A popular Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hymn starts with the line “Have I done any good in the world?”
With the current state of Mormon missions, many young people find themselves returning home from their missions wondering whether they made any real impact. While some of this phenomenon could be attributed to individual differences in self-awareness and introspection, much can be explained by the limits of the two options available for prospective LDS missionaries.
Currently, the first option for LDS missionaries is to serve a two-year, proselytizing mission. For most, this entails living in a different city of country and going door to door (or more recently, to local Facebook groups) trying to find people to teach.
This option can be very good for naturally charismatic people who were born to be good salespeople. It can, however, be two years of sheer hell for an introvert destined for a career in basically anything other than sales/management.
The second option for LDS missions is relatively new and it is called a “service mission.” This type of mission is done while the missionary lives at home with family, and generally the missionary gets to clean meetinghouses, work with kind elderly people at a temple and/or help lift heavy things at a food pantry warehouse, all while living “missionary rules,” which basically means no friends, no job, no school, no fun. This option is fantastic for zealous youth who want to fulfill their “missionary duty,” but who may have physical/mental/psychological limitations that would preclude them from option one.
So today, when a missionary comes home and asks themself the big question, the tangible proof or proverbial “fruit of their labors” lies in the number of converts they had, or in the transient cleanliness of the meetinghouse they serviced. And, for many, this looks like a failure.
Enter option three. Humanitarian missions.
The LDS Church has vast financial resources, and some pretty amazing young people who truly want to do good in the world. It also boasts an abundance of seasoned members who have knowledge in trades, business, engineering, logistics, medicine, law and infrastructure who would love to teach and serve.
What if a young adult could spend a year or two learning to install potable water systems in Africa alongside civil engineers and plumbers, helping organize a food distribution network with a former Amazon logistics expert, or working alongside a retired botanist on a reforestation project in the actual Amazon?
New partnerships could emerge with worldwide charitable organizations such as the Peace Corps, Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, Unicef and countless others who are already doing such great work in the world. All the pieces are there for option three. Somebody just needs to put them together and press play. Why aren’t we doing this already?
I know, I know, why reinvent the wheel? If there are organizations in place that give humanitarian aid, why don’t young people just volunteer directly with those organizations rather than serving an LDS mission? Well, if you are asking that question, you clearly haven’t heard the church rhetoric surrounding missions.
From the age of 3, Mormon children grow up literally singing “I hope they call me on a mission” in primary classes. It is next-level indoctrination, and rather than fighting against it, why not lean-in for the greater good? Option three would also allow young people to broaden their perspectives working with people outside their faith, and help the good people of these humanitarian organizations (hopefully) see LDS Church members in a more positive light.
With option three, missionaries would return home knowing how to sterilize medical instruments, run electrical lines or drive a forklift — and maybe even learn a language to boot. Or maybe just be really good at digging trenches, have a more global worldview and be thankful to be eating an In N’ Out Burger again.
None of these things are guaranteed, but they will almost certainly return with a definitive answer to the big “Have I done any good?” question: a resounding “YES.”
Derek Banks is a University of Utah alumni living in the San Jose, California, area with his family. He sincerely hopes “option three” will be available to his children in the next few years.