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.

9 Comments

  1. Thanks for writing this piece, Elder Johnson. Like perhaps everyone in Korea I’ve seen Mormon missionaries out and about and I’ve always wondered what their perspective is like, and you’ve answered a lot of the questions I had. I’m an agnostic who generally doesn’t care what people believe, and although I don’t push my beliefs on others I’m actually delighted when missionaries or religious folks try and convert me because it gives me an excuse to start preaching to them about the glories of science—anyway, your description of Mormonism as being like a great restaurant you want to tell all your friends about was something that really instantly put me on your side, even if it’s a little peculiar to travel across the world to tell people about a restaurant.

    Whenever we see Mormon missionaries my Korean wife always says the same thing: aside from some of the guys on 비정상회담, you are the only white people in Korea who can actually speak Korean really, really well. Congratulations for snagging that Chinese dude and making it out of here, and thanks again—this was interesting, well-written, and different.

    • “… you are the only white people in Korea who can actually speak Korean really, really well.”

      I completely disagree with their theology (I wrote a paper on Mormonism in college so I know it better than the average schmo) but I do respect the fact that they are a diligent people.

  2. “… you are the only white people in Korea who can actually speak Korean really, really well.”

    I completely disagree with their theology (I wrote a paper on Mormonism in college so I know it better than the average schmo) but I do respect the fact that they are a diligent people.

  3. 안녕하세요 Johnson 장로님, My name is Sister Desiree Arthur. I’m from Australia and I actually served my mission in Seoul and Seoul South Korea in Jun 2013 – Dec 2014. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I’ve been to 장위 because it was in my district as I was serving in 상계 🙂 Pretty cool huh? It’s funny though because that time of my mission was pretty hard for me because I was going through some heavy culture shock, experiencing living in snow for the first time and just wanted to do the mission how I wanted to do it lol but we know it doesn’t work like that. But I was blessed with a wonderful and patient companion and wonderful ward members. It was an experience that has refined me and made me stronger, as did the rest of my mission.

    Like you, I’ve never felt so challenged in my life. Mentally with the language, emotionally dealing with rejection and constant feeling of inadequacy, spiritually trying to let go what I wanted to do and just trust in the lord and physically with the amount of walking we do and having to do it 11/2yrs or in your case, 2 years STRAIGHT! But I wouldn’t give up the experience for the world because as I lost myself and my will in doing what God wanted me to do, I became stronger. I am filled with so much gratitude for the blessings I received as I learned to let go and just serve.

    Mentally, I actually did get pretty good at the language, not like our awesome korean brothers and sisters but I can read, write, understand and speak the language and if I’m really comfortable or happy, I’m fluent lol doesn’t mean I’m accurate lol I thank heavenly father so much for helping me with that.

    Physically he blessed me with strength. I just had the energy to keep going, even though I was tired and sick. I also recognised this as I left my mission. Everything hit me when I came home…particularly a collapsed lung but yea, I’m better now. I was blessed with companions in the end though that helped me keep walking and climbing those dreadful stairs from the subway lol I’m still stunned how 할머니s can go up them like it’s nothing lol

    Emotionally, he blessed me with companions, elders, leaders and many korean people that gave me love and support to keep going, and helped opened my heart more to love others. I will forever love the Korean people, not just for their kdramas or their kpop or food, which I do enjoy but for the sacrifices they make for family, for their diligence and hard work in education and in work and for their example of dignity and respect.

    Spiritually, he helped me to become humble yet stronger in knowledge and in testimony that he lives and that he loves me, as does my Savior Jesus Christ.

    I loved my mission! Can’t you tell? lol Best 1 1/2year of my life. Not sure if your mission president was President Christensen, and even though I went to Seoul South mission after the spilt, I still remember the Seoul mission scripture and still strive to live it. “Behold I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, the son of God. I have been called of him to declare his word among his people, that they might have everlasting life” 3 Nephi 5:13

    Once again, thank you elder Johnson for your experience and testimony and for those that read this and are wondering do people really go through this? YES! Over 85,000 missionaries have served a mission, are serving and will serve all over the world and it’s all for you because we love you and God loves you. Sounds cheesy I know but we believe the message, when it’s consistently applied, eases heartache and pain, helps improve and give happiness and satisfaction in your life, and will help you to feel God’s love and to know for yourself that he’s real as is our Savior Jesus Christ. It’s done this for me and my family so why not yours.

    But you know what the beauty is, you don’t have to take our word, you can find out for yourselves. I was raised a mormon but I still had to find out for myself if it was true and I testify that it is. If you really want to know, best way to start is to ask the missionaries, they can help you 🙂

    Have a great week! 사랑해요!!!!

    • Aloha Desiree,
      I am a mormon from Hawaii who has a daughter that just arrived in Seoul to serve her mission. I am trying to read and learn everything I can so I can try to relate to what she will be experiencing. This article was very insightful and full of great hope. I was wondering if you could forward this to my daughter, Megan Kirton at megankirton@ldsmail.net. She has been there one week and is in Won Dong. I’m sure it will be comforting to her to hear about your mission experience. Thank you and well done on your time spent serving the Lord.
      Rachelle Kirton

  4. Fun article. It’s not easy to get yelled at on the street, but it’s a chance to learn patience and forgiveness. We are a human family, so we must have patience with others. As a member of their church, I want to say that, whether or not you are interested in their beliefs, these young missionaries have a real heart of service. If you need help, they will do it if they can. They have made my time in Korea much brighter, and I thank them.

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