What’s it like to be a Mormon missionary?

Mormonism has been making headlines lately: Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney’s U.S. presidential campaigns, Warren Jeffs’ trial and sentencing for sexual assault of two underage girls, and “The Book of Mormon” Broadway musical, to name a few. But what’s it really like to be a Mormon? Rolf Straubhaar was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in East Lansing, Michigan; Provo, Utah; and Austin, Texas. Growing up, he learned Portuguese when his family lived in Brazil for nine months, and in November 2001 at age 19, he returned to Brazil for two years to be a Mormon missionary; here, he shares the story of that mission. Currently, Rolf lives with his wife and newborn daughter in Los Angeles, where he is working toward a PhD in social science and comparative education from UCLA.

Rolf Straubhaar (right), pictured here with his companion of the time, spent November 2001 through November 2003 on a Mormon mission to Manaus, Brazil. Photo courtesy of Rolf Straubhaar.

As told to Leila Kalmbach

My first testimony moment happened when I was 11. I’d learned in Sunday school that the Book of Mormon says God can speak directly to us, and I thought that was pretty cool; I wanted God to speak to me. I was fascinated by the Book of Mormon, despite its archaic language, so my very patient mom sat down with me for an hour every night and we read it together, and she explained all the words I didn’t know.

One night, I kneeled down and prayed over my bed and asked God if what I was reading was true. I got an incredibly warm, strong feeling that this book was good and that it was good for me, and that I should put more time into it. It was a powerful experience. Ever since then, the Book of Mormon has been a very big deal to me.

In terms of the way I live my life, I abide by all the living standards of Mormonism. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I was a virgin when I married, and I go to church on Sunday. I’ve gotten the endowment, which means I made a series of promises to God before leaving on my mission, and received garments that some have disparagingly called the “magic underwear,” which are meant to be a reminder of the covenants a Mormon has made, much like a yarmulke or any other piece of sacred clothing.

In many ways, though, I don’t fit the Mormon stereotype, particularly in terms of the relative importance of various aspects of Mormon theology to my own personal belief system. For example, many Mormons base a large portion of their personal testimony or conviction on the Book of Mormon being a literal historical record — for me personally, the historicity of the Book of Mormon is much less important than the merit and power of its teachings (which include some pretty powerful passages on income inequality and social justice). I’m also politically liberal — I call my family Mormon hippies. One of the most prominent areas in which I differ from more conservative Mormons is in my views on equal rights. It put my faith through some hurdles when I found out that from the mid-1800s until 1978, African-Americans weren’t allowed to hold the priesthood, and that in the 1800s polygamy was a common practice. It also really hurts me how members of the LDS Church often treat kids who come out as gay. I think the position that God sees some of his children as less good or less worthy than others because of their sexual orientation is man’s, not God’s. It’s one of my strongest convictions that God loves all of us, not just despite our differences but because of them. I think it pains God to see his children inflicting pain on one another, but he can’t always step in because pain is a part of human existence and much of what makes it meaningful.

Before my mission, I thought a lot about how although Mormon theology has been so wonderful to me and edified me a great deal personally, why would I want to push it on anyone else when they find happiness in other belief systems? In the end, there were a couple of reasons I decided to go on a mission. For one, honestly, I wanted the experience of it. When missionaries come home, they give a talk about the “greatest hits” from their mission, and you can see how much the experience stretched and matured them, and growing up I looked up to those people. Also, as much as there are many other paths and beliefs I respect, Mormonism has made me very happy, and I wanted to be able to share that with people, and let them decide whether to take it or leave it. Since that moment in my bedroom at age 11, I’ve had several other moments that have reaffirmed my Mormon faith and made me feel powerfully loved and forgiven, and those experiences have been extremely important to me.

I was assigned to the Brazil Manaus mission, which at the time covered the four largest states in northern Brazil. On a mission, you’re always with a companion, and every six weeks you could be assigned to a new location, or your companion could change. The longest I spent in one place was six months, and the longest with a single companion was four and a half months.

It’s changed slightly now, but an average day went like this: You wake up at 6:30. You exercise and shower, then at 7 you and your companion read scriptures together or go through practice scenarios of how to teach a given principle or resolve a given concern.  At 8, you have independent study — half an hour of the Book of Mormon, half an hour of your choice. You eat breakfast at 9, then leave the house at 9:30. The rules are strict, but I was even stricter than I probably needed to be: I would feel disobedient all day if we left at 9:32. I butted heads with some of my companions over that, and in retrospect, if I had been my own companion I would’ve ticked myself off.

We wore the traditional white button-up shirt and tie and dress slacks. In very poor areas, I remember feeling ridiculous and pretentious because of the way I was dressed. I never really got over that — I always felt bad about it. After a while I prided myself on my white shirt starting to wear out and yellow, my ties getting sun bleached so that half of them looked a completely different color from the other half, and my pants fraying at the knees. I didn’t feel so out of place then.

Rolf with the sons of a family he taught and baptized in Itacoatiara, Brazil. Photo courtesy of Rolf Straubhaar.

We were out for 12 hours every day. Sometimes we would knock door to door, sometimes talk to people in the street, sometimes talk with local members of the church. It was physically draining; we didn’t have cars or bikes, and we were just walking for 12 hours a day, close to the Equator. At 9:30 p.m., we came home, wrote in our journals and planned the next day’s activities, then had lights out at 10:30.

I’ve heard some horror stories about safety concerns from missionaries who served in other places, but in Brazil people were pretty nice. There was one area in which I probably should have been scared for my safety, but I wasn’t. It was a very poor, crime-ridden neighborhood in Manaus, down by the port on the Rio Negro River, and a lot of drugs passed through there. It was in a valley, and at the bottom was a lake the city ran sewage into. The houses were all on stilts above this sewage lake.

We’d hear gunshots there regularly, and a number of the drug traffickers knew us. They’d see us walking by during a drug deal and say, “Hey elders, how’s it going?” They knew we weren’t a threat.

One day, my companion and I were going door to door, and a lady was outside her house looking agitated. We asked if we could help her, and she said, “My two-year-old daughter just fell in the sewage, and I pulled her out. I tried to help her cough it all up, but there’s still some stuck in her lungs. I really need to call the doctor, but I can’t find my phone, and I don’t know what to do.”

It was horrible. She was able to find a phone and call for an ambulance, but the whole experience kind of stopped me in my tracks and had me wondering what I was doing. I thought, ‘I’m walking door to door telling people about this book and gospel I really love, while this woman has to be terrified that at any second, her daughter could fall and get a lungful of sewage.’

I wondered, ‘Is this really the best use of my time?’ From a moral and religious perspective, I realized that better living conditions were something I should be fighting for too.

But at other moments, when I was able to get close to people I met in Brazil, being a missionary was so rewarding. At one point, I was in a very white, Catholic, upper-middle-class neighborhood in Manaus called Planalto. People kept to themselves, and knocking on doors we got a lot of, “What are you doing here? Get out of here!” or “We’re Catholic,” yelled from the back of the house.

We hadn’t had any luck for a month and a half — just doors slammed in our face 12 hours a day. Then one afternoon, we came to a house with a bunch of potted plants in the front yard like a nursery. When we knocked, a very well-built German-looking guy in his mid-40s (he turned out to be a high school gym teacher) answered the door. His name was Marcelo. He was very friendly and welcoming; he later told us he was mostly curious to talk because he watched a lot of sporting events that took place in the United States.

We talked for 45 minutes, and then he had to leave for work, and we left him the Book of Mormon to read, promising to come back the next day. There’s a series of six lessons missionaries go through to progress someone slowly toward baptism, and normally, when we’d return the person would’ve maybe read the first paragraph, and we’d have a very uncomfortable conversation where they didn’t want to admit they hadn’t read it.

But Marcelo was excited for us to come back, and he had all sorts of questions for us. It took us two weeks to get to Lesson 2 because he had so many questions.

About a week in, we’d had a terrible day. When we got to Marcelo’s house, he asked us how our day had been, and we admitted we were exhausted and had had people yelling at us all day. Very slyly throughout the lesson, he kept asking us questions about where we lived, trying to make it seem like casual conversation.

We got home, exhausted, at 9:30, and not long after we heard a knock at the door. There was Marcelo with a huge plate of homemade food. “I could tell you had a rough day,” he said, “and I wanted to help you out.”

Marcelo didn’t want to jump into Mormonism, and I appreciated that. Sometimes, especially in poorer countries where being from the U.S. has cachet, it can be easy to talk people into things, and some mission presidents, though well-meaning, are more concerned with getting baptism numbers up than getting people involved long-term. My mission president was refreshingly different in pushing real conversion over sheer numbers, but there were a lot of missionaries in the mission who pushed numbers, including my immediate leaders at the time. Marcelo told me up front that he wanted to take two and a half months to think things through, and that was a breath of fresh air to me.

As time went by, he became even more committed to going through with it. Then, two weeks before Marcelo was set to be baptized, I was transferred to a different area. I was devastated. It was one of the most emotional goodbyes I’ve ever experienced.

A few days before the baptism, during our weekly missionaries’ meeting, my previous companion called me. He said that Marcelo had gone down to the mission president’s office, knocked on the door, and told him, “You need to let Elder Straubhaar come back to baptize me.” And amazingly (this kind of thing didn’t happen very often), he got permission. Going back and helping Marcelo be baptized was one of the most emotionally and spiritually powerful moments of my mission.

Although I have a lot of problems with the neocolonialist attitudes that often accompany missionary work in any denomination, my mission was an extremely valuable experience to me. Now, a decade later, the experiences I had in Brazil still impact me. For one, certain habits I acquired, such as studying the Book of Mormon for half an hour each day, are still with me today. (I don’t still wake up at 6:30, though.)

On a more macro scale, my mission impacted my career trajectory, both because I learned I loved being in places where I’m the demographic and linguistic minority, and because I wanted to help improve the lives of others. Afterward, I ended up working for educational nonprofits in Brazil and Mozambique, becoming a teacher in parts of the States I’d never been, such as Harlem and the Navajo reservation, and then going to grad school in international education. I still see myself going back one day to do research and live in Brazil with my family.

My mission was the first real taste I had of living in another place and culture long enough to feel just as at home there as I do here — I had some pretty crazy culture shock when I got back home. In Brazil, I got to know another part of myself, a part of my personality that doesn’t necessarily come out unless I’m around a bunch of Brazilians speaking Portuguese.

I still feel very familial ties with people I met on my mission. I’ve been back to visit twice since I left, and plan to visit again one day. Marcelo’s son is at Brigham Young University now, and over Skype and the phone I’ve been able to follow important milestones in Marcelo’s family’s life, like when Marcelo baptized the rest of his family and when they all were able to make the week-long trip to São Paulo to perform rites in the LDS temple. My own first child, a daughter named Evangeline, was born July 24 of this year. When I posted a photo of her on Facebook, Marcelo was one of the first people to comment on it.

“She looks just like her Brazilian grandfather,” he said.

Rolf with Marcelo during a trip back to Brazil in 2004. This photo was taken on the riverside land plot where the Manaus LDS temple is currently being built. Photo courtesy of Rolf Straubhaar.

6 Responses to “What’s it like to be a Mormon missionary?”
  1. yukio says:

    Dude..I’m pretty sure someone back in manaus will cry and he read this..because of you we have the opportunity to join the church and now have eternal family…we love you so much and we wish to see you soon again =)

    Yukio Gall

  2. Thanks for the chance to participate, Leila, this was a lot of fun!

  3. Such an interesting story, Rolf, and so well rendered, Leila! Also, while I’m writing, CONGRATULATIONS on your new Evangeline, Rolf!

  4. Jacob Christensen says:

    May I just point out that Warren Jeffs (mentioned in the subtitle) is NOT a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints! He claims to be the prophet of the technically named “Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.” This is a completely separate entity of people who disagreed with the LDS Church’s suspension of plural marriage and decision to excommunicate those who practiced polygamy. They separated from the true church in the eighteenth century. The FLDS Church does not have the Priesthood nor do they utilize missionaries like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does.

  5. Anita says:

    I just loved your story. It reminded me of my mission to Recife years ago. Eu sou Nordetiina do coracao. Thanks for sharing Rolf!!

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