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Missionary trips deepen Mormons' faiths

By E.A. PEER
news@ColumbiaMissourian.com

MOBERLY — Few high school and college students would relish working 16-hour days for free, far from family, friends or parties.

Moberly native Cory Morris, however, is an exception.

After raising $10,000 to pay his own way, Morris spent two years in the Czech Republic practicing prayer and proselytism. He then returned to college and graduated earlier this year from MU.

Morris, a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, spent 2006 and 2007 as one of more than 50,000 Mormon missionaries worldwide.

For young adults committed to a faith, perhaps no religious group requires a bigger commitment of its youth than the Mormon faith.

The church encourages and trains devout youth such as Morris to spend an average of two years spreading the faith and performing humanitarian work at one of its more than 350 missionary sites across the globe. The trips often cement an already-strong faith and prepare the faithful youth for challenges and rebukes later in life.

"Beyond the physical demands and health qualifications required before going on a mission trip, there are moral commitments the church asks possible missionaries," Morris said. "You have to live up to certain standards in the church, and you have to obey the Ten Commandments."

Since 2002, the Mormon church has worked to raise its standards, which include participating in church life and following revelations by Mormon founder and prophet Joseph Smith, published as the Words of Wisdom. The guide prescribes, among other things, a specific health code that Mormons must abide by, including abstaining from drinking and smoking.

"They are trying to get people who are more serious, who are more prepared to work hard, to live the lifestyle," said Scott Mitchell, a sixth-generation Mormon whose ancestors on both sides of his family were pioneers who crossed the plains to Utah. The eldest of six children, he watched all of his brothers become missionaries. His youngest brother, Eric, left in May for a mission in Billings, Mont.

Mitchell, an MU doctoral student in English from New York and Dallas, served his mission from 1999 to 2001 in North Carolina.

"I prayed about it, and it felt right. I felt a lot of blessings being a member of the church, and I wanted to share that with other people," Mitchell, 30, said of his decision to become a missionary. Mitchell said he particularly wanted others to experience the spiritual community he felt while growing up Mormon.

The church has changed its strategies for gaining converts, Mitchell said. Mitchell had to memorize six lessons on how to communicate the faith to potential converts and was encouraged to teach these lessons word for word.

Today, "you can be led more by the spirit. It is more about being in tune with what the specific people you are teaching need to hear," Mitchell said.

Morris' dedication to do a mission trip went beyond spiritual commitment. In order to raise the $10,000 cost, which every missionary must pay, he worked after school and was helped by his parents and a family friend.

Morris asked to work outside the United States in his application to church leaders, who, according to the church, use divine revelation to decide where missionaries serve.

Morris got his wish when he was assigned to serve in the Czech Republic, but a visa delay required him to work the first two months of the 24-month assignment in Anchorage, Alaska.

Morris was among 500 men and women, most of them under the age of 25, who attended missionary training in May 2006. He spent two months at the Mission Training Center in Provo, Utah, the church's largest training center and one of 17 throughout the world. There he learned how to talk about his faith and win converts. He also learned the Czech language, in which he is now fluent.

Part of Morris' mission extended beyond spreading his faith. He also worked to gain signatures on a petition to the government asking it to recognize the Mormon Church in the Slovak Republic. Of the countries that comprise what was once known as Czechoslovakia, only the Czech Republic officially recognizes the Mormon Church.

The missionaries' day-to-day schedule of prayer and preaching begins at 6:30 a.m. with four hours of exercise, study and prayer before hitting the streets until 9 p.m.

"We did a lot of prayer to help decide where we need to be, where the Lord wanted us," Morris said. "If you weren't doing it with the right spirit, it was hard to do."

Morris' mission president once told him that "we are in the business of touching hearts," an idea that stuck with him during his time as a missionary.

Some of the people he met in the Czech Republic were skeptical or argued with him, Morris said. But after his mission, Morris said he knew that the spiritual path he chose was right for him.

Like Morris, Mitchell also faced challenges to his beliefs from those he sought to convert in North Carolina.

"Being part of the Bible Belt, people were already established in their religions and weren't open to change," Mitchell said. "A lot of people heard misconceptions of Mormons, so people really wanted to argue."

Some evangelicals, particularly, challenge Mormon's characterization of followers as Christians.

Mormons believe in Jesus as God's son and consider the Bible scripture. Mormons also have adopted other sacred scriptures — the Book of Mormon — and have some beliefs and practices not shared by other Christians, including baptism of the dead, views of the afterlife and a belief that Jesus visited early North Americans after his resurrection.

Regardless of the challenges they faced, both Morris and Mitchell said serving a mission enhanced their faith.

The mission "deepened and strengthened my faith in ways I did not anticipate," Morris said. He said he saw miracles that included people eager to meet with him, spiritual healing, conversions and speaking in tongues.

"People understood us in Slovakia even though we didn't speak Slovak," he said.

For Mitchell, the mission strengthened his relationship with his family and his desire to become a teacher. He also became closer to two of his brothers whose missions overlapped with his own, writing letters to share experiences.

"My mission helped lay a foundation of skills as a teacher and in public speaking, which made it easier when I did it in my education and professional life," Mitchell said.