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The Minds of Missionaries
The Secret City on latimes.com

Features column: Two young Mormon men come to Los Angeles, see the sights, meet new people--and try to convert them.


Momma, if you call today, I won't be home to answer. I'll be out doing the Lord's work.

I won't use the phone to call family, except on Christmas and Mother's Day. I won't watch television, listen to the radio, read the newspapers or check e-mail. I won't drink alcohol, coffee or tea. And there won't be any girlfriends. No flirting, either.

I'm spending the day with Elder Maxwell and Elder Daugherty, so I wanna live by their rules. The lads, ages 21 and 20, respectively, are a couple of missionaries putting in 22 months apiece in Los Angeles, speaking mostly Spanish, spreading the word on behalf of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Mormons.

Elder Maxwell wears eyeglasses that slide down his nose. His hair is short and parted on the left side. He looks like an FBI man from the '50s and he knows it. Wears the standard Mormon missionary gear: white, short-sleeved button-down shirt, necktie, black pants, sacred garments underneath; black comfortable shoes, rucksack and bicycle helmet, which fits in nicely with the LDS missionaries' signature mode of travel.

Maxwell is from Denver, Colo. He worked driving a delivery truck for a landscaping supply firm and waiting tables to save money before his mission. Figured he'd get assigned to Austria or Germany because he'd studied the language in high school. The Call Letter came and said learn Spanish and go to L.A. So he did, and he went.

Maxwell's been in L.A. for 20 months and served all over the city--Bell, Cudahy, Inglewood, Watts--in three- or four-month rotations. His mission concludes on Dec. 5. He'll head back to Denver, then off to Brigham Young University. Hopes to have a normal life, he says. You know, meet a nice woman, get married.

Daugherty is from Meridian, Miss. He doesn't know the population size; people keep asking him, but back home, that never seemed important.

Daugherty has light brown hair that's darker than Maxwell's dirty blonde. Daugherty is stockier than Maxwell. Played pulling guard on the high school football team. Went to community college for a year. Then, like they all have, spent two months at the Missionary Training Center in Utah, where he went through intensive Spanish study, religious dogma. Now he's here, living in lower Hollywood, near Koreatown, pounding pavement on hybrid bicycles from 11 a.m. to 9 or 9:30 p.m. every day, except Mondays, which are spent in part doing laundry and recreating with other missionaries.

A couple of weeks ago, they went down to Santa Monica beach and played some soccer and football. Elder Daugherty took photos with his cheap camera. He didn't bring the nice one out west because he didn't want it to get stolen.

Currently, there are 170 Mormon missionaries in L.A., according to an LDS spokesperson. Maxwell and Daugherty work in the Huntington Park North area of the "Los Angeles Mission," which runs from Malibu in the west to the L.A. River in the east; Hollywood in the north and Palos Verdes in the south.

"It's awesome," Daugherty says, sounding like a tourist, taking in the foods and ethnic diversity. In a day of going door-to-door, he says he encounters everyone from Koreans to Filipinos, Mexicans to Central and South Americans.

"It's all mingled up," he says. "I like it, I enjoy it."

Maxwell agrees, noting, "L.A. is the best. You really grow to love it. Just that mexcla of the cultures."

Not that grand adventure is the main point.

"What we do is we share the commandments of God," Maxwell says, "and then invite people to live them. Because like Jesus Christ said, like the wise man that built his house on the rock and one on the sand, the difference is that the man on the rock heard the word, and he obeyed it, and he did it. And the one on the sand didn't."

Ah yes. Join the missionaries. See the world. Meet the people. Convert them.
* * *

Elder Maxwell knocks on a door at a two-story apartment complex. A woman answers. Caucasian and English-speaking. Maxwell is surprised, he says later. He doesn't show it. Smooth as a velvet painting, he uses rusty English to tell her about the Mormon message they are here to share. "Oh, I do believe in God," the woman says, theatrically. "You better believe it! First thing I do every morning when I wake up is I say, 'Good Morning, God.'"

The two try, but fail, to make an appointment to return to see her again.

They visit a woman born in Central America. She lives in a small private home, a bungalow. Her son turns off the television and walks into another room. Maxwell chats with her in Spanish and learns, to his surprise, that she is a member of the church already. Hasn't been in four years, she says.

Maxwell pulls out his Book of Mormon--stored in a colorful cloth cover from Guatemala that a woman in Bell gave to him--and selects a passage for her to read. She does. He asks her about the meaning. Then everybody kneels and Daugherty says a prayer. The pair make an appointment to return in a few days and give a lesson to her and her two granddaughters.

The missionaries' schedule is like that. A mix of appointments they or others set up; door-to-door cold-calling; striking up conversations in the street. They introduce themselves whenever the chance arises. "Hello, we're missionaries with the Church of..."

In the morning, a man who looks as ancient as the Old Testament moseys across the street nearby. The man nods and crosses himself. In the afternoon, a woman walks by just as Maxwell and Daugherty have locked up their bicycles. "Hello, Elders," she says. Later on, a man on his way to return a videotape introduces himself; asks where the nearest church is. They tell him, and make an appointment to see him at his house.

It's not always that easy. Two of the three appointments they have scheduled result in blow-offs. Nobody answers the door or their phones. But Maxwell is persistent.

He leads his companion door-to-door in a complex with a courtyard dominated by a dirty swimming pool. The apartment manager isn't interested in talking to them too much. Next-door, her neighbor says come back another time, she's cooking tamales right now. The neighbor doesn't touch anything with her right hand; it's covered in food.

Downstairs, Maxwell knocks on one door a half-dozen times until a young man answers. He's wearing fuzzy slippers, blue jeans and no shirt. He works the night shift, and takes English classes during the day. His bed is not made. The missionaries might have awakened him. He shows them his bible, they show him their Books of Mormon. The man points to his heart or lungs or ribs and says God is inside of everyone.
* * *

Elder Maxwell figures he's converted 60 people since arriving in town. Or helped convert, as he clarifies.

"We really consider conversion as something that God does, not us," Maxwell says.

Elder Daugherty happily reports his first success. A 10-year-old boy, baptized by an uncle. "That was awesome," he says.

Maxwell and Daugherty discuss this at a Salvadoran and Mexican restaurant on 3rd Street with a "B" rating. The $3-$8 prices, though cheap, are still high enough to rattle the pair. They work as missionaries all day, so there's no way to earn money. Church members in their district invite them into their homes and serve them dinner. For lunch, though, they're on their own. Last week, they went to the Pizza Hut buffet on Beverly. Today it's enchiladas for Daugherty. Maxwell settles on a hamburger with fries. Most of his meals contain rice and beans, so this is exotic. He's gained 40 pounds since arriving.

During lunch, the missionaries say friendly interaction with the public is the norm. "I don't ever get hassled," Daugherty says.

"It's really amazing," Maxwell adds. "When I was down in South Central and Watts all the time, cops would come up and just like pull over. They'd see us and be like, 'Do you know what you're doing here? Are you lost or what's your deal?' And I'd be like, 'No we're fine, we know right where we're going.' We've been on streets where there have been drive-by shootings and things, and nothing's ever happened. People really respect you, even if they're gang members who have done the worst kind of things. They don't mess with us at all."

There was the one time a guy with a pistol in Huntington Park used "strong language" and threatened to call the cops on Maxwell and a previous companion, the missionary says. Maxwell thought the pistol was a remote control, until his companion nudged him.

And, according to Maxwell, there was the time in Watts, "when these two girls were just beating the crud out of each other." He says he and his then-companion broke up the fight.

The "girls," Maxwell acknowledges, were actually twentysomething women. Seemingly out of touch with contemporary norms Maxwell also refers to Latinos as "Latins" and believes that part of what makes going door-to-door during the day tough is the fact that many males (to whom he refers as the decision makers) aren't home.

On the streets and in the restaurant, neither Maxwell nor Daugherty shy away from queries. They discuss the symbolism of sacred garments. Maxwell even explains the Mormon practice of posthumous conversion ("baptism of the dead") of deceased family members and others, to me, an incredulous disbeliever of the practice.

While Daugherty finishes his enchilada, Maxwell talks about something far more earthy -- the girlfriend he had to break up with in order to become a missionary. For once, the words make him sound like a typical college-age kid.

"When I left we were real good friends. She understood why I was doing it," he says. "That was really tough just cause of like our really good friendship. And then she left me. She wrote me a letter a few months later saying she hates my guts. I haven't heard from her in over a year. It's been a year. Can you believe that?"