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Missionaries heed Utah call

Church searches for new converts close to home

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SALT LAKE CITY — At first, Royson L. Gonzalez, a Mormon missionary born in Guatemala, thought someone at church headquarters must have made a typographic error when he got the letter at his home in Boston two years ago telling him where his missionary assignment would be. He could have been sent to Europe, Africa or Latin America to proselytize for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But the letter said he would be working to convert people right here, in the church's historic back yard.

It turned out there was no error. Gonzalez became one of more than 700 young people working as Mormon missionaries for the church in Utah, an all-time high.

"People would ask me, 'Why don't you move to Utah, if you're a Mormon?' " recalled Gonzalez, who said he had no religious affiliation until being converted by missionaries in Boston. Now, he said, "I know I'm called here from God to serve the Gospel."

What is happening in Utah is the result of two trends. On one hand, the church's 60,000 missionaries have been so successful that slightly more than half the world's Mormons now live outside the United States and only 15 percent live in Utah. At the same time, the state's population has boomed — by nearly one-third in the 1990s — with many non-Mormons moving here to take advantage of new jobs, a slower pace of life and easy access to the ski slopes.

To reach out to the 30 percent of Utah residents who are not Mormons, the church calls on young men and women from outside the state and even from overseas. The church began placing missionaries here in 1975, but the ranks have doubled in the past dozen years.

"There's a mass exodus out of California," said James A. Stephens, president of the church's Salt Lake City South Mission. "They are wanting to tap into this lifestyle. It is a very healthy drawing card."

Stephens, whose mission district covers Salt Lake City's southern suburbs, oversees a total of 180 missionaries, who work in pairs called "companionships."

They seek converts by knocking on people's doors; following a member's suggestion to call on a neighbor or relative or by "friendshipping," meeting with prospective converts who have been invited to a friend's or neighbor's home. Not surprisingly, that last approach is by far the most effective.

Last year, one of Stephens' missionaries, Elder Vitorino da Silva — a Brazilian who had been converted in his own country a decade ago — baptized Umadevi Samineni and her family, natives of India who had been living in Connecticut until they moved to Utah. At the company where her husband works, a fellow worker told them about the church, then arranged for a visit by missionaries, Samineni said. "We found it comfortable," she said of the church. "They have very good principles."

Builders who are Mormons let Stephens know when housing developments go in, so he can direct missionaries to new arrivals. When he goes out to speak at church meetings, people come up afterward and tell him about new neighbors.

The two mission districts in the Salt Lake Valley each baptize an average of 1,800 people each year, some of whom are adolescent children of Mormons who have fallen away from the church. But Stephens estimated that each missionary may reach an average of 25 non-Mormons a week.

Reaction to the proselytizing varies.

The Rev. Jeffrey Nellermoe, a Lutheran pastor, said a visit by missionaries shortly after he moved to the town of Sandy from Minnesota seven years ago went "regrettably poorly." He said he listed the points on which he disagreed with the Book of Mormon, which the church regards as scripture, along with the Bible, "and they wished me good day."

At the missionary training centers, the most important of which is in Provo, young people are instructed to avoid argument and be courteous.

"I've got to hand it to them. They're very cordial," said Allen Sybrant, who moved to the area last year from Arizona. Still, he said, successive visits by two different teams of missionaries to his family's home last fall became "a little tedious."

Cricket Braun, who moved to Salt Lake City from Texas two years ago with her husband, said missionaries have come by their home several times, occasionally offering to help out around the yard. Braun, who has four pre-school-age children, agreed to a meeting to learn about Mormon beliefs but told the missionaries that her family was Unitarian-Universalists with no interest in converting. Still, she said, "they're doing what they think is right."

Although polite, missionaries are expected to be bold.

Right after they pull up outside a vast, new apartment complex in the suburb of Sandy, Elders Stephen J. Swainson and Jeremy L. Stetzer spot a woman and two girls heading toward their car.

The pair gets a conversation going about Jesus Christ and the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith as the woman, Barbara Stewart, originally from New York state, sits in her car, engine running, driver's door open.

Stewart said she is a born-again Christian who belongs to a group critical of Mormon beliefs, but she said she was not annoyed by the missionaries' determination.

Elder Enkhtogtokh Yura, 23, has a distinctive opening line as he and Elder Adam Whitney, 20, from Waynesboro, Pa., go door to door in Salt Lake City.

"I'm from Mongolia," says Yura, a former Buddhist who was converted by English-language teachers sent there in the 1990s. "Do you know where that is?"

An afternoon with them suggests their cold-calling is not for the faint of heart.

One door is shut. Another remains closed as a voice behind it says, "Nobody's home!"

The missionaries seemed unfazed. The week before, they said, they baptized a resident of that very building.