Breaking Soles, Saving Seoul: Teenage Missionaries of the Mormon Church

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My name is Elder Johnson. I’m nineteen years old. I came to Seoul thirteen months ago as a Mormon missionary.

I’m in Korea because I have something I really want to share. I’ve seen what it’s like to live in accordance with the Mormon Church, and it’s been such a great life for me that I want to share it badly. It’s like when you eat at a good restaurant, the first thing you do is to text your friends and tell your family.

Everyday I go out — with my companion, Elder Saunders — and walk ten, eleven miles, talking to everyone we come across about our church.

Though our feet are often really sore and the weather gets hot and cold, our schedule doesn’t change. In summer, you want to wear as little as possible, but we still wear slacks and socks and leather shoes. Those are probably the last things you want to be wearing. During the winter when it’s freezing cold, we just put on some gloves and a sweater before going out.

My cousin’s husband actually served here in 2002. Before coming here I talked to him and heard a little about Korea — the food, the language. I went to Korean restaurants and was surprised at how much I liked the food. It was the best thing in the world.

I already had this picture of Korea in my head, but when I got here, it was totally different.

Seoul is very compact. I remember the first time I got on the subway and there were so many people. And this old man kept pushing and pushing people into the train during rush hour. I was literally pushed from every angle. I’d seen it on YouTube, but experiencing it was completely different.

I live in Jangchung-dong with Elder Saunders because Mormon missionaries are always paired up. We’re assigned to Sindang Ward, which includes where we live. We don’t have a television, a smart phone, or regular access to the Internet. We have a mission president who supervises us because we’re all eighteen-, nineteen-, twenty-year-old kids.

When I first arrived, I served in Jangwi-dong for nine months, near Gireum. That was hard. Jangwi-doing is poor, poorer than just about any other area of Seoul I’ve seen. People there were always busy, just trying to survive. They didn’t have time to talk about religion or anything else.

My first companion was a Korean who didn’t speak much English so we spoke to each other in Korean 70 percent of the time. That was after learning Korean for nine weeks in Utah. After getting here, I went to this big bookstore over in Gwanghwamun and bought a grammar book. Elder Saunders and I spend one hour every morning learning vocabulary and grammar out of books like this, on our own. Technically I’m Elder Saunders’s teacher because I’m his trainer and senior companion. But I wouldn’t call myself a teacher because I cannot answer all his questions. I don’t have all the answers.

We study Korean because we don’t want to come into someone’s country and talk to people in our language. We want to respect Korean culture and do our best to learn Korean so that they can hear the gospel of Jesus Christ in their own mother tongue.

Sindang is the dream ward. I love it. Our ward is really big — it’s huge. It covers not only Sindang-dong, but also Jangchung-dong, Dongdaemun, Itaewon, and even Gwanghwamun. Our area is massive. So we get to see a lot of different places and interact with people here and there. My last area – Jangwi-dong – was a smaller place and it was very much a suburb. Coming to Sindang was definitely an eye-opener.

Elder Johnson's past and current "wards": Jangwi-dong and Sindang-dong
Elder Johnson’s past and current “wards”: Jangwi and Sindang

We wake up at 6:30 am every day and study the scriptures, doctrine, and language for several hours. Then we eat lunch. Monday is different because from 12 to 6 pm we do laundry, buy food for the week. I recently had to buy some new shoes because I go through my shoes really fast. But after 6 pm, we’re out on the street working again till 9 pm. Tuesday to Sunday we’re out working all afternoon and evening. We work 24/7. Even on Sunday we go out after we have our worship session for three hours from 10 am to 1 pm.

Honestly, the physical part of the missionary work isn’t that hard for me. I played soccer for fifteen years. I was a wrestler. I played football and baseball. So going out and walking ten, eleven miles a day is not the hard part of the missionary work; what’s hard is the psychological part.

This isn’t a playground or Disneyland. About two, three months after I arrived in Korea, I was walking down the street with a different companion, and a man came to us and expressed interest in learning about our church. We thought, ‘This is great. This doesn’t happen very often’. No one talks to us usually. So we began sharing about the Book of Mormon when suddenly, we saw another man lingering in the background, someone who ended up being a young jeondosa [preacher] from a Korean church.

The preacher turned to the man we were talking to and said, “Do you know about these guys? Do you know what this book is? Are you sure you want to learn about it?” He was not necessarily hostile or combative toward us, but he was talking in a very loud voice, almost yelling that our book was not the Bible and didn’t contain the words of God.

More recently, not far from our church building in Sindang-dong, Elder Saunders and I were talking to someone on a bike, telling him a little bit about our church. But there was a woman standing on the steps of a nearby subway station and yelling at us. She was saying we were idan — a cult. “We don’t want your cult religion. Go back to America. We don’t want you here,” she said in Korean.  When we finished talking to the man and passed by her, she switched to English and said, “I know about you!”

We simply wished her a good day.

These encounters are stressful but rare. We meet several hundred people each day, and every week or two someone might act unpleasantly. Koreans are nice people and many will say hello when we approach them. Older people usually know something about us, but young people are genuinely surprised when we tell them we are missionaries. I’ve also had drunk men hug me, just like that.

We do hear words like idan from some people when we’re out on the street. Saibi [pseudo]. Teulida [incorrect]. Some people believe things that are not true about our church. That’s why we study, so we can answer any questions people have about our church. Our job is to teach people about our church, answer any objections they have or rumors they’ve heard, and set things straight.

But we try to respect other churches’ missionaries. They’re doing the same thing we are: they’re trying to share their beliefs with people. What this experience has taught me is that forcing beliefs onto other people isn’t the way missionary work should be done.

Not everyone understands that this involves sacrifice. Before the mission work I had scholarships to go to different colleges. I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon. And we’re doing everything for free and here on our dime. A missionary or his family pays a minimum of 400 USD every month to the church, which in turn covers insurance and travel cost.

I’ve brought one person into the church through baptism during my whole time in Korea. He was a Chinese man in Jangwi-dong and we met him on the street. He said, “I don’t know who God is and I don’t know who Jesus Christ is. I don’t know anything.” We ended up meeting him once or twice a week, teaching him about prayer, helping him make it a habit in his life. Then he started coming to church and we taught him the commandments and rules we keep.

And I saw this change in him. We first met in February and I baptized him myself in July. I’ll say that a year of missionary work and hard times, rejections, and the stress about the language was forgotten because of the happiness that came from that one baptism. The joy and happiness and all other feelings that came when I baptized this man overpowered any of the hard experiences that I’d had in Korea.

Being a missionary is difficult. People don’t always listen. I miss my friends back home. But devoting two years of my life to do this is not something I will regret. I’m happier now and more content than I’ve ever been. It’s the happiest and best time of my entire life.

Elder Saunders (Left) and Elder Johnson at the Sindang Ward Building of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Credit: Jun Michael Park)
Elder Saunders (left) and Elder Johnson at the Sindang ward building of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Credit: Jun Michael Park)

Editor’s Note: This essay was edited and condensed from a 70-minute interview with Elders Johnson and Saunders at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints building in Sindang-dong, Seoul. Jun Michael Park contributed photography.

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