As Heidi Hemming rode a double-decker bus through the streets of Ireland, she fiddled with an empty plastic bottle in her hands, wondering what the missionary sitting across the aisle would say when she revealed how she felt about him.
Serving missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1985, the then-21-year-old Hemming and 20-year-old Mark Hollingshead had gravitated toward each other during district activities while proselytizing in Dublin.
Hemming liked him, and she wondered if he liked her. She waited for a pause in their conversation and tapped him on the knee with the bottle.
“Are you feeling the same way I’m feeling?” Hemming asked.
Hollingshead paused for a moment but acknowledged that, yes, he did. That night the young missionary noted in his journal that he liked her. Hemming, meanwhile, wrote home to her parents, telling them about a cute elder that had caught her attention.
Missions, of course, were no place to pursue such feelings. In line with their callings, they approached their mission president. Hollingshead volunteered to be transferred and was sent to the one of the mission’s coldest areas.
“To use a church analogy or symbolism,” Hollingshead said, “it was like the seed of attraction and likability and compatibility was planted.”
The two exchanged a few letters while serving and met up after they had both returned home. But sparks did not fly like they had on that bus in Dublin.
While Hemming and Hollingshead didn’t marry — at least right away — it is far from uncommon for Latter-day Saints to settle down with someone they met while serving their volunteer missions. That’s hardly surprising. After all, these full-time proselytizers are doing their two-year (for men) and 18-month (for women) church stints at an age (between 18 and their mid-20s) when young people typically are in college, courting, falling in love, and finding partners and spouses. And while dating is a no-no on missions, it doesn’t mean the missionaries aren’t noticing.
Add to that a belief system the esteems marriage (ideally for eternity) and social media sites, which make it easier than ever to stay in touch after touching down back home, and it becomes almost inevitable that proselytizing could, in time, lead to proposing.
Locking your heart — for now
Six months into his mission, Nick Sevy couldn’t believe his luck when he was transferred to Escuintla, Guatemala. Not only was he enjoying the coastal climate, but he also was a week away from one of his first baptisms.
Stefany De La Cruz had decided to convert after she had a dream in which she saw people running for a tree. Her uncle, who was a Latter-day Saint, told her what she had seen sounded similar to “Lehi’s Dream” in the faith’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon.
It struck Sevy how beautiful De La Cruz was when he first saw her, but he reminded himself to “focus on the Lord.”
“Missionary Standards for Disciples of Jesus Christ,” an online set of rules and guidelines for Latter-day Saint missionaries published in 2019, instructs the church’s emissaries to “not flirt or associate inappropriately with anyone” and “avoid any thought or action that would separate you from the Spirit of God.”
While Sevy and De La Cruz became friends in the few months he served in Escuintla, they didn’t grow to know each other all that well, they said. Sevy continued to think about her, and, when he returned home, he messaged her on Facebook.
At first, Sevy encouraged her to read her scriptures or work on her personal goals. As time wore on, their conversations lasted longer and became more frequent. They started calling each other to pray together each day.
“I was falling in love so easy,” De La Cruz recalled. They talked online for eight months before Sevy decided to visit in September 2018. He asked for her father’s blessing beforehand and proposed to her on a beach near her home the first day he returned to his former mission.
De La Cruz hesitated initially but decided to go with her heart and said yes. Sevy flew home to Utah and talked to an immigration lawyer about obtaining a visa.
From then on, their conversations shifted toward planning their wedding in Guatemala. Most of her family was supportive, but one aunt tried to persuade her not to go through with it and skipped the wedding at the faith’s Guatemala City Temple in November 2018.
The couple spent the next year apart as Sevy worked with church officials to obtain a visa for De La Cruz. Just days before airports closed in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic struck, her documents came back and she flew to Utah.
As a Latter-day Saint in Spanish Town, Jamaica, Sherefah McCalla had met waves of missionaries passing through for a meal or to share a lesson with her family.
When Pleasant Grove native Kurt Meacham visited her family’s home, she thought he was “weird, but like a good weird.” After Meacham completed his mission, he returned to McCalla’s family upon visiting Jamaica, and they became pen pals.
They stopped communicating regularly after a few years, but McCalla messaged him every year on his birthday. In 2018, she sent her usual birthday wish. Meacham carried the conversation further.
Meacham replied with heart eyes to one of McCalla’s pictures, which caught her attention. McCalla was on vacation with her “toxic” boyfriend at the time, she said, when he fessed up that he liked her.
McCalla eventually broke it off with her boyfriend and talked with Meacham exclusively. In March 2021, Meacham made plans to visit Spanish Town again but as the day of the flight approached, he couldn’t find his passport.
Instead, he paid for a ticket for McCalla to come to Utah.
“We’d known each other for so long,” McCalla said, “and there was just a connection between us.”
Meacham renewed his passport and returned to Jamaica in July, this time with a ring in hand. McCalla said yes, and they started planning their wedding for nearby beach.
In October, McCalla went back to Utah to meet Meacham’s family and shop for a wedding dress. When it came time to return to Spanish Town, McCalla realized she didn’t want to go.
“It was just like a split second,” McCalla said. “I was still in my job in Jamaica. And I was basically here saying, ‘Oh my gosh. I’m going to have to stay here if I want this marriage to work.’”
They started working on obtaining her spouse visa and eventually married in October 2021.
“Sherefah is everything I’ve always wanted in a relationship,” Meacham said. “She’s the first girl that’s ever really been right for me.”
More than 54,000 missionaries serve in the 400-plus missions across the globe. Each mission becomes its own little community — complete with Facebook pages, reunions and more — that lasts long after the nametags come off.
When Justin and Jillian Christensen first met on their mission in the Netherlands, there were 80 elders and sisters (female missionaries) serving there.
With many of those missionaries attending Brigham Young University when they got home, it’s little wonder, the Christensens observed, that six or seven couples from their missions ended up marrying.
Though Justin, who is from South Jordan, and Jillian, from Riverton, grew up in neighboring suburbs, they likely never would have met if they hadn’t first talked on their mission more than 5,000 miles away. They recently celebrated their 11th wedding anniversary and have four kids. They’ve remained friends with many people from their mission, holding reunions nearly a decade and a half after it ended.
Now they speak Dutch to plan surprises for their kids and keep jokes from their non-Dutch speaking friends.
The Christensens, like many couples interviewed, said that serving a mission together helped vet their future companionship.
Long road to the altar
After Hemming and Hollingshead asked their mission president to separate them in Ireland, they met up after it all ended. Hemming was attending BYU in Provo and Hollingshead was at what was then Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) in Rexburg.
Hollingshead visited her four times in college. “I did not,” he said, “make a good impression.”
When the relationship wasn’t “forbidden” by mission rules, Hemming recalls with a laugh, “it just wasn’t the same.”
They went their separate ways, with Hollingshead working in Utah and Hemming joining the Peace Corps in Mali. They both married and started families. About 20 years ago, Hemming’s husband left her on her own to rear two young children. She shut herself out from the dating world and focused on her kids.
Hollingshead married and had kids, too, but he and his wife agreed amicably on a divorce in 2014. Three years later, he suffered a stroke and, he said, “went off the radar.”
Around that same time, Hemming’s kids had grown up and moved out. She realized she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life alone and talked with her sister about it.
Hemming’s sister was a widow and had recently rekindled a relationship with the boy she had her first kiss with decades ago. She encouraged Hemming to look to her past.
“That’s when I decided to figure out what was next,” Hemming said. “The person I kept thinking about was [Elder Hollingshead].”
She set out to find him.
Hollingshead’s Facebook profile had popped up in her recommended friends years earlier, but when she looked for him again in 2019, the account she thought could be his only had a picture of a German shepherd on the profile. Everything was private, and there was no way to make a friend request without sending a message first. Hemming had to “get up her guts” to write that note in November 2019.
“Hi,” she wrote. “Do you remember me?”
Hollingshead replied immediately. “Oh yes… A voice from the dust.”
They started to talk again, and Hollingshead visited her in Maryland from his home in Utah in December 2019 and February 2020.
When pandemic shutdowns landed in March 2020, Hollingshead told her he wouldn’t be able to visit anymore. So Hemming suggested he move into her basement instead. The next day, he bought a one-way ticket from Salt Lake City to Maryland.
“It was like packing in years’ worth of dating,” Hemming said. “... Everything just stopped. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go. So we were just together all the time for three solid months.”
By the time he had to return to Utah in June, they had decided to make the arrangement permanent. Hollingshead went back to Maryland and they married in the backyard of Hemming’s sister in July 2020.
“Whatever it was about who we were when we were in our 20s was still present,” Hemming said. “There was something about that that made it easy to pick up where we left off.”
Nearly 40 years and an ocean away from that double-decker bus in Ireland, they read passages from their mission journals to each other, from the day when they fell in love.
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.
Correction • Sept. 28, 7:15 p.m. • BYU-Idaho is in Rexburg. An earlier version gave an incorrect city.