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The November assault of missionaries in Mexico and last week’s shooting of an 18-year-old proselytizer in Alabama have renewed interest in the safety of the tens of thousands of young Latter-day Saints who spread out across the globe every year in search of converts.
These crimes were hardly the first time that missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have faced peril while preaching. They have been punched and kicked, groped and grabbed, stalked and mugged.
In August 2020, two female missionaries were stabbed after an intruder broke into their Houston apartment. Both survived. In 2018, two other female missionaries described being brutally assaulted while on their missions. In 2017, a male missionary beat back a would-be attacker in Brazil. And, in 2013, two female missionaries were roughed up in Kosovo.
Even church President Russell M. Nelson — while serving as an apostle — his wife and four others were attacked by armed robbers in 2009 during a dinner in Mozambique.
The church has taken additional steps to improve missionary safety. Last year, the Utah-based faith unveiled a 12-part video series dubbed “The SafetyZone” to introduce measures that can help protect the proselytizers.
The series covers crimes against missionaries (including physical and sexual harassment), pedestrian and bicycle safety, safe driving and the proper handling of food, among other topics.
In addition, the Missionary Handbook (the bible for behavior for these ambassadors of the faith) states plainly that “health and safety are of great importance.”
“Stay away from unsafe areas. Travel after dark only in lighted areas. Vary the routes you travel. Walk quickly and with purpose,” the guidelines counsel. “Do not fill your carrying case with too many items or with materials that are heavy or bulky, which could create the impression you have items of value. Do not resist if you meet thieves. Carry a little cash with you so you have something you could give to thieves.”
Latter-day Saint leaders emphasize that while their youthful missionaries may be on God’s errand, they are not invincible and must take precautions to remain safe. Some returned missionaries have praised the stepped-up effort to create a culture of safety and dispel notions that these volunteers are always divinely protected.
In the wake of the Mexico attack at a church meetinghouse, The Salt Lake Tribune asked former missionaries if they ever felt unsafe on their missions. The query garnered more than 140 responses and detailed a variety of alarming experiences, including sexual harassment, gun violence and gang activity.
Here are some of their stories:
Salt Lake City resident Robin Grigg, who served in the Hungary Budapest Mission from 2013 to 2014, said a man stalked her and her companion, making sexual comments to them and indicating that he knew what they had been wearing the day before.
Her mission leaders had them stay in their apartment for the day, she said, and then they switched apartments with male missionaries.
“I would have preferred to have been taken out of the city, as well, because the guy knew we went to the church building several times a day [to teach people],” Grigg said. “He could have easily found us again.”
Lehi resident Anne Wallace, who served in the Canada Toronto Mission for six months between 2015 and 2016, said she and her companion lived in an apartment in which the previous female missionaries had been removed because a man had threatened to rape them.
Not long afterward, they found this man inside their apartment, fixing their heater, said Wallace, noting that he had keys to their door.
Wallace said while living in that apartment, she had nightmares about being attacked. She also felt that her mission leaders didn’t take her concerns seriously, instead scolding her for not using the “language of faith.”
Wallace said she was “deeply traumatized” from her mission and no longer has a relationship with deity because of her experiences in Canada.
Gun and gang violence
Centerville resident Kevin Taylor, who served in the Rio de Janeiro area from 2004 to 2006, wrote about the gun and gang conflicts he often witnessed as a missionary, including seeing children with weapons.
He said he was encouraged to not write home about these incidents.
Though Taylor was eventually transferred to less-violent places, “you naively enter these areas without any thought of your personal safety,” he said, “because you have been indoctrinated to believe that God will keep you safe.”
“I love Brazil, I love the people, the food and the culture,” Taylor said. “I truly went out on a mission for me and no one else. I can now see, though… many issues with missionary work.”
Clearfield resident Jared Chandler, who served in the Mexico Tampico Mission from 2005 to 2006, said he experienced violence firsthand when he and a teenage boy were accosted by a gang with known ties to a cartel.
Chandler said he and the teen were taken to a park and interrogated for three hours. Most of the questions, he said, were about his religion and about why an American like him was wandering around their city.
He said the gang eventually let them leave. He said he never informed his mission president about the encounter (though he told other missionaries and became “something of a celebrity” for it).
According to the Missionary Handbook, missionaries should “immediately report any possible problems to [their] mission president and to [their] district leader or zone leaders.”
“The gang situation did not seem scary at the time — chalk it up to poor decision-making by two adolescents,” Chandler said. “But I can see now that we were in real peril and we had no way out. The police certainly wouldn’t have helped us.”
‘I was being watched over’
Not all of the former missionaries who responded to The Tribune’s query said they felt unsafe during their service. Some talked about times they felt strengthened and protected.
Orem resident George Muhlestein, who labored in the Texas San Antonio Mission from 2015 to 2017, said he and his companions were threatened with baseball bats, nail guns and firearms, and that cars “routinely” tried to run them off the road.
He said he didn’t report most of these encounters because he believed he was being watched over. Once, he even wrote home about a drive-by shooting he had witnessed — despite his mission leaders’ counsel to keep it to himself.
“[My mother] was unphased,” Muhlestein said. “She, too, believed I was being watched over.”
Muhlestein acknowledges that terrible things sometimes happen to missionaries, but he does not believe the church “concocts a narrative of divine protection as a crutch for not protecting missionaries.”
“When evil things and dangers afflict missionaries,” he said, “the church sends armored transit, commissions jumbo jets and activates elite legal teams to defend them. The rules for missionaries are so safe it can be frustrating.”
New Mexico resident Kelsey Bangerter, who served in the Florida Jacksonville Mission between 2016 and 2017, also said she felt protected while serving.
Bangerter said she experienced some episodes that could have been dangerous, such as seeing lots of drug use and being sexually harassed while she worked in a bread line.
However, she said, she took precautions — like not going out at night and always having a phone on her. In the sexual harassment case, Bangerter said, she and the others around her spoke out against the man.
Another time, Bangerter said someone tried to break into her apartment. She and her companion called some nearby male missionaries, who came over to pray with them and informed the apartment complex.
“[We] never had that happen again,” Bangerter said. “I knew that if anything did happen, that we would be protected and everything would be OK. You can’t control the actions of others. We were as safe as possible.”
Salt Lake City resident Grant Emery, who served in the France Paris Mission from 2005 to 2007, said safety was the highest priority to his mission leaders.
During his mission, there were riots in France over immigration issues. In response, his mission president instructed all his charges to be home by dark, which in far-north Paris meant 4 or 4:30 p.m, Emery said. His mission president also reached out to parents to “proactively” address any concerns.
The Missionary Handbook counsels the faith’s proselytizing troops to “stay away from public demonstrations and from locations where those seeking to cause trouble might target you.”
“It was repeatedly emphasized that our physical safety was more important than any other priority, including preaching,” Emery said. “The regular emphasis … disabused me of any notion that extreme mission stories were worth any dangerous risk. It also helped me realize that, even as a missionary, there are higher priorities than preaching the gospel.”