They come from across the globe, travel all over the world and some of them are right here in Leeds. Rod McPhee looks at the work of Mormons on a mission in the city
They’re prepared for a variety of responses from the public, but members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints never expect to get head-butted. Unfortunately that’s just what happened to one of their missionaries in Leeds.
Elder Rosen was spreading the word of Mormonism close to their base at the Leeds Institute of Religion near Hyde Park, when a kind Loiner decided he’d try to spread his nose across his face. Not the warmest of West Yorkshire welcomes for a 20-year-old Swede, not least because he’d made nothing more than the usual polite approach to a passer by.
It wasn’t an isolated incident either. There are reports of Mormon missionaries being attacked as they pound pavements and knock on doors, both locally and nationally. Thankfully it remains a rare occurrence.
So the Leeds missionaries laugh off the incident, partly because Elder Rosen wasn’t seriously hurt.
“Fortunately the guy was a little shorter than me,” he says putting on a brave but bruised face “So he just caught me on the chin.”
Elder Griffiths, 19, from the US, added: “They kinda teach you to try to laugh things off. You have to. Then it’s nothing we can’t handle. I’ve had some guys throw open soda cans at me from cars or just on the pavement.”
Fellow American Sister Smith, 21, added: “We just learn not to take any kind of negativity personally. We’re taught that they aren’t rejecting us, they’re rejecting the message. But it’s hard. It does kinda hurt your feelings at first.”
They are just a handful of a surprisingly high number of volunteers in Leeds. There are 142 in the city, coming here from Australia, South America, North America, Europe, South Africa and the Ukraine.
The Elders and Sisters – titles always applied to Mormon missionaries in place of their Christian names – are easily spotted. They are always smart young men and women patrolling in pairs, the well-groomed men invariably in immaculate suits, shirts and ties with only a simple badge betraying the fact that they aren’t, in fact, your common or garden office worker.
Not surprisingly given their need to spread their gospel door-to-door and on the streets, they are frequently mistaken for Jehovah’s Witnesses. But though both are denominations of Christianity they’re foundations are separate and distinct.
Sharing the Mormon gospel with the rest of the world is an intrinsic part of the church, which is why around 50,000 missionaries from around the globe regularly leave their homes and travel to foreign climes.
Often this sees them leave more exotic locations – Elder Shumway, 20, is from Las Vegas, for example, while Sister Fusco, 22, and Elder Melo, 19, are both from Brazil.
But their final destination is actually of little importance to them. Living in same sex pairs, they lead simple lives, often working well into the night and not getting much opportunity to watch TV. Most of them don’t even have access to a TV. Some of them only contact their families once a week by email in order to concentrate on their work.
It’s also a simple existence partly because they have to fund themselves throughout their mission. Raising the £5,700 necessary for basic living costs requires them to start saving throughout their teens as well as frequently gaining financial support from their families and local churches.
Thankfully, there is practical support in Leeds because the Mormon presence is reasonably strong in this city. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has more than 2,500 members in the Leeds/Bradford area and meet in 10 congregations in nine buildings in Bradford, Cross Gates, Dudley Hill, Farsley, Keighley, Kirkstall, Menston, Morley and Skipton.
In fact Elder Shumway and Griffiths both have descendants from the area, which means their mission to Leeds holds great resonance for them.
Gaining an insight into a faith which, let’s be honest, still has an air of suspicion around it, really is enlightening.
It’s particularly surprising to learn just how large the faith is and how many famous individuals are members of the church.
Well known Mormons include rock star Brandon Flowers, Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney and, of course, The Osmond family. Even Leeds Rhinos has a member – New Zealand prop Kylie Leuluai.
A principal reason for the slight air of mystery surrounding Mormons is one, somewhat thorny, issue: polygamy. Mention the religion to most people and they raise the myth that Mormon men are entitled to have more than one wife. But this really is a myth. Today, the practice of polygamy is strictly prohibited in the Church, as it has been for over 120 years.
The practice is outlawed in the Church, and no person can practice plural marriage and remain a member. Polygamist organizations have no affiliation whatsoever with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, despite the fact that the term “Mormon” — widely understood to be a nickname for Latter-day Saints — is sometimes misleadingly applied to them.
Elder Shumway says: “People we meet here do often bring that up, but then we explain what the truth is and they don’t tend to get concerned about it after that.
Sister Smith adds: “We understand most people perceive that of us and we’ve all dealt with people in our lives who ask those kind of questions. We’ve heard it all before, so if anything it enables us to explain to people.”
Elder Griffiths says: “Other people also bring up funny things they’ve heard. For example, people ask things about Joseph Smith, like, wasn’t he a criminal? Which is also just a myth.”
All of the elders and sisters we spoke to had never indulged in any of the four taboo substances like tobacco, alcohol, tea or coffee. Illegal drugs are, as you might expect, particularly off limits.
The no sex before marriage rule is also followed strictly, and they are equally disciplined when it comes to taking regular physical exercise and staying healthy.
It’s a way of life which represents the complete antithesis for many teenagers and 20-somethings in the UK.
“We believe our bodies are sacred,” explains Elder Shumway “They’re from God and we should treat them accordingly.
“As missionaries we stick to a schedule. So we get up about 6.30am and exercise for about half an hour – jogging, skipping, maybe doing weights.”
But doesn’t their personal purity make their message more difficult to convey in a permissive society, one which includes hedonists and addicts?
Sister Smith says: “But the people who are struggling we can help more because we can see that they need help and how much more happiness we can bring them.”
And what if they meet a couple with children who are unmarried?
Sister Fusco says: “Well, we’re not just gonna walk up to someone and say: ‘hey! you’re not married, so you’ve gotta get married!”
Elder Shulman says: “It’s not wrong but what I would do is just invite them to listen to our message because families are very important in the church, if they really love each other then the blessings of the gospel can make the union that much stronger. We just have to try and explain that.
“We realise that all we can really do is try to teach people what we believe – we realise we can’t just convert people. We just want people to hear our gospel and make their minds up for themselves.”