Pedaling around Napa on bicycles, wearing white button-up shirts and ties, black pants and name tags pinned over their chests, the clean-cut-looking young men are hard to miss. To some, their confident knock at the door is an irritation. To others, it may be a welcome interruption.
They are Mormon missionaries and they want to talk to you about their religion.
At any one time, eight to 10 Mormon missionaries, primarily in their early 20s, are stationed in the Napa area. Working in teams called “companionships,” they canvass local neighborhoods, religious books in hand and a devotion to their work in their hearts. Their goal is to share the gospel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“People see it as we’re trying to bug them, but that’s not what we want to do,” said Napa missionary Jace Felix, 20. “We want everyone to know the joy of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Felix and Ty Mair, 19, are two Latter-day Saints (LDS) missionaries living in Napa. Known as Elder Felix and Elder Mair, both are from Utah, the home state of the LDS church.
Felix began his two-year mission in January of 2011. Since then, he’s served in Santa Rosa, Vacaville and Novato. He came to Napa in April. Napa is Mair’s first mission assignment — he arrived just a few weeks ago.
Many young Mormon men look forward to going on a mission, Felix said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “We’re serving the people and the Lord.”
“I always knew I’d go” on a mission, Mair said. “I wanted people to know that God loves them personally.”
Missionaries want to share their faith “in a personal way so that every person has an opportunity to hear it on their own terms,” said LDS mission President Jonathon Bunker. He supervises the approximately 180 missionaries serving in the North Bay.
“We want to break down barriers of suspicion or intolerance, and give an invitation to learn what we believe,” Bunker said.
“The Book of Mormon teaches us when you’re in the service of your fellow beings, you’re in the service of your god,” LDS church member George Anderson explained. Latter-day Saints members consider the Book of Mormon to be another testament of Jesus Christ.
The goal of missionary work is “to bring people closer to Jesus Christ,” Anderson said, and ultimately baptism and membership in the LDS church. Another part of the mission includes community service for local organizations as well as the LDS church.
A mission isn’t mandatory for Mormons, Bunker said. But from a young age, church members are taught that it would be “a worthy service and it’s something they are encouraged to do,” he said. About 50 percent of Mormon youth go on a mission, he said. Of the 180 missionaries he supervises, 32 are women.
Bill Kastner, Jr. is the bishop of one LDS congregation in Napa. His 19-year-old son, David, recently traveled to Chile to begin a two-year mission.
“We always encouraged him to go,” Kastner said. “It’s the culmination of 19 years of teaching. You hope they have a life-changing experience, that he would truly know what he was doing and why he was doing it.”
Kastner said his family was sad to see his son leave, “but at the same time, he’s serving God for two years. I’m ecstatic.”
According to the LDS website, more than 52,000 full-time missionaries are stationed throughout the world. Young men typically serve for two years and young women for 18 months, although some married couples also serve as missionaries.
Missionaries or their families are expected to contribute $400 a month to a general fund that helps pay for the missionary program, Kastner explained. Each missionary receives a debit card for daily expenses and lives in an apartment or housing leased by the church.
The life of a Mormon missionary is different from that of a typical 19- or 20-year-old. Besides a ban on smoking, drinking and sexual relationships, the missionaries do not watch TV, go to movies, listen to non-religious music or read newspapers.
They are expected to dress in a “clean, modest appearance,” which means a white shirt and dark pants for men and longer skirts for women. Missionaries are permitted to call home just twice a year — on Mother’s Day and Christmas Day. They are allowed to write letters and use a designated LDS email address on Mondays only, known as “Preparation Day.”
Missionaries rise at 6:30 a.m. and exercise for 30 minutes. From 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. they spend time studying alone and together. From 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. they walk, ride bikes or drive around Napa in a church-provided car, talking to anyone who will listen.
Most nights, the missionaries eat at a LDS church member’s home. Bedtime is 10:30 p.m. sharp. On Sunday, they attend LDS church services.
While many men their age might find the daily schedule too restrictive and would rather spend time with friends, date or go out at night, Felix and Mair said they don’t feel like they are missing out on life.
“It’s a blast,” Mair said of being a missionary. “You get to talk to new people every day. You lose yourself in the work,” he said. “Hanging out with friends is fun, but being (on a mission) is the happiest thing I’ve ever done.”
Are there specific accomplishments missionaries are expected to complete?
The missionaries might set personal goals, Bunker said, “but it is not a sales job.” There’s no quota requirement. “The best way to measure the success of a mission is the life of the missionary and the life of the members that join the church,” he said.
The missionaries in Napa meet regularly at the LDS church on Trower Avenue. At one recent meeting, they sat at a conference table in a meeting room and took turns reading scriptures from the Book of Mormon and from the missionary handbook.
Referring to one another by their formal titles, the young men and women talked about their missionary goals.
“I want to use the scriptures more as I teach,” Felix said. “I want to talk less and say more,” he added.
“I want to use a scripture every time I talk to someone,” said Jamie Robinson, 22, of Utah, who is known as Sister Robinson.
For some young men and women, going on a mission is the first time they’ve been away from home, Bunker said. But becoming a missionary is a great learning experience, he said. “They stretch, learn and grow. They get out of the mode of ‘What’s in it for me?’ and do a lot of good for people. In the process it helps them say, ‘What do I really want from my life?’”
Missionaries get homesick “sometimes,” Felix admitted. But “it’s fleeting.”
“Last week, I was kind of homesick,” Mair said. “But it goes away.”
While on a mission, “You forget about personal matters,” he said. “You’re just serving everyone else, not yourself.”
What do they do when they feel discouraged or have a bad day?
“I pray,” Mair said. “I pray for assurance that I should be here,” and for health, comfort, guidance and patience, he said.
Felix said he finds support for his mission from his family and other missionaries. When he feels down, “I think about the people we are serving and what we can do for them.”
When his mission ends, “it will be mixed emotions,” Mair said.
“I think I’m going to be sad,” Felix said. “We were called to do something and we did our best,” he added, “but I’ll miss the experience and the opportunity to serve other people.”