Latter-day Saint leaders have an emphatic message for their youthful missionaries: You may be on God’s errand, but you are not invincible.
That means the 65,000 “elders” and “sisters” who make up the proselytizing army of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints across the globe are at risk of being punched, kicked, choked, restrained, bitten by a dog or hit by a car. They contract malaria or dengue fever, or get shocked by loose electrical wires. They’ve been sexually harassed and assaulted, groped and grabbed, robbed and stripped.
On Friday, the Utah-based faith unveiled a 12-part video series known as “The SafetyZone” to introduce its young soldiers of faith to measures that could help protect them or even save their lives.
The series covers pedestrian and bicycle safety, avoiding electrical wires, safe driving, appropriate behavior around children, crimes against missionaries (including physical and sexual harassment) and proper handling of food, among other topics.
“Each episode covers a missionary safety topic in an entertaining way while delivering important, life-changing principles,” according to a news release. “The videos focus on helping missionaries gain life experience through actual examples and storytelling."
Reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived but critically acclaimed “Sports Night” series from the late 1990s, “The SafetyZone” resembles a sportscast — or newscast — with in-studio analysts who discuss missionary safety.
In the first video, the three “anchors” debate which is more important — obedience to missionary rules, being aware of surroundings or respect for others.
Starting now, missionaries will be asked to watch the first episode with their parents when they receive their mission calls. The other 11 videos will be viewed at missionary training centers and will be provided to missionaries already serving.
“We’re trying everything we possibly can to think about the situations that they might find themselves in that would take them away from being who the Lord has called them to be, and that is to be his missionaries proclaiming his gospel throughout the world,” said S. Gifford Nielsen, a general authority Seventy who serves in the church’s Missionary Department.
Some episodes feature guest analysts, including Nielsen, a former National Football League quarterback and television sports anchor, and Bonnie H. Cordon, the faith’s Young Women general president.
Though some assaults and accidents can be prevented through these measures, missionary safety is not an insignificant worry.
Last year, two former missionaries, Maddy Cicotte and Camille Junca described in agonizing detail being brutally assaulted while on their missions.
Cicotte managed to escape from her captor and run naked into the streets of Potosi, Bolivia.
Junca and her companion were grabbed in their apartment building hallway near Mexico’s western coast in Chilpancingo, thrown to the ground, their upper bodies covered in blankets, and then sexually assaulted.
Junca and Cicotte told The Salt Lake Tribune that the church failed to challenge cultural beliefs that missionaries have special protection, sent missionaries to unsafe areas and offered inadequate care to sexually assaulted missionaries.
Each shared her excruciating experience and its aftermath with officials from the church’s Missionary Department and discussed these issues with those working on the video scripts.
Cicotte can see positive change for missionaries in the first video.
It moves away from rhetoric suggesting that “obedience is all you need,” she said Friday. It moves toward creating a “culture of safety.”
The former missionary also praised the effort to get parents involved — a connection made easier by the recent announcement that missionaries may now call their parents once a week — and to stop saying these volunteers “are always divinely protected.”
But Cicotte also challenged some of the first episode’s assumptions, including the idea that if these proselytizers are obedient and aware, they will be fine.
“Sometimes both of those things together are not enough to keep you safe,” she said. “You need a pathway to change your situation or your location, to be able to say, ‘I don’t feel safe in this area.’”
The failure of “some of our missionaries to be situationally aware led to some really painful consequences,” she quotes from the video.
Cicotte was situationally aware and obedient, she said, but there were “still really painful consequences.”
It’s victim blaming, she said.
And sometimes, Cicotte said, obedience to a rule puts a person in harm’s way — like the mission rule to stay out until 9:30 p.m. on dark streets, talking to strangers.
In 2017, the church also sent a survey about safety issues to all missionaries, asking specific questions about their experiences.
At the time, the church said it would use the results to inform changes, and, spokesman Daniel Woodruff said, it did. Hence the videos.
Traditionally, though, Mormon missionaries suffer fewer accidents and deaths than others in their age cohort — starting at 18 for elders and 19 for sisters.
In the past six months, a handful of LDS missionaries have died, which is about average, which hovers between three and six a year.
That is well 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. Like-aged rates of death for nonmissionaries are six to 20 times higher, depending on the measures used.
Norman Hill, president of the Ghana Accra West mission from 2013 to 2016, applauds the videos and their messages.
In addition to videos, it will take extra steps to keep these young people safe.
“While giving good information is critical,” Hill wrote in an email, “changing behavior of missionaries requires more than presenting information or showing a video.”
As mission president, Hill constantly reminded his charges to get enough water from filtered bottles and to take their daily malaria pills.
“Most of our dehydration and some gastro problems happened when missionaries did not follow these guidelines,” he said. “We had some missionaries who didn't want to follow this protocol and so we had a few scary situations when they did get malaria.”
Following the rules can prevent accidents, Hill said, “and save lives.”