ST. ALBANS — All their lives, children who attend the Church of Christ of Latter-day Saints – more commonly known as the Mormon church – grow up hearing about, and looking forward to, their missions.
There’s even a child’s hymn: “I hope they call me on a mission…”
So when young men turn 18 and young women turn 19, they look for a letter to come in the mail, informing them of their new home for 18-24 months.
Laura Antillon, a 20-year-old from Berkshire, learned, for instance, that she would serve in Chile. She just returned from her mission three weeks ago and is still adjusting back to Vermont life after her year and a half in South America.
“It’s very weird to be back,” Antillon said in an interview at the St. Albans LDS church on Bushey Road last week. “There were a lot of cultural differences.”
She added, for instance, that when she first returned to chapel in St. Albans, she went around greeting every member before realizing that was not the norm.
“I guess that’s not what everyone does here,” said Antillon. She’s also had to transition back to speaking English, using Facebook, and getting ready to go to college – this week, she and her family drove to Utah to drop her off at Brigham Young University.
Though she’s readjusting after her mission, Antillon said she’s not putting it behind her, but rather, carrying it forward.
“There were so many different life skills that you learn,” she said. “I was able to get to know and love a lot of people – I loved my mission.”
What is a mission?
When the high school seniors in the St. Albans Church of Christ of LDS congregation graduate and reach the required ages, they become eligible for a mission. Families, or the missionaries themselves, pay for the mission, and that money is allocated by the LDS church for housing, food and other needs over the 18-to 24-month span.
According to Sean Bell, the president of the local church, young people make the choice to travel and share their faith with others. They don’t, however, get to choose where they go.
“Not everyone does it,” Bell said last week. He himself chose to go on a mission and was assigned to Brazil, where he served from 1991-93.
Once given a location by the LDS church based in Provo, Utah, women and men receive the title of “Sister” and “Elder” – a designation and honor meaning “teacher.” They are paired up with another missionary of the same gender, and go out.
“It’s based in scripture that Christ sent out his disciples out two-by-two – that was probably for protection,” said Bell. A second person can also act as a witness, and as a companion during a period of tough work.
“You learn how to work as a team,” said Bell. Companions are with each other – within sight and sound – at all times. They are also switched up every six weeks, so one person will learn to get along with 10 different companions throughout his or her mission.
“You just learn how to roll with the punches,” said Bell.
Elders Simmonds and D’Agostini, who are from Utah and assigned to Vermont and other areas in New England for the Manchester, N.H.-based mission, are companions currently serving in Franklin County. Dressed in white shirts and ties, with name tags, carrying a Book of Mormon in their breast pocket and wearing shoes with peeling soles, they spoke in an interview last week about what exactly it is that they do.
“[We] preach Jesus Christ’s gospel and come into Christ,” said D’Agostini, 18.
Simmonds, who is 20 and has two months left of his mission, explained that it’s really an opportunity to share, to serve and to love others.
“We don’t share our gospel because we think everybody is wrong,” he said. “It’s just brought us so much joy.”
And that joy is something the two Elders – and other young Mormon missionaries – want to spread. They maintain a rigid schedule each day: wake up at 6:30 a.m., exercise, shower and eat breakfast, study between 8 and 11 a.m., and then travel and meet people, driving, parking and walking between five and 10 miles each day.
“We’re out until usually nine o’clock,” said Simmonds. “You’re striving to be selfless.”
As they knock on doors and meet people from all backgrounds, the Elders and Antillon said they receive varied responses.
“They’re super nice here in St. Albans,” said Simmons. “I would say almost everyone we talk to is really polite. They’re at least willing to talk to us.”
D’Agostini, who is a relatively new missionary having only served one month, said it takes some guts to go and knock on people’s doors.
“It is a bit nerve-wracking,” he said. “You’re sharing your most personal beliefs, [and] you get your beliefs rejected a lot or challenged.”
Those challenges are ultimately healthy, however – Simmonds said whenever someone poses questions he can’t answer or challenges his beliefs, it makes him want to go back to his faith and learn more.
“It causes me to want to search it out for myself,” he said.
For Antillon, there was the added challenge of a language barrier, one she eventually got over. In South America, too, there are different reactions to a LDS missionary.
“There’s some of everything – there were certainly people who were open and willing to hear us,” she said. Others, of course, were not as interested. “And that’s okay, too,” said Antillon.
She added, “I think a lot of people are afraid to listen. They put up a defensive barrier.
That defensiveness may lead to the false ideas about what missionaries try to do. D’Agostini explained, “We’re not here to tear down beliefs. We’re here to build up beliefs in Christ.”
The challenges missionaries face, as well as the benefits they receive – life skills, deeper understanding of their faith, the opportunity to travel and meet new people – are what appear to motivate young people in the LDS church to take on missions.
Bell’s son, Preston, 19, for instance, just left this week for his mission in Billings, Mont. Another church member, Michelle Feiner of Fairfield, also just welcomed her son, Jesse, 20, home from two years in Salt Lake City, Utah. Berkshire teen Collin Snyder, Antillon’s cousin, is preparing to go to Las Vegas.
“It’s like a rite of passage,” said Feiner.
It’s something LDS members prepare for spiritually, physically, emotionally and financially for a long time, beginning with that child’s hymn.
“We kind of grow up with that expectation,” said Bell.
It’s also something Mormons remember and carry forward.
“This mission is like a training for the rest of your life,” said Antillon. “You don’t let those things go.”