Twenty-two-year-old Sister Allison Pagel is one month into her 18-month voluntary service mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Although she grew up in Denver, the Mormon church called her to serve in the San Diego North Mission. She lives in La Jolla and spends three days a week giving visitor tours of the Mormon Battalion Center in Old Town.
“People from all over the world come to see this place,” Pagel said. “It is the second most visited church landmark in the world, after Temple Square in Salt Lake City.”
Her constant companion at the museum, Sister Sierra Crawford, also 22, is from Casper, Wyoming. She said she weighed a number of considerations before deciding to serve a mission in San Diego. Her religious beliefs outweighed all her other concerns.
“Ultimately, it was me finding out that Christ is the only one who knew what I was going through and could help me through it,” she said. “Once he did, I felt the weight of the world lifted off my shoulders. I wanted to share that with others.”
Mormonism by the numbers
Mormonism, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints, is the fastest growing faith group in American history. If present trends continue there could be 265 million members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) worldwide by 2080, according to church leaders. Despite the growth in numbers, Mormonism seems to be a widely misunderstood religion. Although Mormons consider themselves Christian, many other Christian groups do not describe Mormons as such.
Mormons follow the words of the Book of Mormon and the Bible, while other Christians believe the Bible to be the only word of God.
“We are all spiritual children of a loving Heavenly Father who sent us to this earth to learn and grow in a mortal state,” Pagel said. “As Mormons, we are followers of Jesus Christ. We live our lives to serve Him and teach of His eternal plan for each of us.”
Many visitors to the Mormon Battalion come to learn more about the faith. “Forty percent of the visitors to the Battalion are non-Mormon,” Crawford said. “There is the option to learn more and a lot of people will.”
Crawford said the visitors want the same type of faith that sustained the Battalion through a long, dangerous journey west which ultimately ended in San Diego.
The Mormon Battalion heads west
The story of the Mormon Battalion began in 1846 during the Mexican/American War when U.S. President James Polk sent Captain James Allen to find 50 men to travel 2,000 miles to secure and fortify the western territory. At the same time, the Mormons were being forced out of Nauvoo, Illinois and needed help to move. Brigham Young, the church’s leader, wrote a letter to Polk to see if there was any way they could be paid to move west. President Polk informed them that enlisting in the army would pay for their trek west.
Although they never faced battle, 22 men died of sickness and natural causes along the way. According to Crawford, when the Battalion arrived in San Diego “they were in rags.” They had cloth wrapped around their feet as shoes. They had run out of water. Many suffered heat exhaustion traveling from Santa Fe to the coast.
Ultimately, the battalion’s trek and service was instrumental in helping the U.S. secure much of the American southwest, including new lands in several Western states. Their journey also opened a southern wagon route to California. The battalion played a significant role in America’s westward expansion in California, Utah, Arizona and other nearby areas.
Challenges of spreading the word
When they aren’t volunteering at the Battalion, the Sisters are following leads from church members to teach those interested in hearing their message. While some Mormon missionaries go door-to-door, Pagel said she and Crawford choose not to knock on doors . “But we do say hi to people we pass on the street. Yes, sometimes people ignore you,” she said. “But I am not thinking of myself. Seeing the joy it brings to those who are interested, that’s what brings me the most happiness.”
Jesse Thomas, a Religious Studies professor at San Diego State University has had Mormon missionaries visit his home for years. While he has no plans to join the faith, his experiences with the Mormons have been positive. He doesn’t agree with some Christians who refuse to include Mormonism in the fold of Christianity.
“They are personally charming. They don’t lay on you a heavy trip. They don’t say ‘You need to be saved and do it right now’,” he said. Thomas’ first interaction with Latter-day Saints occurred a few years ago when his wife passed away. His neighbors, who happened to be LDS, started bringing him dinner. “They are wonderful neighbors to have,” Thomas said.
Healthy lifestyle contributes to longevity
Mormons live by a health code called the“Word of Wisdom.” They abstain from alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee. Thomas said he is impressed by their discipline, which pays off with longevity.
“They live longer than anybody,” Thomas said. According to a 25-year study Mormon men live 10 years longer than other U.S. white males. Mormon women live more than 5 years longer than other U.S. white females.
The study concluded that “several healthy characteristics of the Mormon lifestyle are associated with substantially reduced death rates and increased life expectancy.” Practicing Mormons in California had the lowest total death rates and the longest life expectancies ever documented in a well-defined U.S. cohort.
“The Book of Mormon offends other Christians,” Thomas said. “But I tell people to look at the life of a Mormon family. The level of kindness and generosity is coming from that doctrine. Give a break to the Mormons.”