The extent of most of our knowledge about Mormons comes from South Park, The Book of Mormon Broadway musical (written by the same guys who write South Park), and Mitt Romney. Imitations of Mormons in popular culture have become so common, we easily recognize the iconic black tie, white shirt, and nametag; and when we see it, we actively avoid eye contact, fighting off their attempts to evangelize us. The pop culture representations of Mormons give us a surface-level impression of them as conservative people with some off-the-wall beliefs. In fact, these preconceived notions led to a movement a few years ago by the LDS Church, where famous Mormons made videos about themselves, each ending with “I’m _______, and I’m a Mormon,” including musician Lindsey Stirling and lead singer of The Killers Brandon Flowers. The purpose of these videos was to let the world know that Mormons, members of what is known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (or the LDS Church), are just like you and me.
Burning Tree Magazine sat down with five Mormon missionaries who are currently serving FSU’s campus, and who share this desire to let people know they are perfectly normal and approachable, and you can stop avoiding eye contact and even taking Snapchats of them, as one recalled happening. We spoke with three male elders- Elder Larsen, Elder Beaton, and Elder Chamberlain- and two missionary sisters- Sister Kinghorn and Sister Sant. Each missionary comes from a different walk of life and upbringing, but are now devoting themselves to their church for missions of 18-24 months in length, consisting of roughly 16-hour long days of serving. The missionaries were happy to give in-depth answers on what goes into signing up and serving a mission, how their experiences have been serving a college campus, how they feel about the media’s portrayal of their religion, and some of their favorite things to do when they have free days here in Tallahassee and surrounding areas.
BTM: What is the process of signing up and going on a mission?
Elder Larsen: So, the process is… starting from youth, you’re encouraged to go on a mission, but ultimately what it boils down to is you make the decision yourself, and you meet with what we call the Bishop – similar to a pastor for other churches. You tell him that you want to start a mission, and you go through an interview process, making sure you’re adequate for a mission, or prepared to serve a mission. You put in, it’s almost like a resume, we call it mission papers, where you say you’re willing to serve a mission for two years or eighteen months. They submit it to Headquarters in Salt Lake [City]. The Prophet (or, President of the Mormon church) and his counselors are able to pray over where it is we need to go. We receive a letter back on where it is that we’re going to be serving our mission.
BTM: So do you get to list any preferences on where you want to go, or is it totally out of your hands?
Elder Larsen: You can say, like, I speak a specific language, or I’d like to go here, but it’s ultimately up to them.
BTM: And the missions are either 18 months or 2 years?
All: Yes. (Two years for men, 18 months for women).
BTM: Ok, so going around, when did you each begin your mission, and are you currently students in college, or planning to do that after the mission?
Elder Larsen: I started my mission October of 2014, so I’m actually finishing up here in the next three weeks. I have not done any school work, this is my first time being on a college campus actually.
Elder Beaton: I came here in May, and, actually, before my mission I was in the army for two years, and they allowed me to take time to go on religious leave and do this.
Sister Kinghorn: I came out July of 2015, and I did a year of school at BYU Idaho; and I’ll be going back, I’m just deferred right now, for this time.
Sister Sant: I’ve been on a mission for about three months, so I came out in July. But I did two years at BYU as well. It’s cool, cause they’re really lenient – they want us to serve missions, so they composite their schooling; we don’t have to worry about any of that, so when we come back we can start back where we left off.
Elder Chamberlain: I started my mission December 16, 2015. I graduated in 2015, but I worked full time through the summer to get money to come out here, and now I’m here.
BTM: That brings me to my next question – does the church provide you with funds, or do you have to make that yourself?
Sister Kinghorn: The church encourages us to pay a certain amount every month to it. So, typically, it’s something that we save up for; so it is a sum every month that we pay. But, if we can’t pay it and you still really want to go, the church will help us out. But they like to encourage us to work the best we can so that we can pay for it ourselves, so that it’s a better experience for us. It’s like our money and our responsibility to help.
BTM: So is it ever possible to get a job while on a mission, or do you just not have the time?
[All shake their head]
Sister Kinghorn: We don’t have the time.
BTM: Ok, so speaking of that – what is a normal schedule for you guys, just day to day, what do you do?
Elder Beaton: So, one thing that we have is we all have planners; it’s just given to all of the missionaries. We’re supposed to get up around 6:30 to prepare ourselves, we’re supposed to exercise for a little bit, and get ready, brush our teeth. And then at 8:00 we do a personal study, so we just study scriptures by ourselves and things like that. And then at 9:00 we do a companion study, so me and him, we all get together we’re kind of like, ‘this is what I was learning about,’ and share it with each other. Around 10:00, that’s when we start going outside- that’s when we go outside and we go talk to people, we have lessons with them, we’ll meet up with them. And we have an hour set aside for lunch and dinner. We do that all the way up until 9:00 at night. At 9:00 we go back to our apartment and we plan for however much time we need for the next day. And then we should usually be in bed around 10:30.
BTM: Wow, and that’s pretty normal for the rest of you guys?
Sister Kinghorn: Every day.
Elder Chamberlain: Every missionary everywhere.
BTM: So, there’s a lot of preconceived notions about missionaries like yourselves in the media, things like South Park and The Book of Mormon. What do you guys think of that? You can be as candid as you want.
Elder Beaton: It’s funny!
BTM: You think it’s funny?
Elder Beaton: Yeah, I think it’s funny, obviously a lot of it is just over exaggerated and not true obviously, but I mean if we can’t laugh at ourselves…
BTM: Do any of you guys think differently?
Sister Sant: I don’t like it. I think it’s rude. There’s so many religions out there, and yet our religion gets targeted because we’re different and we’re unique and people don’t actually take the time to find out for themselves. And that play, it wasn’t just targeted at us, it was targeted at religion too. A lot of the songs just make fun of the fact that there’s a god, and so it’s very offensive to not just our religion, but Christians and Catholics and everyone who believes in God.
BTM: What do you think is the biggest misconception represented in various medias that frustrates you guys the most?
Sister Kinghorn: I guess the way that they portray the things that we do in The Book of Mormon play, it’s very very over exaggerated- that we’re strange people and we’re not normal. But one thing that we like to show people is that we’re just the same, we just are dressed differently for the time being but we live the same lives; and we choose to be who we are because we want to follow God. But it’s sad that people think that, because it’s not true; but it is definitely something that is really cool to help clarify, and say, you know what, that’s what people think, but this is actually what we are – we’re still normal, we’re still human.
BTM: So being missionaries on FSU’s campus, what response are you usually met with?
Elder Chamberlain: Well that depends on the situation. You’ve got your people who’ve got their headphones in, you’ve got those people who don’t have their headphones in, you’ve got people who are face-timing, so the response differs. But, for the most part, I feel like they’ve seen us before, so they try to – you know, ‘Oh, I’m late for class, I gotta go, I can’t grab that card cause I’m too much in a rush!’ but I think one of the biggest responses is, ‘I’ve already seen you guys,’ or, ‘I’m in a hurry.’
BTM: Same thing for you guys?
Sister Kinghorn: Yeah, we’ve met a lot of really good people that will talk to us whether they want to learn a little bit more or not. We’ve met courteous people that will willingly talk to us, but we’ve also met some that will say stuff that’s just rude. But yeah, about the same a lot of just ‘I’m in a rush, I don’t have time for this.’
BTM: Do people ever try to argue with you about religion?
BTM: So having so many negative responses and so many people not interested in what you have to say, does it make you frustrated and almost question being on a mission on a college campus?
Elder Chamberlain: That’s a good question, cause it’s all about how you take it. Our purpose out here is to invite others to come to Christ. We’re not out here to make people follow Christ, and so by us simply going around and asking, we’re fulfilling our purpose whether they want to use the information we have or not. They can simply educate themselves on our religion, it doesn’t really matter if they’re not interested or they want to fight. We shouldn’t get mad about that, because like I said we’re out here to invite and not make (people follow the religion).
BTM: So, it’s never been enough to make you question it?
Sister Kinghorn: I think we have our moments. I think everything, every rejection we face or every rude comment we get, it sometimes builds up. But it’s never enough. It’s never enough to be like, ‘I don’t want to be here.’ But I guess it makes us grateful for the opportunity that we do have to be here. So we’re trying our best – just like anything, any sport you do or any activity you’re in, it’s never always uphill. We’ve got our mountains; we’ve got our valleys. So it’s the same, it’s just a different group I guess.
BTM: What are some things that have made it really rewarding to be on your mission?
Elder Beaton: Rewarding stuff is to see people’s lives change- when they do take the things we teach them and apply it to their life and seeing improvement in their lives, and seeing them be happier and enjoying what their life is. Seeing that makes every rejection nothing and totally worth it.
Sister Sant: For me, rejection does get hard, but being out here on a mission and inviting them to come to Christ, and so when it gets hard we turn to Christ and for me when it does get really hard and I have things in my personal life that are difficult, I can turn to the Lord. It helps strengthen my testimony more, and fuels me to go out and share it with people. As he was saying, when you do share it with people, you forget about yourself and your own worries and you’re just filled with happiness for them. And you just want to share it even more.
Sister Kinghorn: And you just get to meet so many people from all walks of life. And the friends you make on the mission are lifelong friends and they’re people you probably wouldn’t necessarily go out of your way to be friends with in your regular situation. So this allows you to become friends with everybody.
BTM: So how much contact are you able to have with your families and your friends from back home?
Elder Larsen: We talk with our family and friends back home once a week. We get to email them, for like two or three or four hours. And actually on Mother’s Day and Christmas we get to Skype home for 45 minutes. That’s about all the contact we get.
BTM: Is that ever hard?
Sister Sant: Sometimes it’s hard, but it also helps us keep focused on what we’re doing. They (the Church) give us the chance to talk to them the amount is needed but no more, no less. Because if you’re texting your parents every day you’re going to be thinking about what they’re doing back home or what your friends are doing, so it helps us stay focused.
BTM: Do you guys know anybody who was sent on a mission to a very difficult area, maybe a developing country, and did they tell you anything about their experience and how it might be different than Tallahassee, Florida?
Sister Kinghorn: Yeah, I think we all have friends all over the world. I’ve had friends go to Africa; my brother went to Peru. It makes people really grateful for where they live and where they were raised. We’re so blessed, especially in this country we’re so blessed with the freedoms that we have. That’s just what they say every time, we’re so blessed to be here. I had a friend that kissed the American soil when he got back, he was so happy to be here.
BTM: I can’t imagine, especially with such long days like you described. That’s about all the in-depth questions I had, but to end does anyone have any especially interesting or fun or weird stories from your mission?
Elder Chamberlain: He’s got some good ones [looking at Beaton].
Elder Beaton: Which one?
Elder Chamberlain: I was thinking of the exorcism.
Elder Beaton: Okay, yeah. We got a call from this lady one day, and what she was doing was she was literally just going through the phone book and calling all of these churches. She’s like, ‘Hey, I have some evil spirits in my house, can you come do an exorcism?’ And we’re like, ‘Uh, sure… We can come and do that.’ And we went in there, and she’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, the Catholic priests were just in here a few minutes ago, and they burned some sage’ and stuff like that. I was like, ‘Oookay…’ And we talked to her, and were like, ‘What’s the problem,’ ‘When did this start,’ and stuff like that. Just kind of finding out why she’s having these problems in her home. In the end we just kind of sat down with her and prayed with her, and comforted her a lot. There wasn’t really much we could do for her. And she turned out to be okay, she calls us every once in a while after that to just check in. She’s a really nice lady.
Sister Kinghorn: Also we still do normal things, because once a week we get to have what’s called Preparation Day. So we get to go and explore around. Me and Elder Chamberlain one time were in Panama City at Pier Park. And they have this place called Pepper Palace, and it’s got, they say, the world’s hottest hot sauce, and you have to sign a waiver to try it and you have to be eighteen. I’ve been a couple times. Elder Chamberlain decided he really wanted to be a man, and try that hot sauce. Let’s just say that it didn’t really like him! But we still get to do the fun things, and fit in as locals, we get to hang out, we get to explore and go to all these different places.
Sister Sant: We’ve gotten to go to an FSU game.
BTM: Did you like it?
Sister Kinghorn: Oh yeah, so fun!
Sister Kinghorn: We’re really just the same; we’re just like any other college student.
Sister Kinghorn: I like going to Pensacola. I served there, a few of us have actually. There’s a lot of cool — like, the naval air station, Fort Pickens, all these places you can go and see. That’s what I love, I love going to the beach and seeing what it’s like.
Elder Chamberlain: Best place I’ve gone to so far was St. George Island. So nice.
Elder Larsen: Our mission basically covers from Tallahassee to Pascagoula, Mississippi. And we go up to like Mobile, Alabama, and stuff like that. So we can serve anywhere in there. So we’re just specifically on FSU right now. And they come in what’s called a transfer, or six week periods, and so there have been times where we haven’t been on FSU. So we meet a lot of interesting people.
Elder Beaton: Especially out in the country.
Sister Kinghorn: The country is its own experience.
Elder Beaton: I’ve sat down at many dinner tables and have had cockroaches crawl up my legs. But you learn to love them, you love the people, and you just go out and try to serve them as you can.
Sister Kinghorn: Yeah, it’s really cool. I mean, most people don’t get to do that. Most people don’t think about stopping their lives for two years or eighteen months, and just go out and serve. But, the blessings that we see every day from God are far greater than having to give up whatever we give up before, and it really is so cool. And no matter what rejection we may face, it’s always worth it at the end of the day.