In Latter-day Saint vernacular, “RM” is short for “returned missionary.” For example, a daughter might inform her mother, “I’m dating a really great guy,” and her mother replies, “Is he an RM?” Every devout Latter-day Saint girl wants to marry an RM, and for good reason. Consider what a missionary must be and do, and it’s obvious why returned missionaries make good husbands.
Almost everyone has seen Latter-day Saint missionaries riding their bikes or knocking on doors. Today there are more than 50,000 missionaries serving throughout the world wherever they are legally allowed. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, young women have the option of going on a mission; young men, on the other hand, have an obligation to go on a mission. As priesthood holders, they have been commanded to go forth and preach the gospel to all the world (Matthew 24:14, Mark 16:15).
Latter-day Saint boys are ordained to the priesthood at the age of 12 years after they have been interviewed by the bishop and stake president and found to be leading a moral and faithful life. Over the years, these boys move up through different offices of the priesthood. When they turn 19 years, if they are willing and are in good health, and are continuing to live a faithful life, they are ordained as an elder and go on a mission.
Perhaps you have wondered whether these missionaries are paid for their services. The answer is no. In fact, the young men and their families (sometimes another benefactor) pay for the cost of their mission. Do they choose where they will go? Another no. They receive their “mission call” in the mail from Salt Lake City from the prophet himself. The Bible directs that everyone should have the chance to hear the gospel in his or her own tongue, and so these young men are expected to learn the language of the people they serve. The Church has seventeen Missionary Training Centers around the world where they go to study for three weeks if they are going to serve a mission in their own language. If they must learn a new language, they stay for about two months.
A young man’s mission lasts two years. During this time he cannot go home. In fact, he cannot even call home, except on Mother’s Day and Christmas. He must spend seven days a week getting up early, studying the scriptures, teaching the gospel and giving service. He is not allowed to date, go to the movies, watch TV, surf the Internet or read the news. He must be with his partner (his “companion”) all the time. One day of the week is called “Preparation Day.” On this day he has about eight hours for himself to do housework, run errands, and do something enjoyable within the rules of that particular Mission Area, such as sightsee, play basketball or write letters to friends and family. It’s a little like boot camp in the level of discipline required, but it’s two years long, instead of six weeks, and instead of shooting guns, it’s preaching and giving service.
I was lucky enough to nab a quality RM for my very own. He served his mission in Moscow, Russia, in the late 90s. A few years ago he was a student in a graduate level psychology course when the class studied prolonged adolescence. Prolonged adolescence is the academic term for what happens when people delay taking on adult responsibilities such as marriage, parenthood and financial independence. It is a subject explored in movies like “Failure to Launch.”
Young people’s failure to transition at an appropriate time from an adolescent identity to an adult identity is becoming the norm in western culture and is becoming an increasingly important field of research for sociologists and other academics. In my husband’s university course, he studied how rites of passage have been used in many cultures to help teenagers make this transition, and how in the United States today the mainstream culture lacks a rite of passage to adulthood. As my husband studied these things, he realized that the Latter-day Saint subculture has several rites of passage in place, most notably a two-year mission for young men.
A psychologist’s definition of a rite of passage is a ritual that marks the transition to adulthood or full inclusion into a group. It has three parts: separation, transition, and reincorporation. Rites of passage are usually more important for young men than for young women because women have a natural rite of passage in the process of pregnancy and childbirth.
As my husband learned about rites of passage (and taught me about it too), he saw our church’s missionary program from a new angle. Of course, missions are about faith, responsibility, sacrifice and service, but they also are about changing from a boy to a man, specifically, the kind of man that is acceptable to the larger group of Latter-day Saints. Once a young man has returned from his mission, he is considered ready to get married and to actively pursue a vocational path. He is ready to occupy leadership positions in the Church.
It is a beautifully designed rite of passage. The rituals involved are ordination to a higher priesthood office, initiation into a higher form of temple service when they receive their “endowment,” and the assignment to speak in Sunday service when they leave and when they return. In addition to the rituals, there is also clear and substantial separation from the past, real sacrifice and real change. We send out our boys and they come back not just as men, but as men who have seen something of the world, who have spent two years loving and helping people from every walk of life, who have disciplined themselves, who have learned to act with confidence and speak with conviction. My father has a blog where he writes his memoirs and has described his experience serving as a missionary in the early ‘60s in Norway. His recollections are typical of how other men have portrayed their missions to me.
I’ve watched many young men go on missions and seen them come home. Many times the change is astounding. Shy boys come back friendly. Arrogant boys come back humble. Silly boys come back more serious. Lazy boys come back more self-disciplined. Rude boys come back kind. Indifferent boys come back zealous. Selfish boys come back more caring. All of them seem improved.
A few weeks ago, a young missionary in our ward, Elder Weston Butler, spoke about his experience as a missionary. Raised in Utah and in the Church, he had always believed what he was taught about the gospel from his parents. But, he said, it was not until he was on his mission that he fully grasped the gospel because it was first time he had really practiced the gospel. And, he said, for the first time in his life he was truly happy because his life was devoted to helping others improve their lives by coming close to Christ. While other men his age are drinking beer, playing video games, and sleeping with their female cohorts, he is making the world a better place and becoming a remarkable man, the kind of man that God wants.
Elder Butler’s companion was from Moscow, Russia, which was exciting for my husband and I because my husband served his mission there and because I actually visited Moscow when I was a teenager. We have had them over to our house for dinner a couple times and enjoyed getting to know them better. Elder Butler is your typical Latter-day Saint missionary – from a great big family in a little town in Utah. He’s handsome, friendly, intelligent, hardworking, honest and kind. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool Latter-day Saint. “Yeah, yeah,” I thought. “Big deal. That’s what all the Mormon missionaries are like.”
As for his companion, now he’s something unusual. He’s also handsome, friendly, intelligent, hardworking, honest and kind. He’s also a dyed-in-the-wool “Mormon.” But he’s Russian! Elder Victor Grachev showed us some pictures from home. His father is not a member of the Church, but his mother has been a member for some time and raised Elder Grachev and his younger brother in the Church. Elder Grachev showed us not only pictures of his family (which he talked of in glowing terms), but also pictures of himself and his friends at Church youth activities. He pointed out friends and said where they were serving their missions. His brother will leave on his mission once Elder Grachev gets home. Elder Grachev has already earned a law degree and will look for work when he gets back.
Wow! This young man was born a few years before the Soviet era ended, a time when atheism was the rule of law, and yet he was raised in the Church’s culture of optimism, community involvement and service, loving families and faith in God. Talking to him gave me a burst of hope for the world’s future. Young men like these two missionaries are truly the hope of mankind.
When my husband served in Russia, he received a lot of interesting feedback. Some people didn’t actually believe he was American because America was the stuff of TV and fantasy, and it seemed impossible that an American boy had actually traveled to their little Russian town to teach them about Jesus. He also received feedback to the effect of, “I’ve never seen anything like you before. There are no young men in Russia who are clean, happy and hopeful.” In a country where many people hardly cared whether they lived or died, they could hardly believe these Mormon missionaries were real. A decade later and Russia is producing these Mormon missionaries, just as bright, clean and hopeful as any American missionary.
I am amazed, but really it’s not unexpected. The same thing has already happened in countries all over the world. Russia has not allowed missionaries through its borders for very long, but The Church is growing there and becoming firmly established. In countries where the missionaries have been allowed for some time, for example, Brazil, Hong Kong and Germany, the Church has a strong foundation. Elder Grachev will return home to help build a similar foundation in Russia.
This year seems to be for me the year of missionaries: my oldest nephew just returned from his mission in Mexico. My next oldest nephew will soon leave on his mission. And a Russian missionary is serving in our ward. Here they are. Don’t worry. It’s okay to have a crush on them–they just can’t have a crush on you!
We had “the elders” over for dinner on a recent Spring afternoon for some borsch and carrot cake. Bo Turner, who is preparing for a mission, and Yuri Tyshnikov, who is not a member of the Church but is a skilled guitarist, came over to jam on their guitars: