Each year thousands of Latter-day Saint young men and women leave home for unfamiliar destinations and labor tirelessly to help people improve their lives and draw closer to God.
What each missionary — and sometimes those they teach — receive in return can be a one-of-a-kind, life-changing experience, Arthur VanWagenen said.
“We send these young people out with little experience to just get smacked by the world and run into people with real issues and problems,” he said. “I don’t see anything else in the world that comes close to the missionary program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. ... It’s a miraculous program.”
Sometimes those missionary experiences tell a compelling story on film.
A new film and media franchise titled “Mission Stories“ is opening in theaters on May 7. This first movie features a trio of inspiring, true accounts of missionary work in the modern times.
“Mission Stories” is not an official church film. It was produced by Frost Road Entertainment in partnership with Excel Entertainment and Purdie Distribution.
It is the first of what filmmakers hope are many such films to come — a possible anthology series of true stories from the mission field, said VanWagenen, an executive producer.
“Our goal in this film and the entire ‘Mission Stories’ franchise is to tell stories from not just the perspective of missionaries, but from the perspective of people who make the radical choice to become disciples of Jesus Christ,” he said.
VanWagenen, who served his mission in East Germany, said the idea of making a film focused on missionary work has bounced around in his head for a long time. It finally became a reality when he began working with director Bryce Clark in the fall of 2019.
Although confident in his abilities as a writer, director and producer, Clark wasn’t sure he was qualified to work on a movie about missionaries.
“I thought to myself, ‘Well, I didn’t serve a mission, so I’m probably not the right guy to do this,’ but I started working on it,” the director said. “As I was doing that, I realized I, myself, had a mission story. It played out as I was developing this project, so it became a really personal project for me.”
Clark’s personal story of recovering from alcoholism is woven into “Full Circle,” one of the three stories depicted in the film. In telling these stories, filmmakers were not afraid to explore dark issues such as addiction, depression and suicidal tendencies. All three stories convey themes of God’s love, healing, forgiveness and redemption.
“It’s definitely deeply personal,” Clark said. “I realized as I was doing it that just because I didn’t serve a mission doesn’t mean that missionary work hasn’t touched my life.”
In February 2020, Clark, VanWagenen and others met with a group of former mission presidents and their wives. That night they easily filled a notebook with remarkable missionary accounts.
“It was incredible to hear all the stories that came out,” Clark said. “The thing that stood out to us was how much the Lord is involved in these things that you think are random or coincidental. Every story shows that God has his hand in the work and people’s lives are being transformed and saved through this work.”
Another chapter in the film tells the conversion story of “Chuck,” a bearded, leather jacket-wearing biker with a neck tattoo who took a Book of Mormon from a motel nightstand and ended up meeting with sister missionaries.
The third tale, “Hermanos,” recounts the surprise transfer of an English-speaking missionary to a Spanish-speaking area at the end of his mission. The unexpected but spiritually prompted move ultimately ends with an unforgettable experience.
With filmmakers hoping to bring more mission stories to the big screen in the future, viewers are invited to submit a mission story on the film’s website, missionstories.com, which also features the trailer, theater and ticket information.
Along with appreciating the film, VanWagenen hopes audiences take away a deeper message about faith.
“The world is dark, hard and brutal ... and these are not nice, wrapped-up-with-a-bow kinds of conversions,” he said. “But the harder that struggle, the more powerful the redemption, and the more people feel they are worthy of God’s love. They are able to leverage that into real change. To me that is radical and beautiful.”
This is not the first time filmmakers have sought to portray the life and experiences of Latter-day Saint missionaries on the big screen. Some previous films include:
- “Gods Army” (2000)
- “The Other Side of Heaven” (2001)
- “The R.M.” (2003)
- “The Best Two Years” (2003)
- “God’s Army 2: States of Grace” (2005)
- “The Errand of Angels” (2008)
- “The Saratov Approach” (2013)
- “Inspired Guns” (2014)
- “Freetown” (2015)
- “The Fighting Preacher” (2019)
- “The Other Side of Heaven 2: Fire of Faith” (2019)