In Harm’s Way

It has been a tough couple of months for LDS missionaries (see here and here and here). In response, Elder Ballard met with members of the media on Friday to discuss the topic of missionary safety, as reported in an online Deseret News article Safety of Missionaries is Priority, LDS Leader Says. We all sympathize, of course, with family and friends of these (or any) missionaries who die or are injured while serving in the field. Few tragedies go deeper than the death of a loved one, whatever the circumstances. But this post is about the policy side of the issue, not the personal side. How exactly does LDS policy treat the issue of missionary safety?

Elder Ballard said, “An accident is an accident, and we have to accept it for that.” I’m not sure we really have to accept fatal accidents as inevitable. We get very upset if an executive of, for example, a mining company reacts to a workplace accident that results in the death of workers with a statement like “Accidents happen.” I would be much happier if he had said something like this: “We regard the death of any missionary as a serious issue as well as a personal tragedy. We accept responsibility for the health and safety of missionaries serving under the direction and supervision of LDS leaders, and we thoroughly investigate each and every death or serious injury. We change our procedures to whatever extent necessary to avoid similar recurrences in the future, including changing personnel where that is required to keep missionary safety our highest priority. Not all accidents are preventable, but we do everything in our power to prevent avoidable accidents.” I didn’t really sense that level of concern in the statements quoted in the article. There’s a difference, I think, between saying missionary safety is a priority and saying it is the highest priority.

Other statements in the article include: “The safest place in the world for 19-to-21-year-old men is in the service of the Lord.” That sounds like: “We don’t really have a safety issue here.” If you call a news conference to talk about missionary safety, you have a safety issue. That’s certainly evident from the spate of recent news stories on the issue.

The article mentioned the following as safety policies of the Church: (1) “A mission president and his wife are assigned to each mission to instruct missionaries how to take care of themselves and supervise their proselytizing.” (2) “In the church’s missionary training centers around the world, missionaries learn basic safety precautions, such as staying with their assigned companions at all times.” (3) “Mission presidents meet every four to six weeks with missionaries in zone conferences to discuss concerns.”

A related article appeared in the Deseret News last week, giving summarized information regarding 17 missionary deaths over the last seven years (unfortunately, it would now be up to 19). The majority of the incidents involved auto accidents, not violent crime. Interestingly, all the information was based on the Deseret News archives; no information was provided by the Church, apparently. I’m sure the Church maintains such information, which likely includes some incidents not found in the Deseret News archives.

The second article included this statement: “The Utah-based LDS Church declined, however, to comment for this story about what steps [to protect missionaries] it takes.” Elder Ballard’s statements to the media are a step in the right direction but leave some questions unanswered. It would be nice if additional information were forthcoming on this sadly relevant topic.

Comments

  1. There was at least one other missionary death during the time I served in England in the year 2000.

    In that case, a British elder in my mission was playing with a football and accidentally kicked it on top of a garage. He climbed onto the roof to get the ball, but unfortunately the roof did not hold, and he fell through hitting his head on the garage floor. He eventually passed away some days later.

  2. Please don’t goad the Church into making more rules for missionaries to follow and saftey videos to watch.

  3. Julie in Austin says:

    I think this post is off of the mark. What is the overall mortality rate for 19-21 year-olds? I’d be stunned if it were lower than the fatality rate for missionaries. It is only the press coverage and our tender feelings for missionaries that make this look like a problem–which is not to say that the death of a missionary isn’t a tragedy, but it is to say that one can hardly hold the church responsible for it unless the church had policies that encouraged irresponsible behavior, which does not seem to be the case.

  4. Dave,

    Trust me, the Church has quite a few rules and procedures in place to protect the Elders. However, as the saying goes, “Boys will be boys.”

    I agree with Julie’s statement as well. How many missionaries have served in the past 7 years (200K-300K?) and only 19 deaths. This is a tragedy, but I was thinking the number would be a bit bigger.

  5. I’m with Julie. (Since when does what the media focuses on define what serious issues are? Ha.)

    I didn’t like this paragraph in the story:

    About 52,000 young men and women are serving in 343 missions around the world, he said. That’s a lot of people to keep track of, but efforts are made to keep them safe.

    With the way it’s written, it sounds as though Elder Ballard also said that second sentence. But I’m pretty sure that’s just the journalist writing that.

    When you consider what missionaries are doing day after day, I think it’s pretty remarkable that the death rate is so low. And that none have been hit by cars while they’re on their bikes.

  6. Dave,
    I felt remarkably safe as a missionary. Too safe in fact. In a mission without much statistical success, the Austrian Alps were always very enticing….but they were a forbidden fruit. If any missionaries dared to do anything approaching climbing they were severely bollocked by the president.

  7. …That said, if missionaries did go climbing (and they did) they were often putting themselves at greater risk b/c they did so with a great deal of foolish bravado. Difficult to know what the church is supposed to do about that, though. 19 is a tragedy, but missionaries are not coal-miners.

  8. I think that more than anything, the wording of piece is a bit regretable. I’m not sure that this is just poor reporting.

    My experience was one of extreme safety conciousness, especially concerning the demographic. Now, health conciousness is a different story…

  9. Ronan, nice comment. And for those of you who just have to know, here is a paragraph on the colorful English term “bollocked”:

    Bollocking usually refers to a good verbal chastisement for something one has done incorrectly. i.e. “I didn’t do my homework and got a right bollocking off Mr Smith” The term is used frequently in the British Army recruitment process where it is mutually understood that “if you err then you will get bollocked or get a bollocking” —in most cases, these bollockings will be without physical contact but will be a psychological assault on a person’s character, look or actions.

    [Source: The enlightening Wikipedia entry “bollocks,” which should be read before you start throwing the term around in casual conversation.]

  10. Paul Wright says:

    Was that old prohibition against swimming on your mission a covert way of reducing water mishaps, or does the Devil really have his way in liquids?

  11. Dave,
    You just made my weekend. It’s a great term, but yes, be careful.

  12. I think the church should pay attention to safety. Yes the overall rate is slow, and I don’t think the church is doing a bad job. The problem is with the missionaries
    1) They are mostly 19, with a 19 year old sense of immortality,
    2) They are bolstered by stories about how missionaries are protected.

    I don’t think any specific programs need to be put in place (there are allready plenty, see lame missionary driving videos, and lame, but helpful rule of “backing out” cars).

    One of my good friend makes it a point of pride that he was responsible for at least one mission rule. While serving in Jamaica, he and several other missionaries went spelunking in a nearby cave (he was an experience spelunker back home). Nothing too extreme mind you, but through a series of unforunate events and compounding errors, ended up stuck in a cave, with no light for most of a day. He tells me that no missionaries are allowed in caves in Jamaica to this day.

  13. One of my favorite para-scriptures which I’ve heard among missionaries and GD teachers alike is one which states that if a missionary dies in the field, his C&E is made sure. Yeah right.

    Another fun para-scripture: I also remember my mission president (MP) clarifying why we were to stay away from the beach: he said it’s not because the devil has power over the water (else why are they baptized in water?), but because hot women in bathing suits go to the beach.

    I love my MP.

  14. Was that old prohibition against swimming on your mission a covert way of reducing water mishaps, or does the Devil really have his way in liquids?

    I think it’s more safety than anything, though the D&C reference to the waters being cursed. It was an easy rule to obey. Though there was that one time we went to the beach to play ultimate frisbee, and well…someone had to retrieve the frisbee out of the ocean.

  15. though the D&C reference to the waters being cursed

    Are those verses a generality or a situation-bound incident?

  16. I remember hearing at church, seminary or somewhere that once upon a time some prophet prophesied that some day all of the missionaries would have to be pulled from the mission field because the world would become so wicked that it would no longer be safe for them. Does anyone know of any source for that? Is it a Mormon legend?

    I know they have been pulled out of some countries for safety reasons, like Columbia. Every time I hear about missionaries getting shot (as opposed to being killed in an accident) I think of that prediction and wonder if my own kids will ever get a chance to be missionaries. I sure hope they will.

  17. I don’t really recall the no beach rule. The no swimming rule to be sure, but perhaps thats because swimming in my mission required a wetsuit or a touch of insanity.

    I would be curious as to the actual statistics of injury among missionaries.

    Dave, is it your position that the church isn’t doing enough to ensure missionary safety?

  18. There’s a great Calvin Grondahl cartoon about Satan and water. A guy with a big bushy mustache, smoking a cigar, and wearing a devil costume is water skiing. Two 19th century guys (you can tell by their hats) are standing on the banks of the lake. One says to the other, “Why yes, Elder, that IS Satan riding with power and majesty upon the water.”

  19. Jay, I don’t know that we have the data to make that call. As is evident from comment no. 1, the article is dealing with only some of the information (basically the events that made the papers). They are certainly doing some things for missionary safety; whether “enough” is done depends on how you define what enough is. But I don’t think the “young missionaries are thrill seekers” line really matches the data — few of the listed incidents stem from risky P-Day adventures.

  20. My grandma went swimming with the rest of her mission during her stint in the Central States Mission. That rule and subsequent justifications were later addition.

  21. I personally feel that the churches existing policies and standards are more than safe enough. I think that the recent news conference was more for show than for anything else. I think it was to show that the Church is concerned about it’s missionaries. I honestly can’t think of a way to make things safer for missionaries unless we want to put GPS systems on each missionary.

  22. I think there reason that safety is not the highest priority is because it’s actually not. If safety were priority, they would pull missionaries from a substantial number of areas across the world. And if safety were extreme priority, well, they wouldn’t send kids out into the world at all. Missionaries should understand, when they go into the field, that they could be sent anywhere and that there’s always a risk.

  23. Capt Jack says:

    Porter:

    The only missionaries that have been removed from Colombia have been the North-Americans; Latin Americans continue to serve there. Of the 5 missionaries killed by terrorists since 1989 in Latin America, 3 have been natives of the region so I’m hard pressed to see how they are safer than North Americans, but that is apparently how the leadership sees it.

  24. The issue of missionary safety has been completely off my radar, except for the last couple years, I’ve felt a slight tinge of unease when our boys have left for foreign countries.

    It makes sense that there is some risk, especially with boys that age. My first husband was only 21 when he died, and he thought he was invincible. I bet he was so surprised when he got in heaven, or the spirit world, I mean.

    Not to sound preachy, but I am coming closer all the time to that conclusion that the only real safety is the Lord.

  25. Regrettable incidents and symbols ineed of our age.

    I served a mission over 30 years ago in a Pacific Rim country that was known for typhoons. We rode out one with no incident. In fact, I doubt we even told the Mission President about it until we made our weekly report. (We had to justify less than 60 hours of proselyting). But when Rita came through the Texas Gulf Coast the missionary evacuation was important enough that the General Authorities monitored it.

    I would guess that statistically, a young man is safer on a mission than he is anywhere else. We can’t make life perfectly safe. It is contrary to the Plan of Salvation.

  26. Re comment #1, Lee Davidson revised his statistic for the number of LDS missionary deaths in response to readers who identified six other recent deaths. He also accounted for the New Zealand car accident this week. But the new list doesn’t include the death in England you mention. Davidson explains: “The deaths of the additional missionaries now identified sometimes had not been reported by news media that are available on the Internet or that are explored by major search engines, or stories about them did not include key words used in earlier searches such as ‘killed’ or ‘murder.'”

  27. I live in Michigan, and I am surprised that the Detroit Mission sends Elders to live and work in the worst possible parts of the inner-city areas of Detroit. Places where gangs rule, and are so unsafe, that even the cops dont venture there. I have talked to Elders who have served time in those neighborhoods, and they tell me they feared for their lives every single moment, and wondered why the Church kept sending them there. Now,maybe Heavenly Father is looking after them, but, I am worried for the safety of the Missionaries in inner-city Detroit. Sure no one has been killed or seriously hurt there so far, but, is it wise to essentially be playing chicken with the lives of our young men?

  28. While there are very real social pressureson these young men to serve missions, no one is forcing them to go. Though there are very real social consequences (like having a hard time getting a girl to marry you) They won’t be excommunicated, or disfellowshipped. I realize also that They are 19-21 year old boys and probably feel like they’re being forced to go, but they aren’t. We can’t accuse the church of risking their lives, we *can* accuse the church of asking them to risk their lives. But blaming the church for everything the missionaries do detracts from the credit the individuals should be getting.

  29. I agree with Eric Russell. Missionary safety is important, but quite obviously isn’t the Church’s highest priority. If it were, I would have worn a football helmet everywhere. Or a bear suit. It would have made proselyting awkward (that is, more awkward).

  30. Historically, the risks that the missionaries of the church took to spread the gospel to people around the world make missionary work today look like a sunset walk on the beach. I served in Watts and Compton, a couple of the most dangerous zip codes in the entire country. My experience with missionaries who got hurt was that it was typically while they were doing something they shouldn’t.

  31. Readers might be interested in a recent post at Mormonity (by the reclusive B’nacle apologist-in-residence Jeff L.) entitled Health Care For Missionaries. The post and comments show a surprising degree of variation in the availability and provision of basic health care for missionaries depending on where they serve and who they receive advice or approval from when sick or injured.

  32. Lewis Brownlow says:

    Its interesting, Kim comment 1 pointed out that a missionary died in 2000 in england. The Missionary was my younger brother.
    I find it interesting hes not in the deserets stats, so whats the real figure?
    In my opinion the church does a fantasitic job of moving missionaries away from troubled areas and accidents are accidents. Any return missionary can relate stories where the lord has looked after missionaries.
    On health care i have seen first hand missionaries put on a plane and taken direct to saltlake for the best in private care when needed.

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