Editor’s note: This is the first piece in a three part series.
As I reached Lake Meridian Park to meet my companions for the day, my 1970s-era Viscount bicycle started making a consistent, distinct grinding noise. It’s kind of hard to describe in print. You know: Errch… Errch… Errch… Errrch… — that rasp of rusted metal on loose spokes and unreliable rubber. It’s an off-putting noise. And certainly not the sound I’d hoped to hear leading up to a day of peddling.
This hand-me-down relic came from my grandfather, who shuffled it off to my dad, who passed it along to me – rather than sending it to the dump. Thus, I offered an initial warning to the pair of eager and smiling ladies ahead of me.
“If this bike falls apart, I may need some first aid,” I said, only half-joking.
“We’ll pray for help,” said Sister Mikayla Pearson, laughing with a surprisingly keen sense of irony, with each pedal pushing her ahead of me.
I’m not sure what I expected as I entered the slightly overcast June 4 morning with the most spiritually excitable strangers I’d ever met. All I really knew was that I’d be riding with the Lake Sawyer Ward missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. You know, Mormons.
“Have you ever heard of Mormons before?” Pearson had asked me a few weeks prior, rolling up behind me at the corner of Kent-Kangley and Southeast Wax Road, with her companion, Sister Savannah Webb. The ladies wore modest, business casual clothing with helmets and matching blue and tan-trimmed backpacks. Before the small talk started, I noticed the daunting black name tags affixed to their cardigans: “Sister Webb” and “Sister Pearson” above the distinctively printed name “Jesus Christ.”
“Damn it,” I’d thought to myself. “How do I politely get out of a religious sermon?”
Knowing what I know now, this is a fairly common initial response to a chance — or miracle, depending on your perspective — encounter with the Sisters. People have busy lives and don’t typically love being solicited, or proselytized, for unknown reasons.
“We don’t expect everyone to jump on our message and to accept it,” Pearson, a native Californian with sandy-blond hair, told me later. “We are just trying to offer it to people and invite them. Sometimes I do wish people would let us have a conversation with them, but we all have busy lives and not everyone is going to take time to listen to what we have to say. A lot of times the people that aren’t going to listen to our message, they don’t recognize the importance of it. We believe the message we have is sacred and has eternal consequences and we know they don’t recognize that. If they really knew what they were turning their backs on they might take the time to listen.”
I decided to unearth my rickety two-wheeler for a chance peek into the response and reaction of other strangers happened upon by the sisters. But before I could do so, Pearson told me they’d need permission from the Church leadership.
The national press hasn’t been too kind to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of late, after Mormon Kate Kelly, a human rights lawyer from Washington D.C., was excommunicated for advocating that women should be ordained in the Church. In my initial research on the religion, I also found a 2012 BusinessWeek article that detailed the nebulous relationship between the Church and business interests, and how secretive the Church is about the its financial holdings.
So, honestly, when Randy Grover, the director of public affairs for the Kent Stake of the Church, called me about the potential project, I wasn’t sure how it would play out. Would I be straight out denied? Were there certain questions I wouldn’t be allowed to ask? Was I a threat to the religion?
Grover, a genial and easygoing man who volunteers — like all the other LDS leadership — said that he’d spoken to the women and Federal Way Mission president Bob Eaton to ensure they all felt safe about the idea. He said they looked into my writing background. And that was it. I had earned the green light. Just like that.
I felt like I’d been accepted into a secret club that was also attempting to invite anyone its members came across. Still, I had no idea what I was really getting into.
So when I re-met Pearson and Webb, I knew that the young ladies were aged 20 and 19, respectively, and that they were, as Elwood from “The Blues Brothers” might say, “on a mission from God.” I also knew their routine involved between 8-12 miles of biking each day, from about 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., stopping for lunch and dinner.
When Pearson told me that she and Webb are sometimes mistaken for nuns, I laughed. Not that I would have really known any better.
I’ve always been slightly confused about the Mormon faith. I’m a born Jew with little personal knowledge of the Mormon religion — or most any religion, for that matter. I’m aware of Mitt Romney but have never seen Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s critically acclaimed play “The Book of Mormon.” While those may not be the most credible sources for the 174-year-old religion, they might actually be a fair representation of the layperson’s perspective on the subject.
It’s not that I thought the sisters would be aliens or that they’d treat me like some Hebrew pariah, I just wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. An LDS Brother I met later in the day over dinner, Steve Higgins, a jolly and engaging Englishman with a courteous and smiley family, seemed to understand my initial uncertainties when he told the story of his conversion to Mormonism in 1995.
“I own up to this every single time,” Higgins said at the dinner table. “When (my friend) told me she was Mormon, I kind of thought that was like an Amish person.”
But we’ll get to all that later.
The sisters and I launched into their daily journey at just past 11 a.m., shortly after their three hours of daily morning study of the Book of Mormon. Typically they’d do all of the study at their temporary apartment, located in Kent, but they said mission rules prohibit visitors. They met me at the park to answer the preliminary, sometimes ignorant questions on my mind.
How did you end up in Covington?
“As girls, we volunteer and we get assigned to an area… by our prophet,” Webb said. “They choose where we go.”
Did you originally want to go to outside the country?
“Oh yeah, of course,” Webb said. “But for myself, now being here, I know that I was called here for a reason because I don’t think I could handle learning a new language… God definitely knows me; knows what I can handle.”
Do both men and women volunteer for missions?
“Everyone is a volunteer for missionaries,” Pearson said. “The only real difference, I guess, is girls serve 18 months, boys serve 24 months… I guess it’s more of an obligation for the boys to serve missions… It’s kind of more expected for them. But now there’s a lot more sisters coming out because they lowered the age requirements.”
Why did you decide to go on a mission?
“As little kids, you see the missionaries because they always come to church with you,” Pearson said. “It’s just something that you know about your whole life and always have that option.”
Have the restrictions of coffee, liquor, tea or cigarettes ever been hard for you?
“That’s never been a problem for me,” Pearson said. “I’ve had experiences, like people in my own family that haven’t (followed the Word of Wisdom), and I’ve seen the effects of it in their lives and I don’t really want to have those in mine.”
Did you ever consider leaving the Church?
“When you are raised in the Church — born with a family that is Mormon or LDS — people kind of think that you just blindly follow and go with your parents,” Pearson said. “But… they never say just follow someone or do it because your parents do it. They really ask us all to find out for ourselves if what we are being taught is true… They always said, ask, pray about it, figure out if this is right and gain your own testimony. Don’t just follow your parents because that’s what they’re doing.”
Is it difficult to be a young Mormon and abide by your beliefs?
“I had my standards and I would stick to my standards,” Webb said. “I wouldn’t party or drink alcohol. I did what made me feel good; what the gospel has taught us to do. It may seem like a lot of work, but it keeps you on the right path and it is such a blessing to have.”
Where does the Church stand on polygamy?
“Yeah, we don’t do that,” Pearson said. “That’s not the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We don’t practice that. The people that still practice that are not members of the Church.”
Talking with the giggly and affable pair, it became increasingly evident that these sisters acted like, well, sisters.
They communicate with a secular ESP — seamlessly switching as lead speaker and filling in each other’s blanks. After 10 weeks together, they are inseparable, and not just because they spend nearly every waking minute together.
“She is like my best friend,” Webb said.
They prove their admiration for one another hours later, following lunch at Subway, as Webb struggled over a speck of food caught in her teeth. Pearson hunched over, searching her sister’s pristine gums and trying to help.
w“I’d floss it out for you if I could,” Pearson said.
Not all mission companions get along in such earnestness, as both seemed to, quite literally, be counting their blessings to have found, and be stuck with, one another. But despite hearing some horror stories of less than ideal matches, Pearson and Webb said most missionary companions seem to work out. Transfers to different regions can happen every six weeks. But beyond that, most missionaries aren’t there to fool around and volunteered because they see a broader perspective. Still, a less than ideal companion would be tough.
“I’m sure a lot of people go through that,” Webb said. “But you’ve really just got to pray. You’ve got to find the best things you like about them.”
Despite their ease of friendship, the sisters come from distinctly differing backgrounds.
Pearson, from Victorville, Calif., is the youngest of three and the only practicing Mormon in her family. She’s a thespian who sings, writes music and plays guitar in her free time and spent one year at BYU before the mission. She hopes to someday work as a speech therapist.
Growing up in a predominantly non-Mormon neighborhood, Person said she felt some ridicule from friends of other faiths — not being invited all the parties and hearing murmurs of, “Lets not talk about this because the Mormon is around.”
“I was like, ‘I’m still normal,’” Pearson said. “…I wasn’t always the perfect example of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but I found my way eventually.”
Looking back, Pearson said she “loved” being different from those around her.
“We think of Jesus Christ, he is the center of our Church,” she said. “He had a lot of rejection and non-acceptance and you have to stand up for what you believe. For the most part everyone respected it; everyone respected me… I had great friendships with everyone even if they weren’t Mormon.”
Webb, an aspiring ultrasound technician and/or wedding planner, grew up in a practicing LDS family in Cedar City, Utah as the 11th of 12 kids, some of who were adopted and from other marriages. She worked after high school and plans to attend Southern Utah University, or a different school close to home, post-mission. Even though she “grew up in the Church,” Webb admits that she “fell away” for a time and was “confused.” Her mother told her to look for her own answers and they read the Book of Mormon together in 30 days.
“And I got my answer,” said Webb, who is in her third month on the Mission. “I knew that the Church is true and this is the path I am supposed to go on.”
When I asked her to describe that “knowingness,” Webb said she felt “super calm” and “Gods love for me.”
“It was a reassurance that this is true and this is the only true church,” Webb said. “I just knew.”
Volunteering for an LDS mission is certainly not all fun and leisure time. In fact, there is little of the latter. Besides the dietary restrictions in the “Word of Wisdom” that discourage alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea or drugs, missionaries give up internet, phone, TV, radio, movies and books — all entertainment not associated with the Church. Their only contact with family comes via letters. Pearson said the pair is in bed every night by 10:30 p.m.
Webb said she loved Netflix prior to the mission, but couldn’t recall a single TV shows she used to watch. It was as if it were blanked from her memory box of important facts.
“It was easy to leave,” she said, though she later remembered loving the song “Royal,” even if she wasn’t sure what the lyrics referenced. “I haven’t even missed it.”
“Once you go on a mission you forget everything you used to do,” added Pearson, who has a crush on pop-rock star Phillip Phillips.
Despite these restrictions, missionary work is as popular as ever, with more than 83,000 missionaries serving throughout the world at any given time, each of who are assigned by the 12 living apostles. In Oct. 2012, Thomas S. Monson, the Church’s current living prophet, announced that the age requirements for missions had been lowered from 21 to 19 for females and from 19 to 18 for men. Since then, young females have stormed the mission walls — upwards of 23,000, which is nearly triple the total before the change, according to a recent New York Times article.
Though elder, e.g. male, missionaries have traditionally roamed Lake Sawyer Ward, Grover said sisters have taken over the last couple years. And the response has been quite good.
“I think most people tend to be a little softer towards sisters that are knocking on the door versus elders,” Grover said. “I think the response is a much broader audience than a typical set of elders would get. They’ve been doing excellent work.”
An LDS mission costs $400 per month for the young adults, meaning $7,200 for women and $9,600 for men. The Church introduced a program in 1990 that equalized pay for each mission. That made it so missionaries in places like Seattle aren’t paying more than those who go to Honduras. Webb and Pearson receive a $160 monthly stipend to help cover food, lodging, transportation and other mission-related expenses.
It’s not necessarily common for sisters to bike, but the practical mode of transportation had been a pleasant surprise for both Webb and Pearson, neither of whom considered themselves avid riders. In fact, Webb’s dad needed to send extra money for her to purchase one.
“It’s fun,” Webb said. “We can talk to a lot more people when we are out biking. It’s easier than invading people’s space at home.”
We’d coasted about 20 seconds away from the park when the sisters stop for the first time.
An elderly lady in a University of Florida hoodie reciprocates some pleasantries but continues on her way. Seconds later, we slow for a foreign woman who shakes her head politely, smiles and keeps walking.
I ask the sisters mid-pedal, fumbling with my voice recorder, if they are stopping so frequently on my account — for the story.
“We talk to everybody,” Pearson responds. “That’s how we found you.”
The Lake Sawyer Ward covers Covington, a majority of Kent and portions of Black Diamond. Pearson, the more veteran of the two in the 10th month of her mission, while Webb is only in month No. 3, often leads the way.
Cars whiz by as we ride east along the Southeast 272nd Street sidewalk. The sisters give emphatic, sincere-seeming waves and shout “thank you” to those who let them pass, even if the drivers can’t hear their appreciation.
Pearson waves at a mail carrier that is waiting for traffic to clear. He doesn’t return the good humor, but smirks — kind of. The sisters talk forward and behind to one another, sing and laugh. Lots of laughing.
Pearson weaves her front wheel in-and-out with a kid-like glee on long stretches of sidewalk. They brake to chat with every single person who passes by that isn’t on a cell phone or far too young be approached on the street.
The sisters have a genuinely good time and it seems to bring out grins in others. Even towards me — a creepy-ish bearded man with a camera following closely behind two attractive young women.
“We’re gonna call you Brother Mandel,” Pearson says.
Pick up next week’s paper for part two of Mandel’s adventure with the Mormons.
Correction: this version updates an incorrect number related to length of time between transfers during a mission. The Reporter regrets the error.