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Today Stevens converses effortlessly with any Haitian on the street. The same goes for Dowse, who has been speaking Kreyol since his arrival this past November. The two elders, along with six other missionaries, work out of a Mormon building on 85th Street and Biscayne Boulevard shared by the Miami stake's Haitian branch and Miami Shores ward.
"As you can imagine, to be thrust into another culture and defend your religious beliefs is a pretty big shift for a high school student," says Fort Lauderdale mission president Noel B. Reynolds. "But the church does a good job of preparing them."
Every day they get up at six in the morning to study Scripture. On Mondays the elders have until 4:00 p.m. to do their laundry, go grocery shopping, play sports, and e-mail or write family members. "Being a missionary is a seven-day job," Reynolds says. "They train each other. They have planning sessions every night and a two-hour weekly planning session on Thursday mornings."
The rest of the time, they are out preaching the Mormon Gospel, visiting church members and people "investigating the church," those curious, God-fearing souls who are interested in learning more about the Mormon way. On Tuesday evenings Dowse and Stevens teach English to Haitian immigrants. On Sundays the elders attend the sacrament meeting and Gospel classes with members of their branch or ward.
Stevens and Dowse, like other elders, schedule appointments with members or interested parties and teach specific chapters from the Book of Mormon on a daily basis. Some lessons prepare potential converts for baptism. Others are meant to help existing members ascend to one of the three levels of Heaven in which Mormons believe.
"People invite us or we do the door-to-door thing," Stevens says. "We don't keep score of who we convert. For us, teaching the Gospel is a matter of service."
The sight of a pair of missionaries low-tech and stark in their white shirts, dark pants, and book bags, on bikes or on foot prompts curiosity and fascination from observers. The Mormon faith is the subject of speculation and intrigue, as well as an inexplicably strong presence in the current state of pop culture.
The HBO series Big Love, which recently concluded its season with its main characters being exposed as polygamists, has drawn millions of viewers. The family in question has endured a fair share of hassling from the mainstream Mormons who regard polygamy with revulsion and shame.
Jared and Jerusha Hess, who wrote and directed the instant geek classic Napoleon Dynamite, are graduates of Brigham Young University. The peculiar comedy, about a strange young man and his eccentric family and classmates, isn't explicitly a Mormon movie, but the Idaho setting and clean-living characters are obviously LDS. And Cremaster creator and artist Matthew Barney is a baptized though nonpracticing Mormon, as is film and theater director Neil LaBute (Your Friends and Neighbors, In the Company of Men).
But not everyone buys into the superficially simple and practical doctrine. Take Tricia Erickson, a right-wing conservative media pundit and chief executive of Crisis Management Inc., a public relations firm specializing in corporate damage control. During a recent interview, Erickson, a North Carolina-born Mormon, says she began to question the church's beliefs at an early age. "I never had that heartfelt conversation," she says. "It always seemed strange to me. The messages did not line up with the true Word of God, the Bible."
Nevertheless she followed LDS teachings well into adulthood. She attended Ricks College, an LDS-affiliated school in Rexford, Idaho. She married a "Jack" Mormon, a name the church gives members who don't really practice the religion. "My parents taught me that my life would be wonderful if I married a Mormon," she says. "He turned out to be an abuser, so I left him."
Following her divorce, Erickson says, she spent fifteen years sorting out fact from fiction about the church. She claims Joseph Smith is a false prophet who plagiarized The Spaulding Manuscript, a fictional story about a group of Romans who, while sailing to England in the Fourth Century A.D., were blown off course and landed in eastern North America. The tale's author, Solomon Spaulding, wrote it some ten years before Smith's celestial epiphany. "The Book of Mormon is a counterfeit," she lashes.
Erickson cites Mormons' interpretation of Jesus as proof the religion is not Christian. Latter-Day Saints believe Jesus was a mortal born of sin who ascended into godliness through his sacrifice on Earth. Smith taught that humans come to Earth to get a body and to be tested. After death, everyone is placed into one of three kingdoms, depending on his level of righteousness. Those in the highest degree will dwell with God, their families will be eternal, and they'll even become gods themselves as God did. "That is blasphemy," Erickson accuses. "People who feed at the trough of this false religion have to learn how to run, not walk, out of that church."
Furthermore, Erickson continues, the Mormon church takes advantage of the young men and women who serve missions. "It's the best marketing program in the world," she says. "When you can convince people that they are being called by God, they will feel the need and the urge to preach the revelations of the church. And at such a young age, how can you know that your parents are in a well-masked cult when that is the only thing you know growing up?"