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Missionary Travel -- a Religious Calling

We travel for many reasons, business, relaxation, escape and adventure. But for young men and women, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, travel is a religious calling. Nearly 60, 000 of them are now journeying to 132 countries to try and convert people to their faith. The Open Road's Hal Cannon recently visited the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah where these young people prepare for the big unknown.

Missionary Travel -- a Religious Calling
By Hal Cannon

Listen with RealAudio: Missionary Travel

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: In my carry-on I have my scriptures, a book of Mormon in case I meet someone on the airplane. I can hand him out a book of Mormon and tell him some passages to read.

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.

Telford: I've never been on a plane...there was an old crop duster sitting on the of a field once that I climbed up into, but that's as close as I've come to a plane.

Hal: So what do you think about going on a plane today?

Telford: I can't want to get on the plane.

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.

Hal: Can I see your picture?

Girl 1: No you can't...no, no, no, they're both equally bad.

Girl 2: That's my visa picture.

Hal: That's nice.

Girl 2: No it's not!

Hal: You look very happy.

Girl 2: I am very happy.

Hal: Now can you say your name and where you're going?

Girl 2: I'm Sister Rachel Dale and I'm going to the Brazil Haverto region.

. . . I'm Elder James Badger and I'm going to the Cambodia Phnom Penh mission.

. . . I'm Sister Biverston and I'm going to the Russian Samara Mission.

. . . I'm Elder Kutweiler . . . Perth Australia . . . Australia Rocks.

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.

Salt Lake City skyline
Salt Lake City
Ziem: That's something we believe in the spirit world. Before were born were in the spirit world, we just have our spirits. We had friends up in the spirit world and we promised our best friends that we would come down with the gospel. It's said those who give us our callings are inspired to direct us to where those friends are at so we can go find them.

Hal: Do you feel prepared?

Ziem: No, it's going to take a lot of language training, but with the Lord it's all possible.

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.

Mother: This is a sad and happy day all at the same time. I'm really excited. He gets to go to share the beliefs of our church with the people of Brazil and I feel real heartbroken because he'll be gone for two years and it's really hard.

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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