For many decades, young Mormons have served missions in the Modesto region under the guidance of offices in Fresno and Sacramento. Now, the area has a mission of its own, which will grow to have as many as 200 Mormons serving the cities of Modesto, Turlock, Tracy, Stockton and Lodi.
It’s not a common occurrence for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to open a new mission, said Brent Alan Palmer, who was called from Bellevue, Wash., with his wife, Karen Sue, to serve as president of the mission for three years. Their work began in July.
The Sacramento mission was begun in 1942, and the Fresno mission in 1975. Creation of the Modesto mission, whose geographic area was carved from the two others, was warranted because the church continues to grow in the region and its members are so active, Palmer said. “It goes back to the congregation members’ commitment and willingness to support the missionaries and the community-service aspect of the mission,” he said.
The mission started with 96 young men and women, called elders and sisters. Within the next eight weeks or so, Palmer said, it will have about 150 and will continue to grow. Missions typically are held to 180 to 200 missionaries, the president said.
While the Modesto area will have a bigger missionary population than ever, it likely won’t be as visible to residents who recall a time when they were seemingly everywhere on their bikes, the young men easy to spot in crisp white shirts and dress slacks.
“Go back 20 to 25 years and there was a lot of door-to-door and street contact,” Palmer said. “More of our time now is focused on teaching and community service. …
“While you used to see them much more knocking on doors and trying to share the message, a lot more of it now is working more effectively with members of the church, teaching in people’s homes, and they’re spending a good number of hours every week working with interfaith service projects and food banks and clothing banks and the JustServe program.”
More missionaries are using public transportation, too, Palmer said, but they’re still very active on their bikes. “I love to see them periodically but I’d much rather see them in a home teaching or at a service project.”
JustServe.org is an online network that matches volunteers with faith, nonprofit, community and governmental organizations that need help. It’s not a church-sponsored site, said Palmer, but LDS maintains the infrastructure.
Thousands of communities across the nation participate in the registry, where any would-be volunteer can search by geography, dates, type of service and more. A search of opportunities in Modesto turns up volunteer needs by First Tee of the Central Valley, the Healthy Aging Association, the McHenry Museum and more.
Missionaries perform up to 10 hours of community service per week, and the website is just one way they find opportunities to serve. The young people are encouraged to become active in the communities they serve and find ways to help. It could be as simple as mowing lawns for people who can’t do it themselves, Palmer said, sitting in his Ripon home Friday morning with his wife, other Modesto LDS leaders and several elders and sisters.
“I was talking with a couple of sister missionaries a couple of days ago,” he said, “and they were just going down the street and they kind of heard a woman crying very loudly and they asked, ‘What’s going on?’ She said, ‘It’s my baby,’ the baby had stopped breathing. They responded to that.”
“She didn’t speak English. She needed a translator for Spanish,” added Karen Palmer.
“And fortunately,” the president said, “one of the sisters spoke Spanish and so they were able to facilitate the emergency response.”
“It’s all expressions of Jesus Christ’s love,” added Chad Murdock, a 20-year-old from North Carolina who’s 21 months into his two-year mission. “That’s what we’re trying to do, be like him in every way.”
Before coming to the new Modesto mission, Murdock primarily served in the Elk Grove area. He said he’s worked with food banks, helped park and recreation services clean parks and lay down mulch, and done lots of moving. “I’ve worked with a couple of apartment complexes helping people move in or out,” he said.
On a typical morning, he said, he rises at 6:30, exercises, studies his faith for two hours and gets ready for the day. By 10, he’s out in the community, he said, “whether that’s doing service or teaching – most of the time, it’s teaching.”
That teaching is to both church members and nonmembers. The latter primarily are friends of church members. “We’re teaching them about Jesus Christ and helping them strengthen their faith in Jesus Christ.”
Proselytizing continues to be an important part of a mission. “In the street, we talk to everybody we meet,” Murdock said. Missionaries aim to help people understand the doctrine of the church, he said.
But the missionaries’ community service comes with no expectation that beneficiaries are interested in receiving teaching, he added. “When we’re at Habitat for Humanity or food banks, we always wear our name tags,” he said, “and people will see the tags and ask what we’re doing, why we’re here. So we tell them what we do as missionaries. If they ask, we share and strike up friendships in those service opportunities.”
Fellow missionary Saphina Boata, who’s from Kiribati, an island in the central Pacific Ocean, had not left her homeland before boarding a plane to Fiji and then onto the U.S. She also had to learn English.
“My experience on my mission is such a great experience for me,” Boata said. “One of my things I always want in my life in my experience is I just really want to have always the spirits be with me so that if people don’t understand me, they at least feel something from me. ... I think it’s a lot of progress for me to see that people recognize the spirit I bring to their home.”
Boata is training a new missionary, Makayla Tuaitanu of Utah. Training someone is tough, Boata said, but again, it’s a great experience. “I always told her,” Boata said of Tuaitanu, “that one of the things she needs to learn is that when you feel like ‘I don’t have a lot of success,’ I told her that if you do have love, love the people with all your heart, and just try to serve, like, with all your might.”
Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327