Why the Mormon Missionaries Keep Knocking

By: Jacob Cutler //

They live in your country, your city, your neighborhood. They try to speak your languages and observe your customs. They ride bikes in dark suits or conservative skirts and blouses. They stop you in the streets, in the park, or in the grocery store even if you are making it clear that you have no interest in talking to them.

They knock on your door, wake up the baby, interrupt dinner, and disrupt the only sliver of time you have managed to dedicate to unwinding. They always—always—just want to share their message about Jesus. And they all say this with that toothy smile that someone, somewhere, must have taught them because they all have it. They are door-to-door salesmen of their salvation, in all the most unpleasant ways.

You might say they’re obnoxious, intrusive, insensitive, and misguided. Why can’t they mind their own business and stop talking to strangers about personal things? Don’t they know that religion, like politics, is off limits, especially while you’re waiting in line at the post office? Can’t they see that you already have beliefs that matter to you in deep and lasting ways? Shouldn’t they understand that even if you wouldn’t mind the message, or might even enjoy the message, right now really isn’t a good time?

Maybe they should. In fact, they probably should. It’s tricky to generalize but within the over 80,000 of them that are out there I think it’s safe to say that there is room for more understanding, more thinking, more tact.

But I also don’t think that Mormon missionaries are oblivious, I don’t think most are naive. They aren’t robots permanently set to the “preach” setting. In my experience, they understand quite a lot.

They probably realize, for example, that their door-knocking is excessive when they start carrying a golfball or domino to save their bruised knuckles. They likely see that they’re out of place in your neighborhood as soon as they figure out that the six weeks of language training they might have received in their Missionary Training Center didn’t account for the syrupy accent or rapid pace of your conversation. And they almost certainly realize it again when they sit down to their first meal as a missionary and they aren’t even sure how to approach the plate because they’ve never seen Banku, Menudo or Boshintang.

They know you aren’t asking for a conversation while you’re waiting for the bus. They see the signs, the body language, the refusal to look in their direction. They know you don’t want to talk to them because a lot of the time they don’t really want to talk to you either. You’re just as much a stranger to them as they are to you and they’ve already been talking to strangers all day, bothering them politely with impolite questions about religion. And maybe the last one of you, an old Italian-American man or mid-thirties Spanish intellectual perhaps, yelled so squarely in their faces that they are wondering if anyone is going to listen at all today and if it wouldn’t be best to head back to the apartment. They understand this. But they try to talk to you anyway.

They do it despite the awkwardness that inevitably comes with hundreds of forced conversations. They do it despite a fear that only rarely comes from something so dramatic as a gun to the face but fear that also never really goes away completely, even by the end of their 18-24 months. They do it and they do it with that toothy smile. And no, the smile wasn’t taught to them, not formally at least. It is a smile that is usually sincere, usually real. But it is a smile that certainly isn’t permanent because a mission isn’t all smiles for the missionary.

Mission Pic 4

They are just kids after all—late teens, early twenties—and like most teenagers, they probably just emerged from being the center of the universe. They often feel like losing the tie and taking a few days off. They miss dating and get tired of wearing skirts and nylons every single day. They would love to talk with their families more often than the forty-minute phone call they’re allowed on Christmas and Mother’s Day. They wonder what’s playing at the movie theatre, who’s winning the Super Bowl, or what songs are filling the Billboard Top 50. And sometimes they worry, while standing on your doorstep, that it won’t be a smile that first reaches their face because even though they volunteered to come here, they didn’t know that tears would so regularly be pushing at the corners of their eyes.

Tears because they miss home, or because learning a new language on the run is hard, or because two years is so long when you feel so alone. Tears because they’re with a companion that they didn’t pick who is lazy or ornery or strange to them because companions come from every corner of the globe. Tears because they work so hard but can often wonder if it is making any difference.  And tears, big salty serious ones, that may not have come on your doorstep but instead come when all of these things hit them at the same time while they’re brushing their teeth, tears that bleed into the white foamy mix of toothpaste and saliva that they can’t stop from dribbling down their chin, tears amplified by the embarrassment of being unable to compose themselves even though they know this companion that they just met (who’s not really that bad and is being very gracious despite the mess of it all) is probably feeling really awkward at the sink next to them.

Mission Pic 5

And then other tears come because they care about you, even if you are strangers and they don’t understand you completely. You seem to represent every idea, every background, every look and every sound on the planet and that can get confusing. You are sometimes friendly, sometimes annoyed, or sometimes indifferent, and the latter is by far the most difficult for them. You might be strangers but many of you have problems that are real and deep and dark and they want to help but their type of help can’t be given unless you want it and oftentimes you don’t want it and that’s frustrating to them. But they share their message, and with that smile, because you matter to them and that fact also brings a joy that is every bit as real as the tears. This joy comes because they’ve never done anything so rewarding and so fulfilling and so exciting and so very selfless.

So yes, they might cry, but they laugh too. They laugh because you are fantastic, interesting, inspiring, and perplexing people and they get to meet you all day long. They laugh because sometimes you cease to be strangers and instead become friends so close and so valued that they’ll never forget you after they finish their mission and go home. And they laugh because some cities, say Chicago, have streets covered in ice during the winter and it’s funny when their companion, who might be a loud pleasant athletic kid from L.A., comes across some particularly slippery ice in a very busy area of the city and happens to go down, all 6’7’’ of him flailing with outstretched arms. And it is even funnier when, after realizing that a dozen people are watching him lie on the ground moaning melodramatically, he inexplicably attempts to save face by getting to his feet and moonwalking across that same patch of ice.

They laugh and cry and ride bikes and knock on doors. None of them are perfect and some are better than others. Some really can be obnoxious, intrusive, insensitive, and misguided. Even the good ones can be that way occasionally. And that’s too bad. It isn’t okay. But they won’t stop sharing their message even though they’re not perfect at it. They’ll keep up with all of it—the ties, tights, tears, and toothpaste down the chin, the fact that they bother you and sometimes offend you—all the way up to the end of this big crazy world because they believe that what they are bringing to you is at least a little more happiness and a little more hope.

// Jacob is a writer and filmmaker based in Utah. He served in the Illinois Chicago Mission from 2005 to 2007. His work has been published by, or is forthcoming in, Esquire, Iron Horse Literary Review, Epiphany and others. 

22 comments

  • This is why I always like to say hello to them no matter where they are at. It’s hard to strike up those sensitive conversations, so I approach them just to make sure they are having a better day. Great read!

  • May 6, 2014 at 1:27 pm // Reply

    I didn’t serve a mission, so I’ve always wondered what it’s *really* like out there. I’ve read countless missionary emails and blogs. I’ve listened to homecoming talks. I’ve gone teaching with those serving in my ward at a time convenient for me, for maybe an hour or two. Then I go home and do Ashley things. I like being involved in these small ways, but they have left me at square one: I don’t really have a clue. This article, however, captures my heart in a way nothing missionary related ever has, and I feel an empathy for Mormon missionaries that I desperately need to experience as a member and someone wanting to help them and work with them. Thank you for writing this, Jacob. One of my favorite Normons posts of all time.

  • Wow Jake. Wow. I’m sitting by the pool in front of a bunch of strangers trying to keep the tears from spilling. I’m so glad Levi was able to serve with you and all the other companions, and the people of Chicago. Missionaries are the best. You are a very talented writer and can’t wait to see you sometime in the future!

  • Stellar, Jacob! Our son is currently serving in Chicago (Spanish), and he’s having the time of his life. The difficult time of his life. But he’s happy, working hard and growing. Thank you, friend, thank you.

    • My daughter returned from the Chicago mission, Spanish speaking, last August. She loved it there. She spent almost half her mission in the city.

  • I served in Canada. And this is so true. I completely get the breaking dien while brushing your teeth thing. Did that many many times.
    I love this post. It’s perfect and beautiful.

  • That was fantastic. It summed up my own missionary experience far better than I have ever been able to. Great great great!

  • May 8, 2014 at 12:17 pm // Reply

    Well done Norman-guy. I’m approaching old-guy missionary age (>60 years) and am looking forward to heading out…somewhere.

  • The LDS missionaries could better spend their mission helping people. Serve the homeless at shelters, care for children at daycares, help in the inner cities, there is no end of people who need help and the Lord.
    Currently, they are not used appropriately or to their potential.

    • I don’t know how every mission is, but I think the DO spend a great deal of time doing exactly this. My husband served the Vietnamese people in Philadelphia many years ago… and he almost knew more medical terms than Gospel terms, because he spent so much time volunteering in the hospitals and doctor’s offices translating. That’s just one example of the many things he did to serve the Vietnamese people there. It wasn’t even remotely all about knocking on the doors. I don’t know if you didn’t serve a mission, or if your mission was very different from the missions of the Elders and Sisters I know who have served, but I think your suggestion is actually a very good description of what LDS missionaries actually do.

      • His mission must have been some kind of exception then because my mission had a white-handbook-mandated 4 hour max of service per week. And since 4 hours was the max, we often didn’t reach 4 hours. Considering a week of proselyting was 70 hours, that seems like a pretty small amount of time.

    • My daughter is serving a mission in Louisiana and they are spending half their week in service to others. They have cleaned out old cemeteries, helped people paint, move, etc. Their mission guidelines have them finding ways to serve others in their community 30-35 hours a week. She has even been asked to play the organ at the Catholic mass. Service is a very important component in her mission!

    • What makes you say that “they are not used appropriately or to their potential”? They serve just about everywhere: hospitals, hospice, nursing homes just to name a few that I have witnessed personally. I don’t understand where you got the idea that they are not service oriented. Their entire missions are all about service. As a convert through tracting, I am more grateful than I can ever express with words for the difference their service has made in my life; which, by the way, is an endless service, since my ancestors benefit as well as my posterity.

    • The main purpose of full-time missionaries is to preach the Gospel. Yes, they do get to serve hands-on often enough, as they should, but that’s not their primary purpose. It’s important to serve others and help lift their temporal burdens, but the highest priority in the long-run is to fortify each other in spiritual matters. The Church does plenty of temporal and spiritual service, but as I said before, the primary purpose of full-time missionaries is to teach others about Christ and His restored Gospel.

  • The other day I saw a comment on Twitter “can someone please tell the mormon missionaries to stop knocking on my door and stop bothering me! They are so annoying”…
    I am a returned missionary and my heart got broken when reading that, yes because I know of all the effort, sacrifice and love the missionaries put on their work but most of all because people don’t realize that probably they will never get someone to care so much about them like the missionaries do, they will never have someone pray so much for them, and study for them, probably fast for them, it just makes me so sad that people rejects love and charity in such a way…
    I loved your post! Thanks for sharing it :)

  • Thank you for this. It made me cry. I will never turn away another missionary again. I might not have time to talk, but…well this has changed my perspective completely. I’m sure everyone’s missions are different and yes some of them are better than others. But you get what you give I guess – as with anything in life. Thanks again, this warmed my heart.

  • I support the mission of our missionaries whether that translates into 70 hour weeks proselytizing or 70 hours a week in service or a combination thereof. Very nice article

  • June 12, 2014 at 1:24 pm // Reply

    As an imperfect being with sociophobic tendencies, I often find myself avoiding contact with the missionaries, which is sad because as a convert brought to the truth through the tracting of a couple of missionaries, I will always have a special place in my heart for every single one of them. I shed a few tears as I read this article for the fact that most of them will never know how much I love them and appreciate the time they put in for us, the human family. What a beautiful article!

  • Many years ago, I met a Mormon lady who talked with me for a whole afternoon about why she converted. Afterwards, she dropped off a Book of Mormon in my mailbox and sent the missionaries. I was not impressed at first. I had a Mark Twain style reaction to the Book. When the missionaries arrived and started in with their little flip charts, I almost burst out laughing. I argued for an hour. One of them came back a few days later with a different companion, a tall oriental fellow who watched us argue for another hour and then said simply, “I can see that our approach does not work with you, why don’t you just come to our ward and see what it’s like.” So I did. I can still remember the talk that was given that day, by a guy who had been about to go on a mission when he was badly burned in a car accident and took 5 years to recover. However, I was intimidated by all the smiling faces and was sure that if I stuck around I’d get sucked right in. So I told the missionaries, “Don’t call me, I’ll call you.”

    Four years later, by then married to a divorced ex-Mormon who admitted she wanted to go back to the Church after her 16-year-old daughter, whom I had adopted along with her two brothers, decided that she wanted to go back, I was now willing to listen and it only took a week to decide to join the Church.

    I dug out that Book of Mormon and found the telephone number of the lady who had given it to me and invited her to my baptism. Five years later she and I were singing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

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