By Renata Schmidt
Every woman in the congregation is wearing a dress. A 2-year-old runs down the aisle while her ruffled dress is caught in her diaper. An 80-year-old woman moves slowly through the congregation wearing a straight, light-blue dress over black tights.
Sister Danielle Pace and Sister Sophia Madsen are no different. Their mid-calf floral dresses are styled classically with understated wedges. They are approachable. Elegant, but not intimidating. Clean, but not boring.
Nobody in the congregation sticks out until Sister Pace ducks out during a prayer and guides Jhania Wilchr in.
Wilchr is wearing a onesie. It looks like a cow suit, but the graying white hood has yellow horns and the costume has no udders.
Although the church is known for its conservative views, traditional gender roles and limited caffeine intake, members welcome Wilchr’s version of Sunday best.
“They’re really happy,” Wilchr said, describing her first impression of the Sisters. “I was really nervous.”
Wilchr met them after filling out a request on the church’s website to meet with missionaries. Her goal is to be baptized. What transpired in the congregation that Sunday is exactly what The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints promises.
“Request a visit from missionaries,” the church website says. “We’ll help you know what to expect at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Then we’ll be at the door to greet you and sit with you on Sunday!”
Pace and Madsen are two of the many missionaries the church sends out each year. The church reported it had 53,539 full-time missionaries in 2021. Male missionaries are Elders and female missionaries are Sisters, but their goal is the same: spend up to two years encouraging others to join the church and come closer to Jesus.
Madsen is from La Grande, Oregon, and is studying to be a speech pathologist at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. She just celebrated her one-year anniversary of mission life.
Her companion, and fellow missionary, Pace, is a 19-year-old student at BYU from Ventura, California. She’s a surfer when she’s not on the opposite coast wearing long dresses and spreading the church’s message.
Their church is distinguished from other Christian denominations by its emphasis on the Book of Mormon, from which its members get their name. However, Pace said they prefer to be called “Latter-day Saints of Jesus Christ.”
“He’s at the center of everything we do,” she said.
Paintings and printouts of Jesus cover a wall in their two-bedroom apartment.
The women share a bedroom as it is an expectation for missionaries to always be in each other’s company for safety. This measure is also to ensure proper behavior. If they are meeting with someone of the opposite gender, they need a fourth person present as well.
They even share a SIM card, which they pass between their phones every few days so they can each take point on communicating with prospective members.
The bulk of their day is made up of heading into public spaces and speaking to strangers about the church and Jesus Christ.
The ‘good stuff’
Pace and her previous companion were strolling in a park when they passed a homeless man with an open wound on his arm.
“Oh, that conversation was actually really funny,” Pace said. “We were walking along the Tobacco Trail behinds Sprouts and he said, ‘Oh, y’all are nuns, aren’t you?’”
After explaining that they were missionaries, Pace discovered that the man, Ryan, had been in a severe accident last month and was scheduled for open-heart surgery in a few days.
As they walked with him, they assured him that God knew him and loved him. They told him about the Godhead: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And then they prayed together.
Madsen and Pace admit that approaching strangers about their faith was strange, at first.
“I like to compare it to Nutella,” Pace said. “I love Nutella. And I could go up to anyone and be like, this is good stuff.”
“It just kind of dawned on me when I was scared of going up to strangers: this is one of the greatest messages of all time. That Jesus Christ is our Lord, our savior. I’m like, why would I not want to share that?”
While Nutella occupies shelves worldwide, The Church of Latter-day Saints is not universally loved.
The church and its members have been critiqued for their conservative views on controversial topics, like abortion and LGBTQ rights. One of these topics is the traditional gender roles within the church.
According to the church, the priesthood is God’s power and authority, and it can only be held by male members of The Church of Latter-day Saints.
Sisters account for between 20% to 30% of the church’s missionaries, according to BYU. This means that between 10,000 and 16,000 young women spent 2021 promoting a church that does not allow them to become bishops, priests, deacons, or take up any of the roles within the priesthood.
Garth Despain is a member of the church and a spokesperson for the Raleigh, North Carolina mission. The priesthood is less about authority and more a reminder of the need to humble oneself, Despain said.
In his experience, women don’t need the priesthood as much as men.
“Most women that I know already possess those attributes,” Despain said. “They’re more loving, they’re more nurturing. They don’t need that reminder to act that way, which many men do.”
The restriction does not bother Pace or Madsen, either. They have access to the benefits of the priesthood, like blessings, so they don’t need the positions.
Pace separates questions within the church into two categories: primary and secondary. There are four primary questions: Is God the heavenly father? Is Jesus Christ the savior of the world? Was Joseph Smith called to be the Prophet? Is the LDS church God’s kingdom on Earth?
These primary questions are the backbone of the faith and church. Secondary questions involve issues like abortion, the history of the church or the hierarchy within it.
If a person believes the primary questions, the secondary ones become less relevant — Pace and Madsen believe all four statements.
They have received revelations from God which they say have made their testimonies strong.
One of these revelations happened to Madsen when she tried to visit a friend who lived in rural North Carolina. Madsen and her companion drove up a long dirt road, but the light was fading quickly and the house looked empty and unkept. They had barely gotten out of the car before deciding to leave.
“I definitely felt like that was God trying to protect us from something,” Madsen said.
Edited by Brianna Atkinson and Jasmine Baker