As I watched entire planeloads of Mormon missionaries returning early, I wondered aloud to my returned missionary husband, “How is church culture going to handle losing this rite of passage?”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a long history of accomplishing incredible feats, from the settling of the Intermountain West to photographing genealogical records across the world to sending out tens of thousands of volunteer missionaries every year. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mormon church can use its organizational skills and devoted membership to help society transition away from fossil fuels by calling young men and women to serve as “renewable energy missionaries.”
But committed members of the church still want to serve, and church leaders can channel that energy and dedication in other positive directions. As the climate crisis threatens more death and destruction than even worst-case scenarios for the coronavirus, we have no choice but to transition toward renewables. And because the church cannot send missionaries on proselyting missions anytime soon, the church, the members, and the world can all benefit from calling members to transform church ranches and agricultural farms into wind, solar and even thermal energy farms.
In the long history of Mormon missionary work, we’ve adapted many times already. We’ve sent men into the world “without purse or scrip,” sent men on three-year missions, sent missionaries out with no language training, sent women out as well, changed the age for missionary service, sent out married couples, sent missionaries to construct chapels, sent missionaries out to do a wide variety of tasks apart from proselyting.
For the foreseeable future, we’ll need more outdoor employment. The church can acquire thousands of hours of labor from volunteers to help defray the cost of the necessary energy conversion. This type of missionary work will also teach young people job skills they’ll need after the global depression we are likely to experience. Calling members on renewable energy missions is a victory on every level.
Older folks who wish to serve, or younger folks with physical limitations, can still do so by handling supply orders or monitoring information or performing other functions that don’t require heavier physical labor.
And some missionaries, of course, can still serve online missions. Perhaps even these renewable energy missionaries can spend one day a week proselyting online. Others can sharpen their persuasive skills and then petition state and federal governments to do their part in helping society shift to renewables. There is much work to be done, all of which benefits the church and its members both now and in the future.
I served two years as a missionary 40 years ago. It remains one of the most profound experiences of my life over three decades after I left the church. I belong to a Facebook group for those who served under my mission president, and I’m astounded that several of the young men and women I didn’t expect to remain active after they returned home are still devout members all these years later.
Missionary work can bring converts to the church, but that’s not its only function. It also helps young men and women take an active, meaningful part in a noble endeavor. They work hard, they sacrifice and they are permanently changed by the process.
Door to door, in-person missionary work will not be feasible for quite some time. But the church can still serve its members and the rest of the world by channeling the devotion and goodwill of its missionaries into helping society make the difficult transition away from fossil fuels, an evolution we must make in the next few years regardless.
Mormons pride themselves on being the same in every congregation around the world. We teach the same lessons, sing the same hymns, read the same scriptures, believe the same doctrine. But Mormons also have two centuries of major adaptation. Moving from New York to Pennsylvania to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois to Utah, transitioning from monogamy to polygamy to monogamy, even transitioning from hiding the history of the First Vision to becoming more transparent.
We can do this.
Let’s start calling members to serve renewable energy missions.
Johnny Townsend, Seattle, is the author of books that include “Breaking the Promise of the Promised Land,” “Human Compassion for Beginners,” and “Am I My Planet’s Keeper?”