Ralph Airport SFO

Photo and text by Gabrielle.

I’m a wreck today. Partly because I’m fighting through a head cold, but mostly because the whole family woke up at 3:30 this morning so we could take Ralph to the airport and send him off with a giant family hug. He’s flying to Mexico City today for six weeks of training and then it’s on to Bogota, Colombia. His mission assignment is 24 months, and we won’t see him again for two years. (I’m absolutely crushed to write that sentence). He can call us on Mother’s Day and Christmas, but other than that, the only communication we’ll have with him is a weekly email, or maybe an actual written letter now and then.

Though we’re delighted he has such a huge adventure ahead of him, we are all feeling pretty heartbroken to see him go. There are lots of tears and lots of tissues at our house. And sweet surprises too. After we returned from the airport and went back to bed for a few hours, we woke to find that Ralph had left a personal letter for each sibling and each parent. Really thoughtful, lovely letters. I already treasure mine.

Lots of cryfests happening. There was one last night when Ralph was officially made Elder Blair by one of our church leaders. Another as we drove to the airport this morning. A big one as we said goodbye at security. And another one this morning as we read his letters. Those are the family cryfests, but really, I’ve personally been a big teary mess at random times — grocery store line, driving kids to school, doing dishes — since we got home from France. It’s not just the mission, it’s also the very real fact that this marks the end of an era for our family.

While I’m dealing with the tears, I thought this was a good day to write up a few notes about missions for those who are curious. I need to start by saying that I’ve never been on a mission. So I’m going to tell you what I know, but I can’t pretend to be an expert.

What a mission is:
Missions have been happening since the Mormon church was established. But they’ve changed over time. Back in the pioneer days, it was often married men with young families who were sent off all over the world. But a century and a half later, it’s mostly young men and young women in their late teens and early twenties. Beyond that age range, there are also couple missionaries that head out when they retire — for example, my parents and Ben Blair’s parents both served a mission in retirement. There are currently about 74,000 LDS missionaries. Here’s a list of the trivia that I think you’ll find the most interesting:

– Young men can go on a mission beginning at age 18. They must be single. They are asked to serve for 24 months.

– Young women can go on a mission beginning at age 19. They must be single as well. They are asked to serve for 18 months. There are lots of theories about the different age requirements, and time requirements, but I haven’t heard any official word on why it’s different for men and women. Also, these ages are relatively new. For most of my life the age requirements were 19 for young men, and 21 for young women. But that changed about 4 or 5 years ago.

– You don’t get to choose where your mission will be. With the exception of a few countries where they don’t allow missionaries, it could be literally anywhere. My siblings did missions in Cambodia, Brazil, Japan, Colombia, and South Dakota. My dad’s mission was on the Navajo reservation. In retirement, my mom and her husband went on a mission to Ykaterinburg, Russia (so cold!).

Being able to speak a second or third language doesn’t necessarily affect where you are asked to serve. Ralph is fluent in French, but has been asked to learn Spanish. There is a spot on the application where you can indicate your language skills and your willingness to learn a new language. But still, you get assigned where you get assigned.

– You have to apply to go on a mission. It’s not an automatic: YES, you can go. A mission is hard work, and you have to be up to it physically. So just to apply, there are doctor visits and dentist visits and blood tests and immunization records — with the goal of making sure that anyone heading out on a mission is as healthy as possible.

– Mission applicants are also interviewed by their church leaders to make sure they are living the Mormon lifestyle — no drinking, smoking or drugs, no sex before marriage. That sort of thing. If they have done any of those things, but still want to go on a mission, then they work with their church leader to repent/recommit, and then they can apply for a mission.

– Missions start at a training center. Typically for 2, 6 or 8 weeks. If you are not learning a language, training is for 2 weeks. If you are learning a language, training is for 6 or 8 weeks (Ralph is training for 6). There are training centers in many places, but I believe the biggest one is in Provo. Ralph was originally asked to go to the training center in Colombia, but then they switched him to Mexico City for training. From the training center, missionaries fly to their mission destination — there’s no stop at home first.

– Missionaries are assigned a companion. They are with them pretty much non-stop, and they don’t get to choose their companion. New companions may be assigned every 3 to 6 months, although some pairs work together for longer periods. From what we can tell, most missionaries in Ralph’s mission are from South American countries. Very few are from the U.S.. Which means most of his companions may be native Spanish speakers. I’m sure this will really help speed up Ralph’s Spanish skills.

Many men and women who have served missions gave Ralph advice, and almost every one of them said dealing with companions — learning to be patient with them, to work with them, to love them — is the hardest part of the mission.

– Missions generally cover a large area. I think Ralph’s mission covers about half of the geography of Colombia — including the coldest and hottest parts. Missionaries don’t get to choose which area within their mission to work in. It’s assigned to them, just like a companion, and can switch around just as often. This can be challenging — just as they are getting to know an area and making good friends, they may need to pack their bags, say goodbyes, and start all over again hours away.

– Often, it’s two missionaries in a small apartment, but sometimes there are 4 or 6 missionaries sharing a bigger space.

– Missions are not paid, and they are not free. Missions actually cost $400 per month for the whole 24 months. Many kids save up for their mission for many years. Or their parents or grandparents might pay the cost. Other times, a congregation will sponsor a missionary and cover his or her costs. The fee covers housing, food, toiletries, and transportation. If the missionary wants to buy clothing or souvenirs, those purchases come from personal funds beyond the $400 per month. Also, cost of living ranges around the world, but missionaries all pay the same rate — the idea is that it’s an average cost of all missions. (It didn’t used to be this way. If you were assigned to an expensive part of the world, then bummer for you, your costs were simply higher. The average cost makes so much more sense.)

In addition to the monthly costs, prepping someone for a mission is also an expense. Luggage, suits and wardrobe, sturdy shoes, and other supplies can add up to $1000 or more easily.

– Missions are very strict. You can’t go to movies, or to concerts. You can’t use the internet (except for sending a weekly email), you can’t have a cell phone or any internet device. You can’t date. You’re not supposed to read anything beyond the scriptures and a very short list of approved church books. You can only listen to uplifting music (think: Mormon Tabernacle Choir). You get up every morning at 6:30 AM. As I mentioned, you can’t call home, except for twice a year — on Christmas and Mother’s Day. Your energy is supposed to be concentrated on the mission and nothing else. No distractions.

– The dress code is also very strict. Missionaries are supposed to look professional and well-groomed. Ralph will be wearing dark suits with a white shirt and tie. Shoes need to be polished daily. Hair must be worn very short. No beards allowed. Women have more flexibility and don’t end up looking so matchy-matchy with their companion, but they must wear long skirts or dresses (that hit below the knee), and blouses with sleeves. They can’t dye their hair unusual colors, or wear extra piercings beyond a simple set of earrings. Missionaries wear name-tags from the moment they enter the training center.

– So what do missionaries do all day? The main goal is to find people who want to learn about the gospel and teach them. They get up early, study the scriptures, pray, get ready for the day and then head out to work. They may have back-to-back appointments to teach people about the gospel. Or they may set up a street board and try to engage passersby in conversation. In many places, they are discouraged from knocking doors because it’s invasive and generally not effective, but depending on the area, sometimes they may choose to knock doors anyway. A portion of their time is reserved for service — they might volunteer or help someone move. In some places, missionaries hold English classes. They may head home in the evening to make dinner, or a family in their assigned congregation may host them for dinner. They are always with their companion.

– Once a week, they have a P-day or preparation day. On this day, they can do laundry, buy groceries, maybe play a pick up game of soccer or basketball. They don’t have to wear a suit or typical missionary clothes on P-Day.

– There is a culture of shame for missionaries who come home early. This is an awful thing and as a church it needs to be worked on. Prevention efforts are made — the interviews with the church leader when someone applies for a mission are partly to make sure the missionary is serious about wanting to do the mission. But still, sometimes a young man or young women heads out there and finds that it’s just not the right fit at all. Or maybe they are breaking some big mission rules (like no dating) which means they have to go home, or maybe they’re having unexpected medical problems. Whatever the reason they come home, as church members, we need to work harder to make sure they can change directions and come home without making it a big deal. We need to make sure these kids know they are loved with or without missionary service.

– An advantage of missions is that they often become a crash course in adulting. Missionaries are given a specific amount of money each month and they have to budget it for food and other expenses. If they haven’t already before they go, they have to figure out laundry, ironing, cleaning, cooking and shopping for themselves. They have to learn how to get along with others (specifically their companions). They have to keep a strict schedule — get up early and go to bed early. They have to be responsible with their time and resources.

A disadvantage to this, is that many missionaries feel compelled to jump into serious adulthood — marriage and parenting — as soon as they return. As someone who married at 21, I know marrying young can work out, but it’s not okay with me that many missionaries feel serious pressure to marry as quickly as possible after they return home.

– Missionary work can be disruptive to a college education. Some missionaries like to go on a mission before they start college, but many like to do a year of college first and then return to school when they are done. As you can imagine, if you start college with a tight-knit freshman class, and then disappear for two years, and then come back and all your peers are seniors, while you are a sophomore, then that is really challenging.

Related, at the Mormon-church-owned BYU schools (in Provo, Idaho and Hawaii), having students leave for missions is commonplace and the schools accommodate those changes easily. But at other universities, students have to defer for a couple of years and make sure their university paperwork is in order before they go on the mission.

– There are exceptions to everything I’ve said. I’ve heard of shorter missions and longer missions. I’ve heard of missions being served at unusual ages. Sometimes there are non-proselytizing missions — missions to do service only, or missions where you are assigned to work in the mission office. I’ve heard of missions that allow movies at certain gatherings and parties. I’ve heard of missions that use iPads. But I think in general, what I’ve written here holds true. And you can definitely read more about this stuff on the LDS website.

– As I mentioned, Ralph received lots of advice, and one of the overarching themes seems to be that missions are really hard and that they are deeply formative. Also, that even though missions are difficult, there are moments that are so rewarding that it makes all the hard work worth it.

I think that’s it for now. If you have more questions, feel free to ask them in the comments. I know there are many Mormons who read here, and if I don’t know the answer, I’m sure someone else will jump in. : )

I also have some thoughts written up about why this particular change in our family life is causing me such angst — I mean, Ralph has certainly gone off on other adventures before, but this feels different. This post is already quite long, so I’ll keep working on my other thoughts and try to share them tomorrow. Oh parenting, sometimes you kick me in the butt.