In the field, missionary folklore shapes the culture. William Wilson and John B. Harris have collected more than 3,500 narratives that initiate the elders into the system. They also serve as an escape valve, letting missionaries live vicariously through bold, brash stories. Another purpose, according to Wilson, is that these stories tell the missionaries that God and Satan are intimately involved in their lives. In these outrageous, but simplistic, accounts, the wicked are punished and the righteous rewarded. One story illustrates the seriousness of God's priesthood. "Two missionaries were messing around, and they decided to confer the priesthood on a dog which they saw on the street. Before they could complete the ordinance, a bolt of lightning came and struck the dog and the two elders, and it zapped them." The moral: Don't mess with sacred matters. Another folk narrative speaks to the special protection that missionaries feel and call on.
[This] guy was on a mission in one of the wilder type towns like New York. And they had a lot of gangs and stuff, and they were in a bad part of town, and they were in teaching a family, and when they came out there was a gang waiting to beat up these missionaries. And the missionaries got really scared and ran to the car and got in it. And they started to start the car, and it wouldn't start, and they tried to start the car [again], and it wouldn't start. Meanwhile, the guys with the chains and the knives are starting to get closer and closer to the car, so they get really scared. And the one guy says, 'Well, let's have a prayer.' So they said a prayer and turned on the ignition, and sure enough, the car started up and they took off, and they got about five or ten miles away or so-anyway they decided to find why the car wouldn't start. And they got out and they opened the hood, and there 's no battery.
Moral: Prayer makes anything possible.
Observers are unnerved by missionaries, so different from regular nineteen-year-olds. The missionary corps and the Church itself strike them as exhibiting dangerous indoctrination and thought control. Social scientists Gordon and Gary Shepherd describe the military mindset of missionary religions. Preparing for a mission requires sacrifices to supply the troops, mobilizing the society's resources and personnel. Individual interests are subordinated to a transcendent cause. Solidarity requires stereotyping the virtues and objectives of one 's own noble society against an enemy. Individual dissent is stifled, discipline and orthodoxy encouraged, information is controlled, and communication is primarily exhortatory. People are expected to suppress misgivings and express support for the established policies. Successful missionary religions, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sustain a crusade mentality.
This crusade mentality is magnified in missionary training where the troops are disciplined, interviewed, evaluated, and indoctrinated. In order to recruit more than 20,000 new missionaries each year, the Church is permanently mobilized. The Church must generate and sustain a strong collective commitment to the "sacred cause of expanding God's Kingdom on earth from one generation to the next." The Shepherds think that it is less remarkable that the Church loses some of its youth every generation, as does every religion, than "the extent to which the LDS Church succeeds in capturing and holding young people 's loyalties in a pluralistic environment." Missionary service is the Church's single most important practice for maintaining the continuity of the society, especially for young males. Children are trained with "anticipatory socialization," leading toward the experience of separation, transition, and experience as well as hardship and deprivation; missions have their own vocabulary, mythology, and behavior. A returned missionary is reincorporated with new rights and responsibilities. "The missionary cause of the LDS Church simultaneously inspires and channels the idealism of its youth while deflecting youthful alienation and rebellion away from the religious strictures of Mormon society."
Young women get less encouragement to serve missions. "Women should not feel obligated or be urged unduly to serve full-time missions," said the 1999 General Handbook of Instructions. Female missionaries are supervised by the males and, lacking priesthood, are unable to baptize the converts they teach. Although serving a mission may rein force the acceptance of a male priesthood hierarchy, female missionaries, often possessing more religious zeal than the men, are liberated by their demanding duties, developing new skills and confidence and finding a new sisterhood. Young women, less threatening than a pair of strange males, are often more effective proselytizers than the elders. In 1997, when Church President Gordon B. Hinckley told young women that they were not obligated to serve missions, he admitted that the sisters are more often invited into homes than elders. Many marry fellow missionaries, becoming their older and more equal wives.
Although most missionaries perform effectively and complete assignments, some become disillusioned and demoralized. Less enthusiastic elders may read anti-Mormon literature. Others have accidents or get sick. About 2 percent come home early. Most of those who return early for physical reasons return to finish their assignments. About a fifth of those with mental health concerns go back to the mission field, and many of them come home again without completing their assignments. Church leaders provide health counseling for early returnees and their families. About 10 percent of those who complete their missions are later disaffected.
Young missionaries seem a strange breed to newspaper reporters who follow them around and interview them. Helen Ubinas of the Hartford (CT) Courant spent a day with the elders. She said they worked hard and maintained a good attitude through plenty of rejection. They told her of their homesickness, the rules they live under, and their budgets of $147 a month; when out of cash, they survive on macaroni and cheese, called "yellow death." Ubinas notes their happiness when a door opens and people listen. "It's awesome. Just awesome." Ubinas concludes that they are "young men of God" but also young men.
Genevieve Roja, of San Jose, California, spent a day with two of the lady missionaries, Sister Hatley, twenty-two, a BYU mechanical engineering student from Copper Creek, Alaska, soon to go home, and her "green" companion, Sister Ashton, a nursing student from Salt Lake City. Roja was "flabbergasted by their dedication, their ability to persist even when stubborn, godless mules kicked the door in their face." She was surprised they could walk twenty miles a day in dress shoes. They are stared at and rejected. Roja was impressed by their maturity.