Called to serve: A young Mormon recounts her missionary trip abroad

The prevailing popular image of the LDS church, and the driving force behind its growth, are its 68,152 college-aged missionaries. We hear one Mormon woman's experience.

After weeks of checking her mailbox eagerly, Breanne Feddock sat on the tan couch of her family’s San Carlos apartment, holding the long-awaited 8×11 envelope that contained her mission call. Her family had assembled in the hours since its delivery: her father, Michael, sat in the desk chair, her mother, Laurel, took pictures from the corner by the kitchen, and her aunt and G’pa and G’ma Feddock crowded around.

In December 2012, Sister Feddock had the first two baptisms of investigators she'd taught about the church. From left to right, Sister Dias, Sister Feddock, and new church members Paula and Isabel. (Photo courtesy of Breanne Feddock)
In December 2012, Sister Feddock had the first two baptisms of investigators she’d taught about the church. From left to right: Sister Dias, Sister Feddock, and new church members Paula and Isabel. (Photo courtesy of Breanne Feddock)

Breanne Feddock, then 21, used scissors to snip the envelope open. Her brother, 12-year-old Mike, perched on the arm of the couch behind her, holding a flip phone to loop other relatives in. “Dear Sister Feddock,” she read aloud, “you have been called to labor in the Brazil Santa Maria mission.”

In her mother’s pictures of the moment right afterwards, Feddock is looking at her parents, her left hand pressed to an incredulous smile. A long-awaited dream had become a reality, and she’d gotten a coveted international placement at that — the majority of American missionaries, some 70 percent, serve within the U.S.

On the wall behind her, there’s a framed compilation of family photos, with a picture of the Oakland Temple at its center. The Feddocks are Mormon, or members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons comprise only 2 percent of the United States’ population, but the faith is the second-fastest-growing religion in America behind Islam. Meanwhile, Protestant and Catholic churches see more and more empty pews. The faith has moved increasingly into the public eye in recent years, thanks to the musical “The Book of Mormon,” Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential candidacy and speculation on whether Mormon distaste for then-Republican nominee Donald Trump would cause the deep-red state to tinge blue this election.

The prevailing popular image of the LDS church, and the driving force behind its growth, are its 68,152 college-aged missionaries. For either two years (men) or eighteen months (women), they spend their time at some of the 418 Mormon missions worldwide. While the “soldiers of the church” are predominantly men, echoing the male-only priesthood and leadership roles at the highest echelons of the church, sister missionaries like Feddock are increasingly joining their ranks. The proportion of female missionaries has swelled from 14 to 26 percent in the past five years, propelled by the lowering of the age requirement for women to 19 in October 2012 (previously, it was set at 21, an age when the pressures of marriage or serious relationships, career or school deterred many Mormon women).

While other students prepared to graduate or planned a spring break to Cabo San Lucas, Feddock would be spending the next year and a half introducing her faith to scores of people with vastly different life experiences from hers, hoping to baptize new members into the church. She would join a long line of Feddock missionaries. Her father proselytized in Germany and her mother in Spain; after returning, Michael’s cousin introduced them. The future couple met on the porch of Michael’s parents’ house, just two miles from their current home.

The mission would not be free of cost. She and her family would pay roughly $400 a month while she was gone. To help with the cost, Feddock spent six months before her mission working as a nanny and serving at a local pizza joint to save up.

Finally, on Aug. 28, 2012, with two full-to-bursting pink suitcases and clad in a buttercup yellow, high-necked top and long blue skirt, the newly appointed Sister Feddock boarded a 5 a.m. flight from SFO to Salt Lake City. For the next eighteen months, she’d keep strict 6:30 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. hours, remain in the presence of a fellow missionary at all times except for conferences with church leaders or in the bathroom, and only Skype with her family for an allotted amount of time on Christmas and Mother’s Day.

After her preparation period in the Utah Missionary Training Center was over, Feddock headed to Brazil, ready to learn Portuguese and then begin proselytizing. Waiting for her flight in the Sale Lake City airport, she spotted two returning missionaries deplaning. One of them seemed “a bit lost,” she later wrote to her family. The other seemed almost radiant. She hoped she’d been like the latter when she returned.

During the months ahead, she would chronicle her mission in a series of emails written in internet cafes during her one free hour on p-days (preparation days) and snail-mail letters; her mother uploaded them all to a blog. Feddock wrote messages sprinkled with phonetic spellings of silly pronunciations and exclamations like “yowza!” The missives tell of countless blisters and a rotation of companions from around the world. They tally Sunday baptisms and recount disappointments – a convert who fell back into drug habits before ultimately recovering – and optimism – “we are going to change her life!” – in equal share.

On her first day out of the Brazil Missionary Training Center, nametag clipped to her lapel and omnipresent O Livro de Mormón in hand, Feddock approached an old woman on the bus. Her words spilled out so quickly that the woman patted her on the shoulder and said, “Oh, dear, it’s going to be OK.”

After that, she and her first companion, Raquel Dias, a decisive and quick-walking Brazilian, rehearsed, pacing around in the backyard as Dias pretended to be an old, weathered man or a pregnant woman. The two missionaries struggled with their pairing, oscillating from learning from each other to resenting the other’s presence. Feddock wrote: “She doesn’t have the capacity to love me though, and I’m always judging her and she’s always correcting me and we don’t have the spirit with us very often.”

When Feddock had first read she was headed to Brazil, a coveted chance to serve abroad, her first mental image was that of a land of “parrots and bikinis.” The Brazil she discovered as she rotated through several regions was different.

First, Saõ Borja, so hot the missionaries would walk carrying black umbrellas to shield them from the scorching sun. The mission was struggling, and it took six months before Feddock performed her first baptism, but she hit her stride after that.

Next, the college town of Santa Maria, by far her hardest placement. It was more urban, the people more affluent and less in need of a promise of faith to improve their lives. In Santa Maria, the missionaries knocked up and down streets lined with ramshackle houses, and the few inhabitants who opened the twenty-odd doors they’d tried said they didn’t have time. Feddock and her companion at the time, Portuguese Sister Felizardo, were about to retreat in disappointment when their eyes met. Instead, they bent their heads in prayer, then strode past two mangy dogs contained by a dilapidated fence to reach the last few houses. Their choice paid off; one house held an elderly woman who welcomed them in and listened to their lessons.

Last was Livramento, a rural area close enough to the Uruguayan border that Feddock could walk to the country to buy hot dogs. She’d see traditional blacksmiths work in the street. It was in Livramento that Feddock and her companion planned a cake bake-off for the ward and, once, rushed to push a broken car up a hill, slamming their copies of The Book of Mormon on its hood to help.

Through it all, her parents sent care packages and emails back and forth: walnuts, a cookie scoop, Reese’s Pieces, Shoe Goo. They hid love notes in her luggage. She asked for a CD of “Clair de Lune” as soon as she was permitted to listen to music other than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The Feddocks printed a life-size version of her face and torso and took videos of “Flat Breanne” accompanying the family to a restaurant. They emailed a much-requested screenshot of the Facebook page she wasn’t allowed to check herself (“apostasy,” she joked).

When her return date – March 4 – arrived, Sister Feddock seemed to be the last one off the plane. Her family, wearing the Brazilian soccer jerseys she had sent them, and her best friend, holding a “Bem Vida Em Casa Irmã Feddock” banner, waited in the international terminal with their eyes trained on the corner. Feddock started running when she saw them. They had determined the teary-hug order beforehand: her brother, now a teenager, mother, and then father.

With a Brazilian flag draped around Feddock’s shoulders, the family collected her suitcases, drove to the palm-tree-framed Oakland LDS Temple, and had to double back to retrieve a forgotten piece of luggage. Among the things Feddock returned with: a clearly-defined shoe tan, a Brazilian steak knife (she hoped to cut her wedding cake with it like her parents had sliced their cake with a Spanish sword from her mother’s mission), more confidence (according to her mother) and a Portuguese copy of a “Harry Potter” book (sealed with a sticky note so she wouldn’t be tempted to read it beforehand).

With all the bags in tow, the final stop before removing her SISTER FEDDOCK nametag was a welcome-home, California staple: In-N-Out.

In the last entry on the blog, Feddock set out her goals for post-missionary life. Take a math and bio class. Date a Californian. Get married by October (the next big spiritual undertaking). Attend Brigham Young University. Buy a nice car. Rereading them recently, she laughed. Things hadn’t quite gone according to her plan (but, she said, “God can’t guide a parked car”; she’d accepted it all as part of Heavenly Father’s plan). She’d taken the classes. Although she wasn’t accepted to BYU, she saw a bright side: she could stay with her grandmother after her grandfather’s death. She’s dating, but the space for a second last name she’d asked her parents to leave in her personalized copy of The Book of Mormon remains unfilled for now. She still drives her father’s ‘72 muscle car on occasion, but also has her own Toyota. She recently moved to a Mormon-dense corner of East Palo Alto affectionately nicknamed “East Provo Alto.”

Reflecting on her mission almost three years later, she said it grew “the good portions of who I am”; now, five years after she watched the announcement of the missionary age change from Brazil, that formative experience has become a part of many more young women’s stories.

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