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My LDS Mission in the Buckle of the BIble Belt

Mark is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He served a 2 year mission in East Tennessee and the surrounding areas.

Missionary Badges

Missionary Badges

From January 1997 to January 1999, I was a missionary in the Tennessee Knoxville Mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

As a missionary, I would talk to pretty much everyone I met about my church. I liked sharing the things that I believed in with others. The greatest thing was seeing people’s lives change for the better by introducing something into their lives. For those that had no faith, it gave them something to believe in. For those that already believed, it gave them more to believe in and helped to answer life’s questions. That made all the work worth it.

Missionaries in my church help pay their own way to go on missions or get help from friends and family. My parents, grandmother, and a family friend helped pay for whatever I couldn’t cover myself. People I knew were very supportive of me going on a mission. But it was my decision and I didn’t go for anyone else. I feel that I had went for the right reasons. A mission was something that I had always wanted to do. I knew it was what I needed to do.

Missions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saint missions have changed quite a bit since then. The whole mission covered the eastern part of Tennessee and some parts of the surrounding states. I was mostly in Tennessee, but I also spent time in an area in Alabama and another in Kentucky. There are over 400 missions in the world currently. LDS Missionaries have the title of Elder. Elder basically means teacher. All young men on Latter-Day Saint missions are Elders.

In Utah, if you’re a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, you’re part of the majority. But it is just the opposite in the South. I would say that being a Latter-Day Saint in the South is not easy. The members are sometimes given a hard time because our church is different. The members are sometimes few and far between. There is usually one congregation per county, except in the larger cities, where there are usually more. But the church is growing worldwide.

Compared to Salt Lake City, UT, where I’m from, the South is a lot greener, a lot more humid, a lot rainier, and there are a lot more animals. In short, it is like a jungle, compared to Utah. I got used to seeing a lot of roadkill, mostly dogs, on the road.

At the beginning of my mission, I would let little things bother me about my companions. I was a little nitpicky. But the closer I got to the end, the more relaxed and tolerant I was of my companions. A few of my companions I really liked. Most of them were okay. There were a few that I clashed with. I learned that the first two weeks are when both parties are at their best behavior. After that, the real person comes out. Each area and companion I had was different. I was typically with one companion for two months at a time. A lot of my former companions I would consider to be friends.

After I had been out over a year, I spent a few months training a new missionary. I did my best to teach him what I knew and to be a good example. There is typically a progression, where you start out as a junior companion, then eventually you become a senior companion. This means that you are more responsible and make more of the decisions (after asking for divine help, of course!). I was also in leadership for a time, so I helped with other missionaries in some of my areas as needed and helped them to be accountable for their time

Here is a typical day. We got up by 6:30 AM. Shower. Get dressed. Eat breakfast. Study scripture and practice our teaching until about 9:30 AM. Then we left the apartment to go work. We would do at least four hours of community service each week. As an example, in my last area, Fort Payne, Alabama, we helped at the Salvation Army store. Lee, a supervisor there, would take us out to pick up donations, typically mattresses that were newer and donated. The humorous middle-aged man would sometimes even take us out to lunch. If we didn’t have service, we would go teach or find people to teach. Around noon, we would usually have lunch. Then we would go back to work. Most days were the same, unless we had church, meetings with other missionaries in other areas, or when we had preparation day. On preparation day, we would prepare for the upcoming week. This involved doing laundry, shopping, writing letters to home, and playing sports. A lot of times we would have appointments to visit people to teach them. We did our best to keep those appointments.

We spent most of our time talking to people who had ordered free church materials off TV. We called them media referrals. We always tried to talk to people wherever we went. Sometimes we would go tracting, or go door to door trying to talk to people. I enjoyed it. It was when I went tracting that I would have the most interesting experiences and meet the coolest people. We taught the people six discussions or lessons about the church, to people before they got baptized. It was great when those people would go to church and eventually get baptized. I was blessed to at least have access to a car most of the time. This helped especially when we needed to go out to the boonies.

For dinner, sometimes, the members of the church would feed us. After dinner, we would go back out and some of our best appointments were during the evening. We would get home around 9:30 PM. When we got in, we would usually make a few calls, wrap things up, and plan for the next day.

One of my favorite areas was Whitley City, Kentucky. It was a small town with a small, close-knit congregation at the time. I felt that I helped a lot of people there.

To give more detail on one of my areas: in Fort Payne (my last area), Elder Olson was my last companion. Elder Olson was from Ephraim, UT. We were responsible for the work in the northeast corner of Alabama. That was a large area. We covered most of one county, and parts of four others.

Fort Payne was a nice little town. It is the home town of the Alabama country band and is where they have their fan club. I saw the drummer, Mark, at the Little River Café there (now closed ☹). My companion and I also tried to talk to Randy Owens, the lead singer, at his house. But the camera at the gate moved in our direction and nothing happened. So, we left.

Fort Payne is the self-proclaimed sock capital of the world. For Christmas in 1998, I bought my family some socks. Fort Payne was pretty spread out population-wise at the time. In the area, there were about twenty towns. There were a lot of people who had come from Mexico there.

Back to an overall view. In general, I met a lot of great people. I could typically tell in the first ten seconds if someone was more of a hillbilly. I talked to a lot of people from other faiths and tried to understand them, regardless of whether the people sought to understand me. It always helped me to build upon common beliefs. I find religions to be fascinating. On one of my first days out there, a lady ran up to us and wanted to pray for us to help us get saved.

My interactions with others in the South were typically good. Southern hospitality is still alive and well. For example, if I was thirsty on a hot & humid day, people would offer a cold glass of water. My most negative interactions tended to be with preachers. They tended to be antagonistic because we come from another denomination, so they would fear that we would take some of their flock. Some tried to argue scripture, but I could hold my own. I once interacted with someone of a particular faith and I had hoped to talk to him, but he wasn’t really interested in talking to me because I was white. My interactions with members of my faith there were good. They love the missionaries.

I came across a lot of people that were on welfare. One kid, when I asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up, said: “I wanna get on disability!”

The phrases that people say that are unique to the South are too numerous to mention. Many of them I thought were hilarious.

The South is a great area of the world. Before I went to the south, I guess I thought that everyone would be hillbillies. But that is not the case. The bigger the city, the fewer hillbillies it seemed. I even taught people in the projects, which were typically in larger towns. They had red brick buildings and had black railings. On the flipside, I thought it was humorous that many of the people that I came across had the misconception that we were either polygamists or Amish because of our prior nickname (the Mormons).

There are several similarities between my beliefs and those of the Baptists (the predominant religion in the area), but people tend to focus on the differences. In the South, there are tons of different kinds of churches, most of which, are Christian. Many of these churches are totally against all other denominations, even those that are also Christian. In my mind, a main difference is that salvation is not a one-time event. We believe that salvation is a process, so you should do your best to live right and Jesus Christ will take care of the rest. We believe that we will be judged by our actions.

I found that many people are so set in their ways that, for example, the sky was blue and if they believed it was green, God himself would practically have to come down and tell them himself that it was blue for them to believe it (bless their hearts!). I would often hear: “I was born Babdiss (Baptist), raised Babdiss, I mona die a Babdiss!” or “I’ve already done been baptized/saved.”

In many ways, a mission was not easy. Sometimes, it was the hardest part of my life up to that point. There were times that the days were like weeks. But the weeks were like days. I received a lot of help. In addition to help from up above, there are advantages to being with another missionary (a companion) 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I also had a mission president, who presided over the mission. He was like a father figure to me.

It was not hard physically. But I believe it was very hard mentally and emotionally. I was never physically attacked or anything as a missionary even though some of our teachings are different from mainstream Christianity. There was a lot of rejection. It was weird to stand out by wearing a white shirt and a tie all the time. People would always stare at us. It was funny when I would go somewhere like Wal-Mart and people thought that I worked there.

I do not regret going on a mission. It had really helped me a lot. I can’t really measure how much. I’m sure that my family could tell how much I had changed for the better. I think about my mission probably every day. I had a lot of great experiences. I had some cool companions. Looking back, I can see how I was blessed. I loved it and I worked hard.

© 2019 Mark Richardson

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