Sidewalk Salvation

Preach. Convert. Repeat.


A matronly lady with snow-white hair, dressed in a white blouse and full-length burgundy skirt, answers the front door of a lusciously landscaped two-story brick house in Plantation. A sticker affixed to the door reads, Warning: Protected by a Mormon.

The gentle door greeter introduces herself and a fellow wearing a white short-sleeve dress shirt, tie, and navy blue slacks. "I'm Sister Sydney Reynolds," she says. "This is my husband, President Reynolds."

The Reynoldses, from Provo, Utah, arrived in Plantation in July 2005 after accepting a three-year assignment to watch over the missionaries operating in South Florida. The LDS church does not employ official clergy; instead it uses a rigid corporate-style hierarchy that begins with the church headquarters in Salt Lake City and trickles down to every branch and ward in the congregation. The hierarchy is headed by the prophet and church president, Gordon B. Hinckley; and the Quorum of Twelve Apostles. Mormons believe God ordains the Prophets and Apostles to issue spiritual messages and directives to the congregation.

Sometime in December 2004, Noel Reynolds remembers, he and his wife received a call from Hinckley to serve as Fort Lauderdale mission caretakers. "It's not a career goal," he says. "But we are very glad to do it. We receive no salary, but the church provides the home we live in."

The 64-year-old Noel is on leave as a political and legal philosophy professor at Brigham Young University, where he also teaches Mormon Scripture classes. On the mantle over the living-room fireplace rests a coffee-table book depicting artwork of Joseph Smith. Above the book hangs a family portrait of the Reynoldses and their eleven children. "Ten of them have served missions," Noel states emphatically. "They have been to Russia, South America, Korea, Germany, and Spain." Once their assignment is up, the couple will return to Utah.

Noel, a third-generation LDS from Los Angeles, traveled to Uruguay and Argentina for his mission more than 44 years ago. "I was given a week's training in rudimentary Spanish, handed a grammar book, and they wished me luck," he says with a hearty chuckle.

According to the LDS official Website, the first missionary to touch Florida soil was Phineas Young, who spread the Mormon word during a two-month stint in 1845. From 1869 to 1929, Mormons were essentially banned from the Sunshine State; law enforcement officers would meet each train arriving in Tallahassee to prevent elders from disembarking. In 1898 one Mormon congregational leader was murdered, the Website claims. The first official LDS church was established in Jefferson County in 1897.

On November 1, 1960, the Mormons established their first Florida mission beachhead. It included parts of southern Alabama, Georgia, and the Caribbean, Noel says. In 1974 the Fort Lauderdale mission, which covers West Palm Beach to Key West and parts of the Caribbean, was founded.

The missionaries work in pairs, usually traveling by bicycle or car. On average, an elder will spend $400 a month on expenses such as rent, food, and gas — all of which is paid by the missionary himself and his family, although it is common for an elder's hometown branch or ward to contribute money for the two-year-long mission.

On a wall near an unstocked liquor bar — Mormons don't drink alcohol or smoke tobacco — hangs a large corkboard bearing the photos and corresponding names of all the elders serving the Fort Lauderdale mission. The pictures are affixed to various colored sheets of construction paper. Each color represents a different language. White delineates English, while pink is for Portuguese, green is for sign language, blue is for Spanish, and red is for Kreyol.

The missionaries hail from states such as Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, and countries such as Mexico, Canada, and Peru. Upon arrival, the elders sign their names on a banner hanging from a grandfather clock in the living room. The top of the banner is decorated with the Florida mission's coat of arms, which depicts the angel Moroni, three conch shells representing the Florida Keys, an Everglades sunset, and arrows representing unity and strength. "It is just for fun," Noel explains. "It is not an official church thing."

The house is used to hold meetings with the missionaries or tend to them when they are sick or injured. "Our children can come and visit us," Noel says. "But we're usually here alone."

Noel's number one priority is the health and welfare of the elders. "I'm responsible for training and organizing them into effective missionaries," he says. The training sessions are called zone conferences, held over a three-week period in which the missionaries meet for group training in the Plantation house. Noel meets individually with each missionary for a half-hour. He also coordinates arrivals and departures, as well as the transfer of elders from one ward to another.

"We get one week to catch a break and then get ready for the next zone conference," he says.

While on their mission, the elders are not allowed to watch television or read anything but the Book of Mormon and other LDS teaching materials. Certain neighborhoods, such as South Beach, are off-limits unless the elders are meeting with someone to discuss the church. "They don't date," Noel says. "They don't have any romantic dinners or a personal social life. For young men and women in their late teens and early twenties, that is hard to give up."

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