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FAR FROM UTAH, MORMONS BRING THEIR FAITH HOME TO VERMONT

MARK E. RONDEAU, Staff Writer

Editor's note: Let Us Pray is an occassional series profiling local religious communities. This is the second of a three-part series about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Bennington area and in Vermont.
 
From the Bennington Banner, Saturday, June 28, 2008
 
BENNINGTON —Imagine putting on distinctively formal clothes, traveling to a place thousands of miles away you've never seen before and knocking on strangers' doors to tell them about your faith.

This is part of what Mormon missionaries do around the world in 349 mission territories. Such efforts have helped increase the size of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the church is known formally, from 2 million in 1963 to 13 million today.

"When you first start out, like, you're scared to death," said Elder James Fiala, 19, from Aurora, Colo., who was a missionary in Bennington earlier this year. "Even the first, like, three of four months, I hated it."

However, he grew into it after a while: "I kind of enjoy it now. You just get used to talking to people and helping them."

Said Elder Jake Cook, also 19, who is from Salt Lake City, Utah: "It's tough, it's scary, but it's fun," he said, noting that sometimes people slam doors on them. "It's hard work, but it's rewarding."

The Banner interviewed and spent time with Cook and Fiala during their time as missionaries in Bennington. The missionaries live, work and travel in pairs. They live in a house near the Bennington Recreation Center, and attend Sunday services at the LDS church on Houghton Lane. The Mormon missionaries are part of the New York-Utica mission. The Bennington area is the only part of this mission in Vermont.

Missionaries are rotated periodically within their territory. Before being posted in Bennington, Fiala had served in Albany and Saratoga in New York. Bennington is Cook's first posting.

The apostles decide

Before they were sent out, both went to the missionary training center in Provo, Utah, for three weeks. This is the only training center in the U.S. Someone learning a language to go overseas would be at a training center for eight to 12 weeks, Cook said. Though they can state their preferences, missionaries do not choose where they will go on mission — church officials in Salt Lake City do.

"On every Thursday, they have two of the apostles of the church go through and pray over every single missionary application, and then the apostles will decide where we go," Fiala said.

"It's all done by inspiration," Cook said.

Young men are expected to go on a mission. Young single women in pairs and older married couples can go on missions, also. All missionaries are required to provide beforehand the money they need to finance their mission.

The area the Bennington missionaries cover runs from Pownal to the south up to Danby and Londonderry in the north and west to Hoosick Falls, N.Y.

They teach both people who have expressed an interest in Mormonism to them and those they have inherited from previous missionaries. They also volunteer two days a week at the Salvation Army store on South Street in Bennington, for their four hours per week of planned service. Besides being of service, part of the idea of working at the store is to be visible to the public and to help dispel the idea that they're religious fanatics: "People think we're not normal," Fiala said.

The missionaries' formal dress, their religion and how they live it in public may set them apart, but their backgrounds are not all that different from many other American 19-year-olds. Fiala has lived in Virginia and attended Brigham Young University for a year; he plans to major in computer science when he returns to school. Most of his extended family is Mormon.

No time for hobbies

James' father served a mission when he was 19, too, in Michigan. He has three siblings; his older sister will be going on mission in Florida in July. Though missionaries have no time for hobbies, back home he likes snowboarding, hanging out with friends and is a big video gamer: "Whatever any other 18-year-old kid would be doing."

Cook is from Salt Lake City. He attended the University of Utah for a semester and played football for the college, as a running back. He speaks with a bit of a western drawl and plans on becoming a dentist. His mom was born and raised in the church; his father converted to the church at age 12 or 13. Cook has four siblings, a brother and three sisters.

Back home, in addition to football, he likes soccer, and water and snow skiing. "Sports is pretty much what I did," he said. "I'd think and breathe sports."

At the end of May, the church rotated Fiala out of Bennington and sent him to Elmira, N.Y. His replacement is Gary Jones, from Grantsville, Utah. Also 19, he attended a year of school at Brigham Young and is interested in environmental science. This is his first missionary posting.

Both of Jones' parents had served as missionaries, his father in Taiwan and his mother in Bogata, Colombia. Jones has no brothers and sisters. Back home he likes cross country running and hanging out with friends.

An opportunity

Ron Murphy, president of the Mormon branch that meets in Bennington, said that missionaries, usually two men, are generally in town year round: "It's quite an opportunity for the young men.

"Some are absolutely superlative, and others are super," he said of the missionaries, with a laugh. "They just really are exemplary people."

The Bennington LDS church on Houghton Lane was first built in 1985. It has about 160 members drawn from a wide area, stretching north of Dorset and west to around Schaghticoke, N.Y. Two families from Massachusetts also attend the church. The branch currently has a missionary of its own, Elder Loren Adam Barrett, serving in Alaska.

Non-Mormons appreciate the missionaries, too. At the Salvation Army store one morning, the missionaries were helping arrange and price the clothing in racks, doing a little of everything in the store but run the cash register. "Nothing too exciting happens here," said Fiala. "We're just trying to help out."

Said Cook, "We're here to serve people, to reach out to people and to help them."

Shanon Chaplain, manager of the Salvation Army store, said the missionaries had been volunteering at the store for about three months.

"They get a little confused on sorting the clothes, but we help them out," she said, laughing. "They do a really good job, actually, and we enjoy having them." The customers also seem to enjoy having them around, she said.

Cook took a break from the racks to run through their schedule as missionaries. They wake up at 6:30 a.m. every morning. Between then and 8 a.m. they exercise, wash up, eat breakfast and get dressed. At 8 a.m. they read alone for an hour, studying the Scriptures, a missionary manual called "Preach My Gospel" and other missionary-related literature. From 9 to 10 a.m. they have companionship study, in which they study together and tell each other what they learned in personal study.

From 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. they "proselyte" or "tract" — that is, try to win converts — going door to door. They don't return to their quarters for lunch at noon because people might be home then.

After their work one morning at the store, this reporter followed their gray Malibu mission car — they aren't allowed to take passengers — to a quiet residential street on the east side of Bennington.

Out of the trunk they took missionary supplies, including booklets and business cards. The set of cards they hand out feature photos of young adults of different races next to the words: "The truth about life's great questions is now restored."

The cards are part of a pilot media program being tried out in only three mission territories. The first house they stop at, no on appears to be home, so they leave one of the cards stuck between the door and the door frame.

A woman in her 70s or 80s answers the door at the next house. Fiala asks if she has ever known any Mormons. She replies that she is a staunch Catholic, but "I respect the Mormons, I really do."

Would she like to know how families can be together forever? they ask her.

"I believe like you guys do," she says, adding that her husband has recently died. "I think I have a lot of the beliefs you do. ...I'm sad. I'm trying to go forward with my life."

"I hope you're good friends now," she says to the two young men. James says they believe that instead of "till death do us part," through temple rites people can be with their families together for eternity.

She says she will take a pamphlet. "I will read it," she says. "I really will." She had painted a picture of her husband going to heaven, and invited the young men into her home to see it. The two missionaries went inside to look at the painting and prayed with her. The reporter did not accompany them.

Back outside, two houses down, an elderly man wearing a hat with the word Maine on it answers the porch door and comes outside.

"We're sharing the truth of Jesus Christ," Cook says. They tell the man that 2000 years ago, Christ established a church, but it became corrupted. Their church offers the truth restored. The man has been involved in one way or another with several different denominations during his life. His daughter is a Seventh Day Adventist.

"I'm not going to any church," he says. "(But) I haven't lost my faith."

Birds chirp in the trees. The sky is partly cloudy. The lawn is a bit long, and the blades lean over in a cool breeze. "Aren't you guys cold?" the man asks the missionaries, wearing their standard short-sleeved white dress shirts. They aren't.

They ask if he's from Maine. No, he just has a lot of different hats.

For the third time, Fiala offers to help the man with anything he needs: "Generally, if you need help around the house, give us a call."

Careful track

Cook keeps careful track of their contacts in what is called an area book. After proselyting, they usually go home from about 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. to take a break, have lunch and prepare for evening activities.

They go back out from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. to teach lessons about the faith, both to people they have brought into the church and those others have converted. They follow their schedule pretty carefully, but can come in and eat when they want to.

Still, their lives as missionaries are rather restricted. They have a limit on how many miles they can put on the car. They are also limited in how often they can talk to their families, and they don't get breaks to return home during their two-year commitment.

"We're out here for two years pretty much. We get to talk to them twice a year, one on Mother's Day and one on Christmas," Cook said. "We get to talk to them on the phone, (and) we get to e-mail them once a week. But we only get to talk to them, hear their voices, twice a year."

This way they stay focused on their work; otherwise they would get homesick, Fiala said.

Fiala and Cook agreed that one of the worst parts of being a missionary is getting up at 6:30 a.m. "You do it every morning but it doesn't get any easier," Fiala said with a laugh.

Splinter group

They also have to deal with people's misconceptions. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has nothing to do with the splinter group, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has been much in the news lately. Polygamy, which members of the FLDS practice, was abandoned by the LDS in 1890, under pressure from the federal government. But the missionaries, and other LDS members, find themselves having to field questions about the FLDS. "They're definitely a break-off of our church," Fiala said. "We're not affiliated with them at all."

What's the best part about being a missionary?

"You see a lot of trials, and you get some really bad days. But personally, in my tenure as a missionary I've been able to witness a lot of change for the better in people's lives," Fiala said. "Like it's just amazing seeing the influence of Jesus Christ ... when people really turn to the Savior. There's nothing that's brought me more joy than seeing that change in someone else. Just being God's tool for that, it's really neat."

Cook said his favorite part of being a missionary is serving others and changing people's lives. "A lot of people think out there (that) we're trying to convert them to the church," he said. "Obviously we are, but we're also out here to help people, to improve their lives any way we can, to give them service."
 
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Store Manager Shanon Chaplain works with Elder James Fiala at the Salvation Army store in Bennington.

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Elder Jake Cook works in the clothing racks at the store.

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Cook and Fiala get ready to "proselyte" with a reporter in tow. They keep mission materials in the trunk. Fiala is taking some Mormon business cards out of a box.

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Some examples of the cards they use.

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