“Why Would They Need Another Mormon in Salt Lake City?”


From Europe, Asia, and South America, young men and women are called to spread the gospel—in Utah.

When Yokunido Sato joined the Church and determined to serve a mission, he could well have expected to preach the gospel in his native Japan. So, too, may Ramon Ramos of Guyana have looked forward to serving his mission in South America. Instead, both Elder Sato and Elder Ramos were called to serve in the shadow of Church headquarters in Salt Lake City.

Elder Takashi Wada had to read his mission assignment letter eight times before realizing that he was going to the Salt Lake City North Mission. As Sister Lindamay Garcia of the Salt Lake City South Mission wondered when she got her call, “Why would they need another Mormon in Salt Lake City?”

Throughout its history, the Church has sent missionaries from Church headquarters to preach the gospel throughout the world. Now Jesus Ramon of Spain, Marie Normand of Quebec, Canada—and many other young people from around the world—are serving in missions that have headquarters in Salt Lake City.

Many people do not even realize that there is a mission in Salt Lake City. But, in fact, two missions are headquartered in the Salt Lake Valley. The Utah Salt Lake City North Mission extends northward through Utah to Idaho and parts of Wyoming; the Utah Salt Lake City South Mission covers an area that extends from the middle of the valley to the southern Utah border.

It is the northern mission that has the greater cosmopolitan flavor.

“We have an international mission right here in Salt Lake City,” says Salt Lake North Mission President Lloyd V. Owen, who is from Alaska. “Our missionaries come from all over the world, including Samoa, Tonga, England, Ireland, South Africa, Viet Nam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. We have had as many as thirty nations represented in this mission.” At any given time, the mission has the capability to teach the gospel in about seventeen languages.

“Our missionaries from other countries help expand our understanding of the worldwide Church,” says Sister Peggy Owen. “In addition, the North American missionaries serving as their companions receive an exposure to other cultures that they otherwise might not have.” In turn, the international missionaries are encouraged to learn English better and to try to understand the culture in which they find themselves.

To help meet the challenge of administering a mission with so many language and cultural differences, all the international missionaries are in one zone of the mission, Zone Eight. This helps the mission president use the missionaries’ language abilities to the best advantage. The system is working, according to President Owen. Zone Eight is usually the number of baptisms.”

The Salt Lake North and Salt Lake South missions are among the top baptizing English-speaking missions in the Church. President Van L. McCabe of the south mission feels this is so because of the friendshipping efforts of many of the members, the missionary-minded leadership in wards and stakes, and, especially, the dedicated full-time missionaries.

New Convert Missionaries

In many instances, the missionaries are relatively newly baptised themselves. Others have been active in the Church a few years before their mission call.

Elder Yokunidu Sato joined the Church six years ago in his hometown of Sapporo, Japan. He was formerly a Buddhist and is the only Latter-day Saint in his family. He says he had “the faith to go on a mission because President Kimball wanted all young men to go on a mission.” Elder Sato had learned a little English in school and then studied English at the Church’s Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. He now teaches the gospel in both English and Japanese.

His companion, Elder David Gathers, from Pine Bluff, North Carolina, did not attend the Missionary Training Center as a foreign-speaking missionary to learn Japanese, but he has learned so well from Elder Sato that he can now teach the discussions in Japanese.

Elders Sato and Gathers were assigned to Salt Lake City’s Temple Square where the Salt Lake Temple, the Tabernacle, the Assembly Hall and two Church visitors’ centers are located. Beautifully landscaped, Temple Square attracts approximately two million tourists each year. One such tourist was twenty-one-year-old Chitomi Tanaka, from Japan, who had come to Utah to visit a friend. After the elders took her on a tour of Temple Square, they asked if she would like to know more about the Church. Chitomi read the Book of Mormon and knew it was true, but she had concerns about joining the Church. The elders challenged her to be baptized and set a date, but as that and later baptismal dates approached, Chitomi decided not to be baptized. Finally, after five months of studying the gospel, she was baptized. She has since returned to Japan, where, Elder Sato reports, she is a faithful member of the Church.

Elder Sato and Elder Gathers have also had the opportunity to teach a Vietnamese lady and her daughter.

Other missionaries in Salt Lake City have similar multi-language experiences. Sister Marie Normand was reared in French-speaking Quebec, Canada. Called to serve in Salt Lake City, she went to the Missionary Training Center to learn English. In the mission, she was assigned as a companion to Sister Janice Rider, also a Canadian, who was working with a number of Cambodian refugees. The French-speaking missionary who learned English is now teaching the gospel in Cambodian.

Cambodian Conversion Story

About 8,000 Southeast Asian refugees live in Utah, with about fifty to one hundred new refugees arriving every month. Donald and Irene Jones, of Mesa, Arizona, are a welfare services missionary couple who labor among the Cambodian refugees. Elder Jones relates that “about thirty percent of the people we help with clothing, furniture, food, and job-training are not members of the Church. Helping people often opens the door to teaching the gospel.”

One such conversion story is that of Sakhan Lay, who was a school teacher in Cambodia. When the government fell, her family was separated and she was sent to a prison camp. Twice she faced a firing squad, but her life was spared. Miraculously she escaped, and was able to locate her children who had fled to Thailand. A Latter-day Saint Cambodian family living in Utah sponsored the Lays so that they could come to Salt Lake City. They have since joined the Church, and Sister Lay is now working as a social worker among her people.

Two Salt Lake North missionaries from Vietnam taught the gospel discussions in English to an investigator who had a Hispanic background. Elder Jeff Reyes, from Los Angeles, California, had been a student football player with the University of Utah before joining a professional team. After a knee injury ended the 122-kilogram man’s football career, he returned to Salt Lake City, although he had very strong feelings against the Church. However, when he met the missionaries, he was receptive to the gospel and was baptized. President Owen recalls that, “Jeff was so excited after his baptism he hugged those little Vietnamese missionaries and literally lifted their feet off the ground. I joked to my wife that I feared for their lives.”

“Gone to Heaven”

How does a missionary who lives outside the United States feel when he receives a call to serve in Salt Lake City? “The reaction,” President Owen observes, “is mixed. Some think they have gone to heaven. Many react to their mission call in disbelief.” Sister Theresa Moe, a California widow originally from Samoa, had been told by her friends and family that she would be called to serve in Tonga or Samoa or another Pacific island. But she had dreamed about coming to Utah since she was a little girl when she had seen pictures of the Salt Lake Temple. She felt quite sure she would be called to serve in Salt Lake City, and she was right.

Sister Lindamay Garcia, of Mercedes, Texas, who joined the Church in 1984, had not even realized that there was a mission in Utah.

But Elder Jesus Ramon, from Elche, Spain, the only member of the Church in his family, says, “I cried when I got my mission call to Utah. I wanted to serve my people in Spain; share the gospel message with them. I also wanted to be closer to my family and help bring them into the Church. But I prayed and knew that the call was from the Lord through President Spencer W. Kimball, and that Utah was where I should be.”

Now he is glad that he was obedient to the call. “I have seen a great deal of progress in the attitude of my family toward the Church. They are now attending church because of the change for the good they have seen in my life, and because they like the members. I feel that one of the blessings of serving a mission will be to see my family come into the Church.”

Although Elder Ramon is serving an English-speaking mission, he often is the first contact with Mexicans or South Americans living in his area of Zone Eight.

Versatile Linguists

Working with Spanish-speaking investigators is an experience shared by Elder Santiago Tinon from Chicago, Illinois, and Elder Alejandro Flores of E1 Paso, Texas. Originally called as English-speaking missionaries in the Utah Salt Lake City South Mission, the two elders are now working exclusively with Spanish-speaking people from Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela, and El Salvador. In one month alone, this missionary pair had six baptisms. One of them was a young Mexican woman who had come to Provo, Utah, to study. She smoked cigarettes heavily but accepted the challenge to read the Book of Mormon. By the third discussion, she was converted and readily gave up her smoking. She was an example, Elder Flores says, of how well the gospel is accepted among Hispanics.

A shoemaker from Guyana, South America, Ramon Ramos traveled to the island of Barbados in the West Indies to sell his handmade shoes to tourists. He met the missionaries and subsequently joined the Church when he was twenty-one. The only member of the Church in his family, he wanted to serve a mission but did not know how he could finance one. On one of his trips to Barbados he met a Latter-day Saint family from Arizona, who offered to financially support him on a mission.

When he completes his mission, Elder Ramos plans to return to Barbados to help build the Church there. “There are very few priesthood holders in that part of the world, and I believe the Lord needs me there,” he says.

President Owen says, “One of the beautiful things about the young people from around the world serving in this mission is that it prepares them for leadership later. They see the Church in its great strength, they see stakes and wards function as they should, and they grow from that experience. As they return to their home countries where the Church is expanding rapidly, where providing trained leadership is such a challenge, these young people will be very specially prepared.”

The personal preparation of the missionaries themselves is an important part of mission experience. Elder Alejandro Flores feels his mission has taught him many things about life. Sister Sonya Collins, who comes from a large family that migrated from the West Indies to Leeds, England, and then joined the Church, says, “A mission is a success not only in terms of baptisms. A mission is a success if the missionary learns about himself, or herself, and gains a more sure testimony of Jesus Christ.”

The admonition is given to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to preach the gospel to “every nation, kindred, tongue, and people.” (Rev. 14:6.) International missionaries serving in the Utah Salt Lake City North and the Utah Salt Lake City South Missions have the unique and sacred opportunity to share the gospel of Jesus Christ in the shadow of Church headquarters.

Called by Inspiration

What are the chances of a young man or woman from Europe, Asia, or Latin America being called to serve a mission in Utah?

“There is no pattern for calling missionaries to serve in Salt Lake City,” says Elder Charles Didier of the First Quorum of the Seventy and a managing director of the Missionary Department. “Missionary assignments are made by prophets, seers, and revelators, and missionaries throughout the world are called according to inspiration.”

When inspiration results in an assignment to the English-speaking missions based in Salt Lake City, the elder or the sister missionary will first stop at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. Depending upon their proficiency in the English language they will either stay there for a two-week orientation course, or an intensive eight-week course in English as a second language.

[photo] Elder Yokunido Sato from Japan, and his North Carolina companion, Elder David Gathers, work in the shadow of the Salt Lake Temple. (Photography by Peter Brunson.)

[photos] Photography by Jed Clark and Peter Brunson

[photo] Originally from Samoa, Sister Theresa Moe, center, fulfilled a life-long dream when she received a mission call to Salt Lake City.

[photo] Hoping for a mission call to his Spanish homeland, Elder Jesus Ramon, second from left, cried when he received his mission call to Utah.

[photo] A shoemaker from Guyana, Ramon Ramos, [at right], came to the Church and a mission as the result of a business trip to the West Indies.

[photo] Elder James M. Paramore of the First Quorum of the Seventy and president of the Utah North Area Presidency, makes a teaching point as he talks with the missionaries in a zone conference.

[photo] Salt Lake North Mission President Lloyd V. Owen, seen here addressing a missionary conference, says many missionaries react to their call to Utah in disbelief.

[photo] Sister Sonya Collins from Leeds, England, directs the singing in a missionary conference.