Mission Improbable

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n St. George, Utah, Randen Syphus’ hometown, it hardly ever rains. But one Saturday night in July, Syphus is far from home, and as the blue Dodge Caravan he rides in sidles up to the curb, he steps out of the passenger seat to a New Haven sky heavy with rain clouds. In black suits, collared white shirts, nametags, and ties, Syphus and Chris Eyres, his companion, are strangely formal, out of place amidst the abandoned, broken-windowed industrial buildings northwest of the Yale Divinity School.

Just 21 years old, Syphus and Eyres make for unlikely religious shepherds, but for the past two years, this has been their job. Both left their homes in Utah to serve two-year, full-time mission trips for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints that eventually brought them to the Elm City. In 2006, they numbered among the over 80 percent of 19-year-old boys from Mormon families who undertake such trips.

During his first weeks in New Haven, a passerby stopped Syphus on this street and warned him not to return at night unless he wanted to risk being shot. Now, he’s walked it an uncountable number of times, and he confidently ushers Eyres across the wide parking lot of the Sheffield Oaks apartment complex.

The downpour hasn’t yet started when the two enter the first-floor vestibule. Syphus punches in the access code and they climb to the second floor, where a woman named Beulah lives. When they reach her door, Syphus is the one who knocks—one long, four shorts, two longs. They wait. Beulah has no phone, but Syphus has visited her apartment for their thrice-weekly standing date enough times to know: “She’s not here. If she was, she’d have yelled for us by now.”

They descend the back stairway a little more slowly than they ascended it, looking for a place to sit down. When they stop at a wooden porch by a dumpster in the parking lot, the sky finally breaks open, and they sprint for the van. “We just can’t catch a break,” they groan over their shoulders.

The seclusion and asceticism the Mormon Church demands of missionaries like Syphus and Eyres is a far cry from the hedonism of college. Yet the Church manages to deploy over fifty thousand full-time Mormon missionaries across the globe, the vast majority of whom are men and women in their early 20s. A handful are Yalies who have formally withdrawn from the University to serve.
Although their methods vary, they are all geared toward a common goal: to recruit converts to the Mormon Church. And while they’ve all faced countless rejections in their quest to share their faith, these young missionaries’ efforts have undoubtedly helped make Mormonism one the fastest-growing religions in the world.

On a Sunday morning in May, Syphus sat in the middle row of an assembly room in a modest brick building on Trumbull Street. The blue folding chairs were filled with the entire New Haven ward of the Mormon Church, congregants of every demographic—a harried, young-looking blond couple with an infant and two toddlers in tow; a dark-haired teenager who directed hymns from the front of the room; a middle-aged Hispanic woman who affectionately patted the cheek of a white-haired man as she hurried past him on her way to her seat.

A young Hispanic couple had been baptized the week before and was being confirmed just in front of the wooden podium. “Welcome as part of a great brotherhood and sisterhood,” announced Mike Turner, the ward bishop and a third-year graduate student in molecular biology at Yale.
In the back row, a young blond man repeated Turner’s words in quiet Spanish into a black headset; roughly a fifth of the congregants listened to his translation through receivers and headphones they grabbed from an over-full bin by the door. The church has no shortage of Spanish translators, Turner explained, because of the number of former missionaries who learned the language in order to serve trips in Spanish-speaking countries.

The Mormon Church is known for its painstaking missionary reach not just into Spanish-speaking areas, but into almost every corner of the world, an approach that has successfully turned a once-persecuted religion into a global faith. There are 344 “missions”—geographic regions to which missionaries may be assigned—across the globe. Although there are not always active missionaries throughout each mission, almost the entire populated world falls within one of these sets of boundaries. Syphus and Eyres serve in the Connecticut Hartford Mission, which means that they may be reassigned at a moment’s notice to any of a number of sites in Connecticut, Rhode Island, or Massachusetts. “You could get a call on Sunday, and on Tuesday, you’d have to drive to the mission center in Hartford and move on to another assignment,” explains Justin Smith, Eyres’ predecessor, who finished his mission in June. When he served with Syphus, they each kept all of their belongings—two years’ worth—in two suitcases. New Haven is Syphus’s third assignment, and Smith can no longer recall how many cities he served.

Missionaries always serve in pairs, or “companionships,” living together, sharing meals, and proselytizing with a partner at all times. Companionships aren’t transferred together, however, and missionaries work with as many partners as they have transfers. Currently comprising Syphus and Eyres, the New Haven companionship shares exclusive responsibility for the roughly 124,000 residents of New Haven—and an apartment on Elm Street—with two missionaries who serve the Spanish-speaking contingent of the city.

Syphus and Eyres split their time between “tracting”—choosing a neighborhood and knocking on every door—“street contacting,” or stopping passersby on the sidewalk, and arranging meetings with “investigators” like Beulah who have already expressed an interest in their message. Although they’ve found the last tactic to be the most effective, they often run the risk of being stood up, or, in missionary lexicon, “boached.” “Lately,” says Syphus dryly, “our boach rate has been higher than desirable.”

To compensate for such incidences, New Haven missionaries often take a more scattershot approach, starting conversations on city buses about sports teams and the weather and waiting for the inevitable question about their clothes, or the black-and-white nametags emblazoned with their title and surname—“Elder Syphus,” “Elder Eyres.” Syphus recalls meeting a man named Eddy outside of a thrift store in West Haven who announced that the missionaries’ ties were ugly and invited them inside to buy new ones. Within a year, Eddy had quit smoking—nicotine, caffeine, and other stimulants are taboo in the Mormon Church—in the hopes of one day being baptized into the Mormon Church.

The same approach led Smith and Syphus to Beulah, whom they met one day at a McDonald’s. After enough one-on-one meetings with the missionaries, she has only to quit smoking and drinking coffee before she can be baptized.

Still, easy successes like Beulah and Eddy are rare, and before he completed his mission, Smith resorted to unconventional tactics to reach out in New Haven. To draw students, he and Syphus set up an afternoon study room on the fourth floor of 84 Trumbull Street, advertising free Internet access and a limited library. He e-mailed a Yale Divinity School professor in the hopes of lecturing his class on Mormonism—“that didn’t really work out.” Once, he stood on a box in Elm Street, opened his arms, and started preaching his gospel to passersby, and another time, he invited a trumpet player panhandling outside the British Art Center to accompany his preaching with a rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” On Wednesdays, he and Syphus played pickup football at the park, fielding the inevitable questions about their faith by offering a copy of the Book of Mormon and tutoring sessions on the scriptures.

These resourceful methods, like Smith and Syphus themselves, are emblematic of a new generation of missionaries that has replaced the standardized, memorized lessons once aimed at potential converts with “teaching by the spirit,” allowing their impulses to dictate lessons and dialogue. Mormon missionaries once taught solely from a set of six lessons entitled “The Uniform System for Teaching the Gospel.” They memorized the lessons in whatever language they would be teaching in and recited them, word-for-word, to their charges.

In 2004, however, the “System” was replaced with “Preach My Gospel,” a 13-chapter guide with sections like “How Do I Develop Christlike Attributes?” and “How Do I Recognize and Understand the Spirit?” “It’s more about saying what people need to hear, when they need to hear it,” explains Turner, the New Haven ward bishop and Yale graduate student.

However, even teaching by the spirit requires rigid commitment. Missionaries are expected to rise each morning at 6:30 to study the scriptures as well as to plan lessons for the day, exercise, and eat. The hours from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m. are set aside for missionary work—proselytizing and service—and missionaries are expected to be in bed by 10:30 p.m. They are allowed one “preparation day” per week, for buying groceries, doing laundry, cleaning, and letter-writing—for Syphus and Smith, it was pickup football Wednesdays—and they attend Sacrament meetings on Sundays.

Missionaries are allowed only one hour of Internet access per week and only two phone calls per year, one on Christmas and the other on Mother’s Day. Thayne Stoddard MC ’11, preparing for a 2009 mission, finds this prospect hard to imagine. “I’m worried about being isolated [during my mission],” he admits. “I’ve called my mom every single day this year.”

The New Haven missionaries have access to a car for half the week, but spend the rest of the time traveling by bicycle, bus, and foot; whenever possible, missionaries are required to rely on public transportation in the cities they serve. “Nothing can prepare you for what it’s like to be out there,” explains Sebastian Swett JE ’09, who left Yale in 2004 to serve on mission in Milan. “I’d get tired, and it was a different fatigue than what I was used to—it’s this constant output of energy.”

Each missionary is responsible for paying his or her own way, sending $400 to the Church for each month of service, money which is then redistributed among all of the missionaries worldwide for housing and food. Smith worked for a sign installation company before he started his mission, while Syphus saved $10,000 working for his father’s concrete-cutting business. “That money is sacred money,” says Smith. “[My mission] means so much more to me because I had to work for it.”

But in spite of the thousands of hours spent knocking on doors and distributing pamphlets and the thousands of dollars toward housing and food, the Church relies on its quantity of missionaries, rather than their rate of conversion, to spread the faith: Church statistics estimate that an average of just 4.7 new converts join the Church for each year one missionary spends on the job.

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his rate is often higher in overseas mission areas, particularly in Africa and South America, despite the linguistic and cultural barriers missionaries in these areas face. Because fluency is essential for a group peddling such intangibles as faith, all missionaries attend one of 17 Missionary Training Centers (MTCs) worldwide before embarking on their trips. Most are sent to the MTC in Provo, Utah, where they spend between three weeks—if they will be proselytizing in English—and three months studying the scriptures and learning the intricacies of both teaching their gospel and speaking the language they will adopt for the next two years. Before embarking on his trip to the Poland-Warsaw mission in 1998, Turner attended two four- to five-hour Polish language classes and an evening session on the gospel every day for nine weeks at the MTC.

A second complicating factor is the range of responses Mormons can expect from country to country and culture to culture. Jordan Frandsen MC ’08 served his mission in Russia, where tracting is illegal. Instead, missionaries would go into elementary schools to stage puppet shows about the evils of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco and offer free English lessons in peoples’ homes, always ending with a message of faith. During his mission in Italy, Swett also spent time on service activities. In one city, he jokes, he and his fellow missionaries noticed that everyone always seemed to be moving, so they borrowed a van from the local Mormon church to act as the “muscle of the congregation” and help people move. Since Swett felt uncomfortable stopping people on the street, he’d often strike up conversations about faith with strangers he met while traveling. “People would ask questions by default when you have two big, blond Americans in suits and nametags,” he laughs.

During his trip to Romania, Walker Frahm JE ’10 found that the people he encountered were wary of his intentions. “Romania is still struggling to get out of the shadow of communism, and you can see that in the way people have a hard time talking to others who aren’t in their immediate family,” he says. “Something like 60 percent of people ratted on their neighbors to the secret police; when everyone is a spy, you can’t trust anyone.”

And, Frahm continues, in the rare circumstance when he encountered people who were familiar with Mormonism, they were sorely misinformed. “You know the film Witness? That movie was translated into Romanian such that every instance of the word ‘Amish’ was replaced with ‘Mormon,’” he laughs. “People would be like, ‘Oh, Mormons! We respect you and your simple way of life…no electricity…’ and we’d be like, ‘No, wrong one!’”

For Turner, the challenge wasn’t skepticism, but rather an existing faith: He served in Poland, a country that is 89 percent Catholic. “People say that you’re not a Pole if you’re not Catholic,” he says. “The people who joined the Mormon Church in Poland sacrificed a lot to join and were denounced by their families.” While he was there, the one hundred missionaries throughout the country saw just sixty baptisms each year.

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he numbers are daunting, but Turner says that he never used them to measure his success as a missionary. “Success is really anytime you help to convey to someone that God lives,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that they join the church.”

For Jennifer Gardner ES ’05 GRD ’08, success in her mission meant expanding her own beliefs to include a new kind of faith: faith in people. “I’ve gained a greater appreciation for individuals of the world —their diversity and also their commonality. Everyone is looking for meaning in life and purpose, and at a basic level, everyone needs the same things,” she explains. Gardner was one of few single women to serve a mission, and while the trip remains a rite of passage more for 19-year-old male Mormons than their female peers, not all young men serve missions. Some are prohibited by health concerns, both mental and physical, some simply choose not to serve, and some are prevented from serving by the Church itself on the grounds that they are “unworthy,” which can encompass anything from homosexuality, to fathering a child out of wedlock, to unresolved debt.

Still, Yale students serving mission trips are common enough that there is now a process in place for students to leave the University for two years without fear of losing their spots. Prospective missionaries withdraw from the University and then re-enroll—a formality, the returned missionaries say—in a new graduating class with a brief essay about the time they spent away from Yale. But while the bureaucracy of returning to Yale may be trivial, the intricacies of readapting to college life rarely are, especially after watching friends and classmates graduate and move on. “I was close with the class of 2006, but I really had no interaction with my new graduating class,” says Frandsen.

Austin Pulsipher BK ’12 is currently serving a mission in Taiwan, and although he has yet to rejoin the Yale community, he already has misgivings about what it will entail: “I am scared that I won’t know how to speak fluid English in a seminar at Yale and that my essay writing skills went to trash,” Pulsipher writes in an e-mail from Taipei. “And I am not in the football shape that I was before my mission.”

His fears are prescient. Rejoining the Yale football team after two years, Swett was jarred when his coach yelled at him on his second day back. “A mission is about everyone trying to uplift each other,” says Swett, “and I was like, ‘Why is he yelling at me? That’s not very Christian of him.’” The first Yale paper Swett wrote upon returning was only five pages long, but he says that he wrote three drafts and e-mailed one to his mother for editing before he felt confident enough to hand it in. He’d gone two years without writing a single paper.
In some ways, the mission life was easier, he says. At Yale in the spring, he worried about packing, about storing his belongings for the summer, about one last paper, about finding a job. “As a missionary, the only thing I worried about was ‘Who can I help today, and how?’” he says.

It’s an experience familiar to Smith and Syphus. Answering questions about their mission experience, they comment that it’s unnerving to spend so much time talking about themselves when they’re so used to focusing on the needs of others. “I’m motivated by something much bigger than myself—eternity,” Smith says. “My message is to prepare people for life after death. If we don’t hit the streets, 140,000 people in New Haven won’t have the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s much easier to motivate yourself to get out of bed if you’re not just doing it for you, but for others.”

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n high school, Jenna Felici ES ’08 was one of those “others”. “It was difficult to start coming to the church at Yale, because no one here could have guessed that I had just joined the Mormon Church eight months earlier,” she says. “I hadn’t gone to church my whole life.”

With a Catholic father and a mother who had lapsed from Mormonism because of her husband’s opposition to it, Felici followed her parents to churches of a host of different denominations, but says that it was only when she attended a Mormon church with her maternal grandparents that she felt “something special.” She began meeting with missionaries and thinking about joining the Church. Because of her father’s disapproval, she had to sneak out of her house at 5:50 a.m., before her parents awoke, to attend 6 a.m. seminary classes at the local Mormon church.

At the end of high school, Felici was baptized with her family—father included—in attendance. When she started her freshman year at Yale, she knew she wanted to serve a mission herself, which she has now scheduled for December 2008, before she will attend medical school. She is working full-time as a medical assistant in a dermatology clinic, and because her parents won’t contribute to her missionary stipend, families in Felici’s home ward have offered to make up the difference. “In some ways, I’m like the people I will teach—they, too, may have families telling them it’s wrong,” she says. “It helps when someone has experienced the same thing as you. It gives people hope. Some people might take my words differently, because I made that choice for myself.”

Thayne Stoddard, who will leave next summer to begin his mission, has struggled with his faith in the past and does not share Felici’s confidence in proselytizing. “I don’t know how to share my own beliefs without forcing them down peoples’ throats, which I absolutely do not want,” he says. “I love the Church and would love to share my faith, but I don’t think I have the right as a person to believe that my Church is the only right Church.”

Stoddard says he can hope only to expose himself to others’ faiths—and others to Mormonism—in a positive way throughout the course of his mission. “My concerns have been put to rest by the basic principle of faith, and the belief that my family and I will be taken care of,” he says.

Swett, for his part, found that changing himself was just as important as changing others. His experience with one family whom he met during the second year of his mission particularly affected him. He visited their house two or three times a week over the course of seven months. “They really opened their home to me,” he says. “It was the closest I have ever felt to being in a family other than my own.” Both parents and all three daughters were baptized, which he describes as the prototypical mission success, but “that wasn’t what mattered” for Swett.
What did matter was that he felt a degree of responsibility toward the family. They had made drastic changes in their lives in order to join the Church, giving up coffee and wine and paying tithes. “Most of all, I felt a responsibility to teach only things I felt a personal testimony about,” he says, “because I believe in an afterlife and that these things will someday matter.”

What also mattered was a feeling Swett experienced one day in their kitchen before their baptisms. He found himself humbled by this family, humbled at the thought of teaching them about religion. “As a family, they already embodied the love and goodness that God wants,” he says. “Who was I to be teaching them?”

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