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Mission of hard knocks It can be a thankless task trying to win converts to your faith. Yet even as their church ponders better ways to draw believers, young Mormons still go door to door, spreading their message.

They're wholesome, All-American lads. They're respectful, educated, patriotic and virtuous -- the sort of young men you'd love your daughter to bring home.

But heaven forbid they come knocking on your front door.

Mormon missionaries give some folks the hives. Sure, they're well-dressed, clean-shaven and show up with a smile. But standing on your welcome mat, they're inconvenient, maybe even irritating.

People cringe when they hear anyone who is unexpected rap on the door or ring the bell. Is it a salesman, somebody soliciting donations, an environmental activist?

Two days before Christmas, a pair of Mormon missionaries went door to door in a comfortable Getzville neighborhood. Inside her brick home, stay-at-home mom Corinna Paolucci frantically tried to finish her holiday baking while watching over her two preschoolers.

"From my window," Paolucci said, "I saw them walking down the sidewalk and thought 'Oh, crap. These kids are going to knock on my door.' And sure enough ..."

The young elders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who appeared on Paolucci's landing know they are imposing and causing a negative reaction. They don't particularly like going door to door, either.

Knock knock, fail ... Knock knock, fail ... Knock knock, fail ... For as long as the sidewalk goes on.

A connection, glorious when it occurs, is ultra-rare. And the rejections aren't always gentle. Mormon and Jehovah's Witness missionaries routinely get doors slammed in their faces or the occasional object hurled at them. They hear volcanic profanities. Threats are made to call the police. Some have been robbed.

So why on earth go through such an essentially futile endeavor?

Conversions, of course, are the intention. But nothing more than a respectful exchange of philosophies can be a significant success. Even rejections are valued as tests of faith that can galvanize a missionary's conviction during his or her formative years.

"A lot of what's going on for Mormons is personal development, and they know that going in," said Doug Jacobsen, professor of church history and theology at Messiah College, a Christian liberal arts school in Grantham, Pa. "It's about their ability to persevere, ability to keep going, ability to remain winsome despite the fact they get the door slammed in their face."

But certainly in the 21st century there are less importune ways to spread the good word.

Mormons actually have eased away from "tracting" -- a term derived from the religious pamphlets, or "tracts," they hand out along the way -- because it has become ineffective over the years. It perpetuates a negative image of Mormons as intrusive. And going door to door simply isn't an efficient use of time anymore. Member referrals are far simpler to cultivate.

Technology has made tracting almost obsolete in the United States. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints members increasingly have moved online to share their message with others. The New York Rochester Mission, which encompasses Buffalo, was the first in the world to use social networking as a recruiting and informational gateway.

As for public perception, Mormons are highly conscious of their image, especially with LDS philosophies and myths (such as men having more than one wife) mentioned more than ever in the mainstream media.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and former candidate Jon Huntsman are Mormons. Their presence in the race generated thoughtful conversations about their faith as well as ridicule from comic pundits. "The Book of Mormon" is a smash Broadway comedy that takes a cheeky look at the religion.

Mormons value interaction because it helps break through stereotypes that are easy for uninformed outsiders to ridicule.

"We want to eliminate this idea that Mormons are mystical and weird. We're not," said Jack R. Christianson, president of the New York Rochester Mission. "That's why it's important that we be bold, but never overbearing.

"We have a very significant message that we want to share, and [tracting] is just one way to do that. I do not believe it's the most productive way. If there's another way that we can do it and not be so intrusive and not be overbearing, we sure want to find that way."

> A mixed reaction

From the moment Paolucci opened her foggy storm door that frigid afternoon, she clearly wasn't in the mood to be converted. Even so, Elders Jace Stoker and Scott Adams, both 20-year-old Eagle Scouts from Utah, engaged her in a conversation that was pleasant and surprisingly long.

"That was definitely going through my mind: How far do I let them go before I tell them I'm not interested?" Paolucci reflected a couple hours later.

Stoker and Adams eventually cut bait and headed back down the driveway.

"The critical thing is to be persistent without being a pest," Stoker said.

Around the corner, in a cul-de-sac of people who seemed harried by the holidays, the response wasn't so genial.

Although one gentleman respectfully explained he was a proud Roman Catholic and uninterested, laser beams practically shot out of his next-door neighbor's pupils when Stoker and Adams approached him in his open garage.

"You can move on to your next house," the man fumed repeatedly before retreating inside, leaving his wife to stand awkwardly alone in the garage. She accepted Stoker's business card, which probably got thrown away as soon as the missionaries turned around.

At the last two houses of the afternoon, the door whumped in the missionaries' faces -- both times midsentence. Stoker and Adams, undaunted by the frostiness, could only shrug and chuckle.

"My kids were saying 'That guy was talking and you shut the door on him!'" Aaron McElroy, a brawny, 35-year-old engineer, explained the next day. "I said 'Sometimes you've got to get it over with.'"

> Where it all began

Nonbelievers are wary of Mormonism mainly because of its radical and relatively recent beginnings. It materialized as a tiny sect about 90 miles east of Buffalo in the rural towns of Manchester and Palmyra and has become an influential worldwide religion.

Mormons believe a teenage Joseph Smith first saw visions of God and Jesus Christ in a grove near the family farm in Manchester and climbed nearby Hill Cumorah to receive golden plates from the angel Moroni in 1827. This event is held in similar regard to Moses ascending Mount Sinai to accept the Ten Commandments.

Smith, a prophet to his followers and a swindler to nonbelievers, is said to have translated the gold plates into what is now The Book of Mormon, the church's primary gospel.

Mormons consider themselves Christians, but claim the golden plates were delivered to correct a waywardness that happened after early apostles died. This restoration occurred in the "latter days," giving the church its name.

The Book of Mormon asserts lost tribes from ancient Israel came to the Americas, where a resurrected Jesus visited them. Even more amazing at the time, Smith later indicated that plural marriages with multiple wives were God's will.

Smith, heavily persecuted in Western New York, fled westward. A mob killed him in Illinois in 1844 while he awaited trial for treason. Mormons eventually founded Salt Lake City as their permanent settlement. Dogged by its past, the LDS Church denounced polygamy in 1890, helping Utah gain statehood.

(Still, the stigma survives. The HBO drama "Big Love" is centered around a polygamist family in Utah. "Sister Wives" is a polygamy-based reality show on TLC. There are people who assume, incorrectly, that the shows are about Mormons.)

The LDS Church has grown to about 14 million members around the world, according to Mormon.org. Christianson estimated there are 10,000 members in the New York Rochester Mission, which stretches from Niagara Falls to Seneca Lake and from Lake Ontario to the Pennsylvania border.

Within the local mission are 140 missionaries: 58 elders (young men from their late teens to mid-20s), 32 sisters (young women between 21 and 24 years old) and 25 retired couples who volunteer their help and work at historic sites such as Joseph Smith's farm, Hill Cumorah and the Palmyra temple.

Not all Mormons choose to serve. Two-year missions are voluntary, and declining won't necessarily obstruct a member from participating in the LDS Church at its highest levels. The current leader, Prophet Thomas S. Monson, didn't go on a mission.

But an iconic LDS image is the sight of two companions diligently making the rounds in white, short-sleeved dress shirts, ties and black slacks, a pen in the breast pocket and a name badge beside. Their satchels are filled with scriptures and Mormon literature.

> Two-year mission

Those who choose to go on a mission generally do so after some time in college. Stoker spent two years in Weber State's premed program in Utah and plans to resume studies after his stint expires in six months. Adams received an associate degree from Utah Valley University.

"I was living life," said Stoker, a dirt-bike enthusiast who also worked construction. "I just stepped out for two years. When I'm done I'm going to step right back in and continue on with life."

Missionaries have no say about where they're assigned. They submit paperwork to LDS headquarters in Salt Lake City. The prophet -- the head of the church -- is said to pray over each missionary's future and then makes each announcement with a letter.

Then it is off to the Missionary Training Center, adjacent to the Brigham Young University campus in Provo, Utah. Training can last six weeks if a new language must be learned. If not, they're dispatched in three weeks.

Rules for missionaries are rigid. They're always paired with a companion and frequently in contact with LDS members to ensure adherence. Their daily schedule, which for Stoker and Adams begins at 5:45 a.m., is drawn up in Salt Lake City and includes considerable time dedicated to studying scriptures.

In addition to the usual Mormon restrictions on tobacco, alcohol, coffee and tea, missionaries are prohibited from dating (not even hugging or kissing the opposite sex). They may call home only twice a year (on Mother's Day and Christmas). They can send an email once a week and maintain a blog, but Internet activity is monitored closely.

"Everything is to stay 100 percent focused," Stoker said. "No TV. No movies. No radio. We only listen to CDs that are church-approved. Anything else for us is a waste of time and pulls our minds away from the Lord.

"It teaches you so much self-control. If you can control yourself for two years right through the highest peak of your hormones, then you can control yourself through anything."

LDS missionaries are unpaid, and they also foot their own bills. They or their families pay into a general fund before they leave. Those working in more expensive regions or countries receive more. Stoker and Adams each get a little over $100 added to a debit card monthly.

Payments for rent, a shared cell phone and a vehicle (Stoker and Adams drive a white 2011 Chevy Colorado truck) are made from Salt Lake City, but the money comes from the global pool the missionaries prepaid into.

Over the two years, a missionary will be asked to move several times within his assigned area. Stoker, for example, has lived in Canandaigua, Lockport, Pittsford and Williamsville inside his first 18 months.

The average person won't drop his bag of Funyuns and leap from the sofa to sign up for such a gig.

And that's before the first door slams.

> Tallying successes

Three days before Christmas -- the day before Stoker and Adams went tracting in Getzville -- their pickup truck was burglarized in Buffalo.

The back window was smashed out. Their personally annotated scriptures and backpacks were stolen, along with Stoker's camera and Adams' passport. Police bluntly told them the chances of recovering their items were nil.

Nonetheless upbeat, they were determined to tract despite subfreezing temperatures.

Stoker and Adams said they've helped bring 10 newcomers to baptism. None was through tracting.

"A successful encounter," Adams said before heading out, "is when the spirit's there, when it feels good and you're doing your job, when you're growing and everyone is edified.

"It's a lot more exciting when somebody accepts and moves forward with it, because we know that's what's going to bring them the most happiness. But it's mostly when we're really committed to doing our part to teach them and invite them to be closer to Christ."

Adams said tracting can be "terrifying" the first few times. Almost every former missionary has a horror story. Christianson laughed when recounting the time someone threw rocks at him when on his 1970s mission in the desert Southwest.

"Someone once yelled at us to get a real job," Stoker said. "Well, this isn't our job. We're not getting paid for this."

Finding a rhythm seemed easy for Adams and Stoker. They were smooth and easygoing at each doorway -- even at the leadoff house, with its large statue of the Virgin Mary on the landing.

A middle-aged woman answered the door. She was nice. Still, no sale.

Stoker and Adams didn't take her rejection -- or anybody else's -- as a personal snub. They merely trudged onward to the next house.

"For some groups, the goal is to convert people. I'm not sure that's the goal for Mormons," said Jacobsen, the professor at Messiah College. "Mormons have a message to share, but they believe 99 percent of the people on earth are going to go to heaven anyway. It's not like people are going to burn in hell forever.

"They're going around to share a positive message, and if people don't accept it, that's not good for them, but it's not terrible for them either."

Jacobsen noted Jehovah's Witnesses and other door-to-door proselytizers have a different perspective. He said those groups "see what they're doing as keeping people out of hell," while Mormons are offering a suggestion.

"It's a little bit more like going around and saying 'Here's a new pizza. You should try it.' And if people say no, well, that's no big deal," said Jacobsen, who belongs to the United Church of Christ.

A byproduct of tracting for many Mormons is a reinforced faith. Resolve can grow with every closed door, rebuff and homeowner hiding behind a houseplant.

The ability to blithely approach people despite constant rejection has everyday value, too.

A 2009 New York Times article examined a security alarm company that was thriving with door-to-door sales in the Chicago area. The company was founded in 2001 by a BYU student. The salesmen mostly were former Mormon missionaries -- experienced in door-to-door relations, armed with foreign-language skills and thickened skin.

> Door to door vs. online

Back in Getzville, at least one homeowner shook his head about door-to-door tactics in general.

McElroy is fed up to his ballcap with solicitors. He theorized they target his neighborhood because the demographic is attractive. People might have some money to spend.

When McElroy lived in Cheektowaga, he guessed he would hear from Jehovah's Witnesses once a year and that was about it. Now, McElroy said, "It's not only missionaries. It's contractors and other people who come around, wanting me to buy new gutters or seal my driveway."

That's why McElroy, who was raised a Catholic, showed little tolerance toward Stoker and Adams.

"Door to door is such an old-school thing," McElroy said. "If I want something, I'll go get it. I'll get my church when I want it and where I want it."

That's why the LDS Church is getting more involved online. As traditional tracting becomes obsolete, accessibility allows for greater use of everyone's time in a less intrusive manner.

Christianson's predecessor as New York Rochester Mission president, Michael Hemingway, started the pilot online program, launching the LDS Church into a new realm. Missionaries began posting on sites such as Facebook and Blogger.com.

The cyber-movement has been encouraging. Hemingway moved to Utah and oversees all Mormon Internet initiatives around the world.

Tracting as Adams and Stoker know it likely will become history within a few years.

"I don't see it being a major part of missionary work in the future," Christianson said. "Although, in other parts of the world, where they don't have access to all the technology, that may be a different story."

Online campaigns pose substantial concerns for Mormons, though.

There's no guarantee a curious non-Mormon will head directly to an authorized site such as Mormon.org or LDS.org. Search engines are portals to scores of sites that are unfriendly at best.

"There's concern because there are so many enemies that use the Internet to attack the church," Christianson said. "One has to be very careful to avoid a dissident or someone who has an ax to grind.

"But I can promise you one of the first things people do when we leave teaching them or when we leave their doorstep is they go right to the Internet and start checking out things. That's why we need to use this medium to reach people."

When a mission is complete, the next step for most Mormons is to return home and get married. They frequently start their families before graduating college.

Adams laughed at the notion that two years without dating provides motivation to find a wife fast.

He might discover identifying a bride is easier than convincing someone to convert by knocking without an appointment.

"As long as we're changing and we're growing as missionaries, that's success there," Adams said of turning repeated failure into a positive. "Going home and seeing what's changed in me when I get back into my regular life are probably going to be the greatest signs of whether I was successful or not."

email: tgraham@buffnews.com