Missionary Travel -- a Religious Calling
It's 10 o'clock in the morning and Tyler Telford is packing for the trip of his life...but his shoulder bag is not filled with what you'd expect.
Telford has recently been ordained a Mormon elder, the honored title for young men deemed worthy to preach the gospel. These two year missions are serious business for Mormons who believe it is imperative that every human being on earth has a chance to hear the gospel.
Elder Telford has saved money most of his life to pay for his mission, working on his family's farm in rural Idaho. The demands of a herd of dairy and beef cattle, and the cultivation of sugar beets and potatoes has kept him on the farm.
Today Elder Telford will board a plane for São Paolo. He is slated to proselytize in the impoverished neighborhoods of northern Brazil. For the past 5 weeks, he has been preparing for his trip here at the Missionary Training Center. He has been assigned a companion, a constant companion, Elder James Zeim. They bunk in a dormitory wing with other missionaries headed for Brazil. The days have been long...starting at 6:00 AM and ending late in the evening... crammed with spiritual training, prayer, and a crash course in Portuguese.
They're packed and ready and it's time to drop off the luggage for the bus ride to the airport. Telford is traveling relatively light with a small suitcase and garment bag. Besides scriptures, spiritual cassettes and a camera he packs a handful of shirts and slacks and 2 pairs of shoes.
There are 3500 young people training here...a sea of clean-cut boys in white shirts, dark ties and slacks, the official attire of Mormon missionaries. Groups of girls move quietly down the halls in modest dresses. They all wear name tags greeting people in the language of their destination. A playful youthfulness melds with a mood of serious purpose here, the dawning of adulthood.
Before the bus ride we stop at the travel office. Elders and sisters eagerly line-up for their passports, visas and plane tickets.
With papers in hand, Elders Telford and Zeim board a bus that will take them to the airport in Salt Lake City. The bus is packed with young men and women all traveling to Brazil today. Spirits are high.
The missionaries sing a Mormon hymn in Portuguese, "Called to Serve." The chorus goes, "Onward, ever onward, as we glory in his name. forward, pressing forward as a triumph song we sing." It's a battle call, this hymn, a call that can't be denied. Elder Ziem believes his mission was pre-ordained.
There's some anxiety in Elder Ziem's voice. These missionaries have to rely on faith for they've all heard stories about the adversity they will face. As strangers in a strange land they know they'll often encounter the hostility of those who resent being preached to.
We're now at the Salt Lake City airport where Elder Telford is met by his family. His parents have driven 200 miles from their farm. Seven of his nine sisters and brothers encircle him.
This month at the Training Center has been Elder Telford's first time away from family and home. He now has a couple hours to visit and say his good-bye's. Elder Telford's mother has been through this before with two other sons. It doesn't make it any easier.
There are other families here with their missionaries awkwardly huddled around their sons and daughters. Busy travelers hurry past to gates further along the concourse. The talk is generally mundane. What can you say? Two friends have planned gag gifts for their missionary -- a toy scuba diver, "Remember, no swimming on your mission Elder," then a stuffed bear that says, "At least you'll have one thing to hug over the next two years."
The magnitude of his trip has finally hit Tyler. His face clouds red with unbearable emotion. Tears cascade down his face. He attempts to fling them away so he can get one last glimpse of his loved ones.
He hugs each friend, brother and sister, saving his last good-bye for Mom and Dad.
I have to look down, the emotion is contagious. I focus on a droplet of tear glistening on the hard tile floor. This is a scene which has been played over an over for a hundred-fifty years of Mormonism, a biblical rite of passage.
Telford is the final person to board the plane. The next time his parents will see Tyler Telford, he will be a man.
From the Open Road, I'm Hal Cannon for The Savvy Traveler.
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