The Elders

By Michael Milano

Terry is in his early thirties. He is of Asian descent and lives at home with his parents and three siblings in Berkeley. Terry had a problem with cigarettes. He had problems with drinking too. He was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints in 2007. But his demons would persevere.

Then in early January of 2014 Terry met with Elder Hoole and Elder Peterson, missionaries of the Mormon Church. Terry sat on a stool, desperate to change his life. The Elders calmly placed their hands on Terry’s head. They closed their eyes and recited a blessing, Moroni 10,32:

Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ…

The Elders removed their hands from Terry’s head, opened their eyes, and Terry was healed.

Now a month later, Elder Peterson tells me the story with a proud smile, “He quit smoking, cold turkey.”

“We should call Terry, see how he’s doing with the cigarettes,” Elder Hoole added.

And then that night, I met Terry. He was soft-spoken, almost shy. He was short and stocky. He wore a silver leather jacket with long sleeves that nearly covered his hands and black sweatpants with yellow sneakers. The four of us sat facing each other in the middle of a large, empty room in the Mormon Church on Walnut Street. In the room there was a white granite fireplace and above it was a six-foot golden sculpture of Joseph Smith, the Church’s founder, staring off into the heavens. A picture of Jesus hung on each of the four maroon walls.

“Shall we start with a hymn?” Elder Hoole asked.

“Yea, I had one in mind,” Terry said, and then he pulled out his IPhone, opened the Mormon Hymn app, and a melody began to play. All three voices, soft and off-pitch, began to sing in unison. The hollow sound couldn’t fill the large room.

There is beauty all around, when there's love at home. There is joy in every sound, when there's love at home. Peace and plenty here abide, smiling sweet on every side. Time doth softly, sweetly glide, when there's love at home…

And on like that for three more verses, during which time moved slowly. The Elders stared into their books as they sang and Terry pulled nervously at the long sleeves of his coat. Finally it ended. Everyone took a deep breath, let it out, and the meeting began.

“Terry, how has your life changed since you’ve been baptized?” Elder Hoole asked with an enthusiastic smile.

Terry looked at the ceiling and thought for a moment.

“It’s kind of like… the same,” Terry paused, “except now I believe in God.”

____________________

Two nights prior to meeting Terry, I met Sam Hoole and Hunter Peterson. They are both 19 years old. Their hometowns are separated by just fifteen minutes of Utah highway. Elder means teacher, and it is the name adopted by all of the young men who go on a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Sam and Hunter are companions, or partners, assigned to a specific region in a city. They call it a district, and usually there are two missionaries per district. Companions never leave each other’s side. The Missionary Rulebook dictates they must be within “sight and sound” at all times.

“Do you know why we pray?” Elder Hoole asked me with an intent stare.

“We pray to God because he loves us,” Elder Peterson quickly responded.

“We’re just 19 year old kids, we don’t know anything. We pray to invite the Holy Ghost, the spirit, he’s who really tells us what to say.” Elder Hoole concluded.

Silence followed. They seemed skeptical and our meeting was turning into some sort of staring contest. Sam Hoole is built like a college swimmer, tall with broad shoulders and a thin waist. He has intense, steely blue eyes, his blonde hair is cropped military style, and his white, highly starched, short sleeve dress shirt is tucked into black pants. Hunter Peterson looks more like a chubby middle schooler who hasn’t quite made it out of puberty. He has short dark hair and brown eyes. He talks quietly, nervously, and his rosy cheeks get rosier when he’s making a point.  And that night he was wearing an outrageous, thick-knit sweater with a super low v-cut and bizarre grey on grey zigzag patterns.

I decided to speak up, “Elder Peterson, gnarly sweater man.”  They both got the joke, laughed whole-heartedly, and the tension was broken. Some understanding had been reached, a trust, or a universal familiarity shared by young men, and finally, we started to talk. What I would find in the next few days is that these are just two kids, two normal everyday 19 year olds in every fashion and thought, except that they’ve been caught up in this lifestyle, this belief system, which they never had any choice about.

“I was born into the Church,” Hunter said.

“My older brother served in Fort Lauderdale and my Dad served in New Zealand,” Sam said proudly of his family’s missionary work.  “I just know it was always something I was going to do.”

Then Hunter added, “I didn’t want to do it, but when I was 16 I was on a camping trip with my Dad, and the Holy Spirit told me I needed to go.”

And just like that, you decided?

“Yep,” he said, as if talking to the Holy Spirit were as routine as a sunrise.

______________________

75,000 Mormon missionaries serve all over the world today. The Mormon Church has 15 million members and was founded by Joseph Smith in 1830. According to the Church, when Smith was 14 he wandered into the woods near his home in Palmyra, New York. He prayed to learn which church he should join. In an answer to his prayer, God and his son Jesus Christ appeared to him and told him that the church originally organized by Jesus Christ was no longer on earth.

“Picture this church as a large mirror,” Elder Peterson said to me. “When Jesus Christ was crucified and all his apostles were killed the mirror just dropped and was shattered. Then everyone was like, ‘oh man, we need that church back,’ so they all just grabbed bits and pieces of the mirror and tried to put it back together but didn’t get every piece. So these other churches are good but they didn’t have the full mirror, the full gospel. That mirror was put back together through Joseph Smith.”

Mormons believe that the president of their church is also a living prophet who speaks with God. Today that prophet’s name is Thomas Monson, and twelve living apostles advise him. The church’s hierarchy is entirely male. Women are not allowed to be priests.

Elder Hoole explained, “The person in charge of the church is Jesus Christ. Thomas Monson is the mouthpiece for God. We think.”

“We know.” Elder Peterson added.

___________________

The next day I met the Elders at their Berkeley apartment. Written on the door in elegant cursive, right below an eight by twelve picture of Jesus it said:

Welcome, May all who enter as guests, leave as friends.

The door opened but I wasn’t allowed in. No one’s allowed in. I stood in the doorway as they finished getting ready. It was dark. The blinds were drawn. It smelled faintly of mildew, sort of damp, like a college apartment but without the beer. On the kitchen counter was an old bag of Chic-fil-a, laundry detergent, and marshmallows.

What’s in the fridge?

“Oh not much, milk and apples,” Hunter said.

They were dressed in unison, right down to the arrangement of materials in their breast pocket – pictures of Jesus to hand out, missionary handbook, and the potential investigator notebook. Investigators are people who they deem as being interested in learning more about the church. They keep extensive notes on whom they’ve spoken with and what was said, so they don’t hit the same house twice.

We took off on bikes riding down Colusa Avenue towards El Cerrito.  The Elders had the address of a potential investigator that they wanted to follow up on. Along the way Sam stopped to help a woman move her garbage cans, and then gave her a picture of Jesus. He stopped to help a man change a tire, and then gave him a picture of Jesus. In fact, he tried to give a picture of Jesus to everyone we passed. Most people completely ignored him. Some people at least had the courtesy to make an excuse, “I’m sick and can’t really talk now,” or “I have to get my dog moving,” or “I’m running late.”

They joked with each other the whole time. As one woman saw them coming and made a quick turn up a side street Hunter laughed, “No way was she really going that way.” And when a student said he couldn’t talk, but his friend lived up the street and would love to hear about the church, Sam joked, “Watch, we’ll knock on this door and get beat up because this guy hates Mormons.”

But they knocked on the door anyway. They leaned their bikes against a tree, took off their helmets and dutifully climbed a flight of stairs to the door. Three knocks and they waited, three more knocks, and they waited. They looked at me down on the street and gave a shrug. Then the door cracked open. Suspicious eyes looked out at their identical outfits.

“Hi Cameron, we just met your roommate, Nate. My name is Elder…”

“I can’t talk right now,” the voice interrupted.

“Is there a time that might be better?” Sam said politely while shifting his body to try and see into the house.

“I’m sick.”

“I’m sorry, is there a time that might be better?” Sam asked again.

The door shut. Sam and Hunter walked down the stairs smiling at me. There expressions seemed to be saying; now you see? They both take out their pocket notebooks and record the address.

What are you thinking as you wait for someone to answer the door?

“Father help me!” Sam said with a big smile.

“Adrenaline,” Hunter said, “You don’t know who’s on the other side.”

We ride on as the afternoon fades away. The sun’s rays are dull and warm as they sneak through a thin layer of clouds and the smell of pine trees is rich in the moist air. We start down a long, winding hill, faster and faster. Sam is out in front and he brashly goes no hands, spreading his arms like an airplane, totally free, if just for a moment.

We arrive at the house in El Cerrito. At least we think it’s the house, for the address they were given doesn’t exist. We approach the door. The walls of the house are covered with paintings of Egyptian Pharaohs and the car in the driveway has the faces of women painted all over it with seashells glued on for their hair.

“This will be an interesting one.”

“What’s the name that Joe gave us?”

“Joe didn’t give us this name, this address was in the potential investigator book.”

“What’s the name though?”

“John from Canada.”

“Canada, we can use that.”

No one answers. We try the next door. It’s a squat, white house on the side of the street overlooking the bay. Sam and Hunter cautiously walk the length of the home to what seems like a back door. Two wooden parrots hang above their heads as they knock. 

The tension builds as the seconds pass and then the door opens. A short old woman with glasses and a thick accent answers cautiously.

“Hi my name is Elder Hoole and this is Elder Peterson. What’s your name?”

“I don’t speak English, and my husband is very sick,” she responds.

“If you just have a moment, we are representatives of Jesus Christ of the Church of Latter Day Saints.”

“We are old. We come from Jerusalem, the holy land, and we don’t want to change.”

“Oh well that’s great. Do you know anyone who is looking for a religion?” Sam asked.

“I don’t have any friends in the area,” she responds.

“Well now you have two,” Sam said with a smile.

She smiled and the door shut. Then Sam and Hunter take out their potential investigator notebooks. Sam writes the address and “Nayla – nice lady, Orthodox Jew.”

Elder Peterson looks at me, “Normally, in terms of who we talk to, we try to be guided by the spirit.”

It’s dark now and time for dinner.

__________________

We walked into Zachary’s Pizza on Solano Avenue. We sat by the window.

“I love this song!” Sam almost jumped out of his seat. Stevie Wonder’s, Signed, Sealed, Delivered was playing softly. “I’m going to love it even more when I get out in two years and can listen to it.”

Do you miss music?

“Of course!” Sam said. “Taco Bell plays music I really like. I like going to Taco Bell. And I’m not going to plug my ears, it’d only be disobedient if you come to a restaurant just for the music.”

While on their mission, they aren’t allowed to listen to music, use the internet, watch TV or movies, or read books. There are exceptions, they are allowed to read a few pre-approved books: Jesus the Christ, Our Heritage, and True to the Faith. And on New Years Eve they were allowed to watch two movies, pre-approved Disney animated movies - Despicable Me and Monster’s University.

“It was the worst on the Super Bowl, because we’re both Broncos fans. It was all I could think about. Some members asked if we wanted to watch, but I didn’t want to take the chance of jinxing them by break the rules of my mission,” Sam said.

They both eat the pizza with a knife and fork and do little talking. When the bill comes, they give the exact amount they owe, no tip. They only get $140 a month for food and laundry. Sam and Hunter eat mostly fast food during the day, and most evenings church members take them in for dinner.

When we finish neither Sam nor Hunter move. They both just sit there working on the lollipops that came with the bill. 

“We eat until six. We like to take our time,” Hunter said.

Sam responds, “Give Marshall Bailey a call and see if we can come by at seven.”

“Is Marshall Bailey the one I taught?”

“Yep.” Sam says and then gives me an explanation, “Marshall Bailey has been investigating the church for eight years, and we believe we have the authority to baptize.”

Hunter makes the call, no answer, he leaves a message, “Yo, Marshall this is the missionaries, just seeing if we could stop by tonight?”

Elder Hoole has been a part of six baptisms. Elder Peterson has seen four.

“We’re supposed to try for one a week, but in Berkeley, four in a year is amazing,” Elder Peterson says.

“We could invite everyone in Berkeley to be baptized and maybe one would say yes, but we did our part. We did everything we could,” Elder Hoole concludes.

Do you enjoy the mission?

“It’s not always the easiest thing,” Hunter said.

“You just run out of gas sometimes, and you don’t want to be too hard on yourself, or strive for perfection, but you’re not going to go to heck if you mess up,” Sam said.

“It’s a big change. I love social networking and music and all that. I had an IPhone 4S, now we both share this,” Sam holds up their pre-historic cell phone and laughs.

Do you ever wonder if the mission is right?

They hesitate, glance at each other, and then nod in unison.

“Sometimes I’m like, why not? It’s not bad if I listen to music. Of course I have those feelings. It happens all the time. I see my friends listening to music, going to parties, and getting the girls, I want that,” Sam said.

“I try not to think about the time, survive and advance, day by day is all you can do. I’m not perfect, and that’s why we try to talk to everyone. Even though it’s hard and we always get rejected, it makes time go faster.”

Hunter added, “And people tell us stuff, like that’s how we found out the Broncos didn’t show up in the Super Bowl.”

What’s the hardest part?

“When I was back home, you forgot about missionaries. Like people remember them and pray for them, but really they forget about them,” Hunter said.

Sam added, “I definitely write a bunch of girls, a few potentials for when I get back home. There’s nothing better than after a long, hot day when no one wanted to talk to you and nothing went right, to get back to the apartment and check your mailbox and there’s a letter from a girl back home. It’s like, yes! They remember me.”

Tears started to well in the corner of Sam’s eyes.

“Especially around Christmas, that’s the one time you get to Skype and I’m thinking I’m going to be bawling like a baby to see my mom, but I was just so excited to see her I didn’t cry. It doesn’t get easier, but you learn how to cope and you just do it. Like Nike, you just do it.”

_________________

Elder Hoole is the district leader in the East Bay. He is in charge of organizing and running trainings twice a year for the eight other missionaries within the district. I was invited to the most recent meeting held at a large single home owned by the Church in Berkeley on Conti Street right off of Hearst Avenue. Framed by imposing white pillars, Sam and Hunter met me at the door. They were both wore black suits and big, proud smiles. I was in faded jeans and a tee shirt.

They were almost giddy as they guided me back to the meeting. We walked through what seemed like a museum. It smelled like mothballs and was eerily quiet and empty of people. A curious set of thick, double doors opened to a cavernous room, with twenty-foot ceilings and fake candle lamps lining the walls. The carpet was a dull shade of robin’s egg blue. There was a ten-foot painting of Jesus watching the sunset on one wall. Headshots of the living prophet and apostles lined the other wall. The room was bright and sterile.

Sitting in neat rows were seven young ladies, all smiling widely as I introduced myself. There was Sister Johnson from Arizona, Sister Oa, who has a gold front tooth and is from Samoa, Sister Kwok from Hong Kong, Sister Campos with big, bright eyes from Mexico, Sister Kim, Sister Johnson, and Sister Lindsey, all three from Utah. A peach blouse stood out, peaking from beneath a buttoned black sweater. It was the only color any of them wore.

Elder Hoole stood nervously at a small podium in the front of the room. Behind him, written on a white board, there was a chart. Within each section there were numbers representing potential investigators and baptisms since the start of 2014 - lots of potential investigators, zero baptisms.

“Why is it so important for us to use the book of Mormon?” Elder Hoole asked, then waited for someone to raise their hand. “Yes, Sister Kim.”

“Its part of the unique message our church holds, everyone else uses the Bible, but the book of Mormon is different from everything else.”

“Good, anyone else? Sister Campos.”

“Because it answers the questions of our souls, and it can answer questions that are physical and spiritual, questions about the church and the world.”

“Good, do you have an example?”

“Umm, I can’t remember.”

Sam stood up there sweating, like any teacher trying to win over a tough room.

“I’d just like to remind everyone that during these meetings we encourage everyone to take notes. And something I think about is I don’t always write down what was said, but what the spirit was telling me.”

Silence.

“Elder Peterson, will you turn to page 111 in Preach My Gospel and read the quote starting with, ‘to read sincerely…’”

Sister Kwok gives me her book and rushes to get me on the right page.

To read sincerely, with real intent, you and those you teach must be willing to act on the doctrine, to incorporate it in your daily lives and as necessary to repent. By living the doctrine you will gain an assurance that it is true.

“And real quick before I forget the next district meeting is in April,” Elder Hoole writes the date on the board.

 Silence.

“Elder Peterson, come up here and let’s demonstrate a role play.”

Hunter looks at me and smiles, silently saying, “watch this.” Hunter and Sam are in a room with 7 young ladies, and at all other times during their missionary lives that would be grounds for serious discipline and possibly being sent home. But this is Hunter’s chance to make an impression.

He was playing it cool. He even had a little attitude, gently leaning against the wall with his hands loosely in his pockets. His stage name was Frederick. Elder Hoole had the less desired role of the Missionary trying to convert a skeptic.

“How’s the scripture reading and praying going?”

“Its been going good.”

“Has anything stuck out to you?”

“Yea everyone’s dying,” the whole room laughs, Hunter turns red with satisfaction and smiles.

“Yea there’s a lot of wars in the book of Mormon huh,” Sam is stiff.

“I think it’s interesting.”

“What’s interesting about it?”

“I don’t know, just something cool about it.”

“Yea it is pretty cool.”

And the role-play ends. Everyone claps.

We break up into groups and for the first time the room is alive with chatter. I don’t hear anyone talking about religion. Hunter is partnered with Sister Campos, he’s showing her his Nike case for his Book of Mormon, and she teases him about the Mountain Dew sticker on it.

Sam is with Sister Oa and he loses track of time. We are supposed to rotate every five minutes but never do. I’m partnered with Sister Kim.

“Mike, are you aware of Jesus Christ?”

“Yes, I’m aware of him.”

“Well how have you, from a non-religious standpoint… what do you do to find peace?”

“I exercise, I like the outdoors, and I unplug from everything,” I leave out drinking and marijuana.

“Well yea, life is hard. Well there’s a scripture that came into my head, I’m not going to lie this is not connected to what you just said, but it’s coming into my head so I’m going to share it with you.”

Then she reads a passage and concludes that all good things come from God.

The meeting ended and no one stuck around to talk. I walked with Sam and Hunter. The sun was setting. The sky was orange and they were both relaxed and happy, for the most part.

“We can talk to girls of course, just not flirt or go on dates,” Sam said and let out a long sigh.

“So yea, that’s tough. Especially when my brother just got back and he goes on two dates a week.”

_____________

It was late now and we sat on hard pews in the dim light of an empty cathedral. The Elders end most of their nights back at the church on Walnut Street, a quiet place to talk and pray.

Do you ever question your faith?

“Yes,” Sam said without hesitation.

“Before my mission, I prayed maybe ten times. I wasn’t very religious. I went to church, but only because I had to. I went on mission because it’s expected of me.”

And then he loses that joyful spark he has, his sincerity seems to be forced away by something else.

“Satan, the adversary, they work harder. If we’re disobedient we won’t have the spirit with us, Satan will tempt us...”

Elder Peterson interrupts.

“I ask myself this question all the time, and I pray about it, and this passage sticks out to me, ‘I would exhort you, that you would ask God the eternal father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true.’ So going into my prayers I just believe that its true, I know that’s its true, and I ask if it’s not true, and he’s never told me that its not true.”

He’s never told me that it’s not true. The words hang in the air like a thundercloud ready to burst.

Then Sam speaks slowly, thoughtfully, “I just finished the book of Mormon for the first time last month. I guess we kind of converted ourselves.”