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[whitespace] Sarah Hatley and Alyson Ashton Holy Satisfying: Latter Day Saints members Sarah Hatley, 22, and Alyson Ashton, 21, agreed to 18-month stints of missionary work on behalf of their faith, and were assigned to the Silicon Valley area by church headquarters in Provo, Utah. "The only way to understand people is to talk to them," Ashton says.

Photograph by George Sakkestad


Belle Ringers

Ring once. Knock twice. Going door-to-door with the Mormons.

By Genevieve Roja

I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN FASCINATED with the door-to-door variety: the Hare Krishna, the magazine subscription salesmen and the Girl Scouts. But nothing has piqued my interest as much as the proselytizing Mormons. Always young, well-dressed and impeccably sweet, they are the politest of door-knockers. They tread for miles in dress shoes, and their only justification appears to be faith and eternal salvation. I've never understood why seemingly educated young people would subject themselves to the door-slamming wrath of neighborhood cynics, atheists and anarchists. So one day I signed up to spend a full 12-hour day door-knocking with two female Mormons. We would bike, eat, walk, hug, pet animals, but more importantly, we would discuss one of the most controversial subjects on the planet: God.

I am terrified when I meet President W. Kent Fitzgerald, the head of the San Jose mission, which is a geographic headquarters for the Church of Jesus Christ, Latter-day Saints. (The closest sister headquarters is in Oakland.) He is interviewing me to see if I can accompany some of their members on a mission. For the record, Mormons don't classify themselves as "Mormons," but as members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Latter-day Saints. (The public nicknamed them Mormons). As soon as I sit down in President Fitzgerald's Thornwood Drive office, I feel like I've been sent to the principal's office with a note from the teacher.

Finally, he speaks. He'll find two female missionaries that I may accompany, the first ever to proselytize on bike in the history of the San Jose mission.

"I'd ask you to have an open mind," he says, shaking my hand.

In the room next to his office, we enter another room with wall-to-wall dry-erase boards. On it are dozens of magnets. The largest magnets spell out cities in the county: Cupertino, Willow Glen, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara. Under each magnet is another magnet--slightly larger than the size of a credit card--with a missionary's first and last name and hometown. There's a head shot of each missionary. If the missionary--called an "elder" if the member is male and a "sister" if she is female--is fluent in a foreign language, it too is noted and magnetized above the identifying card. To the left or right of the picture are two magnets. One magnet is in the shape of a triangle over a square indicating a house, which signifies and identifies where the missionary lives. The other magnet is a car marked with the number, which indicates which car that missionary drives. It reminds me of a War Room, and in some ways, it is.

The night before I meet the Sisters Hatley and Ashton, I pace. I check my to-do list twice. Bike helmet. Sack lunch. Hose. I forgot hosiery. I make a Safeway run and buy a pair of off-white L'Eggs. President Fitzgerald had imposed certain parameters if I was to join the sisters on their bike tour. Conservative dress, he said. That meant nothing sleeveless, a skirt past the knee, hose and dress shoes.

I WALK UP TO a suburban cookie-cutter house with an inlaid pebble path and miniature Japanese bridge. A young woman opens the door before I knock. She is pretty in a natural, granola kind of way. She wears her maple brown hair past her shoulders. Her plastic name tag reads "Sister Hatley, The Church of Jesus Christ, Latter-day Saints." She is 22 years old, wearing a white Oxford shirt tucked into a pea-green-colored skirt dotted with little daisies and baby's breath. Once inside, I see Sister Alyson Ashton, 21, a curly-haired blonde with friendly features, just as pretty and as approachable as Hatley. She is wearing the standard-issue white Oxford shirt, the name tag on her left breast pocket, a black GAP cardigan and an ankle-length navy-blue skirt with large white flowers. Sr Hatley, I learn, has put her mechanical engineering studies at Brigham Young University on hold to participate in her 18-month mission in California. A native of Copper Creek, Alaska, she is nearing the last three weeks of her mission. Ashton, a nursing major from Salt Lake City, Utah, is in the first three weeks of her mission. She will return to pursue her studies at the University of Utah.

All three of us sit down at the oak table in the dining room, Sister Hatley to my left and Sister Ashton to my right. Sister Hatley hands me a thick, sky-blue piece of paper with three holes punched at the top. On the left side of the paper, it reads, "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Missionary Weekly Planner." She had taken the liberty of filling in the blanks--the date, my name ("Geneveiva"--Sister Hatley apologizes profusely about the misspelling) the zone and district ("south San Jose") and the proselytizing area ("Oakridge"). It looks exactly like a weekly planner sold by Rolodex, indicating days and dates and times by the half-hour, from 6:30am to 9:30pm. At 8:30am, Sister Hatley has written "Companionship." At 9am, "Study." From 9:30am to 11am, she has written the names "Playa Del Rey," "Delaware," "Calmore" and "Warring." She has grouped all the names together with a bracket, next to which it reads "Return Appointments." At 11:30am, it says "Blossom Hill, Tracting." At noon, lunch. From 2pm to 4:30pm, it reads "Joe," "Returns," "Tracting" and "Nikki." At 6pm, dinner. At 7pm, "Cycilia." At 8pm, "Edward."

Sisters Hatley and Ashton explain that we will be "tracting," their word for going door-to-door. "Return appointments" means follow-ups to previously scheduled appointments arranged by other sisters and elders before them. The rest of the nighttime appointments are one-on-one sessions. I ask the sisters about their mysterious "rule book." "Rule book?" they ask. They present a white, mini address book-size "Missionary Handbook," which states rules, codes of conduct, and appropriate dress and behavior.

"It helps us to recognize the 'Spirit,' become better listeners," Sister Ashton explains.

IN GENERAL, the rules for missionaries are stricter than the rules that other members of the Church follow. For instance, missionaries--while on their mission--do not watch television, listen to the radio, read the newspaper or use a computer. They may call home only twice a year--the Church suggests Christmas and Mother's or Father's Day--and they may correspond with family members and friends by recording their voice on tapes sent through the mail or by letter writing. The intention of inhibiting all these luxuries is so missionaries are not distracted from the purpose of their mission. Their day of rest is on Monday, called Preparation Day. I liken it to an abbreviated shore leave, but in this instance, missionaries catch up on personal errands such as grocery shopping or doing laundry. They'll spend the early part of the day inputting information in their weekly planners and spend the latter part of the day letter-writing or mini-golfing at Golfland, just down the street from their house on Santa Teresa Boulevard.

Before finally embarking on our tour, all of us slide out of the dining room chairs and rest on our knees in prayer. Sr Hatley begins with "Our Father in heaven ..." I don't remember the exact words of the prayer, although Sr Hatley says something to the effect of Him praying over me, that I may have an open mind.

Finally, we're set. Sr Hatley packs a couple copies of the Book of Mormon, her own Book and copy of the Bible, a first-aid kit and a sack lunch in her backpack. Sr Ashton carries my sack lunch (I didn't bring a backpack) and her Book of Mormon.

OUR FIRST STOP is Playa Del Rey, a street within a densely populated cluster of town homes close to John Steinbeck Middle School. The town homes come in quads--there's an apartment in the front, two on the wings and one in the back. One of the sisters rings the doorbell on one of these apartments once. No answer. She knocks once, then twice, but no more. A ring and two knocks is the maximum number of times they're allowed to pester. Someone who is not Bianca comes to the door. We are told to return some other time. Our next stop is Gabriela.

"She not home," says a woman in a custodial uniform, closing the door behind her. "She moved. I'm her mother."

"Well," Sr Hatley says. "We share a message of Christ ..."

"When I see her, I let her know," says the woman, whose stitched name tag reads "Maria."

"Would you be interested?" Sr Hatley says.

"Not really; I'm Catholic," she interrupts.

"OK, well, have you seen our commercials on television?" says Sr Hatley. "There's an 800 number you can call to get more information ..."

"I'm late for work," Maria says, as she hurries past us.

At the third house, we're more successful. An older Hispanic woman answers the door. Sr Hatley asks for Rosana*, who the woman tells us is still asleep. Rosana shows up at the door flanked by her friend Erica*, a tall Caucasian girl with full cheeks. Both are wearing ponytails and pajamas or sweats. There's a little confusion. Rosana claims to have never sat down with any Church member and can't understand why the sisters are here today.

"That's weird," Rosana says. "I've seen them around the street. I've seen the Marines. You know--crew cut, white shirt ..."

"Well, we're not recruiting ..." Sr Hatley says.

"Is there a monthly fee?"

"We share a message of Christ ..." Sr Hatley says.

"I go to Jubilee," says Erica, in reference to the Christian Church on Blossom Hill and Santa Teresa, right next to Party City. They're the church with the Plexiglas windows so any passerby can see what's going on inside. Erica asks about heaven and wonders if it really exists because there's nothing conclusive that says it does.

"In a way, I'm a factual person. Do you know?"

"What I do know is that God does have a plan for us," says Sr Hatley. "A lot of those things are based on faith. The fact God called prophets and [she pauses] do you mind if I talk to you about His message?"

"Yeah, you guys want to come in?" Erica says.

And with that, we're invited in--the only way you can get in, according to the Missionary Handbook. And so it goes. The sisters launch into their offensive, singing, reading from the Book of Mormon, talking about prayer mostly, how the Lord works in mysterious ways and how if we follow God's plan we can achieve happiness. I can tell Rosana isn't buying all of it. Rosana is The Doubter, the one who raises an eyebrow when the God talk gets too serious. Erica, on the other hand, is The Believer. She tells us she was at work once and felt stressed out and overwhelmed. She asked the Lord to help her and He responded by making her collected and mellow. She felt God.

Naturally, the two girls have questions for the sisters. Do they get paid to do it? No. Who gives them money so they can go on missions? Usually through their families or extensive fundraising. After an hour and a half, the sisters conclude the visit by singing a final song from a mini-song hymnal. Sr Ashton gives Erica and Rosana her copy so they can sing along too, if they wish. They begin singing rather prettily, "Teach me to always look in the light ..." Then Sr Ashton underlines the chapters and verses they have read in the Book of Mormon so that Erica and Rosana can peruse them at their own leisure.

So this is how it goes for the rest of the day. Ring once, knock twice; no answer, move on. It seems everyone is game to God's plan. As we walk toward Johnny Rockets for lunch, we talk about door-slammers, rude people, our families and our hobbies. So I'm talking about my job when they stop a Hindu man at a bus stop.

"Hello, sir," Sr Hatley says. "I'm Sr Hatley and this is Sr Ashton."

We shake hands. His name is Bob. He's interested in this kind of discussion about spirituality. They tell him there's a temple on Comanche. Sunday worship is at 11am. He takes the pamphlet titled "The Plan of Our Heavenly Father" with unexpected enthusiasm.

"So do you always stop people like that?" I ask.

They nod yes.

"Can I just tell you how much I've learned about the world since I've been on this mission?" Sr Hatley says. "Tolerance isn't in abundance. This helps you to build tolerance."

"The only way to understand people is to talk to them," Sr Ashton says.

When we sit down at Johnny Rockets, I notice some of the teenagers staring at us. I can practically read their thoughts. What the hell are a bunch of well-dressed chicks with name tags doing in here? I'm immediately uncomfortable and mention it to the sisters.

"Oh, we're used to it," Sr Ashton says.

Once we order burgers and fries and sandwiches, I ask about how they cope with rejection, especially the door-slamming variety.

"You just walk away," Sr Ashton says.

"This isn't their calling," Sr Hatley says. "This isn't their time to accept God."

"It is their home and they have the right to refuse, and some people do it in different ways," Sr Ashton says.

Their philosophy is that for every door slammed in your face, there is always another door letting you in.

"You learn to love these people, the ones who slam the door in your face," Sr Hatley says. "They might have had a bad day."

WE RESUMED TRACTING again at about 2pm, after a 45-minute respite. The sisters have their routine down. Ring. Knock. Shake hands. Introduce. Tell people about Our Heavenly Father's Plan for happiness. Ask if they've read from the Book of Mormon. Sing. Pray. Read. We never encounter any door-slammers along the way. Most people who straddle the door are polite. Some just say they're not interested, they're too busy and don't have time. The sisters never press their religion on them and depart from the doorstep with a "We have an 800 number ..." Other than that, no one is guilt-tripped into appointments.

I had impressions of that day, and one of them was that I was tired and burned out. I marveled aloud at how they walked in dress shoes for 20 miles a day of tracting. In the beginning, I had wondered what possessed these young people to sign a contract for a two-year (for elders) or 18-month mission (for sisters). Was brainwashing involved? Sensory deprivation? President Fitzgerald said the missionaries spent three weeks in a Mission Training Center in Provo, Utah, learning all the missionary essentials. Missionaries don't have any say in where they are sent. The higher-ups in the Church make the final decision with prayer. So a missionary who signs up can end up in Tallahassee or Timbuktu. The choice, apparently, is God's.

They could very well sit around at their house and not go tracting and spreading the Gospel. President Fitzgerald only checks in with them once in a while, so for the most part, they are trusted. Free agency is what they call it. And, unlike a cult, they are free to leave at any time.

I didn't join them, nor did I have any inkling to do so. I was flabbergasted by their dedication, their ability to persist even when stubborn, godless mules kicked the door in their face. No one ever said that trying to operate as a spiritual messenger was going to be easy. And in the end, I believe, the kingdom they are seeking--literally or metaphorically--probably will be theirs, while the rest of us will be searching for the front door.

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From the July 26-August 1, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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