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LDS church missionaries grow up as they serve God
The Church of Latter-day Saints Elder Matt Connell goes through a quiz on a series of biblical hand gestures Thursday at the Northland Road stake center in rural Manteca. - photo by HIME ROMERO
Elder Matt Connell expected to strengthen his faith in God as well as to help others when he volunteered to serve as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

What he didn’t expect was to mature personally.

“I’ve grown up,” the 20-year-old resident of Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri said Thursday at the LDS stake center on Northland Road where the 14 missionaries serving in Manteca, Ripon, Lathrop, and Tracy meet weekly to sharpen their grasp of the Bible and their faith in a group setting. “I’m thinking less of myself and more of other people. I have a lot more patience now.”

Connell is 14 months into a two-year mission. He interrupted his education at Brigham Young University – he plans to become a dentist – to go on the mission. Every year more than 10,000 young Mormons step up to serve. It is a commitment that requires them to put their secular life and relationships on hold for two years. They also must cover their own expenses and follow a regimented schedule 6.5 days a week that starts at 6:30 a.m. with devotion and exercise for two hours before doing missionary work and returning by 9 p.m. each night.

It is a regimen that Mission President James Jardine, who also is a volunteer and oversees 195 missionaries in the greater Sacramento-Stockton area, said serves the  young men and women  by helping them mature, develop focused work habits thanks to the intense study and regimented schedules as well as grow spiritually.

Jardine knows that from first had experience. Jardine, who was raised in Salt Lake City, served as a missionary in Los Angeles.

“I was surprised at how demanding it was,” Jardine recalled when he initially started his service as a missionary as a young man.

He also found that serving in a stateside mission – there are 350 LDS geographical missions worldwide of which Sacramento-Stockton is one – people are more alike than they are different.

“It’s a life changing experience,” said Jardine who is on a leave from his law practice and the Utah State Board of Regents.

Jardine noted missionaries are often called upon by people they encounter to offer a religious context   to life’s trials and tribulations.

“The miracle of all this are 19 to 20 year-old men are being asked what to do by people such as a struggling single mom, someone in an abusive relationship (and such),” Jardine said. “We forget they are 19 to 20 year olds.”

Judging by the “game” conducted Thursday the missionaries take their task seriously. Although they were sharing laughter and making jokes, they were competing in a game that pitted Tracy missionaries against their Manteca counterparts to test not just their knowledge of the Bible but also to place it into context with various day-to-day situations.

Hawaiian resident serving in Manteca
One of the enthusiastic participants in the drill was Elder Robert Kahawaii, 23, who hails from the Island of Oahu in Hawaii. Kahawaii, like Connell, is currently serving in the Manteca area.

“I’ve learned to be more patient and more humble,” said Kahawaii who is in his sixth month as a missionary.

Kahawaii intends to return to Brigham Young University-Hawaii after he is through with his commitment and study to become an architect. Kahawaii, like all missionaries, pays for his own expenses. Usually that means working for a year or so before departing to the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah on the BYU campus for immersion in the language and cultural traditions of where they are being assigned plus learning teaching techniques.

“When we teach our faith it is a great privilege,” Kahawaii said.

Elder Wes Michie, 20, from Kaysville, Utah is 10 months into his service as a missionary.

He said the experience has helped him grow closer to his family even though he hasn’t seen them since he departed for Provo.

“It’s made me more certain about what I want out of life,” Michie, who is also serving in Manteca, said. “I definitely have more patience now.”

Jardine said he fully expects that when the missionaries that he is helping oversee return to their homes they will do so with maturity and abilities beyond their years. As a church background piece notes, “often they find themselves able to reach out to others, to successfully manage challenges and to find happiness in their own lives.”

World’s largest full-time volunteer missionary force
The 53,000 missionaries constitute the world’s largest full-time volunteer missionary force.

Missionaries can be single men between the ages of 19 and 25, single women over the age of 21 or retired couples. They work with a companion of the same gender during their mission except, of course, couples, who work with their spouse. Single men serve for two years and single women for 18 months.

They are only sent to parts of the word where the church operates and is accepted by the government.

They are also the highest profile members of the Mormon, especially single young men dressed in white shirts, ties, and dark slacks who often ride bicycles as they go about their calling.

Jardine noticed that since missionaries are viewed as “giving” to a community they are often times protected by troublesome elements. He recalled his son and his companion being warned by gang members at their inner city location to avoid an area well in advance of an anticipated violent encounter between rival gangs.

Contacts with family and friends are limited to letters and an occasional phone call to family at special times during their service. Missionaries avoid entertainment, parties, and other activities common to their age group to allow them to focus entirely on the work of serving and of teaching others the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The impact of their service benefits them in ways that one may not immediately appreciate. Jardine noted a professor he works with said missionaries who have served in another country are much more versatile in the people and customs than a tourist could ever be.

“Tourists visit for a short time and get (a superficial) feel for the country,” Jardine said. “Missionaries immerse themselves in the day-to-day life.”

Elder M. Russell Ballard, one of the church’s Twelve Apostles, is quoted in a church release noting, “They (the missionaries) have spent up to two years helping others, thinking outside of themselves, studying scripture, learning a new language in many cases, finding out about new cultures and have experiences that make them more responsible, more caring, and more thoughtful human beings.”