CHIPLEY — Everyone is familiar with the sight of clean-cut young men in dress clothes, bicycling through the community. But not everyone is used to seeing young women in dresses on bicycles.
“The hardest part was learning how to ride a bicycle in a dress,” says Sister Christopherson, 19, a Wyoming native who has been called to Washington County to serve part of her time as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Of course I rode a bike when I was younger, just not in a dress,” she adds, laughing.
Christopherson is one of four young people presently living in Chipley as part of their missionary service to the Mormon church.
The Mormon church is based on the revelations of Joseph Smith, who said the heavenly messages were delivered to him in the 1830s. Headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, the church has more than 5 million members in the U.S. and over 14 million worldwide.
As part of their tradition, the young missionaries use the designations “elder” or “sister” and forego first names while serving their terms and they typically will serve their mission in two or more locations.
Young men will serve two year missions while young women will be called for 18 months, said Elder Hill, a 20-year-old Fort Worth, Texas native who quietly assumes the role of leader when the four missionaries gathered for an interview on Dec. 23.
“All worthy young men and women are called to serve as missionaries,” Hill explained, adding that not all Mormon youth are called to serve missions, but many do. “The process begins with our Prophet praying and fasting over our names, and there are 80,000 missionaries around the world.”
The young people attend a Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, for pre-mission training before being sent to a mission to serve — in this case, the Tallahassee, Florida Mission, where area Mormon missionaries are assigned.
The MTC is adjacent to Brigham Young University, but the training is not an accredited course. Rather the goal of the training is preparation for proselytizing and training in proper conduct and scripture study.
“Our Mission stretches from Tallahassee to Perry (Fla.) to Pascagoula (Miss.),” Hill said.
Where the individual missionaries finally wind up is a decision made by the mission president. The president prays and fasts for guidance in making the assignments.
Joining Hill and Christopherson in Chipley are Sister Krebs, 21, and Elder Wilcox, 19, both of Utah. None of the missionaries knew each other before arriving in Tallahassee for assignment.
Mormon missionaries are recognizable from their professional attire and their bicycles.
According to Wikipedia, missionaries must remain in professional, conservative attire. For instance, a light colored suit is acceptable. They are also allowed to wear a sweater or suit vest over their dress shirt and are encouraged to wear brightly colored ties.
Sister missionaries are required to wear skirts and dresses that cover their knees and are not required to wear skirts and dresses that are mid-calf length. Young women are encouraged to dress in bright colors and patterns, and they may wear appropriate jewelry and accessories. Sister missionaries may not wear slacks (outside of service activities or exercise) and must wear shirts that cover their entire shoulder.
In some areas these standards are altered slightly according to the discretion of the mission president. For example, in hot, humid climates, such as Florida, suit coats are not required, and dress shirts may be short-sleeved.
Casual clothes may be worn only in limited circumstances, such as when missionaries provide manual labor, exercise, or during preparation day — when the missionaries are involved in recreation, cleaning, shopping, and laundry.
The missionaries are unpaid volunteers, said Krebs. The young Mormons engage in proselytizing, church service, humanitarian aid and community service as part of their time as missionaries.
In fact, the missionaries are expected to pay their own expenses, and every missionary pays a set amount each month while serving, Hill said.
“At one time, the costs varied based on where the mission was located,” Hill explained. However, that amount was eventually set at a constant amount to spread out the cost of mission service and to help make the mission experience more affordable for all missionaries.
Of the four young missionaries in Chipley, Christopherson is the only one who spent part of her youth observing a different religious tradition.
“My mother was a Methodist and she raised me in the Methodist Church, but my father was a member of this church,” Christopherson said. After her parents separated, Christopherson became more involved in the Mormon church with her father, who had been an inactive church member during his marriage. “The church brings a lot of comfort,” Christopherson said, including comforting her father after his divorce. Eventually, her father was able to baptize Christopherson and her little sister into the church.
Hill explained that in the Mormon church, there are no ministers. All worthy young men over the age of 12 are members of the priesthood, and they can be ordained elders after age 18, usually after graduating from high school and before serving as missionaries.
The Mormon priesthood finds its roots in the works of John the Baptist, Hill explained, and it was through Joseph Smith that the church was restored on the Earth.
The Mormon church is organized in a hierarchical priesthood structure administered by men, according to Wikipedia.
Latter-day Saints believe that Jesus leads the church through revelation and has chosen a single man, called "the Prophet" or president of the church as his spokesman on the earth. The current president is Thomas S. Monson, Hill said.
Once the missionaries complete their missions, they will return home and pursue their academic or professional careers. But for now, the four missionaries in Chipley are more focused on their mission.
“It is our choice to put off school and donate our time to serving the Lord,” Hill said. “I know how much the Lord has changed my life, and I am happy to have the chance to share that experience with others.”
“We get a lot of opportunities as missionaries to share the gospel,” Christopherson said. “I want people to know that this is the one true church that was started by Jesus Christ.”
“We aren’t out to take away anything from people, but we want to add to what they already have,” Sister Krebs said. “The Book of Mormon is another testament of Jesus Christ, and it adds to what is in the Bible.”
“We’ll talk to anyone, anywhere,” Elder Wilcox said. “We talk to people on the street, in their homes, and people ask us to come by and visit. We just want to share the gospel.”