With 10 deaths this year: Are Mormon missionaries safe?
Proselytizing • Numbers say yes — they may be safer serving than not — but 10 have died this year and ‘the loss of even one’ is painful.
Published: October 3, 2013 09:50AM
Updated: October 4, 2013 09:07AM
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Kim Raff | The Salt Lake Tribune LDS missionaries Elders Tyler McCord, left, and Devin Duke sit by the reflecting pool at Temple Square during the 183rd General Conference of the LDS Church in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Oct. 7, 2012. The day before, church President Thomas S. Monson had announced lower age limits for Mormon missionaries — 18 (down from 19) for men and 19 (down from 21) for women.

Four died in transit accidents. Four succumbed to health problems. One was electrocuted while doing a good deed and another fell to a stray bullet.

Ten Mormon missionaries have died so far in 2013, far above typical levels. And while LDS Church officials insist the spike doesn’t represent a trend, it has raised anew the question: Is missionary work safe?

The answer, according to the head of the faith’s Missionary Department, is an emphatic yes.

In a rare statement issued last month after the 10th missionary died, Elder David F. Evans, said Mormon missions are inherently safe. At the same time, he offered words of solace to the affected families.

“For the church and particularly for the families of these missionaries who have lost their lives, we know that the loss of even one missionary is far too many,” said Evans, a general authority and member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. “To these remarkable families we extend our love, our faith, our hope and our prayers. And we pray that peace and comfort will be yours during these times of sorrow.”

The official statement came as the LDS Church copes with a surge of more than 16,000 young women and men added to its missionary ranks in just a year since the October 2012 announcement lowering the missionary age to 18 for men and 19 for women.

Church officials now peg the number of missionaries in the field at 75,000, up 28 percent from the 58,500 serving a year ago. The figure is expected to climb to 85,000 by year’s end.

Evans said the church had seen similar upticks in missionary fatalities in 2003 and 2008, with declines in intervening years. The church does not share its statistics on missionary deaths, but independent counts since the 1980s indicate the rate hovers between three and six a year.

That is substantially below death rates for those same age groups across U.S. and world populations — as tracked by the World Health Organization and several prominent academic journals. Liked-aged rates of death for non-missionaries are six to 20 times higher, depending on the measures used.

For instance, a University of California think tank devoted to adolescent-health issues recently estimated death rates for U.S. males ages 20-24 at about 140 per 100,000. Even if 10 LDS missionaries died every year, the resulting mortality rate would still be less than a tenth of estimated rates for all U.S. males of similar ages.

LDS apostle Dallin H. Oaks has called the safety record of Mormon missionaries “nothing less than a miracle.”

Those numbers, however, do not always comfort worried parents, whose concerns are sometimes deepened by online access to news from countries where their missionaries are serving.

The website LDSmissionarymoms.com circulates regional information to more than 15,000 email addresses worldwide, read mostly by moms “and a few daring dads” with missionary children, says site webmaster Karl Pearson. Domain moderators often have to step in to calm fears, he said, and pass on advice from ecclesiastical leaders.

“Some of these mothers are unable to cope with any bad news,” Pearson said.

The safety of Mormon missionaries spread across 405 missions worldwide does not come by luck or accident. The church’s far-flung presence exposes its members — and its proselytizing forces — to all manner of natural disasters, human crises, accidents and street crimes.

An 18-year-old missionary from Bountiful was recently among survivors of a horrific train derailment in Spain that killed at least 80 people. Stephen Ward was on his way to his first assignment after completing six weeks of instruction at a Missionary Training Center in Madrid when the crash occurred. Ward suffered a neck injury but was otherwise fine.

Evacuations and other precautionary moves to protect young LDS missionaries are routine, and church leaders have a long record of managing Mormons deployed in spreading the church’s doctrines with high caution in the face of threats.

The Utah-based faith also pumps massive resources into training missionaries on safety and health, first at any of its 15 Missionary Training Centers followed by country-specific information given in consultation with church leaders on the ground. Safety is also a key byproduct of the rigid etiquette, close supervision and obedience to rules — rising at 6:30 a.m. and lights out by 10:30 p.m. — embedded in LDS missionary life, especially the biblically based tenet of living and traveling in pairs.

“When we were keeping the rules, we felt especially safe,” said Bryson Tudor, a 22-year-old returned missionary and Brigham Young University student who served near Lyon, France. “I felt like the rules were perfectly normal, because I could see how things could go wrong when we didn’t follow them.”

Evans’ statement came last month shortly after Taylor Shane Ward, a 19-year-old missionary from California, died following an accident on State Highway 39 near Rockford in southeastern Idaho. A passenger in a compact car hit by a heavy truck, Ward was one of two 19-year-old missionaries killed this year while proselytizing for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Traffic accidents are among the most common causes of death among missionaries — as they are for all men and women ages 18 to 24. Not surprisingly, missionaries receive safety training for bicycles and motor vehicles in preparation for their 18-month- to two-year-long stints.

Like Ward, Josh Burton, 23, from Alberta, Canada, died in a traffic accident in July, when a truck he was riding in overturned in Guatemala. Two other missionaries — 22-year-old Alesa Renee Smith, of Benton, Ark., and Jason Wiberg, 19, of Roy — were hit and killed while riding bicycles, a common mode of travel for LDS missionaries in many locales.

Smith died when she was struck from behind by a truck in Woodward, Okla., as she and her companion, who was not injured, rode single file. Wiberg was traveling home from Saturday evening appointments in a neighborhood near Kuching, Malaysia, when he was hit by a car. His companion rendered aid and Wiberg was taken by ambulance to a hospital but died of his injuries.

Four missionaries this year have succumbed to illness or other health problems despite efforts by LDS officials since the 1980s to improve screening and delivery of medical services in the mission field.

A 20-year-old Peruvian missionary, Juan Junior Litano Montero, contracted tuberculous meningoencephalitis and died in July in his home city of Piura while awaiting visa approval for travel to Argentina. Three others died of apparently natural causes.

Kansas native George Peter Solie, 22, died of an unidentified medical condition in mid-January, after serving in Salt Lake City for about a year. Jeffrey Rogil Guerra Alfaro, also 22, from Lidingo, Sweden, was jogging with his companion in the Utah Provo Mission in May, when he collapsed after suffering a ruptured cerebral aneurysm. Thomas Milo Bennett, a 21-year-old missionary from Window Rock, Ariz., perished from cardiac arrest at a hospital in Casper, Wyo., after complaining of nausea earlier in the day.

Scores of Mormon physicians donate their services to help missionaries — both on site and through a Salt Lake City-based team of 40 volunteer doctors and mental health workers that reviews and gives medical advice in cases worldwide.

“Our primary objective is to help provide a more effective workforce among the missionaries,” Donald B. Doty, a Utah thoracic and cardiovascular surgeon who heads the LDS Missionary Department Health Services, said earlier this year.

According to church statistics, fewer than 3 percent of missionaries are ill on a given day, a dramatic reduction from three decades ago.

Among the least predictable and most common dangers facing missionaries is random street crime, which in August claimed the life of 20-year-old Jose Daniel Encarnacion Montero, a Mormon from the Dominican Republic. Montero was killed by a stray bullet in Cali, Colombia, according to a statement from Ruth Todd, LDS Church spokeswoman. His companion and two other missionaries also at the scene were unharmed.

Colombian news reports indicate the shooting occurred inside an apartment late at night. No witnesses have come forward who saw or heard the shots, and police have been unable to confirm where the bullet came from.

Siosiua “Josh” Taufa, 20, of Salt Lake City, was electrocuted in June while serving an LDS mission in Guatemala. The Skyline High graduate and talented football player was fixing a leaky roof during a rainstorm in the southwestern part of the Central American country when he slipped and grabbed an active power line.

His mother, Juliete Taufa, said those circumstances spoke volumes about her son, who chose to go on a mission over pursuing his athletic interests.

“He was trying to help out a family.”

tsemerad@sltrib.com

Mormon missionary deaths this year

Taylor Shane Ward • The 19-year-old from Vacaville, Calif., died last month after the compact car he was riding in was hit by a pickup near Rockford in southeastern Idaho. Ward was serving in the Idaho Pocatello Mission.

Jose Daniel Encarnacion Montero • The 20-year-old from the Dominican Republic was killed Aug. 31 in Colombia by a stray bullet.

Jason Reid Wiberg • The Roy 19-year-old was fatally hit by a car while riding a bicycle Aug. 25 in Malaysia.

Thomas Milo Bennett • The 21-year-old LDS missionary from Window Rock, Ariz., suffered cardiac arrest and died Aug. 3 in a hospital in Casper, Wyo.

Juan Junior Litano Montero • The 20-year-old missionary in the Peru Piura Mission died in July of tuberculous meningoencephalitis.

Joshua Allen Burton • The 23-year-old, from Alberta, Canada, died in Guatemala on July 22, when a truck he was riding in overturned.

Siosiua “Josh” Taufa • The Salt Lake City 20-year-old was electrocuted June 19 in Guatemala while trying to fix a family’s leaky roof. Taufa was the son of Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Aiveni “Ivan” Taufa, a member of Gov. Gary Herbert’s security team.

Jeffrey Rogil Guerra Alfaro • The 22-year-old from Lidingo, Sweden, was serving in the Utah Provo Mission in May, when he suffered a fatal aneurysm while jogging with his missionary companion.

Alesa Renee Smith • The 22-year-old from Benton, Ark., was killed in Woodward, Okla., on Feb. 1, when she was hit by a truck while on her bicycle.

George Peter Solie • The 21-year-old Kansas native had served for a year in the Utah Salt Lake City West Mission when he died Jan. 23 from an unidentified medical condition.