The other day as I was sprinting to catch a bus back to site I happened to stumble upon a group of around 10 Mormon missionaries getting on board the same bus. They were all dressed up in their white shirts, ties, dark pants, and name tags looking like they were all moving somewhere. As luck would have it, my assigned seat was surrounded by five of them looking at me with some curiosity as I was them. At first, I was addressed in Spanish, but after a phone call the charade was up and conversation ensued. On several occasions prior to this particular incident I had come across a Mormon and his companion, but I had not had not received a ton of information as to how their missionary work is conducted and the logistics of their time in a given country. To their credit, they were equally curious about the Peace Corps, how I ended up here, and the work I was doing.
I won’t take the time to dive into all the details of Mormonism, the largest sect of the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints, and the religion itself, but essentially it was explained to me that Joseph Smith is a profit of God who was told that he must show the path of the true church. Basically the book of Mormon is a supplement to the Bible that answers contradictions that the Bible had as a result of how it was written over hundreds of years. Each Mormon believes that their church is the one true church, and it is their duty to show people the path to righteousness. The Mormon mission, according to the guys I spoke to, worldwide consists of between 50,000-60,000 missionaries in 153 countries. Worldwide there are around 14 million Mormons with about 6.2 living in America. The other heavily populated countries are Mexico, Philippines, Brazil, Chile, Peru and Argentina. Service is a 2 year commitment and selection where one is place is done when a council of Elders read the applications and prays to God to show them where that person should serve. People can do their service at any age, but predominately it takes place right after high school graduation between the ages of 18-21. For the most part, the missionaries come with no language except for a 5-10 week training program in P Utah.
As for the missionaries in Paraguay, I was told that there are a total of 400 split into two groups of 200 half serving north of the Parana River and the other serving south of the river. They typically live in apartments or houses of 4 people and every 6 weeks all the world’s Mormon missionaries go through a rotation where they could potentially be called and told they are being sent within the countries they are serving. The reason I happened to be surrounded by 5 of them that day was because it was the day of the rotation. I was told that in Paraguay there are a total of 80,000 Mormons. I think that is a bit of a stretch, but after hearing them talk for longer I was starting to believe that number might be closer to being true than I initially believed.
I asked them how their living circumstances worked, and what their average day was like? I was told that they get dressed and start walking every day, with the exception of Sundays, from 10:30am to 9pm. They live typically in a small house with the other missionaries and are given 750,000 Gs.a month from collections back home. From what I understood they are sort of sponsored by either a congregation or family back home for part of their living allowance with another part coming from a giant slush fund that I think comes from the international organizing entity of the missionary church, but I am not totally sure. To be honest, they weren’t really sure about a lot of the logistical components of their work. When I asked what they do if they get sick they said they call the President of the missions wife, who I assume has some kind of medical training, who will recommend something for them to buy. In an emergency that would warrant serious medical attention it is usually their families from back home that take point in making sure they get the necessary medical attention. I couldn’t believe how casual they were about all those aspects of their life. Sure your chances of getting hurt in a serious accident are small, but it isn’t unheard of at all. 750,000 Gs. a month isn’t much, but when you have no vices, don’t pay rent, nor allow traveling casually it seems like a lot more. It seemed to me that they had some sort of trust in the higher power that everything was going to be okay because they were doing God’s work. If they got hurt it is all a part of His plan.
We were talking for probably about an hour before they started asking me about my faith. I was asked “where do you think the knowledge of God comes from?” My response was “I have never thought about it.” I proceeded to ask what he thought, and an hour later I got a full rundown of the Mormon missions and their purpose. I could go on for a while about the details of what they said, the fact that the truly believe with all their hearts that their beliefs are the only correct ones, and their passion in their work, but that wasn’t what stood out to me. The thing that I was astounded by was the similarities between their work, and the feelings about their work and my work as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
They leave their families and everything familiar to them for 2 years, but not only that they can only call their family twice a year. They can write letter whenever they want, and use the computer from time to time to write emails, but for the most part they have no contact with their families. The work they do is trying to convince someone that what they are preaching is correct, and doing that is extremely difficult. In the same way we try to convince people that brushing your teeth will make you healthier, or planting abanos verdes will improve the quality of your soil, they are trying to show that believing in their faith will give you a better quality of life. Obviously what we promote of Peace Corps volunteers are things that have scientific proof or years of research that demonstrate that that our projects will do the things we promise, but they believe wholeheartedly that their faith in God will do the same things that we promise if it is God’s will that it is to happen. Their faith in God is absolute, which is remarkable because I can’t say I believe in anything as strongly as they do. The feelings of being alone, struggling to connect with people and missing the comforts were the home are almost the same except more extreme because they don’t have phones, Internet, TV, or radio. Needless to say this interaction made quite the impression on me. As hard as it was for me to up and leave America for 2 years in Paraguay at the age of 23 I at least had a college degree and some life experiences outside the United States. These guys and I say guys because the majority of them in Paraguay are men, often come here with nothing but a few white shirts, a nice tie, and their faith. So next time you run into a Mormon try giving them an update about things going on at home and try not to get all bent out of shape when they try to ask you about your faith. At the end of the day they are a lot of them are just a bunch of kids who miss their families and their lives back home in the same ways we do here.