WASHINGTON – The lights are off. A movie from a 72-inch flat screen and the soft glow of a fireplace, where Christmas stockings hang, illuminate five people sitting on two, brown leather couches, complete with ottomans and pillows: a perfect family image.
Except no one here is family. And the living room, like the fireplace, isn’t real.
It’s nestled inside a mockup of a home, part of an installation in the Visitor’s Center for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Kensington, just 300 feet from the Mormon Temple off Interstate 495.
Two pairs of “elders” and “sisters,” the respective titles for Mormon missionaries, guide a retired U.S. Department of Education employee in a major principle of Mormonism: family.
Mormonism is the fastest-growing religion in the nation. In Maryland, the population has risen by two-thirds since 2000 to more than 42,000, according to the U.S. Religion Census, an independent study sponsored by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.
At the center of those rising numbers, according to experts and members of the church, is a burgeoning and sophisticated missionary program, like the Visitor’s Center, a patient recruiting approach and the appeal of a religion with kind and optimistic members who are part of an immense community.
The Washington D.C. North Mission, which includes a vast swath of Maryland, is one of two missions in the state.
With about 200 members in the mission, boys and girls ages 18 to 26 volunteer 10 to 14 hours a day with the goal of improving society, building the church and recruiting new members.
A mission is not a mandate, but most members enlist because they see it in line with the gospel, the teachings of Christ as restored in the 1800s by their prophet Joseph Smith, several Mormons said.
Growing up, Mormons attend seminary every weekday an hour before high school — for all four years — studying scripture.
Anne Ashbaugh, chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Towson University, compared missionaries to soccer players who begin their training at age 11. By the time they’re adults, she said, they’re very good at what they do.
In the Washington D.C. North Mission, missionaries arise between 6 and 6:30 a.m. and exercise for a half-hour.
At 8 a.m., professionally dressed and ready to begin their day, they study scripture privately for one hour and then again, for a second hour, they brainstorm ideas with elders and sisters for ways to spread the gospel more effectively.
At 10 a.m., the rest of their day is spent proselytizing: meeting people with appointments, canvassing, fielding questions or helping out at the Visitor’s Center. When the day is over, often at 10 p.m., there’s no time or energy for anything but sleep.
This is the routine of 90,000 missionaries, at 405 missions, worldwide, nearly every day.
“They have a massive full-time missionary force,” said Patrick Mason, professor of American religion and Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif. “There’s pretty good evidence that the more missionaries they get, the more converts they have.”
But, as any strategist knows, numbers don’t always equate to success.
“(We) can’t force anyone (to convert). The spirit is what guides someone in their faith and we have a lot of trust in that process,” said Chris Mathews, Mormon Bishop of the church’s Gaithersburg Ward.
Linda McKinney, an attorney at the Department of Justice who volunteers her Sundays in service to the church, agrees.
“For those of us who believe in the faith, it’s easy. Because for us, it’s true,” McKinney said.
McKinney, who converted when she was 11, said she could understand how it’s difficult for people outside the religion to look at the church and wonder what’s happening.
But her first exposure to the religion as the young daughter of Japanese immigrants in Manhattan was innocuous. Her family became friends with a Mormon couple, who she soon knew as “Aunt Kathryn and Uncle Joe,” helping her young parents assimilate and build their life in New York City.
“I can’t say that they ever asked me or tried to convert me,” McKinney said. “I showed up, and they were supportive… If I had a question, they were there to answer it.”
McKinney, encouraged by her parents to find her own religion, tried out several churches as an 11-year-old, but “when I went to the (Mormon) church, I felt it. It’s not something you can explain. I felt it. I felt it in my heart. I knew that I was in the right place,” she said.
The missionary process is simple: recite the gospel to those willing to listen and answer any questions they have. The rest, Mormons said, is God’s will.
“People,” McKinney said. “Who have opened their hearts and the Holy Ghost has spoken to them.”
When asked what happens if a non-member believes in evolution, Elder Kaylin Myasaki, a 21-year-old from Idaho, said it isn’t his job to argue or persuade. Everyone has doubts, he said.
Mason believes the religion distinguishes itself positively from other branches of Christianity.
“A lot of people are attracted to it precisely because of the way it gives a seven-day-a-week religion,” Mason said. “It becomes a part of you, at work and the way you associate with neighbors and a lot of that is what people are looking for in life.”
Ann Cochran, a writer who lives in Cabin John, said her son converted to the religion at 16, nearly 10 years ago.
She was impressed by their respectfulness. When her son was interested, the missionaries asked for her and her husband’s permission before teaching him the gospel
Without feeling pressured, she flirted back and forth during those years before finally deciding to be baptized herself in June 2012.
“I felt like they have a deep peace — I’m getting choked up about it — a deep happiness,” she said. “People say Mormons are really nice… It’s so much deeper than that. They spend a lot of time helping people. I feel like they know why they’re here on earth in a very secure way.”
Back at the Visitor’s Center, the movie, which was about a family brought closer together by the death of their grandfather and the near-death of their child, had ended.
The lights went on. The room transformed from family living room to just another segment of the tour.
Sister Denise Sottili, a 20-year-old missionary from Florence, Italy, began by addressing the non-member with a note of self-reflection, explaining that as she grew older, she realized how it important it was to know how she felt.
“How did you feel while watching that?” she asked the lone non-member, John Hunt.
“I’m very happy about what my experience is,” said Hunt, an African-American, graying behind the ears and wearing a pinstriped suit and silver tie.
“I’ve enjoyed it,” he said. “I’d like to repeat the feeling.”