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The Saints Go Marching In
One of the church's goals in sending missionaries is to convert people, but perhaps equally as important is the way the experience solidifies the missionaries' own membership in the church. For the two years of their mission, missionaries speak to their families only twice a year, aren't allowed to watch television or listen to music that isn't "spiritual or uplifting," and spend six days a week studying and proselytizing, with one day reserved for laundry, grocery shopping and written correspondence. "Before your mission," Nielsen says, "You're living in the world. When you go on mission, you're placed in an observer position, watching people and the decisions they're making."
"Cause and effect becomes a lot more apparent," Severson says. Still, he says, "There are a lot of people doing very well [here], and it has nothing to do with our church. We're not the only way out."
In charge of Washington North's missionaries is president Bill Price, here from Utah on a three-year placement. Price says he considers Southeast Washington a difficult place to be a missionary. Price places only elders -- male missionaries -- here, and he has a policy of rotating them through the ward more quickly here than in suburban neighborhoods. "It prevents them from becoming 'ghettoized' -- that's my term -- from beginning to think that everything is hopeless," he says.
"The missionaries for the most part are from middle-class neighborhoods in the western U.S.," he says. "The only minorities most know are from Mexico and Central America. So there's a cultural divide we hope to bridge." To a certain extent, he says, the experience bridges it. "Going in, there's a lot of black people there. By the time [the missionaries] come out, they're just people. Race is never a part of the conversation except before [the missionaries] get there."
"If I wasn't wearing this badge, there's no way I'd be walking these streets," Nielsen says, of his name tag identifying him as a member of the church. Still, he says, "My favorite thing is when white people come up to us and say, 'You boys better be careful! This is a rough neighborhood!' And we're like, 'We live here.'"
As they walk, Nielsen points out the lot where they play basket-ball on the weekends with kids from the neighborhood. "Most of these teenagers are real cool with us," Nielsen says. The reception they get in the neighborhoods ranges from warm to hostile. "When people say things to us, it's always from a distance or in passing. We get it all the time from adults -- 'Get out of here, you effin' white boys; you don't belong here.' Someone was yelling at us recently about how we brought slavery here. He was driving an ice cream truck."
A few days ago, Nielsen was punched in the head by a guy who ran up to him by the AutoZone on South Capitol Street SE. "It was the hardest I'd ever been hit," he says thoughtfully. "I kind of staggered. But I didn't go down. The kid was calling me on. Severson was raging, full of adrenaline." Severson smiles, a little ruefully, at the memory. "But we decided not to fight him. That's not what we do."
The guy took off down the street but, after a moment, came running back. "We thought, Oh, now we are going to have to fight him," Nielsen says. "But he came up to apologize. He said he didn't know what was wrong with him. He was real sincere."
"Later," Severson adds, "we noticed a video camera on the side of the AutoZone --"
"-- so we went in to see if we could get footage of it," Nielsen says. "But the camera didn't record that part of the street."
Did they want to try to identify the guy? "No," Nielsen says. "We just thought it would be cool to have the video."
The missionaries are meeting Michelle Coppedge at the apartment of another ward member, Robert Wallace. They arrive just as Wallace, wearing tuxedo pants and a white dress shirt, gets home from his night job as a security guard. Coppedge, who arrives a few minutes later, is a slight, fine-boned woman of 48 who looks much younger. Wallace arranges his guests around the dining room table, and begins dishing out bowls of strawberry ice cream.