The Young Elders
No doubt you’ve seen the young men on bicycles around town.
I don’t mean the multi-hued riders clad in form-fitting jerseys and spandex compression shorts.
The young men to which I’m referring are much more monochromatic in their cycling attire: mostly black dress slacks, short-sleeved white button-down shirts and rail-thin ties.
The “Mormon missionary” has become a fairly common site in today’s world. And while they seem to mostly abide by the rules of the road as the rest of us whiz by in our cars or trucks, my question to you is this:
Have you ever met one of these individuals?
My wife, Nancy, was out of town on business when our doorbell rang the other evening. Since Fed-Ex deliveries are almost always announced with a hurried knock on the door, the sound of the doorbell instantly brought to mind the possibility of Girl Scout Cookies.
Sadly, those young ladies do not deliver deliciousness during the oppressive heat of summer.
Realizing this, I intended to ignore the doorbell when it rang a second, more insistent time.
Aggravated a little at this disturbance, I put down the book I was reading and made my way downstairs. As I neared the front entrance to our home, I could make out the form of two grown men, but the taffeta glass of our front door obscured any details.
When I opened the door–prepared to give someone a piece of my mind–I encountered what can only be described as cast members from a Broadway musical. Before I could fully compose myself, I muttered, “The Book of Mormon,” a remark which both young men obviously heard, but which only momentarily jolted their ear-to-ear grins.
For an awkward instant, the three of us stood in silence. Fortunately, the taller of my two visitors initiated the dialogue.
“Hello. I’m Elder Carroll and this is Elder Herrera, and we’re here to…”
I don’t remember what came next. It’s not every day that Mormon missionaries show up at your home, and I was torn between sending them away or hearing them out. Once Elder Carroll finished his introduction, I bought myself a little more time by stepping onto the porch and guardedly closing the door behind me.
“How can I help you?” I asked, oblivious to the preamble which had already been spoken.
I half hoped they might break into song, something along the lines of the catchy opening number, “Hello,” from The Book of Mormon, the Broadway sensation of a few years past.
I had taken my wife to see the show when we lived in Houston. She enjoyed it. I was blown away.
That production, the brainchild of Trey Parker and Matt Stone–also the creators of the Comedy Central animated series South Park–garnered nine Tony awards, including Best Musical, Best Book and Best Original Score.
All well deserved in my humble estimation.
The concept of the musical grew from an episode of the Parker/Stone South Park series. Fans of that show know nothing is sacred to its creators and the backstory of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was royally skewered in its South Park telling.
But, The Book of Mormon was surprisingly different.
I wasn’t expecting my wife to enjoy the show as much as she did, but save for the latter half of the number “Hasa Diga Eebosai (you’ll have to look it up),” the story was light on sarcasm and filled with a sweetness and grace to describe the plight of a pair of young LDS missionaries in Africa.
It even came with a Broadway-audience-satisfying happy ending.
And “Kenny” was not killed.
If you’re unfamiliar with “Kenny,” Google the name along with “South Park.” He meets an untimely demise at the end of almost every episode, but returns without explanation.
A somewhat Christlike figure?
The Parker/Stone telling of the Mormon story hasn’t been my only exposure to the religious movement founded by Joseph Smith in 1830 in Seneca County, New York, and based on the content of tablets purportedly given to him by an angel of God.
Just last December on a trip to Utah, Nancy and I spent an afternoon at Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City. I had been to “ground-zero” of the Mormon faith once previously, in 2003, shortly after reading Jon Krakauer’s book, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. In that work, Krakauer juxtaposed the origins of the Church of Latter Day Saints with a pair of murders committed “in the name of God” by modern-day Mormon fundamentalists.
My true introduction to the LDS faith dated back to the early 1980s. When departing Bartlesville, Oklahoma, for a new sportscasting job in Oklahoma City, a local high school basketball coach gave me a copy of the original Book of Mormon, along with his best wishes.
Casual encounters with people of the LDS faith since then have been equally endearing…and refreshing in a world where too often patience runs thin and suspicions run high.
Those flawed and tiresome instincts told me to keep the two seemingly well-mannered and clean-cut young men on my front porch not only outside my home, but also at arm’s length.
Rather than subjecting me to any “proselytizing,” Elders Carroll and Herrera–whose first names turned out to be Colby, from North Carolina, and Javier, from Peru–kept the conversation light.
They had come to the Pebble Creek neighborhood in South College Station–by bicycle–based on the recommendation of neighbors who live two doors down from us and attend the local LDS church. In fact, as I later learned, four different local “wards”–or congregations–from throughout the Brazos Valley meet in that one building.
A well-known member of the local congregation is Texas A&M University President Michael Young.
Small talk on the front porch eased my doubts some, but Elder Herrera soon cut to the chase.
“May I use your restroom, please?” he asked, a pleading look in his eyes. I had failed to notice the little dance he had been doing as we made small talk.
“Of course,” I replied. “Come on in.”
While a person can’t be “too careful” these days, shame on me for not inviting my guests into our home sooner. As it turned out, these two young men were more “the real deal” than I ever expected, even though their “song-and-dance” talents were never discussed.
Already a Christian believer and hoping not to waste their time, I sort of took over the conversation once Elder Herrera rejoined us at the bottom of the stairway. I am embarrassed to admit that I never asked them to sit down or offered any sort of refreshment.
More comfortable in their presence, I realized there was a lot I wanted to know about these two young men.
“Is your mission work mandatory?” I began.
“No,” said Elder Carroll. His raised eyebrows over thinly slit blue eyes gave him an open-if-sleepy-faced look. And no wonder. He told me he puts in between 10 and 40 miles on his bike each day. Since he’d pedaled all the way to our street on the very backside of Pebble Creek, I forgave him his lack of zeal.
And while he may have fallen short in the enthusiasm with which he answered my questions, he was obviously committed–passionately so–to his mission.
Both young men were open and honest in their answers to my questions. Based on their responses, I realized they also experience a little apprehension when they spread the “good news” of Jesus Christ with strangers.
“It’s not mandatory,” Elder Carroll said of missionary work, “but it’s sort of expected that we commit to this.”
At 20 years of age, Colby Carroll has been on the mission trail in Texas for about eight months.
The typical LDS mission assignment lasts two years.
“I didn’t go to college,” he said. “I had a job laying down floors before I began my assignment.”
The mission experience for young people like Colby and Javier is fully-funded by the missionaries themselves. Most work to save money for the task. Those funds–usually around $10,000 are placed into a shared account and missionaries draw about $500 a month for their expenses.
I had assumed that as such great ambassadors for the church their expenses were covered by the church, but that is not the case.
When I asked Elder Herrera his age, I was surprised to learn he is just 19 years old. He possessed a sort of “innocence,” due no doubt to being a missionary in a foreign country where, he admitted, he was still getting used to some of the local customs.
Javier had been involved in mission work several months longer than Elder Carroll. Bespectacled, humble, and more compactly built than his counterpart, Elder Herrera proved to be the charmer of the pair.
He reminded me favorably of actor Josh Gad, who created the role of Elder Cunningham in the original Broadway production of The Book of Mormon. Elders Cunningham and Herrera both seemed cut from much the same cloth: trusting and optimistic in their duties.
Javier told me he had committed to becoming an LDS missionary after deciding to forego the start of college. In his native country of Peru, he said, students must decide on and commit to a major field of study–“career,” he called it–before beginning college. Not yet ready to do that, he committed to his faith instead.
Previously assigned to mission work in Houston, Elder Herrera had been a member of the LDS Spanish-language team there. In College Station, he’s full-time on the English beat.
“Do you speak any Spanish?” he asked me.
“A fair question and not as much as I should,” I replied, “given that I’ve worked online with a web designer in Argentina for the last 16 or 17 years.”
That piece of information opened the door to a wide-ranging discussion–none of which included talk about faith.
I related a story about my trip to Buenos Aires in 2006, and the “fútbol” game I saw there which featured the referee who would later call the World Cup final that year.
Despite the fact Elder Herrera was only six years old at the time, he remembered that official red-carding the great French player, Zinedine Zidane, after he head-butted a pesky Italian defender in the chest during overtime of the championship match. Elder Herrera recalled that Zidane had grown tired of his opponent’s constant–and sometimes obscene–belittling of his sister.
When our conversation turned somewhat unexpectedly to poetry–I had shared with my new friends that I was a part-time writer–Elder Carroll offered that Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” was one of his favorites.
To which Elder Herrera quoted the famed opening lines from the work.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
In addition to their mission work in the local area, the elders also hold down part-time jobs: as movers for U-Haul.
“But we don’t get paid,” Elder Carroll made clear. “While doing our missionary work, we’re fully committed to acts of service.”
He said he and Elder Herrera occasionally bicycle past folks in the midst of a move.
“We’ll stop and ask to help,” he said, describing one occasion when they carried a sofa up three flights of stairs. “That’s another way we can talk to people about our faith.”
If my experience with Elders Carroll and Herrera is an accurate representation of Mormon missionary work, those who are called and serve in such a capacity are more interested in turning people to Jesus than they are attempting to convert others to their LDS faith.
Recent figures made available by the Church of Jesus Christ list 407 mission sites around the world where more than 65,000 individuals, most of whom are in their late teens and early 20s, carry the cross.
After spending a half hour getting to know me, Elder Herrera looked at his watch and told Elder Carroll it was time to go.
“Do you need a ride home?” I asked. “Home” in College Station turned out to be in an apartment complex near the in intersection of Longmire and Harvey Mitchell Parkway, abut five miles from our house. The local missionary team is comprised of as many as eight individuals, living two to an apartment. All report to a “district leader” located in Houston.
“We’ve got another call to make near here,” Elder Herrera replied. “That should take us about 45 minutes.”
“When you’re finished, come back and I’ll give you a lift home,” I promised. “You can toss your bicycles into the back of my wife’s pickup truck.”
“That would be great,” Elder Herrera said with as big a smile as the one with which he had first greeted me.
This one seemed truly genuine.
My doorbell rang again about an hour later than promised.
“I’d almost given up on you,” I told the pair. Straddling their bicycles at the bottom of the steps leading to our front door, the two were considerably less energetic than when they had first arrived earlier in the evening.
I guessed they had ridden back to our house as fast as possible so as not to miss their ride.
“The pickup is in the driveway. I’ll be right back. Do either of you want some water?”
“Yes, sir!” Elder Carroll proclaimed.
On the way to their apartment, I asked if they always travel by bike.
“Sometimes members of the local congregation will offer to help by getting us where we need to go in.a car,” Elder Herrera replied.
“Has a stranger ever offered you a ride, like this?” I thought to ask.
“No, sir,” Javier said. “Not in the whole time I’ve been doing this. Elder Carroll, what about you?”
“This is the first time for me, too” he said appreciatively from the back seat of the truck.
We rode in silence for a while and then Elder Herrera asked another question.
“I saw you had dogs in your backyard. How many do you have?”
“We have three.”
“I had a dog before I left Peru,” he said. “She was 16 years (old) at the time. My parents always sent me pictures of her…until they stopped doing that.”
I knew where the story was headed.
“For about six months I was afraid to ask them why they had quit sending pictures and then they finally told me that she had died.
“I didn’t get to tell her goodbye.”
As they unloaded their bicycles in the parking lot of their apartment complex, I told the elders how much I had enjoyed meeting them.
“You know, there’s a lot wrong with this world today,” I said. “I want to thank you two for being dedicated, respectful, and Godly beacons of goodness on a sometimes troubled landscape.
“I was thinking, maybe I could write a story about you and what you’re doing here, both for your church as well as yourselves. Do you think that might help you?
“I think it would,” they both said.
“Do you need to ask for permission for me to do that?”
“Yes,” Elder Herrera said. “We’ll talk to our team leader tonight and get back with.you.”
“That sounds good,” I said.
The smile on my face as I drove back home was genuine, and I look forward to the next unexpected ring of the doorbell.
If it’s not Girl Scouts selling cookies, maybe it will be my two new friends.