NORMAN — When people answer the door to find Elder Zachary Buhler and Elder Braxton Winterton, they usually don’t have to ask why the pair is on their doorstep. They know just from glancing at their white, short-sleeve dress shirts and ties.
Thanks to the ambitious evangelical efforts by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the experience of finding its well-dressed missionaries like this is near universal.
But while the scenario is familiar, most people only have one half of the story. They know what it’s like to answer, but not what it’s like to be the people who knock on the doors, who stand on the doormats as they spiel about Jesus Christ and some guy named Joseph Smith.
“It’s not a breeze,” said Winterton, an athletic 19-year-old from Utah. “It’s difficult. Emotionally, spiritually, physically, everything. It’s tough but … When it’s hard you’re able to grow from it.”
Winterton has had plenty of time to learn. He began the two-year mission at the beginning of January. This makes him a little more experienced than his 19-year-old partner, Buhler, who left Oregon for his mission in August.
Buhler and Winterton could’ve been called anywhere in the world, but they were called to the Oklahoma City Mission, which assigned them to Norman. It may not be the most exotic of places, but they like it, partly for its citizens’ religiosity.
“You just walk around Oklahoma, and most people have that religious background,” said Winterton. “People want to talk about the Savior Jesus Christ. It’s just a part of their life.”
This is something Buhler and Winterton can relate to.
Buhler and Winterton are part of the nearly 30 missionaries in the Norman zone, who are part of the more than 200 missionaries in the Oklahoma City Mission, who are part of the roughly 82,000 missionaries around the globe.
More than other churches, the Mormon church emphasizes the importance of missionary work. Venturing to a new land to convert its inhabitants is seen as a part of growing up and a way of fulfilling a duty to God.
“Young men and young women are frequently encouraged to prepare to serve full-time missions, just as Elder Winterton and Elder Buhler are currently serving,” said Stewart Walkenhorst, the president of the Oklahoma City Mission.
While explaining missionary work, Walkenhorst quotes Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement and a prophet of Latter-day Saints. Smith put great weight on evangelism, writing “the greatest and most important duty is to preach the Gospel.”
For Buhler and Winterton, encouragement to go on a mission didn’t only come from the church — it also came from their families.
Buhler’s mother, Kuniko, supported her son’s decision to go on a mission because she thought it was a service he owed to others.
“When you receive blessings, you need to serve other people,” she said. “Serving is the best way to express your gratitude to the world.”
Winterton’s parents likewise encouraged their son to go on a mission. His mother, Julie, urged him to go because she knew the two years would change him.
“They will mold him into a husband and a father and a person who can change the world,” she said.
Winterton and Buhler interrupted their college careers to embark on their mission. Before Winterton left, his life seemed dominated by athletics, his mother said. Before Buhler left, he was occupied with theater.
Now Scripture is the only thing they study. Singing in worship ceremonies is the nearest Buhler gets to the performing arts, and playing in the local church’s basketball court is the closest Winterton gets to a sports competition.
It’s not hard to believe this will change them.
The seriousness with which the church and its members take evangelism is reflected in the daily lives of the missionaries, which don’t include dating or pretty much any form of electronic entertainment not “centered on Jesus Christ.”
But even if distractions like music and video games were allowed, it’s unlikely Buhler or Winterton would be able to make time for them.
“We’re very structured,” said Winterton. “We plan for every hour of the day.”
On a regular day, Winterton and Buhler wake up at 6:30 in the morning and eat breakfast from 7 to 8. From 8 to 10, they study scripture together and in private. They’re knocking on doors and ringing doorbells by 10. Except for the two hours set aside for lunch and dinner, Buhler and Winterton go from door to door nonstop until they retire at 9 in the evening.
Monday is the closest the two have to an off-day. It’s the one day of the week they can shop, relax by exercising or contact their friends and family by handwritten letters or email.
No phone calls, though. Buhler and Winterton can call their parents only twice a year, for an hour on Christmas and an hour on Mother’s Day.
Being cut off from friends and family is not something the church does just to make their lives hard. As with every aspect of the mission, there is a purpose.
“It’s tough, but it’s actually a good thing,” said Buhler. “We’re not focusing all on our relatives or all on our friends because we are focusing on our work.”
The lack of communication has been a challenge for the Buhler and the Winterton families. Elder Winterton’s father, Gary, says he sometimes worries about his son. Elder Buhler’s father, Ric, said he gets lonely without him. But they agree this is the sacrifice parents of missionaries must make.
“You’re giving your children to the world,” said Ric.
Not just anyone cuts himself off from friends, family and entertainment for two years to do a full-time job like this without any sort of monetary compensation. This is why it’s impossible to doubt Buhler and Winterton’s sincerity. It’s clear they must truly want to do this.
This dedication to the mission grows out of a devotion to their religion. Buhler and Winterton were brought up in the church, but they say that’s not the only reason they’re devoutly Mormon.
“We have to have our own conversion to this Gospel,” said Winterton. “We had to learn about these things ourselves and really decide and pray and ask our Heavenly Father if it’s true.”
Winterton references Galatians 5:22-23 to explain the feeling he gets when he consults God about the truth of his faith. The verse speaks of peace and joy, feelings he has always experienced while praying and reading Scripture.
For Buhler, verification has come in a string of events throughout his life, in each of which he believes the Holy Ghost helped him.
He says when he was about 5 years old, he got lost for five hours while exploring his father’s farm. He says he prayed for guidance and received directions that led him back into his mother’s arms.
“I knew from there that Heavenly Father loves every one of us,” said Buhler.
Buhler says God was revealed to him again later in life, “because we need reminding.” Once, when he was struggling with his studies, he asked God for a sign that would show him he cared. After his prayer, he got a phone call.
“It was one of my dear friends,” said Buhler. “He was a high school buddy that I hadn’t talked to in such a long time, and he told me ‘I don’t know, I just felt like calling you right now. I wanted to see how you were doing.’”
“And I knew that was an answer to my prayer.”
The Mormon faith has made a profound difference in Buhler’s and Winterton’s lives. That’s where their drive comes from. That’s why they’re here in Norman instead of back home, doing the stuff typical young adults do.
“Simply, for me, it’s just to give back to my Heavenly Father for all that he’s blessed me, and to really go out and serve his children as well,” said Winterton.
Buhler and Winterton work as a pair, like most Mormon missionaries. Since being assigned to each other, they have become fast companions.
Buhler, who is still a “newbie,” sees Winterton as a teacher. He asks him questions and talks to him to relieve stress.
“He’s like a brother I never had,” said Buhler. “He uplifts you.”
Winterton occasionally plucks lint from Buhler’s shirt and adjusts his crooked collar. It’s clear he’s spent more time on the job, and that he also sees himself as a sort of guide.
Buhler refers to Winterton as a “captain.” He describes him as bold and outgoing — good traits to have when your job is talking to strangers about religion.
The first time Winterton met Buhler, he showed his boldness by giving him a big hug. This surprised his partner, but Buhler remembers it with a laugh.
Just as Buhler praises Winterton on his leadership, Winterton compliments Buhler on his kindness.
“[He’s] always trying to serve, and he’s very patient and loving,” said Winterton. “I think those things are very key to missionary work.”
Buhler and Winterton are aware Mormon missionaries are sometimes seen as salespeople — impersonal and intrusive. But they insist they are neither.
Winterton said he believes conversation about religion is more taboo than it should be, which is why some people might believe missionaries are intrusive. Some people see religion as a private matter, but he doesn’t.
“What else really do we have to talk about?” said Winterton. “What else are we going to take to the next life? In my own opinion, all we have is the Gospel… So why not express it more? Why not talk about it?”
“Sometimes as a culture, we kind of mask what is important.”
It’s also mistaken to believe missionary work is impersonal, said Winterton. There’s no script, contrary to popular belief.
“When we go up there, it’s us,” said Winterton. “It’s just us going up and bringing our message to you and we’re inviting you to listen.”
Of course, not everyone does. Some people are happy to converse with missionaries, but others are less enthusiastic. Sometimes Buhler and Winterton approach a house with eyes peeking through the blinds, but get no answer when they knock. Other times, people are more direct.
“We normally don’t get anything very severe,” said Winterton “Most of the time it’s just like ‘We’re not interested,’ and like a good slam of the door, or ‘Go away, get off my property.’”
Despite the backlash from some people they approach, Buhler and Winterton say their experiences are typically good.
“For the most part, Oklahoma is great,” said Winterton. “I love the people of Oklahoma. They’re great people. They’re nice, very willing to talk.”
As one might expect, the pair doesn’t see a lot of conversions. As articulate and kindly as they might be, an encounter with Buhler and Winterton is rarely enough to cause someone to overturn their worldview. Winterton has only helped five people come into the church, and Buhler still hasn’t gotten one.
But it’s no contest. While it may be a “great reward” to see someone embrace their faith, Buhler and Winterton emphasize conversions are not all that matter.
As important as it is for missionaries to convince others to change, it’s also important that they change themselves.
“There’s a lot of change that goes on in you,” said Winterton. “You come to know really who you are. You grow a lot more … You’re definitely being molded … You hold yourself to a different standard.”
Buhler and Winterton say they expect to be changed men when they return to the life of non-missionaries. They anticipate being more disciplined and religiously driven.
Their parents say they can already sense changes in the letters and emails they receive. Buhler’s mother said she can sense her son growing up. Winterton’s mother thinks her son sounds more appreciative of the people in his life.
“He can see with so much more clarity,” said Julie.
Eventually the parents of Buhler and Winterton will see the changes with their own eyes. At that time, activities like playing video games and going out with friends will re-enter their lives. But they say their passion for evangelism won’t be crowded out.
“This is [our] small time to be a full-time missionary, to wear the name tag and to represent the church and to represent the Lord Jesus Christ,” said Winterton. “But part of our church is to always be sharing the Gospel … We’re trying to make that part of our nature, part of who we are.”
They’ll still be missionaries long after they change out of their fancy shirts and ties.
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