Favorite Tie Talk: Elder Ames (left) holds his red, white and blue tie, which was given to him by the first elder he lived with in Alaska, while Elder Simmons (right) holds his purple and white striped tie that his mom sent him. Simmons says the bright tie brightened his sad days. Katie Emmets
Latter-day Saints missionaries — just call them ‘Elders’
By KATIE EMMETS
No one knows their first names.
In fact, they are not allowed to tell people their first names and are known to everyone they meet as “Elder.”
Elder Simmons says the title “elder” sets them apart from crowd and allows people to view them as missionaries for Jesus Christ, and Elder Ames laughed said it took him a few weeks to stop introducing himself as his first name, which he still wouldn’t say.
While they are known to some as the elders, others in town refer to them as, “the Mormons,” “the missionaries,” “the weird dressed up guys who walk around all day.”
Whoever they are, they are in Skagway this summer as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints missionaries.
When a Latter-day Saint man turns 19, he can put in an application for a mission, which is a voluntary thing.
The missionaries are not able to choose where they go, rather they are sent to where the LDS living prophet Thomas S. Monson, who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the Quorum of 12, an LDS governing body, see fit.
The missionaries are required to fund their entire mission entirely by themselves, but Ames said some missionary families are very supportive and help the missionaries out.
The total cost for each missionary to perform a mission is $10,000 no matter where in the world they are sent.
“We give the money to the church, but they give it right back to us in materials we need and weekly allowances,” Ames said.
With their money, the church provides housing, food and transportation, if necessary.
“How many 19-year-old guys do you know that would blow $10,000 right away,” Ames said with a laugh.
Although they are looking for a more permanent place, the missionaries are living in the church.
“We just find a vacant classroom and throw down and air mattress,” Ames said.
Both elders applied for a mission when they were 19. Simmons, after a semester at Brigham Young University, and Ames, right after he was finished with high school.
“We have certain areas that we call missions, and our mission is the Alaska Anchorage Mission,” said Ames.
The Alaska Anchorage Mission serves all of Alaska and Whitehorse, and there are about 129 missionaries that are currently assigned to this mission.
Ames said the time each missionary spends in a specific town is on a case-by-case basis.
“Sometimes we’ll spend six weeks in an area, sometimes we’ll spend six to nine months in an area,” Ames said. “It all depends on what the Lord wants us to do.”
Every six months, Alaska Anchorage Mission President Alan Dance prays about were he thinks Jesus wants the interns, and he acts accordingly.
Simmons, 21, was first sent to Fairbanks, and later traveled to Anchorage, Wasilla, back to Anchorage and then to Skagway, while Ames, 20, began his mission in Homer but then served in two different areas of Anchorage with Kodiak and Skagway following.
“It’s hard to pick a favorite, because every place feels like home,” said Ames adding that he spent six months in both Homer and Kodiak respectively and seven months in Anchorage.
Because he only has three months left in his mission, he is hoping to stay in Skagway for the remainder of his time in Alaska.
Ames said the missionaries who were in Skagway last summer spoke highly of the town, adding that he was excited when he found out that it was his next destination.
“They had a lot of good things to say about the community,” Ames said. “And that there are really great people who all look out for each other and helped the missionaries out with anything they needed.”
The missionaries have been in Skagway for six weeks and have converted one resident to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“There was a baptism about a month ago,” Simmons said.
But contrary to popular belief, the elders said converting people isn’t their main goal.
“A lot of people think that is what we are out to do,” Ames said. “Our focus is just to help people grow a faith in Jesus Christ. If they have a desire to join, that is between them and God.”
Simmons added that their only job every day is to love everyone and make their day brighter.
Another part of their mission work is community service.
Ames and Simmons work in Skagway Museum’s garden, clean up at the Skagway Rec. Center, do dishes after Friday’s senior lunch at the Presbyterian church, and rake leaves and clean up grave sites at the Gold Rush Cemetery for Skagway Street Car Company.
During the day, the elders try to talk to as many tourists as they can and at night, they tract (knock on doors) and introduce themselves to the community.
“We let them know who we are and where we’re from because we’re not here in the wintertime,” Ames said. “So suddenly two weird guys in a shirt and tie show up – ‘where’d they come from?’ ”
Both Simmons and Ames agree that they have only had one discouraging experience worth mentioning in Skagway so far.
One night while tracting, they knocked on the door of a house. The resident opened the door, slammed it in their faces and locked it.
“It was one of the doors I knocked on, so I was shaken up a little” Ames said. “But you can’t always assume it’s personal. Maybe they had a bad day and are still hurting from something that happened earlier.”
Even after this incident, Simmons still think the people of Skagway are extremely friendly, but that is not the case for other areas of Alaska.
“They didn’t have a gun in their hand, but someone threatened to shoot me if I didn’t get off their property,” Simmons said, adding that letting things like these go and not taking them personally are life lessons you learn really fast as a missionary.
Although they were sent here on, well, a mission, they are still allowed some time off.
Once a week Ames and Simmons get a preparation day and are able to do laundry, go shopping and email their families.
They even get to hike.
So far, they have hiked up to Lower Dewey, gotten as far as they could on AB and they even took the White Pass and Yukon Route train.
Simmons is originally from Idaho and said he can’t live without the mountains, while Ames is from Indiana, which is flat, so he said he is really enjoying them.
While the elders are allowed to hike, they are not allowed to go swimming, listen to the radio or watch television because those luxuries are considered distractions.
They are also not allowed to date.
Because he always knew he wanted to go on a mission, Simmons said he did date, but nothing serious. Elder Ames, however did have a girlfriend back home before he left. Both elders ended their relationships before coming to Alaska.
Ames said he really misses watching movies, and Simmons really misses riding dirt bikes.
But more than missing dirt bikes, Simmons misses his family.
“I’ve definitely gained an immense appreciation for my family and I have seen us develop a much stronger relationship since we are so far apart,” Simmons said.
Missionaries are only allowed to talk to their families on the phone twice a year – Christmas and Mothers Day – and they are not allowed to visit them.
“It’s really hard for my mom, but I had a brother who served a mission before I did,” Simmons said. “So they know what I’m doing is right. The sacrifice is on us both.”
Simmons completed his mission three weeks ago and went home to Meridian, Idaho, where he reunited with his family for the first time in two years.
“I’ll probably bring my family back to Alaska,” he said before he left. “And I will definitely bring them back to Skagway and other parts of Alaska where I was able to help people as a missionary.”