If you’re a Mormon missionary, Mitt Romney’s presidential run has been pretty good for business. Or at least it has made typically standoffish Bostonians more willing to entertain your overtures.
“People are definitely more curious,” said Sister Katie Palmer. “It’s a big conversation-starter.”
Romney was allergic to talking about his faith until recently. Mormons face monumental prejudice, particularly from conservative Evangelicals. Having won the nomination, he has opened up a bit.
That’s good for Palmer and her sister missionary Carrie Williams, who rode the bus from Brighton to Cambridge on Thursday to work at a food pantry. It was hot, and the city had stripped down to tank tops and flip-flops. Williams and Palmer wore shirts that covered their arms, skirts that approached their ankles, sensible shoes and large, black name-tags. Just looking at them made you warmer.
People stared as they walked through Central Square. The women, both 22, stand out more here than they might in other parts of the country. “If we wear workout clothes and no tags, it feels weird because people aren’t staring at us,” Williams said.
It’s not just the way they look. The women exude a beatific calm, an extreme equanimity not native to this — or possibly any — part of the world. Some of the clients at the food pantry were cranky, and the sisters barreled along cheerfully, dispensing How’s-your-day-goings and Is-your-back-hurtings along with the frozen turkey and sliced cheese.
It’s a wonder they remain so perky. Missionary life isn’t easy. Young missionaries save $10,000 for living expenses, then leave their families for two years. Williams, from Phoenix, and Palmer, from Vernal, Utah, are allowed to e-mail home one day a week. They can speak to their families only twice a year.
They keep strict schedules, rising at 6:30 each morning for exercise and study, before traveling the city for hours, “to bring everyone we can closer to Jesus Christ,” as Williams put it. They must be in bed by 10:30. They don’t go door-to-door: Instead, they focus on converting friends and relatives of people already connected to the church.
They also make contact with strangers on trains and buses. Plenty of commuters ignore them. Some snap at them (the Romney connection cuts both ways). They’ve never felt threatened, which they are absolutely certain has nothing to do with luck.
“If we are [in danger], we will get a warning from the Spirit,” Williams said. “So we feel safe.”
They find rejection painful, especially from troubled souls for whom they’re certain their church would be transforming. “It’s hard because you know, and they know, that if they accepted it, they would be so much happier,” Williams said. Still, they press on, handing out palm-cards with pictures of the huge Salt Lake Temple on one side and the church’s web address on the other.
On Thursday, everybody the two women sat beside between Brighton and Cambridge was happy to chat. “I love your dress,” Williams told a young nanny on the 57 bus. “Are you here on vacation?” She and the woman, recently arrived from Luxembourg, chatted about public transit, and homesickness. Then Williams asked if the nanny would be interested in a church where people are young and friendly.
“If you give me your number, I can tell you when things are going on,” Williams offered. The nanny said she couldn’t remember her number, but she wrote down her e-mail address. This seemed like an obvious dodge, but Williams did not betray an atom of skepticism. “You have pretty handwriting,” she told the nanny as her stop approached. Williams handed her a card, and set off in search of her next connection.
Neither missionary has ever won a convert on a train, and it seems unlikely they ever will. Then again, not so long ago, a Mormon president seemed pretty unlikely too.