At Age 19, From Utah to Uganda
Last summer, Jared Dangerfield was simply 19, skateboarding the streets of suburban Salt Lake City, plugged into the Jewish reggae singer Matisyahu. He had just wrapped up his year at Utah State University, where there was a girl he liked to make laugh.
Memories of college and family are kept in a photo album his sister gave him when they said goodbye, but it is rarely looked at.
“Little time to remember home,” he says. “We kind of have to stay away from the world.” Gone are his friends. Gone is his given name. The next time he will see his mother’s face is 2013. Until then, he is Elder Dangerfield, as it says on his name tag.
Each day he rises with the African sun to say his prayers before venturing into the urban wilderness of Kampala, Uganda, a churning kaleidoscope of motorcycles, street urchins, vegetable carts and pterodactyl-like storks that circle office towers and lampposts. They orbit above him as he makes his way up and down the muddy hills of the capital city, careful to keep his black pants and white shirt clean, scanning faces in search of those who will listen to him speak of his faith. His Mormon faith.
As one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States, with 14 million followers; with a hit Broadway musical about two 19-year-old Utahns in Uganda; and with a member, Mitt Romney, poised to challenge Barack Obama for the presidency, Mormonism is basking in the mainstream spotlight. The church gained nearly 400,000 members in 2010, about 70 percent of them converted by college-age missionaries like Elder Dangerfield.
Missionary work is not just a fundamental tenet of the faith; it is also a well-oiled operation. An army of 52,000 young Mormons proselytize around the world, from Boise, Idaho, to Mozambique, for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In modern-day Mormon culture, men are expected to take up evangelism on their 19th birthday and serve for two years; less commonly, women enlist when they turn 21. Missionary work is not mandatory, but it is popular.
Eric Hawkins, a church spokesman, describes it as “something we hope all Mormon young men will want to do — a time of meaningful personal sacrifice, service, testing and growth.”
It is certainly a time of sacrifice. Missionaries are slingshot into an intensive, airtight and sometimes lonely schedule of prayer, Scripture study and door-to-door proselytizing six days a week, 52 weeks a year. They are to abstain from virtually every earthly pleasure — not just the usual temptations prohibited under Mormonism, like premarital sex, alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea, but also magazines, television and music not sanctioned by the church. They can call home two days a year, on Christmas and Mother’s Day. (When suicide bombings ripped through Kampala during the 2010 World Cup, killing more than 70 people, including an American citizen, the missionaries still were not allowed a call.) E-mailing, through a secure Internet server, is for Mondays.
“Two of my best friends back home are not members,” says Christian Rennie, a former offensive tackle for the Southern Utah University football team who is nearing the end of his tenure in Uganda. “They e-mailed me they were spending the weekend in Vegas. I just don’t ask for details.”
Instead, they burrow deep into Scripture and prayer, feeding off the energy the concentration foments.
“I’ve had very familiar feelings in a lesson as I have had in a game — the excitement, the energy, feeling like helping your team score a touchdown,” Elder Rennie says. He is walking down a narrow dirt path on the outskirts of the city, on the way to a lesson with a new recruit. The storks munch on rubbish scattered across a field nearby.
Of going back home, he says, “It’s going to be weird.”
Not too long ago they were all in college. Micheal Zackery Lee squeezed in a semester at Westminster College, a liberal arts college in Salt Lake City. James Davis, with the strong handshake, was three semesters into a veterinarian track at Utah State University. At Utah State, 500 students formally pause their studies each year. Ninety percent return, and the university works to help prepare them to re-integrate, including offering an intensive math refresher. Missionaries have been able to pass proficiency tests and get college credit for foreign language.
At Brigham Young University, the Missionary Training Center welcomes hundreds of new missionaries every week from around the world. For 12 weeks, they study doctrine, learn how to teach the gospel and hone their communication skills. Some 50 languages are taught at the center, in Provo, Utah, which can accommodate 4,000 learners and has a gymnasium, medical clinic and bookstore. Training centers in other countries also prepare students to serve in one of the church’s roughly 350 missions. They can be sent anywhere. Mitt Romney, for example, served in France.
“I thought I was going to Nebraska,” Elder Dangerfield says, his rosy cheeks betraying a sunburn. “The first week I was here I thought, ‘Where am I?’ ”
First he was in barren northern Uganda for six months, a smudge above the Equator, where malaria and oppressive heat reign. He picked up bits and pieces of the language, Acholi. Now, he traverses the streets of the capital with Michael Chiromo, from Zimbabwe.
Missionaries are paired, six weeks at a time, with a companion — in missionary lingo, the first companion is called “father,” and the second is called “mother.” They stay “within sight and hearing of” each other, according to the handbook they all keep near. “Never be alone,” it warns. Companions will study, pray and proselytize together. Together, they will be caught in populist street demonstrations and taste strange foods — grasshoppers, dog. Rather than with the residents of their host country, where contact consists of managed conversation about their faith, perhaps the most cultural exchange happens among the missionaries themselves.
In Kampala, companions room with another pair in a modern two-bedroom apartment rented by the church. They decorate their tabletops with toiletries and church literature, and their walls with glossy pictures of Mormon temples in the United States.
There is not much time for recreation. At 8 a.m. they are at their desks for an hour of personal Scripture study. They then study with one another for an hour. By 10 a.m. they are out the door, visiting homes of families they already work with or scouring the streets for new recruits. Sometimes it is 9 p.m. before they return home, where they pray, compile the day’s results, cook dinner and switch off the lights by 10:30.
It is nearly dusk as Elder Dangerfield and Elder Chiromo try to squeeze two last hours into the day. They are positioned near a power station, the sun melting in oranges behind the transmission lines. Elder Dangerfield spots a well-dressed man walking down a hill, and decides to follow.
“We are from the Church of Jesus Christ and we have come to share,” he says with a smile, followed by friendly introductions. The missionaries talk as they walk. The man has seen missionaries before, though he has not engaged with them.
“I come from a Catholic foundation,” he says. “I accept Christ as my personal savior. How can you move me from that?”
“We are not here to move you to another church,” Elder Dangerfield explains, scampering behind him underneath a grove of banana trees. “We just want to share.”
The threesome turn a corner, and chants of “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” break out from the porch of the man’s home. A swarm of youngsters are soon upon them. Ugandan culture emphasizes hospitality, and the man introduces the adults of his family — Hope, Maria and the portly Tuba.
“Hey! Very nice!” Elder Dangerfield exclaims, breaking the ice with laughter. “For me, I am Elder Dangerfield.”
“Field marshal of the gospel!” the man teases.
The house is too small for guests, the man says, but the missionaries are free to speak to his family in the yard. The missionaries ask for a convenient time for a more serious discussion. An appointment is set for Thursday evening.
Mormons are only one of a number of religious groups vying for local hearts and minds in this predominantly Christian nation. Missionaries brought the faith to colonial Uganda in the 19th century, and it became a popular alternative to indigenous practices, including witchcraft. Today, ministries pepper the country, and religious conversion is common. There is even a community of Jews in the country’s east who preferred the Old Testament to the New Testament when missionaries introduced them to both.
Currently, there are only about 5,000 Mormons in Uganda, less than 1 percent of the population. What is noteworthy, however, is that a third of those were converted last year. The number of missionaries stationed in Uganda has also grown, to 120 from 70 two years ago. The missionaries say they can net a dozen new contacts from the street in a couple of hours, and visit five homes in a day. They estimate each is responsible for around 40 baptisms by the time service is up.
Elder Davis says that at the Mormon mission in Latvia, where a friend was recently based, there were zero baptisms.
“It’s a lot harder to teach the people in Europe than the people in Africa,” adds Elder Lee, Elder Davis’s companion. “It’s Africa’s time.”
The Mormon brand of Christianity is as much a peculiarity in Uganda as in some parts of the United States. In 2010, from its headquarters in Salt Lake City, the church began a nationwide public-awareness campaign declaring “I’m a Mormon,” hoping to dispel misconceptions about the religion.
“Her family says she married a devil worshiper,” a recent convert complains about his in-laws. (In fact, Mormons worship Jesus Christ, who, according to the sacred Book of Mormon, visited ancient America.)
“Why don’t you have the cross?” asks a Ugandan who is considering joining. (Mormons object to the crucifixion — and death — as a symbol of their Christianity.)
“The Mormons were founded by some guy who found stones or something,” a middle-age man calls out from the driver’s seat as he delicately maneuvers his car over a pothole. Elder Dangerfield and Elder Chiromo approach, their clothes betraying their identity.
“You are thinking of Joseph Smith!” Elder Dangerfield calls back.
“Yes,” the man says, “and that they allow polygamy? Do they still do so?” (They do not — the church banned the practice in the 1890s — and the stones were seer stones, which Smith used to gain his revelations.)
The young men take it all in stride — the prickly questions, the cultural misunderstandings, the rain and the cancellations.
Through it all, their own lives are changing. Their personal values sharpen, and they begin to understand whom they want to be when they return to college.
Elder Dangerfield wants to focus on youth or special-needs social work. One family he visits grapples with an alcoholic father. The missionaries teach of service, loyalty and respect, and the man shows bouts of promise. But then he reverts. “We’ve talked to the dad a lot, and he even went one week with being sober and we were, like, sweet,” Elder Dangerfield says. “Then he went to the village and hasn’t come back.”
As a freshman, Elder Lee wanted to pursue international business, but now he is thinking of something that will keep him close to his family, possibly accounting, which he picked up as an assistant for the mission president in Uganda.
“I have learned more about myself in the last 20 months than I could if I was back home,” he says. “You begin to understand what really matters in your life.”
He had converted to Mormonism at 16 for a girl he was dating. “I was a pretty messed-up kid,” he says. “I wasn’t doing drugs or anything, but I was a huge punk.” Selfish, he says. Going to church sparked a change. When he left for his mission, his mother could not understand what he was doing. But she has come to accept her son’s choice, Elder Lee says, and wants to start going to church with him when he gets back.
It isn’t always easy leaving home. The missionaries say some aren’t able to complete their missions. They call it “trunking,” being antsy to go home.
Just ask Elder Lee. “Between six months and 18 months everyone forgets you,” he says. “All your friends back home, they stop writing you. That’s when the umbilical cord is cut, that’s when you start realizing a lot of different things.”
For Elder Davis, the cord was cut on a Christmas. He phoned his girlfriend of more than five years. She told him she had met someone else and was going to be married. “It happens a lot on missions,” he says.
Life is further tested by the straitjacket of rules. “Listen only to music that is consistent with the sacred spirit of your calling,” the handbook reads. “Do not telephone, write, e-mail or accept calls or letters from anyone of the opposite sex living within or near mission boundaries.” Failing to follow the rules, the handbook says, could threaten “salvation.”
Kampala is full of temptations. Near an Ethiopian restaurant popular with the missionaries, pop music blares outside, marijuana is sold down the road, and prostitutes solicit. Several young missionaries were caught fraternizing with women and sent home, the missionaries say. But rules are rarely broken — for one, companions are together virtually all the time.
“Dating,” Elder Lee says, “it’s definitely something we look forward to doing again.”
But he says he misses music the most. “You could get away with it so easy,” he says, climbing along a gully, up a hillside of homes, on his way to meet a convert. “Nobody would ever know.”
A group of children call out “mzungu” — “foreigner” in the Luganda language — from the shade of a mango tree as Elder Lee leaps over a crevice. “But, like, if you listen to a Nickelback song, you won’t be ready to go teach a lesson.”
The lessons are much the same, convert to convert. The young Mormons simply begin a conversation about what they believe, and if it goes well they leave a pamphlet or Book of Mormon and ask the recruit to give it a read, and pray. They are authoritative but deliver the message in a submissive manner.
“We don’t expect anyone just to take our word for it; we ask them to pray for it, to ask God if it’s true or not,” Elder Lee says. “Everyone knows that God is not a God of lies. We’re not trying to convert you to us; we’re trying to convert you.”
Unlike other Christian missionaries in Kampala, Ugandans say, Mormons never ask for money. They are polite, not pushy. They volunteer to help local members or anyone curious about joining, even digging ditches or hauling bricks.
In the leafy Kampala neighborhood of Kabowa, Charles Owori prepares to take the leap of faith. Mr. Owori has been meeting with the missionaries for several weeks. He holds his copy of the Book of Mormon as the discussion turns to the ultimate matter at hand: Is he ready to convert?
“Brother Charles,” says Hillary Chigwedere, a young missionary from Zimbabwe, “are you ready to follow the example of Jesus Christ by being baptized by someone with the priesthood authority in the Church of Jesus Christ?”
Brother Charles answers: “We read Scripture that Jesus Christ was immersed in the water, but I only had some water poured on my head. So I need that.”
The missionaries smile. They are satisfied and set a date.
Next stop is Joseph Kagodo, a 29-year-old D.J. baptized just three months earlier.
For new converts like Mr. Kagodo, the values of the young proselytes are as compelling as any set of religious beliefs. Indeed, Mr. Kagodo says the details of Mormon doctrine were confusing for him at first — do they believe only in the Book of Mormon, or in the Bible as well? (They are meant to complement each other.) But in a land where many aggressively preach the word of God and worship tends toward the enthusiastic, he appreciated that the Mormons lived as they taught — quietly, humbly.
“I found what I wanted,” Mr. Kagodo says. “It is the way of life. I’ve met many other Christians who would be very comfortable just saying they are born-again or what, but their character does not depict it.”
“For me,” he adds, “the fact that nobody pushes you, but asks you, and read the Scriptures, and just keep the gospel, that matters a lot.”