While an ever-increasing life-span and good health offer more options for their "golden years" than ever before, a growing number of Latter-day Saint baby boomers along the Wasatch Front are volunteering to serve missions for their church — thousands of them without leaving the comfort of their own homes.
Known worldwide for its pairs of proselyting missionaries in far-flung locales, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has focused a major effort in recent years on carving out volunteer service opportunities in Utah. And while top leaders will likely issue their usual plea for senior missionaries to serve full-time outside the state during the faith's 174th Semiannual General Conference this weekend, less publicized are the opportunities for Wasatch Front members to serve locally — anywhere from four to 30-plus hours per week.
Elder Merlin Baker and his wife, Marian, spend several hours each week listening to fellow Latter-day Saints who would otherwise be outside their sphere of friendship. As part-time missionaries with the LDS Family Services Addiction Recovery program, they preside at regular meetings for those struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction. The program features a modified 12-step curriculum that incorporates LDS teachings about the atonement of Jesus Christ.
Wearing the traditional black tags that identify them as LDS missionaries, they preside at the meetings, give a short lesson, and then listen as a "facilitator" — who is making his or her way back from addiction — conducts the meeting. Participants gather at LDS meetinghouses to share their thoughts, experiences and their belief in God.
The Bakers said they didn't know the program existed until they sought help for an addicted child. They attended one of several 90-minute sessions held locally every day of the week and found understanding and hope listening to others working to overcome addiction. After seeing the program in action, they volunteered to serve. Group meetings are held in several buildings all along the Wasatch Front.
Many Sundays, the Bakers spend their time explaining the program in LDS sacrament meetings when bishops request their services.
Because LDS doctrine eschews the use of alcohol or illegal drugs, Elder Baker said many LDS addicts and their families are "in denial and don't want the bishop or ward members to know" because the resulting social stigma singles them out. Yet based on Utah statistics, he estimates roughly 3 percent of members in an LDS ward of 400 are in need of substance abuse treatment.
The Bakers agree that serving has been "one of the most gratifying experiences" of their lives as they see fellow church members confront their addiction and take the necessary steps to curb it.
Their assignment is one of dozens of part-time mission positions that are filled not only by retired Latter-day Saints, but by many who work at full-time careers and seek a way to serve others outside their own congregations.
Elder Jeff Swinton, now an Area Authority Seventy for the church, was tapped eight years ago to start what has become known as the Inner-City Project in Salt Lake City. The program, which also functions in Ogden, is designed to help families in poverty become self-reliant by pairing them with missionaries who serve as teachers, counselors and role models.
"We ask missionaries to attend the ward to which they are assigned and become a member there," in the eyes of the congregation, he said, leaving behind assignments in their home wards. They work under the direction of an inner-city bishop, who assigns them to help people with "every conceivable need" from poor housing conditions, lack of access to medical, dental or mental health care, and under-employment to lack of transportation or adequate food and clothing.
The program now involves well more than 2,000 missionaries who can sign up to serve from six to 30 hours per week for six to 24 months, Elder Swinton said. Most are upper-50s couples whose children are grown, with one or both still working full time. "Many of them, for one reason or another, just can't leave town. I don't think we're depleting those who would otherwise serve" a full-time mission outside the state, he said.
While the program has a measurable impact on those served, "the real beneficiaries are the missionaries," he said, emotion filling his voice. "They experience frustration. It tests their patience and exposes them to things they've never imagined. . . . But they come to recognize how everyone is a brother and sister, and how, but for the grace of God, they might be under different circumstances."
Dean Walker, manager at LDS Employment Resource Service Center, said nearly 90 missionaries work with job seekers to help review their skills, determine training needs, provide mentoring and help them access community resources.
"Probably more than any-
thing is, we're just instilling hope," Walker said. "Many don't feel there are resources out there and they won't qualify for anything. We want to turn that around."
After undergoing their own training sessions, Walker's charges also teach two-day career workshops that detail resume writing, interviewing and networking techniques, though many of the volunteers have come from a variety of backgrounds including homemakers, farmers and business people. "We stress the fact that they don't have to have particular skills to do this —just a willingness to help people and desire to learn."
Ditto for welfare services missionaries, many of whom work with "the poorest of the poor," according to Mel Gardner, who oversees missionaries at the Bishop's Storehouse on Welfare Square. He never has enough people to help dozens of transients who come into the office daily. The work is much like what inner-city missionaries do, he said, except these clients "don't have homes."
Hundreds of other part-time missionaries volunteer as ushers and tour guides at the Tabernacle and Conference Center and hosts at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. While there is currently a waiting list for those positions, there is a continuing need for volunteers in welfare services, family history, volunteer computer programming and repair specialists, data entry clerks, library reference workers and family history guides.
Watching the willingness of those who serve is a "constant renewal of your hope in mankind and the goodness of people's hearts," said Paul Nauta, spokesman for the church's Family History Division.
"And they do it all on their own dime."
More information on part-time missionary openings is available at the LDS Church's Web site, www.lds.org, under the tab, "other resources."