“I didn’t pick Iceland. I was assigned it,” says Elder William Ferrell, 22, a native of Utah and a missionary from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose adherents are most commonly referred to as Mormons.
“What happens is that in the church, we have a living prophet and apostles. When we have the desire to go out on a mission we fill out a form and send it in for evaluation. Divine inspiration then determines where we get sent, although we of course have the right to decline a given mission. We spend two months at the Missionary Training Centre, or MTC, preparing for our mission, mostly learning how to teach but also taking language tips from Elders who have been in our designated region.”
Twenty one year old Arizonan Elder Brennik Max, a soft-spoken psychology major and punk rock enthusiast says the decision is not an easy one. To go about it properly, they must effectively distance themselves from the outside world for two years spent in a strange country. For the course of their mission, they can not follow any media, news or pop culture in any way. And although they do get to communicate with their families via e-mail [Monday is e-mail day], phone calls are limited to greetings on Christmas and Mother’s Day.
“We want to concentrate on our mission. We shouldn’t really be worrying about what’s happening in Iraq or what’s going on in pop culture. If I happen to hear the radio these days, I am at a complete loss,” says Elder Max, “I don’t recognise any of the songs. That’s actually rather refreshing for a change. And if something important is in the news, people we know will usually call and let us know.” Continues Elder Ferrell: “Not watching TV is a kind of a benefit too, I think. It’s made me realise how much time and effort goes into it. Although sometimes, if we have time to spare on preparation day, we can watch like a Disney movie to pass the time. We were watching Mulan yesterday, that was nice, we saw that and Hercules.”
There are other things they must leave behind as well. When asked if they have girlfriends waiting back home, Elder Max tells of a girl who said she’d wait for him when he decided to take up the mission. “She got married before I even made it to the MTC. Do I regret leaving? Not at all. I figured it would probably happen. I guess she just didn’t have it in her.”
Speaking in tongues
Elders Max and Ferrell share similar backgrounds. Both come from devout Mormon families and the faith has formed a large part of their lives. Elder Max has six siblings who are all “pretty much Mormon,” as he describes it, although he is the first in his family to ever go on a mission. “I was a normal kid. I grew up playing sports, listening to music. I was in bands and stuff when I was a teenager and associated with all types of kids, I went to concerts and parties although I didn’t participate in the drinking or smoking. Around the time I turned 19 however, I decided that I wasn’t going to go to church just to go, I wanted to find out if there was more to it. I received an answer, and the answer I got is the reason I am here now. I wouldn’t be spending two years of my life as a missionary if I didn’t know.”
Elder Ferrell went through a similar process before deciding to ‘go missionary’. He says that Mormon youth is actively encouraged to think critically about the things they are taught and make up their own minds as to whether they decide to heed the call of faith. “You have to be 19 to go on a mission and when I turned that age, I started asking myself if I should go on a mission. It was something I’d always thought that I wanted to do, but when the time came, I wanted to be sure that it was right for me so I sought out classes that teach about scripture and did a lot of studying myself. I obviously came here, but I wanted to make sure I was going because it was something meaningful and not out of a sense of obligation.”
A noteable thing about Mormon missionaries in Iceland is how quickly they seem to learn the difficult language. They claim the only notable difference in how they study languages from other people is that they pray a lot – not the answer those striving to teach the language to foreigners were hoping for.
Says Elder Max: “When I first got here I talked to a administrator of the language department that teaches Icelandic to foreigners. I approached him on the street like so many others and he was like, ‘How long have you been here?’ and I was like, ‘Five months.’ And he was just amazed and asked to interview me, to find out what we were doing differently and if his program could benefit from that. When I told him how we went about it, he said it didn’t help at all.
“We mainly do it on our own and use an hour of every morning to advance our studies. We’ll write down words we don’t understand and try and look them up or ask people we meet what they mean. Once in a while, we will have a member of our church that gives a class.” Elder Ferrell agrees and offers: “One of the major things that helps us more than anything is talking with God and asking him for help. You have to be humble enough to ask for help, something that not everyone knows how to do. It is a very humbling experience to speak Icelandic to Icelanders after only learning it for two or three months from someone who doesn’t speak the language fluently.”
Do you speak Icelandic to one another?
“We try to, as much as we can. Try is a good word. From the first day we started learning at the MTC, we started to pray in Icelandic. It was hard at first, but it got easier after a while. Now, we sometimes even find it difficult to switch to English for our prayers,” says Elder Ferrell.
Punk rock missionary
Elder Max speaks of his love for giving young kids from the congregation guitar lessons. His main musical inspirations were, in the past: “Punk music, screaming music. As I Lay Dying and Alexisonfire are personal favourites. I didn’t listen to the typical music most LDS kids like. I am pretty sure I will reconsider my listening habits when I get back home. I might at least go over the CDs and take out any tracks that have swear words in them.”
You didn’t have any problems participating in the punk rock scene in your hometown?
“Not at all. It’s maybe not the scene I would go back to now, there was a lot of smoking and drinking involved and I don’t think I’d want to be around that anymore. It was fun, though, being around all my friends, I wasn’t drinking with them or participating in those aspects, although it could be entertaining to watch them. But I managed to be there without following blindly. I thought for myself, like I was raised to.”
They tell me that they generally try to approach people they meet on the street to offer them a lesson in Mormonism, although they sometimes resort to knocking on people’s doors. They try to approach at least ten different people every day and that between the two of them they probably go through about 200 people a week. They had two conversions last year, but this year’s looking better, with ten baptisms so far and more to come..
“People are usually polite,” Elder Max replies. “But sometimes they are not. Especially at night, when they’re drunk and don’t know what they’re doing. We have been threatened, cussed at, spit at and had doors slammed in our faces, told to ‘get the F outta here!’ But usually, they’ll just not want to talk about it. We’re used to hearing that. Some people are afraid of change and if they would find out that what we’re saying is true, that would mean a lot of change for them. That’s a big part of it, people don’t want to think about it or challenge how they’re living; they’re comfortable with where they’re at and would rather not talk about it at all. That’s the most common reaction, I would think.
“Although I’m not sure how I would react if someone from another religious persuasion would come to me and try and convert me. I’d probably be willing to talk about it, now more than ever. We are rather experienced in rejection.”
Referring to the last year and a half (ten months for Elder Max) as the biggest learning experience of their lifetimes, the Elders tell me how they’ve come to fathom more about forgiveness and looking at life from different people’s perspectives. They tell me they’ve learnt humility and made a lot of great friends. One thing they haven’t experienced, however, is what most visitors to Iceland will.
“I would think that tourists that have been here for a week have seen more of the attractions than we’ve seen to this day,” says Elder Ferrell and Max continues. “The mission is why we are here and we spend most of our time working towards that goal. We’ve probably seen more of the streets and the people here than most tourists do. We did go on a tour of the Golden Circle, of course, and we’ll go to the Blue Lagoon, but not to go swimming.”
Is it because of the naked showering policy?
“No, it’s just… we don’t go swimming at all while we are here. We’re a group of 20 year olds and while we’re here, it’s best not to think about certain things. Therefore, we keep ourselves in a position so we don’t have to worry about that.