You’ve seen them riding their bikes or even talked to them after they knocked on your door, a pair of clean-cut young men wearing white shirts and ties or modestly-dressed young women who introduce themselves as “elder” or “sister.”
They are missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and more than 180 of them are canvassing the sprawling Louisiana Baton Rouge Mission that stretches from Natchitoches to Venice to DeRidder and Covington.
Overseeing the idealistic young people is Mission President Reed H. Hansen and his wife, Mary Anne Hansen, of Boise, Idaho. They arrived in late June and will be here for three years. The parents of six grown children and grandparents of 15, the Hansens own a successful phone book publishing company that their sons are running while they are away.
“It’s beautiful! I think it’s gorgeous here,” said Mary Anne Hansen during a recent interview. An artist, she is accustomed to Idaho’s dry Western landscape. Louisiana’s lush forests and swamps are fresh, new scenery that she wants to paint, she said, quickly adding, if she ever has some leisure time.
But more than the different landscape, the Hansens said the friendly, Southern culture is a refreshing experience.
“We’ve been so impressed by how kind and generous people are and how they take their religion seriously and are very devoted Christians,” she said. “We don’t see that much in the West.”
“We’re just so grateful to the people who are kind to them (missionaries), even if they don’t invite them in, if they just show kindness to them,” Reed Hanson added. “Because we think of them as our children.”
The mission’s office at 12025 Justice Ave. is across town from Baton Rouge’s church and a separate temple on Highland Road. While the mission is related to the three local wards (similar to church parishes), it does not oversee them, explained Reed Hansen. The Mission office is small but well organized with maps under glass at several office desks and assignment charts posted on the walls.
The Mission is divided into “zones” or areas of Baton Rouge, Denham Springs, Lafayette, New Orleans North and N.O. South, and Alexandria. Each area is subdivided into districts that are coordinated with local elders and sisters.
For example, the Baton Rouge area is divided into North (most of Baton Rouge proper), Plaquemine, Gonzales and Spanish Districts. The Mission’s website describes an ambitious goal of 90 convert baptisms per quarter, and baptisms in each district each month.
“We’ll have a young missionary who will be a zone leader and then under him will be district leaders who get leadership training, and there are trainers who train the new missionaries who come in,” Reed Hansen explained. “We try to keep them all on task.”
Exactly how the teams of young men and women and five married couples canvass their own district is up to them, he said. They share apartments in their districts as well as cars and bicycles.
The Mission’s website lists “comings and goings” of several young people each week completing their mission and going home or arriving here after two weeks of intensive training in Salt Lake City, Utah.
A misconception, the Hansens explained, is that young men are required to go on a mission. They are not, but most do. They also, men and women, pay their own way or their family or home ward (church) supports them. Also most of them drive in cars these days with about 40 percent riding bikes.
The missionary men, beginning at age 18, are out for two years and the young women, 19 and up, are away from home for 18 months, the Hansens said. They cannot make phone calls except for Christmas and Mother’s Day, but they can email friends and family daily.
They have no choice where to serve and willingly go anywhere across the world. Right now there are missionaries from Japan, Taiwan, Fiji, Mexico, France, Haiti and the Congo serving in this district, all speaking their own languages and also learning English for an hour a day, Reed Hansen said.
“We send Spanish speakers to Spanish speaking areas,” Mary Anne Hansen said, “and we have a Mandarin Chinese; we’ll probably send him to New Orleans.”
Another misconception, the Hansens said, is that the missionaries are only interested in converting people to their religion.
“I’d say at least half their time is doing service,” Reed Hansen said. “A lot of times they’ll find people who need help in their yards and in their houses and in their businesses. Community service is a huge part of what we do.”
Helping people discover their family history by way of an extensive, computer-based library, is also a motive for service, Mary Anne Hansen added.
“Our church, obviously, is very big on knowing their family roots, and a lot of Southerners enjoy that, too,” she said.
The missionaries are out and about most days except for Sundays and Mondays. One recent Monday found a group of them hanging out in the mission office visiting, restocking apartment supplies and playing games.
Erick Araujo, 22, of Houston, has been here for 23 months and is going home before the end of August. A Spanish speaker with a big smile, he served the West Bank of New Orleans.
“I really loved it there. Hispanics are pretty friendly,” Araujo said. “Even if they don’t want to listen to your message, they’ll still listen to you, and they’re not gonna just slam the door in your face.”
After he gets home he plans to find a job and attend college. “I want to become an architect,” Araujo said.
Ryan Glauser, 19, of Redlands, California, has been here for eight months and wants to attend college to become a television sports announcer when he returns home.
“I love it here,” Glauser said. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve done in my life, but it’s the best thing I’ve done in my life.”
Glauser said he finds it hard when “someone disagrees with what you are saying — something you’ve found to be true — and they completely disagree with you and they say ‘you’re wrong.’ And it kinda hurts because you know what’s right and you want them to know what’s right.”
William Watkins, 25, from New Jersey, has been in Baton Rouge 18 months and will go home at Christmas to resume a job in a toy store.
“We call it ‘mission life,’” Watkins said. “When you come out you are born, when you go home you die.”
For more information on the Louisiana Baton Rouge Mission, visit thelbrm.com.