A little over a year ago, Kili Franks, 21, left college. It wasn’t that things weren’t going well — she was studying to be a middle school math teacher and was on a full-ride athletic scholarship at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah. She loved it there and was close with her basketball teammates, with whom she would participate in study parties and go on road trips.
But through prayer she came to the conclusion that God wanted her to take an 18 month break from her studies to serve as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly referred to as the Mormon Church.
Though she was raised in a Mormon family, Franks is the only one of five children to serve a mission and knows less than a handful of women who made the same choice. She had no idea where she would be sent, though she knew that she’d have to make plenty of lifestyle changes, including following a strict dress code, foregoing dating, and limiting communication with family to one email per week and two phone calls per year.
Franks said her family was initially taken aback when she told them about her plans to go on a mission. “It meant giving up basketball for a little bit, and putting my education on hold,” she explains.
When most people think of Mormon missionaries, images of a clean cut young men in ties and white buttons downs likely to come to mind — but things are changing. In 2012, the Mormon Church lowered the age at which women are able to serve as missionaries, from 21 to 19, and from 19 to 18 for men. The change led to an explosion in young women going on missions (from 8,000 to 17,800 over the last six years, according to Church spokesman Daniel Woodruff). Since many Mormon women marry by the age of 21, the previous requirement meant a significant number wouldn’t almost automatically serve.
The Mormon faith dates back to 1830, when its founder Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon, which he said contained messages from ancient prophets who had lived in the Americas. Mormons consider themselves Christians, although some other Christian denominations disagree. Today the faith, which is based in Salt Lake City, Utah, has more than 16 million adherents.
Since the end of last year, the Mormon Church has made a number of other changes to missionary life, including allowing women missionaries to wear slacks and all missionaries to call their families once a week, instead of twice a year. Last month, the Church also released a series of safety videos for missionaries, addressing topics such as pedestrian and bicycle safety, hygiene, and carbon monoxide poisoning. Though it’s rare, there have been instances of missionaries serving in the U.S. killed in traffic accidents and a shooting.
Mission work is a central part of the Mormon faith and though not required, it’s highly encouraged for young men. Women have been serving as missionaries since 1898, though a smaller proportion of them choose to do so. Throughout her term, Franks, who grew up in Redding, California, would be paired with another female missionary — called a “companion” — and the two would have to stay together at all times.
A typical day for Franks, who served part of her mission in The Bronx, went something like this: She woke up at the apartment she shared with her “companion” at 6:30 a.m. and spent 30 minutes exercising, as is required by the church. She’d then spend the next three hours getting ready, eating breakfast, planning for the day, and studying religious texts. At 10 a.m., she and her “companion” would head out to talk to strangers about their beliefs. When they returned, around 9 p.m. or so, they’d prepare for bed.
Most people think of Mormon missionaries as going door to door to spread their message, but in New York City, where apartment buildings aren’t always accessible, most outreach happens on public transportation.
“We’re traveling on transit, we’re meeting with people, and we’re just talking about Jesus Christ to everyone, whoever wants to listen,” Franks explains.
Franks and her “companion” Kelsie Stegall, a 21-year-old from Phoenix, Arizona, speak to strangers with what seems like an almost unnatural ease and cheerfulness. Though they get along as if they were longtime friends, Stegall is Franks’ sixth companion. Missionaries receive new “companion” assignments every few months. They also don’t necessarily stay in the same geographic area throughout their mission. Prior to serving in the Bronx, Franks was in Long Island, the New York City borough of Queens, and on the island of Bermuda.
As I follow the pair around on a chilly winter day, I find myself amazed by how confident and assertive they seem when talking to a group of strangers who have a collective reputation of being brusque.
Speaking to people on public transportation is one of the few times when she and Stegall are not walking next to each other. “We usually split up so people that we talk to don’t feel intimidated when there’s two of us,” Franks shares.
As they step onto the bus, each of the women quickly find a seat next to someone and starts talking. Franks says she doesn’t use any specific lines to initiate conversation, but starting with a compliment is usually a safe bet. “[I’ll say] ‘I really like your scarf and it’s really cold, where did you get it?’ and that’s a genuine question because I really don’t have many scarves,” she says, laughing.
On one bus ride, I hear her ask a middle-aged woman sitting next to her if she’s having a good day. When it becomes clear that the woman doesn’t speak English, Franks turns around to a young man in a hoodie sitting in the row behind them, and strikes up a conversation about taking public transportation.
Quickly the two establish a banter back and forth. Throughout, Franks is quick to bring back the conversation to her work as a missionary. She asks him about the holiday season and his religious beliefs. When he says that he tries to be a good person, she talks about how Jesus Christ has helped her to do so.
The young man seems receptive, and at the end of the few minutes of conversation, as Franks gets ready to leave, she asks for his number and hands him a card with a local church’s address and says she hopes to see him there.
Does she think he’ll come? “I hope so,” Franks tells me after we got off the bus.
Making contact on a bus is only the beginning of a connection. If the person lives in the missionaries’ district, they get to reach out. If not, they pass along the person’s contact information to a local church. The objective is to follow up by text message or phone call within a day or two and set up a meeting. The end goal is baptism.
Franks tells me that during her mission, she’s worked with 16 people who’ve ended up converting to the church. If all goes according to plan, that number should be 17 soon. The Mormon Church does not keep data on the average number of conversions done by missionaries, but a recent report says that 234,332 people converted to the faith in 2018.
For two months, Franks has been meeting with June Mullings, a 60-year-old teacher who lives in The Bronx. Mullings’ baptism date is only days away when I join Franks and Stegall as they meet at a half-empty Burger King in the Baychester area of the borough. Missionaries prefer to meet with people in a “spiritual venue,” such as a nearby Mormon church or a church member’s home. But June recently had surgery and isn’t able to walk far, so they’ve been meeting at the fast food joint instead, although Franks acknowledges it's “not the ideal situation.”
Prior to learning about Mormonism, Mullings was searching for a church and says she was confused by the plethora of Christian denominations that she encountered. She was captivated by the missionaries’ warmth after meeting one of them on a bus.
“The sincerity that they give, that is what really drew me to them, the love, their dedication,” she tells me. “If they tell you they want to meet with you, they’re always here. They never cancel on me.”
June is a success case for both missionaries, but things don’t always go according to plan when they meet with potential converts. Both Franks and Stegall talk about past people they studied with, who did not ultimately join the church.
“We had taught someone from the very beginning, and she was amazing,” says Stegall of a college student she met earlier on her mission. “I love her so much still.” But after three months of meetings, the young woman said she was too busy to continue and Stegall never heard from her again. “That was so difficult,” she says.
But the missionaries don’t necessarily view such cases as a final rejection. They hope that those they’ve met will keep the church and the Mormon faith in their minds, and one day convert. “They’re not forever rejecting our teachings.” Franks says. “It’s just not their time right now.”
Though the number of women missionaries has increased since 2012, the majority are still men. That’s because mission service is seen as a rite of passage for men, while it is voluntary for women. “[That] leads to those women who choose to go, really want to go, whereas some of the guys, maybe their mom kind of pushed them out the door,” says Bill Darger, a public affairs representative for the church who accompanies me for part of the day when I’m meeting with the missionaries.
Female missionaries have to follow strict dress and grooming codes. “Clothing should be attractive, colorful, tailored to fit well, and conservative in style,” read church guidelines. Skirts and dresses must be below the knee. Low necklines or sleeveless shirts are off limits. Tights must be in neutral colors, and earrings that hang more than an inch below the ear lobe are not allowed. The church website even shows photos of bright-faced young women modeling approved outfits, hairstyles and makeup techniques.
All of this policing might be uncomfortable to young women today, but Franks says she doesn't mind it.
Same goes for the prohibition on dating. Franks had gone on a couple of dates before serving, but says that since nothing worked out, it wasn’t hard for her to give it up during her mission. “It’s not an issue,” she says. “I’d say it’s more relief that for a year and a half I get to serve the Lord. It doesn’t even cross my mind.”
After she is done with her mission, Franks will return to school, where she’ll go back to playing basketball and being able to date and dress as she likes. At the end of her studies, she plans to find a job as a middle school math teacher.
During our conversations, I find myself wondering whether the missionaries’ seemingly boundless cheer and complete acceptance of the rules they have to follow is real. Do they ever have a bad day, I ask them. Do they ever just wake up and not feel like talking to people on the bus?
“I’ve found my purpose through doing this... Through talking to people and sharing the Gospel, and so I guess I’d say no, I love it,” Franks says.
“It doesn’t really matter what you want to do either,” Stegall continues. “As a missionary, your whole focus is other people, so if you’re tired, it doesn’t matter. If you’re hungry, you can wait. It’s all about ‘Do I want to help someone else, or sit and help myself in that moment?’”