Missionaries say they keep an open mind when meeting people who may have misconceptions about their faith
At first glance, Brayden Lloyd and Nicholas Peterson look like your typical teenager or young adult.
After graduating from high school last May, 19-year-old Lloyd hopes to one day be a guitarist in a band. Passionate about mountain biking, he also likes to go out with his friends. Peterson, 22, aspires to work in aerospace engineering, but in his spare time he is a professional-grade saboteur, who enjoys singing and other forms of dance. He also loves college football. His favorite team is the BYU Cougars, although he follows the North Carolina Tar Heels because of quarterback Sam Howell.
What might set them apart from other young men in Washington is that they are both missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a branch of Christianity whose members were once widely referred to as Mormons, but who now avoid the term. The couple spent weeks in the Washington community as part of an ongoing church effort to reach new believers.
“Being a missionary is definitely a personal choice,” said Elder Peterson, who explained that it is not a requirement of the Church. Male missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints take the title of elder while serving in the mission field. Missionary women are called Sisters.
“It’s just something that since I was little I knew I wanted to do,” Elder Peterson said. Her father served as a missionary in Fiji, her brothers served in Germany and Nauvoo, Illinois, and her brother-in-law served in the Dominican Republic.
“I always knew I was going to share the truth about Jesus Christ, to bring people closer to God,” he said. Typically, being a missionary is a two-year, full-time commitment. Each missionary is assigned a mission president, who oversees missionaries in the field and assigns them to work in certain communities. Missionaries may work for several weeks in a particular community before being transferred elsewhere in the region. Elder Lloyd said he grew up hearing the stories of his father, who served as a missionary in the Philippines. His sister recently returned to the family home in Utah after serving as a missionary in Baltimore.
Around the world and across America—including the St. Louis area—more than 51,000 missionaries are at work. This elaborate network of missionaries is one of the reasons why some religious scholars claim that the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the fastest growing religious groups. in America, while other major denominations are reporting declining membership numbers. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention, the heart of conservative Protestantism, has suffered 12 straight years of membership losses. Since 2007, the denomination has lost 1.2 million members.
“I attribute (the growth of The Church of Latter-day Saints) to God, and nothing else,” said Elder Peterson, who is also from Utah. “We would continue to do this work even if the church did not grow.”
Elder Peterson previously served 18 months as a missionary in Brazil, taking an intensive six-week language course so he could learn Portuguese, the most widely used language in that country.
He returned to the United States at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and elected to be reassigned, arriving in Washington a few weeks ago.
Brother Lloyd previously served in the Dardenne Prairie Parish. A “parish” refers to a local congregation.
The couple starts their day at 6:30 a.m., exercises, prepares breakfast and spends 30 minutes planning the day’s activities. They also spend part of their day serving others, helping with various tasks.
“Virtually every minute of the day is planned around what we are going to do,” Elder Lloyd said. “We do all of this planning so that we can be as productive as possible with the time that is given to us.”
A considerable portion of their day is also spent in personal study of the Book of Mormon and the Bible and preparing for upcoming meetings with people who have expressed an interest in learning more about the Church of Jesus Christ. of Latter Day Saints. They said one of the biggest questions they get from people outside the church is about the role the Bible plays in their faith.
“We believe in the Bible and that it is the Word of God. We also believe in the Book of Mormon as God’s continuing revelation to man,” Elder Peterson said.
In addition to visiting people who have reached out to the local parish or contacted missionaries through the denomination’s website, churchofjesuschrist.org, or by calling them directly, 636-667-9183, they are also painting the community, which they call “Discovery.”
During this time, they tour downtown Washington, walk the waterfront trail, go to parks or other public places in nearby communities looking for people who might be interested in meeting them.
“It depends on the person, but it’s often that we find people who want more, they feel that something is missing in their life, but don’t necessarily know what it is. When we find these people, the conversation just flows,” Elder Peterson said.
Elders Lloyd and Peterson said they don’t get discouraged when people politely decline or ignore their attempts to strike up a conversation.
“We are not going to try to force people into the Church. God wouldn’t do that, he wouldn’t force people into his lap,” Elder Peterson said. “It’s about their choice, to choose to respond to the spirit.”
Many people who speak with the missionaries have questions about the Church, which as of December 2020 had 16 million members worldwide and is led by President Russell M. Nelson.
In Washington, the local neighborhood currently has 342 congregants. The Washington Ward is located at 110 East Fourteenth Street in Washington, on property adjacent to St. Francis Borgia Cemetery. The church is open to visitors during Sunday services.
The Union Ward has 310 members. The Sullivan Ward has 309 members.
“Many people are surprised to learn that we are Christians, that we believe in Jesus Christ,” Elder Lloyd said. “A lot of people have a lot of misconceptions about the Book of Mormon or read something on the Internet about our faith. There are many things you can find on the internet that don’t speak very well of our church and are totally inaccurate. So we always keep an open mind, because we know we’re going to face some misconceptions right from the start.
Working as a full-time missionary in a predominantly Catholic and religious community like Washington, they said, was “wonderful” and “helpful.”
“I really think it’s better, because we have common ground,” Elder Lloyd said. “It’s also great that people are actively participating in the religion of their choice, actively trying to become better and closer to Christ. That’s all we’re trying to do is help people to draw closer to Christ.
They declined to say how many people they have personally met who are now pursuing baptism in the Church, but said it happens and more often than some might believe. They said they are ready to meet people who simply have questions about the church and who may not be ready to be baptized.
These meetings always begin with the Book of Mormon, which church members believe to be a scripture translated by the first prophet Joseph Smith through the revelations, gifts, and power of God. The book details how people came to the Americas, their struggles, their great wars, and how Jesus Christ came to visit them after his death in Jerusalem, teaching people his gospel.
“We’re going through (the Book of Mormon) because we want people to be able to see for themselves if they believe the Book of Mormon is true,” Elder Peterson said. “We then ask people to pray about it, asking God that if it is true that they would receive an answer with conviction and the answer would be ‘yes’.”
“Personally, I know the Book of Mormon to be true,” Elder Peterson said. “I would never have left my family to become a missionary if that wasn’t the case. I know it’s true, because I did the same — I read it. I prayed about it and God vindicated in my heart that it was true.
And while their time in Washington may be fleeting as they both face relocation to other neighborhoods in the St. Louis area, they said the experience of being in Washington and County Franklin is something they will take with them.
“There were a lot of cool experiences and fun times, but I don’t necessarily think I’ll remember those times,” Elder Lloyd said. “I think I will remember all the times I was able to talk about my faith.”