A day on the street with elders of God
By 11 a.m., they are ready to head to the street. Dressed in white shirts, ties, black suits and black overcoats, they walk fast between destinations, speaking to people in the streets or on the subway along the way. Most of the time, the people just walk away.
The two, Elder Price and Elder Choi, both 21, are missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon Church.
“We can understand other people’s perspectives,” said Elder Price, speaking about street proselytizing. “That would be a normal reaction when some foreigner [is] coming up to you and speaking to you about church. And church is a very touchy subject. We have to understand that people are very skeptical.”
“Some people are rude sometimes,” Elder Choi said. “But most of the time, they listen very well and tell us honestly they are not interested.”
Elder Choi and Elder Price work and live in the Jungnang district, Seoul. For Elder Choi, the work he is doing is a homecoming of sorts. His family was first-generation Mormon in the Jungnang district, and they moved to Australia when Elder Choi was a year old. He returned to Korea in August.
Elder Price was also born to Mormon parents in the state of Montana, the United States, and came to Korea in 2005. All Mormon missionaries are called Elder.
Like Elder Choi and Elder Price, Mormon missionaries willingly spend two years in the field. After applying, they train in Salt Lake City, Utah, for 12 weeks. Training normally includes learning the language of the country where they will go. Although 12 weeks is not enough to be able to speak fluently about their faith, after spending about one and a half years in Korea, Elder Price speaks Korean fluently.
Most missionaries are men because when women reach the marital age, they devote themselves to family, according to Lee Won-kang, the director of media relations of the Korean Mormon church. When they do serve, female missionaries spend one and a half years in the field.
Eighty percent of the 400 missionaries in Korea are men and a quarter of the missionaries are Koreans. In Korea, missionaries are paired two to a district, and the pair lives together.
During their mission, they are required to dedicate all their time to missionary work and are not allowed to read the newspaper, surf the Internet and watch television or movies. Besides these don’ts, all Mormons are forbidden to drink alcohol, coffee or tea; to smoke cigarettes and to have premarital sex or commit adultery.
“It is a commandment from God,” Elder Choi said. “[And] we also see the blessings that [come] from [following] it. If there is no blessing, why would we continue not doing things that other people like to do?”
Male missionaries are only allowed to talk to men when they proselytize while female missionaries are only allowed to talk to women.
“Our church takes the law of chastity very seriously,” Mr. Lee said. “Adultery is considered the biggest sin after murder. It is to prevent that.”
When they are successful in preaching to a pedestrian on the street, the “seeker of the truth” is referred to a pair of missionaries, and they study the Bible together. In the morning, Elder Price and Elder Choi had one such visitor, Choi Su-hwan, 26.
After a half-hour English lesson at a church in the Jungnang district, they studied the Bible.
“I accidentally met a Mormon missionary,” Mr. Choi said. “I always wanted to have a religious faith. They live a more disciplined life than other Christians, and are also truthful.”
Elder Price showed him a family photo album, which Elder Choi said they carried around to show people that they were just like everyone else.
“I heard negative things about the church such as polygamy, but it was discontinued. They follow the Ten Commandments strictly,” Mr. Choi said. “If there is a chance, I’d like to preach [the] Gospel to my mother.”
After the meeting, Elder Price and Elder Choi headed home for lunch, then went back out on the street, adding black umbrellas and black gloves to their outfits. They walked the distance of two subway stops to visit a member of the church, Lee Gyeong-up. After a short prayer, they began talking with each other.
“In the beginning, I was skeptical about the church because of the things about believing in Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon,” said Lee Gyeong-up. “The missionaries were very good people [though]. They were so nice that they almost looked foolish. They didn’t get angry.”
After several visits to other church members, Elder Choi and Elder Price still had a couple of hours proselytizing on the street until 9 p.m.
After spending hours on the street, they finally returned home and were able to rest. The next day, they will go again to speak to strangers.
That day will be followed by another, and another, and another, until their two years of missionary service are complete.
By Limb Jae-un Staff Writer [email@example.com]