They are as much a symbol of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the Salt Lake Temple and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, clean-cut suit-clad young men on bikes or on foot going door to door with a gospel message. Mormon missionaries have fanned across the globe since the earliest days of the Church and in the process have reached a major milestone.
“We have made great progress in our missionary work in recent years,” said Church President Gordon B. Hinckley at the Missionary Training Center in Provo yesterday. “We have more missionaries and more effective missionaries. It is reliably estimated that a million missionaries have served since the organization of the Church.”
“It is not possible to pinpoint exactly who the millionth missionary is,” said Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles during a news conference while at the Missionary Training Center for orientation sessions with 118 new mission presidents today. “We do know that young men and women, senior sisters and couples have volunteered to serve at their own or family expense in spreading this message to 145 nations and territories.”
Emphasizing the importance of understanding the mosaic of missionaries this milestone represents, Elder Ballard spoke of the unique traits that make each of these million missionaries special.
“A young Peruvian sister grilled hamburgers at a street cart to finance her mission in her home country,” he said. “A young elder from India served in Toronto, Canada, and a retired couple left children and grandchildren to help dig clean water wells in West Africa. Missionaries serve where they are assigned, not knowing beforehand where in the world that may be.”
In fact, the work these volunteer missionaries perform is as diverse as the missionaries themselves. On any given day missionaries are working on everything from humanitarian projects and helping others trace their genealogy in family history centers to public affairs efforts and teaching the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
“From personal experience I can tell you that they study, they pray, they worry intensely about each child of God and especially the souls of those they are able to teach,” said Elder Ballard. “They face rejection and sometimes verbal abuse. But they soldier on. They serve, they help others and they go the extra mile to lift and bless people in all walks of life and in all human conditions.”
At today’s press conference, Elder Ballard stood among missionaries he said exemplified the missionary spirit. They included a native African couple from Kenya called to preside over a mission in Nigeria; a pair of young sister missionaries, one from South Korea and one from Mexico, serving on Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City; a senior couple from Utah serving a humanitarian mission that takes them all over the world helping to provide clean water to many communities; and a pair of young men, one from Brazil and one from Idaho, who just entered the Missionary Training Center in preparation to serve in Japan.
The young men, Samuel Pelaquim and Brandon Soelberg, are both postponing college to spend the next two years of their lives without television, dating and other teenage activities to preach the gospel. “Some people think I’m giving up a lot to serve a mission,” said Soelberg. “But the reality is I feel I have a lot to give. I have always known I wanted to serve a mission, so it doesn’t really feel like a sacrifice to me. I need to do this, I want to do this.”
Pelaquim agreed. “It is a wonderful opportunity to serve,” he said. “Since I was very young I have noticed a difference between me andmy other friends. They had problems that I did not have to worry about, and I have always known that it was the gospel that made that difference.”
It’s that difference that brought Unbyul Cho’s parents into the Church, according to the 22-year-old from Seoul, South Korea. “I’ve always wondered what would happen to me and my family if the missionaries didn’t serve in Korea,” she said. “I wanted to serve a mission to help others have the same blessings my family enjoys.”
Likewise, Gazelem Munoz saw several family members join the Church in her native Mexico. “It changed my family. It changed my life, and hopefully it will help to change for good other people’s lives as I invite them as a missionary.”
The news conference was held next to a life-size bronze statue of Samuel Smith, the Church’s first missionary. In 1830, the year Joseph Smith organized the Church, there were only 16 missionaries called. Now, 177 years later, some 53,000 missionaries — young men, young women and senior couples — currently serve in nearly 350 missions throughout the world.
And their work is striking a chord with many. President Hinckley also announced that Church membership has now reached 13 million, spread all across the world. There continue to be more members outside of the United States than in, reflecting the global depth and diversity of Church membership.