Elder Eric Swenson and Elder Hayden Dixon parked their compact car in a Kelso neighborhood, picked up a stack of copies of the Book of Mormon, said a short prayer and start knocking on doors.

"We're going out today to share the gospel of Jesus Christ," Dixon told a woman who came to her door.

"Do you think God has a plan for you?" Swenson added.

The woman said she respects the Mormon church but wasn't interested in talking with them. On the missionaries walked, knowing that few people would want to hear about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, let alone join the church.

Swenson, 20, is from West Point, Utah, which is a few miles north of Salt Lake City. Dixon, 21, is from Las Vegas. For two months last summer, they were teamed up as Mormon missionaries in the Kelso area. Since then, they've been assigned to different partners.

The pair and others like them make up one of the most visible aspects of the Mormon church.

For two years, Swenson and Dixon are leaving behind families and career plans for the regimented, austere life of missionaries. The young men seem content in their choice, however, as they leaf through well-annotated Bibles and the accompanying Book of Mormon to describe their faith.

Single Mormon men between 19 and 25 are expected to serve as missionaries, they said. They are recommended by the leaders of their home churches, then assigned by church headquarters in Salt Lake City to one of about 300 missions around the world. Though young Mormon women are invited to become missionaries, too, the current worldwide force of 55,000 is predominantly male.

Swenson and Dixon are staying in Southwest and South Central Washington their entire two years, though they move around within the region. They work in one pair for a few months, then are assigned to other partners.

"We believe we are called by God to do what we do," Dixon said. "It's a great honor in the church."

"When you're chosen to be a missionary, you're sacrificing these two years," Swenson added. "You give these years to God."

Missionaries assigned to work in the United States receive several weeks of instruction; they're expected to be well-school in Mormon beliefs beforehand. That's because during their high school years, Mormon boys and girls attend an hour of "seminary" every morning before school.

Missionaries like Swenson and Dixon are expected to pay $9,600 for their own expenses for the two years. Missionaries usually stay with Mormon families, and the church provides a car.

Because of the distances they have to cover, missionaries in Southwest Washington don't ride bicycles much, Dixon said.

They aren't allowed to visit their own homes during the two years of the mission. They can send emails home once a week, and are allowed to phone or Skype their families twice a year, at Christmas and one other day, typically Mother's Day.

Dixon and Swenson carry small white books with rules of conduct and schedules, which are highly organized.

On Sundays, they'll spend about half the day in church along with local members of the ward. Sunday afternoons aren't for watching football. "After church, we go out and teach," Swenson said.

Mondays are reserved for doing laundry and catching up on errands. Other days, they're expected to be occupied from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. "every day for two years," Dixon said.

They don't watch TV or movies. "All of our time and attention is devoted to serving the Lord," Dixon said. "We don't waste time watching TV or texting our friends or on Facebook. There isn't time for those things."

'This is THE way'

One day recently, Dixon and Swenson drove to the rural Kelso home of Alicia Davis, who was raised a Catholic but has been a Mormon for four years. She's going through a divorce and has three kids, with a fourth due in October. Dixon and Swenson helped her move furniture and brought along work clothes to change into from their dark slacks, white shirts and ties in case she needed help with yard work.

"The church really is your family," Davis said. "Everybody cares about everybody. Everybody is always here helping."

She likes the Mormon church's focus on the family. "I like that it felt like this is the only church that didn't have man-made laws, and its love for the Bible," she said.

The missionaries' duties with Davis included spiritual work, too, going over points of Mormon theology because she's a relatively recent convert to the faith.

"The only way is to live by this doctrine," Swenson said.

"This is THE way," Dixon added. "There is no other way."

After their visit with Davis, the missionaries switched to the heart of their job: "tracting," or contacting people door-to-door.

"We will talk to anyone," Dixon said. "If you cross the street, we will talk to you, the mission is so important."

"Many of the people we come into contact with have this faith in Jesus Christ," Swenson said. "A lot of people are firm in their belief" — though the Mormons still want them to covert. 

They'll tell people, "I'm glad you go to church but we believe we are the only church that has the priesthood authority to baptism," Dixon said.

Those who haven't been baptized as Mormons can receive "a degree of glory, but we are offering them the whole pie, not just a piece of pie," he said.

Sometimes people confront the missionaries with the belief that Mormons aren't Christian.

Mormon theology differs from that of Catholics and Protestants on numerous points, from Mormons' belief in the Book of Mormon to differing concepts of the Trinity of the father, son and holy spirit.

"We do hear that a lot," Swenson said. "But our name tags say, 'The Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints)'. I say, 'of course we believe in Jesus Christ. We teach about Jesus Christ. ...'

"He is the center of everything we do," Swenson said. "When people say we don't believe in Jesus Christ, it's not only absolutely not true but also very un-Christlike."

If people bring up the fact that presidential candidate Mitt Romney is Mormon, or other political issues, the missionaries are taught to avoid the subjects.

In an era when few salespeople or representatives of other faiths go door-to-door, the missionaries say they aren't worried when they approach strangers. "We have this calling when we knock on someone's door," Swenson said. "We're not afraid, because God is there with us. Because of our desire to teach, we're not afraid."

Even if most people shut the door in their faces, missionaries are heartened by successes, like the woman they met on a Wednesday who was baptized in the Mormon church the following Saturday.

Dixon, whose two-year mission will conclude this month, said at least a dozen people he talked to have been baptized as Mormons, which he said is about average for this part of the United States.

In any case, "we don't focus on the numbers," Swenson said. "We focus on the people."

When their missions are over, Dixon plans to attend Brigham Young University and study industrial or fashion design. Swenson wants to get a job and go into business.

The two young men say they're absolutely sure of the righteousness of their mission.

"A lot of people think, "Why are you doing this?' " Dixon said. "To put it very shortly, because it's true, because the Book of Mormon is scripture. It's a true book."


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