshake and a reminder that he or she is welcome anytime.

They are a long way from home and the months remaining on their missions only bring more work and homesickness. But they both feel that committing to this lifestyle for the time being was the best decision they’ve made up until now.

“We can truly know how to be better,” Zohner said. “This is for me. I’m not doing this for anyone else.”

Feature photo: Tom Adams, the Bishop for the Young Single Adult Ward Congregation, prays with fellow parishioners in the Denton Latter-Day Saints Institute of Religion before leaving for the day on Tuesday afternoon. Photo by Zixian Chen / Senior Staff Photographer 

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