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Thursday, Apr 18, 2019
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Young Mormon women on faith’s frontlines

It was their first big assignment together. And it was a doozy.

Heidi Birch and Madison Larsen, two recently paired up Mormon missionaries from Utah, set up a table across the street from the Straz Center where a Tony Award-winning musical had just opened.

Not just any musical. The rollicking, raunchy and irreverent “Book of Mormon,” which takes potshots at the faith they practice.

Their goal from the area mission president was simple: Hand out cards to people heading to the theater directing them to a website (Mormon.org) that explains the religion and its practices. And to deliver the message, “Now that you’ve seen the play, read the book.”

By the end of the musical’s run, both young women agreed it was an “awesome” experience. Sure, not every passerby was receptive to listening to two street disciples — no matter how fresh-faced and well-dressed they were — chat up a denomination that many still consider mysterious and a little bit strange. One theatergoer seemed downright angry about their presence. But for the most part, they called it a success.

“We gave out a lot of cards,” Heidi, 22, says. “And we met a lot of people. Really nice people.”

Madison, 23, concurs. “You just never know if a life is changed in some way.”

What they do know is that their own lives have been forever changed by the mission they began almost 18 months ago.

In July, their mission complete, they will head back home with a list of things they’ve gained from the experience: self-confidence, independence, an ability to speak Spanish fluently, the skills to balance a meager budget, self-discipline, a deeper spirituality.

And, oh, yes, Heidi says. There’s that other thing.

“Best friends forever.”

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Missionaries are the backbone of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

They are the front-line soldiers in the battle to win souls, specifically for their denomination, which ranks as the fourth-largest Christian group in the United States and claims 15 million members worldwide.

Single men between the ages of 18 and 25 still make up the bulk of the more than 83,000 missionaries stationed in 405 mission locations worldwide. The rest are women 19 and older, or retired couples. They serve anywhere from 18 months to two years.

The number of missionaries skyrocketed after church officials changed the minimum age from 19 to 18 for men and from 21 to 19 for women. After that ruling in October 2012, applications jumped from an average of 700 a week to 4,000 a week — and more than half of those applications came from women.

“It’s been an amazing cultural shift,” says Neylan McBaine, founder and editor of the Mormon Women Project, a digital library of interviews of female LDS members (mormonwomen.com). “In the past, we were told what a righteous life was like, and that meant getting married and having as many children as possible right away.

“Now we’re given some freedom to branch out, to explore and to prioritize motherhood on our own schedule.”

Another by-product of lowering the age is that it takes away some of the stigma associated with female missionaries. The perception used to be that women who went on missions generally did so because they couldn’t nab a husband or find something worthwhile to do with their lives.

“It’s not a last resort,” McBaine says. “It’s a way to expand your horizons. I did the traditional thing and married at a younger age. But if I was 19 today, I’d leave on a mission in a heartbeat.”

The age shift has had a noticeable impact in Florida, says Mark Cusick, president of the Florida Tampa Mission, which covers an area north to Brooksville and south of Naples. Nearly half of the area’s 225 missionaries are women — up from 14 percent just a year ago.

In the past, most Mormon women either went straight to college or married. Now they have opportunities like never before, Cusick says.

“This sets them up for such incredible things, way beyond what a college degree can do. The experience they get in the field is off the charts,” he says. “When it’s over, they’ll have communication skills that will help them succeed at whatever they pursue.”

Though individual personalities play a role in making contact with strangers on the streets, Cusick acknowledges that women have an edge. They’re less threatening and more approachable than men, for the most part.

“Right now I have a 6-foot-7 male at 270 pounds who was a running back on his college football team,” he says. “Understandably, he might be intimidating to some people.”

Men and women have to fund their own missions, paying $400 a month toward housing and food. The rest is subsidized by the church to keep it fair. In other words, the cost of living in Florida is substantially less than Paris —and they don’t get a say in where they are assigned, or who is their partner. All missionaries are paired off, and generally get new companions and responsibilities within their designated area every six months or so.

Those two become each other’s support system for the duration of the mission; contact with their real families consists of sending one weekly email and making two calls home a year, on Mother’s Day and Christmas. Period.

In some cases, they are required to learn a new language — in six weeks, with language immersion classes. Cusick says he has only one answer as to how they can learn in such a short amount of time: “With God’s blessing.”

Although the ultimate goal is to bring new converts to the church, Cusick says you can’t measure success by the number of baptisms. Despite the huge increase in missionaries in recent years, the LDS Church saw only a 4 percent bump in the number of baptisms last year — from 272,330 in 2012 to 282,945.

“If you’re obedient to the commandments, if you develop Christ-like attributes, if you serve, teach and do good works every day,” Cusick says, “then you’re a successful missionary.”

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Madison and Heidi feel good about their tenure with the Tampa Mission. So far, one baptism. They are praying a few others will come through.

Before getting paired up last October, Madison worked in Wachula and Heidi served in Sebring and Sarasota. They both had to learn Spanish prior to coming to Florida, so they could concentrate on reaching out to Hispanics.

Female missionaries are called “sisters” (men are “elders”) and for these two, the bond has been beyond their expectations. They’re already talking about enrolling at Brigham Young University and rooming together.

They finish each other’s sentences, laugh at each other’s jokes and give each other unwavering support. They’ve adapted to living on a spare budget (“A lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches by the end of the month,” Heidi says.) and sharing a minimalist wardrobe of knee-length skirts and tailored blouses.

All the walking they do has resulted in multiple bunions and tender feet. That’s something they never could have imagined in the comfortable lives they left behind in Utah, where Heidi worked as a nanny and Madison as a hairdresser.

“You’re attached at the hip with this person every day for months,” Madison says. “We know how blessed we are that we get along so well. It’s not always that way.”

There are plenty of strict rules set forth in the Missionary Handbook. They can’t swim in the pool in their Hyde Park apartment complex. (Check the section on “Modesty.”) There’s no television, no movies, no radio and no Internet — unless it’s approved by the mission president. Only sacred music is allowed and only books authorized by the church.

“The reason we live by the rules is because we carry the Holy Spirit within us,” Heidi says. “We’re supposed to be the hands of God.”

It took some adjusting in the beginning. They helped each other conform to a rigorous schedule, which starts every day at 6:20 a.m. when the alarm goes off.

By 6:30, they’re out the door for a 30-minute run or workout in the complex’s exercise room. After a shower and a quick breakfast, they settle in for three hours of spiritual time: private prayer, a collaborative discussion on challenges and faith teachings, and a Spanish lesson in the Scriptures. Then it’s out the door again, this time with a protein bar, their calling cards and iPads loaded with the Book of Mormon and the Bible.

Their area of concentration is downtown Tampa and neighborhoods in South Tampa. Some days are better than others. Most of the time, people graciously accept their cards or even stop and chat for a bit. Madison and Heidi are approachable and friendly, and able to carry on a conversation with strangers.

Some people think they’re just plain crazy. And they can live with that. But they admit it wasn’t as easy at first.

Says Madison: “You have to just get past the fear.”

The most common question from strangers: Is it true that Mormon men can have multiple wives? (The answer is no, that practice ended in the late-1880s.) They also spend a lot of time explaining that they are not Amish.

Both young women ended relationships before starting their mission, saying it was too difficult to keep a romance alive when their full concentration needed to be on God. Now, as they get closer to the end, they are keenly aware of reentering the dating scene. They say the mission experience will give them an edge.

“Because we know how to handle rejection now,” Heidi says with a laugh. “It happens every day to us.”

Like the time they hosted an open house at the church, handing out about 100 flyers inviting people to stop by for a tour. Nobody showed up. So they cleaned the church instead.

On a good day, they make a contact with someone who shows an interest in learning more about the LDS Church. They set up a meeting, either at the person’s home or the ward (church) in South Tampa. Getting the opportunity to give a one-on-one teaching session is the pinnacle of their mission work.

They know to watch for potentially dangerous situations. Even though they feel God’s protection, they realize they have to be careful. The same rules apply to the young men in the field.

The day ends with lights out precisely at 10:30 p.m. Madison always leaves some time before bed to write in her daily journal. She’s already filled several books. Each entry has a different title, so she will be able to remember that day’s experience. “Farewell, Mrs. Watkins,” “5 New Souls” and, one of her favorites, “Ice Cream Cures.”

The schedule can be grueling, even though youth and good health is on their side. They admit they often take naps on Mondays, their one day off.

When they left on their mission, they didn’t have a guidebook on what to expect, other than church materials. That’s why two Mormon friends collaborated on a book published in February to help the growing numbers of sister missionaries. “Do Not Attempt In Heels: Mission Stories and Advice from Sisters Who’ve Been There” recaps the experiences of 22 women in the field.

There’s also a website (donotattemptinheels.com) that shares practical tips, says co-author Jennifer Knight.

“Going on a mission takes you out of yourself and puts the focus on others,” Knight says. “It cultivates the spirit like nothing else can. It’s life-altering, and it will forever change how you look at things.”

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The countdown has begun for Madison and Heidi.

They can’t wait to see their parents and siblings again, to go to the movies to watch some chick flicks, to have a “mani-pedi” at a salon. They want to do a cannonball in a pool and eat at a favorite Mexican restaurant.

They are “so ready” to donate the clothes they have worn over and over and over again. A trip to Forever 21 is in order.

If they can work it out, a Tim McGraw concert is definitely in their future.

But at the top of the list, most definitely, is a trip to the Mormon Temple in Provo. Because isn’t that what this was all about?

They look at each other and smile. They feel like the luckiest sisters in the world.

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