By Riley Manning
At any given time, there are around 85,000 young Mormons across the world fulfilling their two-year mission. Many are deployed thousands of miles away from home, sometimes in countries like Brazil or Ghana, while others are charged with venturing into some of the more dangerous regions of the U.S. to spread the gospel and information about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Naturally, missionaries assume a certain amount of risk, but with 11 Mormon missionary deaths so far this year, preparation is more important than ever for keeping missionaries out of danger.
Executive director of the LDS church’s missionary department Elder David Evans said in a statement that though a single missionary death is too many in the eyes of the Mormon church, this year’s deaths were certainly not a trend. In fact, missionaries’ record of safety over the years is remarkably clean, according to Gina Thorderson, director of public affairs for the LDS Church’s Tupelo stake.
“Most of the people who develop the mission program, from leaders to parents of missionaries, have served on missions themselves, and understand what missionaries need,” she said. “In fact, Mormon missionaries have a mortality rate that is one twentieth of people their age worldwide.”
That statistic even takes account the larger number of missionaries in the field since the age minimum for missionaries was lowered in 2012, from 19 to 18 for men, from 21 to 19 for women. This has resulted in 38 percent more missionaries in the field. Mormons are no longer required to fulfill a mission, but most still choose to do so.
Typically, the church suffers between three and six missionary casualties annually, mostly due to traffic accidents. So far in 2013, five have been killed in traffic accidents, four were claimed by health issues, one was struck by a stray bullet, and another was electrocuted. While helping repair the roof of a house, he lost his footing and accidentally grabbed a live power line.
Sisters Amy Shattuck and Amanda Murray, and Elders Aaron Ingersoll and Zack Hunt, are all missionaries serving in the mission that covers Tupelo. Though they have served some harsh city areas, they say they have never felt in any real peril.
“People you wouldn’t expect, who live in really humble circumstances in rough neighborhoods, really respect us as people of God,” Hunt said. “We’ve even had people tell us, ‘We like you guys, we’ll watch your back.’”
Ingersoll said when missionaries receive their assignment, they first attend one of the church’s 15 missionary training centers across the globe for at least four weeks. If their assignment requires them to learn a new language, they may stay longer.
“Lots of things they teach us is common sense, how to understand your surroundings and how to function in a new environment,” he said. “I also personally believe the Lord is watching over us and keeping us from harm.”
“At the missionary training center, they tell us to take varied routes home and avoid people who ask really probing questions,” she said. “We also follow our instinct. If we’re going into a situation and it doesn’t feel right, we don’t go. We always travel with a partner, and it helps to talk those kinds of feelings out with another person.”
Female missionaries receive a few extra safeguards. They are barred from serving in the most crime-ridden areas of major cities, and may not be assigned to certain parts of Africa. In addition, while they mostly ride bikes in the same way as their male counterparts, female missionaries are also provided with a car for emergency situations.
Shattuck said the biggest ally to the safety of the missionary is the program’s organizational structure. No matter where a missionary is stationed, the tight-knit chain of command keeps resources within easy reach.
For the entirety of the two-year journey, young Mormons are assigned to a region, called a “mission,” presided over by a mission president. The mission president shifts missionaries to different districts within the mission. Six to 12 missionaries are typically assigned to a district at a given time.
The Tupelo district falls under the Birmingham Mission, which covers the top two thirds of Alabama, about one third of Mississippi, and a small piece of Georgia. The district is broken into zones. The Tupelo North zone includes Tupelo, New Albany, Florence, Ala., and Russellville, Ala., while the Tupelo South zone covers Hamilton, Ala., Haleyville, Ala., West point, Columbus, and Starkville.
On a day-to-day basis, missionaries live in apartments provided by the church within the district they are serving, but regularly report to the district president, who reports to the mission president, who reports to headquarters in Utah. Because there are so few middle men, missionaries are quick to receive whatever assistance they need, especially in the way of medical needs.
“Well they take medical issues into account when they assign you to your mission. Missionaries who have medical conditions are assigned to places that won’t have trouble meeting those needs,” Shattuck said. “If something happens in the field, they’ll use the mission leader to get the best help. If they can’t get good care, the church will move them to a place where they can.”
From there, Shattuck said they are allowed “medical leave” to recover, and are allowed to choose whether to return and finish their mission or not. Thorderson also noted that when a missionary accepts an assignment, they receive the benefit of the church’s missionary insurance.
“Even if you’re serving in, say, Brazil, you’re not really any farther removed from church leadership than you would if you were serving in the States,” Shattuck said. “It’s really the same work wherever you go.”