Mormon missionaries go door-to-door in the inner city

March 19, 1995|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Sun Staff Writer

While walking the streets of West Baltimore recently, young Brigham Colton, a Mormon missionary, found himself standing between two men who were completing a sidewalk drug deal.

L Then he had the feeling he wasn't in Salt Lake City anymore.

"I often think," says the cherubic-looking 19-year-old, "how different it is here."

As dismaying as the sight was, Elder Colton did not dwell on the spectacle. Just as his missionary partner, Shane Campbell, did not long ponder the body he happened on one day in Pimlico. They simply moved along to knock on the next doors. Whatever else was going on in Baltimore, it was God's work they were sent to do here.

No one could look more out of place than these two -- white, Bible-toting young men with short haircuts, white shirts and somber suits and ties. Together, the well-scrubbed disciples of Joseph Smith are soldiering their way through the most desolate reaches of the city, telling those who answer their knocks, "We want to share a message of salvation with you" or "We've come to talk to you about the plan of our heavenly father and the purpose of life."

Surprisingly, they are enjoying some measure of success.

This may seem unlikely terrain for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To many, the Mormons still are familiar only through the Osmonds, a determinedly saccharine family of musicians popular in the '70s. Racially exclusive for most of its 165-year history, the church to this day remains overwhelmingly white and middle-class. But through the efforts of Mr. Colton, Mr. Campbell and about 48,000 other Mormon missionaries worldwide, that may be changing.

More times than not, Mr. Colton and Mr. Campbell, 20, are brushed off, told off or written off. But, despite the church's past discrimination, the two not only manage to get themselves beyond many a front door, but also reel inner-city African-Americans into the Mormon Church.

Dr. Bruce Ballard, the retired California orthopedic surgeon who heads the Maryland mission, estimates that at least half of the 750 Mormons in Baltimore City are black.

"We do best of all in Frederick and in Baltimore City," he said.

Blacks represent only a fraction of the global membership of the Mormon Church. But while scholars estimate that no more than 125,000 of the church's 9 million members are black (the church says it does not collect racial data about members), their numbers almost certainly are rising. The American-born church, one of the world's fastest growing, is making strides in areas with large black populations, particularly in South America and Africa.

It was to reach those populations, rather than African-Americans, scholars say, that the church in 1978 lifted its ban against blacks joining the lay ministry, which was otherwise open to every male over the age of 11.

"All the political pressure which various civil rights and liberal groups exerted on the Mormons in the 1960s had no effect," said Armand Mauss, a professor of sociology and religion at Washington State University. It was only the Mormon desire to expand elsewhere that prompted the change in policy, he said.

That 1978 reform, though directed toward the Third World, had the effect of ending the Mormon church's religious redlining at home, too. Mormon missionaries began flocking into the inner city. Today, 36 of the 136 missionaries working under Dr. Ballard are assigned to Baltimore, including Elders Campbell and Colton. (first names are never used while on a mission, even when no one else is present).

Their regimen, like that of all missionaries, is strenuous. They rise at 6:30 a.m. and read Scriptures until 9:30 a.m. Then they are on the streets for 12 hours a day, six days a week (plus three hours on Sundays).

They will be at it for two years during which they will not date, watch television, go to the movies, listen to music or read any book other than the Bible or the Book of Mormon. They will be permitted two telephone calls a year to their families. There will be no vacations, no weekends off, no fun -- at least by conventional standards.

Mr. Colton has been a missionary for six months; Mr. Campbell, who is from Boise, Idaho, a year and a half. Both say they grew up expecting that they would be missionaries. Like all prospective missionaries, they applied to the central mission headquarters in Salt Lake City. They could have been sent anywhere in the world. They were sent here.

"I wanted to go to South Africa," said Mr. Colton, a handsome, square-shouldered blond man from a Salt Lake City suburb. "I saw pictures of the zebras and lions and thought that would be neat."

But he took the Maryland assignment without complaint. "I was excited. As soon as I found out, people told me to go see the harbor and this and that," he said.

"They didn't tell me to see things," said Mr. Campbell, who is shorter and darker with a freckled face. "They just said to make sure I had a bulletproof vest."

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