Missionary Safety: That No Harm or Accident May Befall Us

Image result for missionaries helmetsPeggy Fletcher Stack reports in the Salt Lake Tribune that the church is going to survey missionaries about safety. This survey is likely related to rising global terrorism as well as several outbreaks of disease that have been problems in recent years and required adaptation in terms of missionary dress codes and where missionaries serve. It’s important to note that existing mission rules help prevent a lot of injuries, rules like being with a companion 24×7, no swimming, and wearing helmets and seat belts. Compared to same age cohorts, missionaries suffer fewer injuries–this, despite being in areas of the globe that may be more perilous than their native communities. We’re obviously doing some things right to protect our missionaries.

And yet, missionaries are obviously vulnerable in some ways:

  • In some locations, they stand out as “Americans,” and when there is anti-American sentiment, they can be perceived as a political symbol.
  • As religious symbols, they may be targeted on that basis.
  • They dress in distinctive ways rather than blending in, even wearing name badges. The elders, in particular, are easy to spot from a distance due to their dress code.
  • To be effective teachers, missionaries are often in areas that are downtrodden, teaching the most humble people in the society. That means they may be surrounded by the dangers associated with impoverished communities, whether those are personal threats of violent crime or the threats of unstable or crumbling infrastructure.
  • Missionaries are young and can be naive about risks. They may lack global experience or prior exposure to danger. They may underestimate risks.

I served in the Spain Las Palmas mission (Canary Islands) in 1989-90.

In my first area we walked out of a teach one evening, and some guy was setting a car on fire and rolling it down the street. I don’t remember feeling scared. I just wondered what they were protesting. There weren’t other people out on the street. Locals said it wasn’t that big a deal, just a dumb form of protest that happened sometimes–some people in the Canaries wanted independence, which to us didn’t seem feasible; they’d been under Spain since the conquest, and they got a lot of benefit from being part of Spain.

Personally, I generally felt very safe although one of my comps got robbed by two heroin addicts (I maintain that was her fault since I warned her at the time not to go over to them, but she ignored me). Later, one of my trainees got purse-snatched and dragged down the street (she had just bought that purse, and she wasn’t letting go for anything). My first trainee and I hitch-hiked which might have been foolhardy, but we just got picked up by some sexy Jesus-looking dude.

Image result for lds missionary urban areaAnother time, I got flashed by a guy in a park which was in broad daylight so not really scary. He said, “What do you think of that?” I said, “It looks like a penis, only smaller.” In one area, there was a guy we just called “the naked man” who would lay on the ground completely naked between these two banana fields we had to walk through and when we passed he would call out to us in the local attention-getting “Ch-ch” sound that people made. It was a narrow passage, and there was no other way to get to our area. We didn’t like having to walk past someone crazy enough to lay in the dirt naked among broken bottles, so we changed apartments for a while, and that was when my comp got purse-snatched, so we moved back and just dealt with it. The naked man was just crazy. I asked a bus driver once what was up with the naked man, and he said, “Oh, that’s just Carmelo.” All the locals knew him.

The elders down in the port were living in a building with junkies. There was a woman across the air shaft, an evangelista, who used to sing every day, and then one day her husband slit her throat. Another time they found a dead junkie in the hallway outside their apartment. One of the elders wrote home about it, somewhat casually, and President said these weren’t the kinds of things they should be telling their moms, but he did move them. The elder wasn’t actually complaining, just stating the facts.

In that same city we were teaching in a really rough area (where my comp got mugged by the heroin addicts), and they used to grab kids and shoot them up so they’d become addicts. We taught and baptized a kid who was a junkie, and he then served a mini mission, but he couldn’t give up the drugs, and when his comp found him using in the bathroom, his mini mission ended. His conversion story was really inspiring, though, and he was a good kid. I wouldn’t have traded working in that area if it meant we didn’t get to teach him. Sometimes you have to go into dangerous areas to find the people who are ready for the gospel.

I knew lots of missionaries who broke the rule against swimming, but nobody was injured due to breaking that rule while I served (at least that they admitted). I am aware, though, that a companionship of missionaries died in that mission years after I served there. They were swept away by a wave while taking pictures on a rocky outcropping along the coastline according to what I heard from the members.

There was an elder who got stabbed in the butt in a street fight with a bunch of young kids in a particularly rough area, but that was because his companion was a hot head who egged them on. They were surrounded by about 20 street punks who were hanging out in the middle of several high rises in this rough area. One of the kids took his pen–an expensive one, and he started throwing punches into the crowd. Then his companion got stabbed in the butt. Definitely a flesh wound. An elder I was in the MTC with had a taxi driver try to rob him, but he fought back, and he was a big guy (former football player), so he prevailed.

The only time I was targeted due to religion was when some 10 year old kids “bowled” my companion and me with oranges, throwing them down a hill at us to make us fall. I briefly thought about walking back up the hill and knocking their little heads together, but I forbore. My comp and I laughed about being “bowled for Jesus.”

This seemed like an opportune time to canvass our own readers about mission experiences. Since the world is an ever-changing place, please include years and location you served in when sharing experiences.

  • Were you in danger as a missionary? What types of danger?
  • Did you feel particularly targeted or was it just general exposure due to areas you worked in?
  • Were you or others at risk (or injured) due to rule breaking?
  • Did you feel that precautions you took as a mission were generally sufficient? What additional prevention or training would you recommend to minimize danger?
  • In your experience, were Elders or Sisters more at risk? Why?



  1. 2000 Germany. Very safe areas, which much less violent crime than is typically seen in the U.S. We were particularly targeted twice because there are crazy people even in places like Germany. The first incident, the man held up a switchblade and told us he’d stab us if we get on the same bus as he was getting on. The second time, the caller told us if we stopped by his place again he’d shoot us; he didn’t identify himself, but we were fairly certain he was the roommate of a new investigator.

    Here are my issues with this survey:
    1. Missionaries, and Elders in particular, often hide dangers from others. After the knife threat, my companion wanted to tell people in the ward, and I shut that down quick. No need for the ward to get worried about us. More specifically, however, missionaries often hide things from the Mission President. I didn’t want to get transferred out of area where we received the gun threat or the knife threat, so the Mission President never found out about those incidents. We figured we’d be plenty safe as long as we steered clear of the people issuing the threats.

    2. Missionaries, and Elders in particular, are terrible judges of how dangerous something can be.

    It sounds like the safety survey results will be made available to mission presidents. The church needs to be aware that missionaries are going to seriously downplay risks for both of the reasons stated above.

  2. user5093 says:

    My husband served in Minas Gerais, Brazil and has told me about a time he and his companion were chased by a “mob” from a local church group of another faith. I have always been slightly skeptical, but I am far from well traveled, so don’t really have any idea.

  3. Last Lemming says:

    Tim is correct. They should also survey returned missionaries who have been home for two years. That’s enough time to process everything and compare their mission life to normal life, but not so long after the fact that they will forget stuff.

  4. Earl Parsons says:

    Mexico 2001-2002
    We hitchhiked all the time, especially in small towns. One green elder broke his arm while hitchhiking. He was only halfway in the bed of a truck when the truck took off so he fell.

    During the next mission conference the president announced that it was against the rules to hitchhike. We asked him if that meant he would increase the monthly allowance so we could afford to take the bus. He backtracked and encouraged us to hitchhike “safely.” The most important thing for us as missionaries was to minimize costs.

  5. superheroboy says:

    I replaced an elder who had been stabbed multiple times by a skinhead at a bus stop (Bulgaria, 2002). After the skinhead brandished a knife, the missionary attempted to tackle him but left the knife hand free. The skinhead stabbed him in the back while being bear-hugged.

    I never told my parents what happened. When they asked why I was transferring at an odd time and without warning, I told them “sometimes things just happen and people have to be transferred quickly.” Looking back now they probably thought I was being disobedient and needed to be moved.

  6. Wayne Gledhill says:

    After turning left in front of a pick-up truck in Germany and getting knocked head over heels into the middle of the road I learned the word for idiot was the same in English and German, they just pronounced it differently over there.

  7. I served in Haiti just after the fall of the Duvalier regime and the country was politically unstable with regular demonstrations. Generally the locals would warn us so we could aboid them or we would walk away if one came in our direction. Lots of fires were involved and sometimes shooting. One time shooting started as we walked down a street so we jumped into the small doorway space of a typical 2 room house. The man in this house heard us so let us in and then he went into the back room. When the shooting stopped we called out our thanks and left. We were never scared and the thing I remember most of that particular incident was that the Good Samaritan was naked holding just a face cloth to protect his modesty-no air conditioning so these little houses were stifling.

  8. My kids never told us the really scary stuff about their missions, although we heard about a gunpoint muggins (NJ Spanish speaking) from one of our sons, but only after he’d been home a while. His older brother got caught in the rioting in Buenos Aires in Argentina around 2000, and got tear gassed, and chased for a few blocks because he and his companion were obviously Americans.

    My biggest worry for missionaries these days is that for the Americans serving foreign missions, they do stand out, and could become the target of anti-American sentiment. The same son who got tear-gassed in Argentina now lives in Manila, the Philiippines, with his blonde-haired wife, and three little blond haired boys, and their own version of a crazy president, I worry about them, and the missionaries there. I was particularly concerned when I heard that Duterte was telling his soldiers that they shouldn’t fear prosecution for rape, and is considering martial law for the entire country. With the shoot-first-no-consequences attitude of the police there, the prospect of accidental violence goes way up.

  9. Happy Hubby says:

    On a related note, I know of an RM that has only been home a while. But he told me that he had a local companion that would almost nightly tell him before going to bed that he was going to slit his throat while he slept. This went on for weeks until he finally mentioned it to the zone leaders and they sent home the threatening Elder.

    But his parents and the MP knew nothing of the issue while this was going on. What do you expect of an 18 year old that is told that obedience will overcome all?

    I feel for the mission presidents. If they are not “strict” enough, more of this crap goes on. If they clamp down too hard they cause a whole different set of issues.

  10. Had a gun pulled on me a couple of times, rocks thrown at me several times, spit on several times, but I only felt truly unsafe when I was riding the buses or eating mystery food.

  11. England 2002-2004
    The worst I got of it was being pelted by rocks and eggs. Rocks hurt more but eggs were more irritating because we were pretty far out from our flat and still had a discussion to teach before heading back. The whole time teaching and traveling back I had egg plastered in my hair that had time to dry before getting back (Ahh, dear old England). We had a couple of unstable individuals threaten us too, but no bodily damage.

    In England, the long coats and shirts and ties made less observant people think we were cops. So those folks stayed away. Teenagers however loved to harass people with no fear of consequences.

    I never got hurt rule breaking.

    You get zero training for dealing with weirdos. Nothing about how to deal with people who are physically hostile.

    The sisters never talked about any physical harm they experienced but I wouldn’t want to trade places. I can only imagine dudes just trying to be really creepy and whistling etc.

  12. Oh, and when the mutant dogs attacked.

  13. FarSide says:

    ” . . . mission rules help prevent a lot of injuries, rules like being with a companion 24×7, no swimming . . .” What is the risk of injury from swimming compared to soccer, basketball or countless other activities, at least when done in a pool with a lifeguard present?!? This prohibition seems to be based more on Mormon superstition than any logical risk probability assessment.

    I served in Chile from 1972-74. I was living with my companion in downtown Santiago on September 11, 1973 when the Chilean revolution occurred. Two Hawker Hunter jets flew their downwind leg over us en route to dropping incendiary rockets on the Moneda, the mega-government office complex where Salvador Allende was holed up. A tank subsequently drove down our street and a sniper was taken out about five houses down from us. A stray bullet came through the living room window of the home where we were renting our room.

    Was I scared? Nope. I was 20 and believed myself to be immortal. I was even foolish enough to take pictures of the whole thing. But I strictly abided by the government-mandated curfew since the penalty for being out after the prescribed time was being shot.

  14. Baltimore, 90-91. Went through Leakin Park one fine Sunday afternoon. Found out later that this was locally known as “The Body Factory” and was the burial site featured in the podcast “Serial”. Exited the park onto the worst part of North Avenue and eventually made it into the projects. Realized we were there just after a Louis Farrakhan rally for the Nation of Islam. Took refuge with an investigator who took us each by the hand and walked us to a police sub-station, where we were driven home in the back of a cruiser.

    Previous missionaries in that area had performed a December 31st baptism over objections of the local Bishop. He was an unstable relapsing drug user, who threatened to rape and kill sisters in the ward, burn down the building, and kill missionaries. The elder who had interviewed him for baptism later admitted the Mission President was pushing hard for one more baptism at any cost, and to do it even if they had to do breaking and entering to fill the font. Same elder admitted he had nightmares on a regular basis where he met Christ at the Judgment Bar and would be condemned for that ordinance.

    The mentality of the elders was if you weren’t being threatened or injured on a weekly basis, you just weren’t working hard enough. Risky behavior was the norm, and close calls were just an indication that the Lord was on your side.

  15. Kentucky 2008
    My companion and I were teaching a small family. Turns out the house was a drop off point for the local drug trade. The local police were staking out the house and had seen us go in and out of the house. A detective who tipped off a ward member that the police knew were weren’t part of the drug trade but intended to get pictures of us at the house and then publish them in the paper, to discredit the mormon church.

  16. Utah Provo Mission, last decade. I never felt in danger and I don’t recall hearing of other missionaries in danger, getting mugged, stalked or anything. But upon reflection, our missionaries sometimes did a fairly stupid and dangerous thing. Hitchhiking is illegal, but when you have to get somewhere and the next town in your area is 30 miles away and you have a limited distance on your car that you are allowed to drive, you get creative. We technically didn’t hitchhike, but we would start walking along a highway until someone got curious to stop and ask us what we were doing out in the middle of nowhere. It never took long to get a ride to the next town.

  17. I was in southern Brazil from 2002-2004. The majority of my mission was pretty rural so it didn’t have very many scary areas.
    We did get followed for about 8 blocks one night by a raving drunk. A few times people approached us to rant about how much they hated our president (George W. At the time) as if we were fully complicit in his presidential decisions. (In fact we were accused of being his spies at one point). The only other really concerning experience happened when we were walking down a quiet street at dusk and we could hear and somewhat see through the open window of a house a very physical altercation between two men (all you could hear was scuffling). Then it got really quiet and a man hurried out the front door and took off down the street leaving the house eerily silent.
    Our biggest safety rules were no swimming and to stay away from the carnaval celebrations (though I’m sure that was more for our poor virgin eyes than anything else).

  18. 1. I served in Chile Santiago North from 2005-2007 (same mission as the missionaries in the picture of the Elders above; Elder Keller being contacted by Elders Hernandez and Verzello). Things that happened to me: shot at twice, witnessed I don’t know how many instances of police brutality, saw lots of dead bodies in the streets, riots on 9/11 where everything was burned to the ground, witnessed two homicides, escaped from a burning building, victim of one attempted mugging, too many robberies and drug deals to count, was chased by a gang of neo-Nazis (my comp and I were white; didn’t get why we were targeted), and was in the middle of Santiago when Pinochet died which led to some interesting riots.

    2. A lot of it seemed to be generalized as Santiago North takes in most of the slums and ghettos of Santiago. Only a few times did it seem like it was because I was an American or a missionary.

    3. One precaution that didn’t make sense was we weren’t allowed to use backpacks; we had to use shoulder bags. The idea was that it would be easier for us to lose our bad if we were mugged if it were slung over one shoulder and resting on the same side as that shoulder but we never wore them that way. We always had the strap on one should with the bag resting on the opposite hip or our back. In my mind, this would have been harder to get off than a backpack.

    4. I think it was generally the same for Sisters and Elders. There were some areas and zones that sisters were never assigned to for fear of their safety but they seemed like they got the amount of grief as the Elders.

  19. Disfellowshipped says:

    I served in Minas Gerais, Brazil (I’m not user5093’s husband, though), and although I never was chased by a mob, I was never really safe. I served in really dangerous neighborhoods and barely batted an eye when people flashed guns or knives. I think, at least in my mission, we had this naive faith that nothing could touch us and that nothing bad would ever happen to us.

    This even extended to within the community of missionaries. I can’t believe I didn’t realize that although I was physically safe, I was being isolated from friends and cut off from ward members by my companion so that he could eventually sexually assault me.

    If I knew then what I know now, I could have saved myself from a lot of the stupid situations I put myself into and from the awful situation I was forced into.

  20. Angela C says:

    I forgot to mention all the frottage on the buses. Based on my travel since my mission, I can only say that it’s just a routine part of public transportation for women in many cities, but it was new to me as a missionary.

    One of my college roommates served in Guatemala at the same time I served 1989-90, and she said some men kept pulling her skirt up as she walked in the street until she finally turned around and punched a guy right in the face. That stopped the harassment.

  21. I served in Denmark 87-89. I was threatened with a hunting rifle once, but wasn’t at all afraid because it had only one shot and my comp was the huge, fighting type. If the guy had any sense at all, he wouldn’t use the shot on me. Although my mission was very safe, one of my comps told me he had been mugged at knife point. He said he just had the impression he shouldn’t react in any way, so he just stood there. Shortly, a cop car drove up and the guy ran off.

    I’ve had three daughters serve missions within the last four years, and the mission presidents in each tended to keep the sisters out of the more dangerous areas. Counteracting that is the fact that sister missionaries tend to attract more jerks. None of my girls reported feeling particularly threatened at any point (though one was robbed twice).

  22. Oh, I’ll add that I was attacked by a guard dog (I was not trespassing). I ended up with a nasty bite-bruise to my inner thigh (yep – close one), but after that, I gave better than I got. The dog lost more blood than me.

  23. DC 2006-2008. I was threatened with a gun a few times and sexually assaulted twice on my mission. The scariest moment of my mission was when I was on exchanges with a very new sister in her area. We went to a first appointment that she had scheduled earlier in the week. They invited us in and locked the door and proceeded to try to “deprogram” us. They wouldn’t let us leave the house for about 3 hours. They never physically harmed us, but they yelled at us and tried to convince us that we were following Satan. I’m not sure what changed their mind but they finally let us go. The sister I was with wanted to go straight back to the apartment for the rest of the day. I was sure that we were being disobedient by doing so, but she was so terrified I couldn’t say no.

    I never told my MP or any elders about any of these encounters. There was already this idea that sisters shouldn’t be on missions because we were too sensitive to handle it. I heard many of the DLs and ZLs complain if they had to have sisters in their charge because we caused to many problems (which is bizarre to me because most of the sisters on my mission worked hard and kept their mouths shut while many of the Elders were so whiny and at one point a large group of them went home for something the MP would only refer to as “secret combinations.”) I didn’t want to be one of “those sisters” that made everyone think sister missionaries are the worst so I tried to never complain about anything or mention a single problem to any Elders or the MP my whole mission.

  24. Is this poll a misdirection play/alternate cause development for the impending drop in missionary numbers?

  25. Jason K. says:

    Your response to the flasher FTW. That kind of of deadpan poise is a beautiful thing.

  26. Elizabeth St Dunstan says:

    East Germany, mid 2000s.
    1. The Russian mob fired a warning shot at me after my trainee naively tried to approach them in the middle of some illegal activity. Same trainee also got herself roofied at an appointment where they locked us in. Luckily I’m a large physical presence and was able to get us out and onto a train home before she felt the full effects. Knife threats were routine, as were bloody footprints all over our part of town. I can’t count the number of lunging drunk men l dodged using techniques I learned playing football with my brothers. One guy tried to fight me on a train once, and I happened to have a box of chocolate bars in my bag, so I just sort of angrily jabbed them toward him and yelled “do you want a candy bar?” He was so surprised he lost his momentum, grabbed two chocolates and went on his way. These are all from my last area. The sister who replaced me war literally shoved in front of an oncoming bus. My other three areas mostly had more of the typical crazies missionaries meet everywhere.

    2. I felt targeted, but more by my companion’s stupidity than anything else. People did call us witches a lot based on our dress code, but that wasn’t really threatening.

    3. Nah, we got injured the old fashioned way– playing soccer against the elders.

    4. There was so much emphasis on contacting everyone that many of us felt compelled to ignore warning signs of a bad situation. It needed to be clear and explicit that safety was a valid reason to skip a contact.

    5. Equal risk in terms of areas we worked, but the risk to each individual in those situations varied according to what we generally see in violent crime statistics, which is that women are at greater risk for specific types of violence. No one ever roofied the elders in my area.

  27. Thanks for your posts about the Canary Islands! So many memories…

    I served in the Canary Islands, and I was there when the two missionaries drowned. For myself, I don’t remember any safety issues. In some of my areas we walked by drug dealers everyday. We knew who they were, talked to them occasionally, but never felt threatened.

    When the two Elders drowned, they were with their entire district on a p-day. Not to be nit-picky, but they were not actually companions, although that is a natural assumption. From what I was told, one got hit by a wave, and the other went to rescue, and neither of them came back.

    Elder Howard from the area presidency came a spoke to the mission. His main message was that the most important thing in life is to be in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing. Ergo, if a missionary dies, it is someone’s fault for not being in the right place at the right time, or not doing the right thing. It was a call to repentance, and it was followed by the mission president interviewing everyone digging to ask if they had anything to repent of, especially before the mission. And I bought into that whole thing, but I don’t anymore.

    If you are going to compare safety, you need to compare to similar activities of people in the same demographic. The most comparable thing would be compare college-age students doing study abroad, or Peace Corp, or something like that. In general, Mormon missionaries have an advantage because they don’t engage in risky behaviors such as drinking, recreational drugs, and sexual activity. None of these things have anything to do with mission rules.

    Probably the only rule that provides substantial protection that I can think of is the curfew. The rule about being with a companion is ridiculously extreme, and more intended to prevent flirting and relationships that are normal and natural for people that age.

    There is one rule that I think increases the safety risk: missionaries are not allowed to call home except on Mother’s Day and Christmas. This is harmful, especially now that elders leave at 18, often never having lived away from home, they are cut off from getting counsel from family they trust, and forced to rely on the Mission President, who they don’t even know. I think this rule is intended to keep missionaries isolated, reduce homesickness, and keep them focused on The Work, but it comes at a cost of taking away an important safety net.

  28. Clark Goble says:

    In hindsight there were quite a few pretty ridiculously dangerous areas in my area. This was also the height of the crack epidemic in arguably the place with the higher crime rate — Louisiana. And bodies were so easy tp dispose of that everyone figured the murder rate was at least 3x as high if not higher. One area I was in had been closed due to violence for years. The elders who opened it again bumped into a local figure who was a tad shady but loved the missionaries and told everyone if anyone bothered us he’d kill them. It seemed to protect us reasonably well, even when we had to rescue a newly baptized member from a crack house. I was completely staggered at the level of crime and violence there though. Even when you hear about it on TV, the reality is far, far worse.

  29. I feel I should add that when I said “I was there” when the two missionaries drowned, I mean that I was in that mission, not that I was present when they drowned. That’s hopefully clear anyway.

  30. HermanaJ says:

    Madrid, about ten years after you. I never felt physically unsafe, but there was plenty of sexual harassment (old dudes pinching my butt, guys rubbing up against me in the metro or on the bus, etc). Once on the Metro I had a guy reach his hand down in my pocket and I’m not sure if he was trying to grope me or rob me. For a while we had a guy who would stand outside our apartment at night and masturbate. We’d just close the blinds. Ew. We often had punk teenagers yell swear words at us on the street, mostly because the only English words they really knew were the F word and “I love you”. We also once taught a discussion to an apartment full of extremely drunk Ecuadorian men–it took us a while to realize what the situation was. I got my wallet stolen out of my purse at the grocery store and we went to the police to file a report but nothing happened (duh)–I did get to make a quick call home to arrange for my parents to cancel my credit card and order me a new one.

    We did have an Elder who snuck out with another elder in the apartment to run with the bulls and got gored in the thigh. Surprisingly he did not get sent home. We also felt the boom when some Basque separatists blew up a car and a bus about a mile from our apartment one morning, but that didn’t really make me feel unsafe.

  31. Mortimer says:

    Developing country, around 2000-

    – elders were frequently beaten by street gangs. They were quickly called by the MP or mom and told NOT to tell their family in letters or calls home. They could convalesce by taking a few days off, but were to not talk to other missionaries who didn’t already know.

    -like other stupid 21yr olds, I felt invincible and protected b/c I was a rule-follower. I did know that my mother was gravely worried about death or harm coming to her missionaries. Her instincts weren’t misplaced, we did have a missionary pass away due to a lack of healthcare. Another nearly died.

    -we hitchhiked everywhere…it was an early form of uber, only no background checks and no technology.

    – as a sister I was in mortal danger a few times. I was always shocked that the peace corps women in our city faced the same dangers alone, w/o a companion and with far less developed language skills. I would much rather be an LDS missionary than lone peace corps volunteer. Being a student or faculty member is safer than either option as you live and work in a bubble. Universities are usually hypersensitive about safety.

    -I never knew any sister missionaries who were raped, despite being in many unsafe situations where we could have been easily abducted. I cringe to think it probably has happened.

    – we stuck out like sore thumbs and it did cause problems. I would be in favor of missionaries going to their missions with empty suitcases and spending the first few days buying casual, humble, native clothes. If missionaries could blend in for safety and at the same time focus on relating and assimilating to the culture, we’d be a step closer to understanding and serving the people. People will see us without the nerd attire. I have full confidence that when someone needs to meet a missionary, they will be found. We can afford to be safer.

  32. Chile Santiago South 1993-1995:

    1. No offense to the Santiago North commenter above, but I’ll match El Bosque, Lo Espejo, and La Pintana against any slum in the North mission.
    2. We were protected by drug dealers in many parts of the city. As long as we didn’t tell the police about their illegal activities, they let us work freely.
    3, I never carried a bag, a wallet, a watch, or more money than one bus fare. Only scriptures in one hand.That cut down on the number of attempted robberies. We still had to outrun them on occasion.
    4. Some areas were simply too scary to work in. I went back to Chile in 2003, looked at some of these areas from the freeway, and told my wife that we weren’t going anywhere near them. For someone who grew up in safe Midwestern towns (South Bend, Champaign), I was not prepared in the least for the circumstances I found myself in.
    5. We were assaulted once at a members house by five individuals who had been ingesting numerous controlled substances: pipes. They had pipes and chains. My companion and I took out two of them and the rest left. The police refused to come.
    6. We never reported that incident or others to the mission president. It was well known that if you complained, you would get sent to areas with no record of success and stay there for the remainder of your mission. We were expected to deal with the problems.
    7. Lastly, we could choose our own accommodations living with a family (pensión). There was no oversight/heath/safety standards. This was also a problem. One of our pensiones was attacked by a gang of locals because of a disputes between the house’s owner and the members renting it. The cops beat all of the gang members up. When we arrived home, the husband gave me a baseball bat and told me to protect his family overnight while he went to work. Didn’t sleep much that night.

  33. Chadwick says:

    Hong Kong 1999-2001.
    Safe, safe, safe. The worst that ever happened to me was some teenager squirting McDonald’s ketchup packets on me and my companion. We had a ton of sister missionaries because, again, such a safe city.

    Lots of crazy people in Hong Kong, and they all gravitated toward the visitor center, where I served. Being nice to crazy people really gets old after a while.

    Also, I got hit on by a lot of homosexual men. Not sure why; my companions never seemed to get hit on as frequently.

    I served in the outer islands for a time and got to baptize in the ocean twice. I could never understand the whole no swimming rule if I could baptize in the ocean. A lot of elders would claim it was Satan’s control of the waters, but again, serving in the outer islands, I had to take a lot of ferries to get around. Couldn’t Satan just as easily have capsized one if he wanted me dead? I always assumed the the Church didn’t want missionaries hanging out in jams on the beach; too many temptations. But serving on an island on the South China Sea was hard; the sea called to this California surfer boy daily.

  34. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    My current occupation means that I will, infrequently, encounter those who are mentally unstable, agitated, aggressive, prone to sexually inappropriate behavior, or are otherwise threatening. It is mandated that I attend annual training on how to recognize problem behavior, de-escalate situations before they become dangerous, or how to extricate myself from threatening behavior. I have never had to use these techniques at work, but sure could have used all of them as a missionary. It’s pretty simple training, and takes half of a day. Would be easy to incorporate this into the MTC curriculum – and the comments on this post are clear evidence of the need. Of course, it would freak out the mothers of missionaries,offend the sensibilities of General Authorities, and be interpreted as a tacit acknowledgment that being a missionary means that you will DEFINITELY encounter those who are mentally unstable, agitated, aggressive, prone to sexually inappropriate behavior, or are otherwise threatening.

  35. Anon for this says:

    My husband served in Venezuela in the early 1990s. He was in Caracas during the military coup – eight blocks from the capitol building – and saw people shot in the streets, was exposed to tear gas multiple times, found himself in the middle of riots and mobs.

    He was harassed on the street for being identifiably American (“CIA! CIA!”) pretty much every day. Groups from other local churches made it a regular practice to follow him and his companion around.

    He was in the middle of three domestic violence situations (the missionaries were teaching the wife and the husband was angry about it), including one where he physically picked up the man who was threatening to kill his wife and threw him out of the house. Missionaries in his mission were regularly robbed at gunpoint or knifepoint.

    They regularly entered neighborhoods that were known to be dangerous and violent. On one memorable occasion, he and his companion were stopped by national guardsmen who had sealed off the neighborhood and told they couldn’t enter, because if they did, they would be killed and this national guardsman really didn’t want to have to go in and get their bodies. They snuck in a different way.

    At one point, the day after he had been transferred to a new area, he realized that they were renting a room in a brothel. The missionaries who had been living there for months hadn’t picked up on the fact that all the other residents were women who received frequent male visitors and that the “armed guard” at the gate of the yard was their pimp. Not necessarily a safety issue, per se, but indicative of the cluelessness and naivete that could easily put them in danger.

    He contracted cholera about halfway through his mission, was in the hospital for more than a week and never fully recovered until after he went home almost a year later. The mission president (who was a dentist) and his wife (who was a nurse) for unfathomable reasons didn’t even consider sending him home early on a medical release. There were days he couldn’t even get out of bed after he was supposedly “recovered” and discharged from the hospital. He was 115 pounds (5’7″) when he got home and he still is suffering from some of the effects of that experience.

    Oh, and they got pelted with rotten mangoes by monkeys a lot.

    While he was on his mission, he says he didn’t feel particularly concerned about his safety (though the military coup and machine gun fire in the street outside their apartment did give him pause). Members would often warn them to stay inside when something dangerous was going to happen. It was only after he’d been home for a while that the danger sunk in, as well as anger and frustration at the mission president who, he feels, didn’t respond appropriately to his illness.

    I am not eager to send my sons on missions.

  36. Angela C says:

    Andrew: “I went back to Chile in 2003, looked at some of these areas from the freeway, and told my wife that we weren’t going anywhere near them.” At the end of my mission, my parents came, and I took them to see the family I had baptized in Cruz de Piedra (the heroin-addict area). As we stepped over discarded needles, seeing my parents in this place was an epiphany; I suddenly realized what a bad and dangerous area it was. Before that, it didn’t really occur to me to worry about it. I quickly hailed us a cab and got us out of there before any of the transient people took note of us, many of whom could be very aggressive.

  37. A common thread here seems to involve Mission Presidents. I’ve spoken to a few MPs, both serving, and formerly serving, and they all indicate that a number one priority of a Mission President is the safety and well being of the missionaries. Yet a lot of these stories seem to involve MPs looking the other way, or inflicting punishment on missionaries who got into dangerous situations or reported safety and health problems. I realize that is drawing assumptions from a limited set of responses, but having learned a little from my three sons and one daughter who served missions (three foreign, one in NJ, all Spanish speaking), missionaries often do just ignore safety issues and dangerous situations either out of naivete, or because of a sense of duty, and I am not sure how much the mission presidents knew about. As a former ward mission leader, I have also seen how the line of authority from missionaries to district leaders to zone leaders and to APs works, there is a lot of improvement needed. I’ve known sister missionaries who were reluctant to report a lot of things to their DL or ZL, DLs being dismissive of sister missionaries, and I have witnessed some missionary rules that actually hampered communication, such as not being allowed to text or call other missionaries outside their district. Those kinds of communication blocks could end up increasing danger or delaying responses for missionaries (not that missionaries were in a lot of danger in Redmond or Bellevue, WA).

  38. I admire missionary grit, and generally I think that many people exaggerate the dangers they face in “exotic” places, so it’s refreshing to see missionaries casually going about their business in the midst of it.

    I do worry that missionaries and church members perceive some kind of mystical protection afforded to missionaries, and this can make missionaries a bit too foolhardy, and also means it’s tempting to assume missionaries were breaking rules when things do go wrong (like the poor missionaries swept away by the wave… the elder who jumped in sounds heroic). I know a few women, including my sister, who suffer ongoing health problems as a result of things that happened on their missions, partly due to mission rules or mission president interventions. In my sister’s case, her mission president also forbade her from writing home about her ongoing problems, so it took a long time for her to get help.

    I work in some pretty rough developing countries where they don’t send sister missionaries (well, they do, but not the dainty American ones) and I remember asking a couple of Idaho-bred elders what they would do if they had an investigator in the really awful part of the city. They looked at me blankly–they weren’t even aware that this part of the city was so dangerous. I thought that if they were going to go there, they should at least know that it wasn’t safe.

  39. macthenaif says:

    “many people exaggerate the dangers they face in “exotic” places”

    I was hoping I wasn’t the only one who thought that a few of these experiences sounded a little folkloric. Or at best formulaic: “my Idaho farm bred, well meaning but clueless companion didn’t recognize (insert [drug paraphernalia/sex worker/cartel hit man]) as threat to his/her safety during the (insert [revolution/tsunami/carefree stroll through the favela]).

    I can imagine a resident from one of the areas mentioned reading through some of these stories and rolling their eyes.

    No shame in mis-remembering, it happens to the best of us.

  40. @Andrew: La Pincoya forever! :)

  41. In Germany, I worked quite a bit with an investigator who had a constant stream of Eastern Europeans living for short periods of time in his basement. These Eastern Europeans did not speak English or German. They’d come in groups of 3 or 4, and were all strangers to each other. They typically stayed for a few weeks, and then they’d leave and a new group would come in. One day, a group left the investigator’s basement for a few hours to walk around town, and he cautioned them to not talk to each other while in public because their foreign language would give them away to the police. He was a janitor, but we’d see him meet occasionally with shady wealthy foreigners to discuss business.

    On New Years Eve, two of the individuals who were staying with him beat him up pretty badly. We never did figure out why, although I’m sure alcohol played a role. He face was in bad shape, and we thought his fingers were all broken. He refused to go to the hospital because he was worried about the police finding out. His buddy, a Russian who spoke little German but was friendly with the missionaries, stood guard and told us that he’d take care of things if the Eastern Europeans came back. He then indicated to us that he was armed.

    There was plenty of other stuff going on that indicated that our investigator was helping to smuggle Eastern Europeans into Germany. I indicated as much to my companion, who had seen the exact same things I had, and he scoffed at me. He refused to believe it. He refused to put two and two together.

    Many missionaries are just unbelievably naive. It makes me wonder what kind of things I was too naive to pick up on.

  42. Marianne says:

    I was in Japan in the early 90s. My parents said they were happy they didn’t have to worry about at least one of their children (my brother was in Guatemala at the same time). I had bike accidents and was known as the “sister missionary who finds pantsless men” (none underwearless, however). One of my companions did get flashed in another area when they were cleaning the church.

    I would guess that if someone ran the numbers, missionaries are injured or killed at much much much lower rates than their American peers engaged in normal behavior for that age group.

    I also think that some dress-code modifications that accommodate local circumstances and cultures would be useful.

  43. I’m skeptical people are exaggerating the dangers. I don’t dispute that individual stories may grow a bit in telling, but typically missionaries just go everywhere. If there’s violence they’ll be around it. Further because so many are naive and often immature they don’t realize the danger. I certainly didn’t. So if there’s exaggeration I suspect it would be to underestimate the actual danger. I mean when guns are regularly being drawn on people that’s a pretty clear sign of danger. (Even though I was in some very violent areas and heard gun shots and guns regularly, I never had my life threatened)

  44. Bulgaria, 1995-1997.
    I missed the *really* bad time (the summer of ’94 was referred to as “bloody summer” because for the entire season at least one companionship wound up in the mission nurse’s office after being beaten up). We were, however, encouraged to work out regularly, including lifting weights. We did see some massive civil unrest during January and February of 1997, with strikes shutting down the entire country for most of the time. We weren’t allowed out of our apartments after 2 PM, and weren’t supposed to be out and about unless we had an appointment (or to buy food) even before that. We later met some Peace Corps people who told us they were watching us very closely, figuring if we had to leave the country, it was time for them to get out, too.

  45. macthenaif says:

    While the Peace Corps is mostly volunteer, there are in every Peace Corps office, at least one full-time American government employee (program director, coordinator, etc.) and a dozen or so locally employed staff. The American directors have full access to the State Department risk management and security programs, and sit in all-hands meetings with agency section heads every week. A statement like “We later met some Peace Corps people who told us they were watching us very closely, figuring if we had to leave the country, it was time for them to get out, too.” is not credible.

    Overseas Missions all participate in embassy warden programs (US, sometimes French or British), the Church employees a large number of former federal law enforcement types who maintain contact in their former agencies, along with a robust missionary health and safety program. If you weren’t aware of all the programs, and most missionaries wouldn’t be, I can see how you might feel like you’ve been dropped off on the new frontier with nothing but your purse and script. But that’s not what really happens. The US government along with any number of private security firms will provide current threat ratings for crime and political violence in every country of the world.

    I get it. You’re at a mission homecoming in Draper 187th Ward and your neighbor’s kid, who has returned with honor, can barely make it through his non-homecoming-homecoming talk without slipping into his mission tongue because he seems to have lost the ability to recall any English vocabulary and you wax a little nostalgic. Later, over cookies and 7-Up punch, Bro. Spencer, who’s kids are cooler than your awkward dork-children and drives a sweet late model Tahoe as opposed to your 8 year old Honda Odyssey, starts telling mission stories about that time he was almost trampled by rampaging elephants in Accra. With your judgement clouded by envy-admiration (you served stateside after all), you fail to recall that elephants were extirpated from southern Ghana in the 19th century and quickly inject yourself into a story that you heard repeated in your mission. Suddenly the Spanish speaking neighborhoods of Patterson NJ are as harrowing as East NY in the 80’s, every house with an unmowed lawn becomes a crack den. Six months in the ‘hood you’ve become wise to ways of street and gained begrudging respect from the local drug lords, who give you unlimited access to territories where even the police are afraid to enter…

    Sorry, it just doesn’t ring true.

  46. Kevin Barney says:

    Colorado, late 70s. No danger that I can recall (because…Colorado). But four of us missionaries one night after hours snuck into the apartment complex swimming pool and went skinny dipping. None of us ever told anyone or got into trouble for it, and i’ve gotta say, it was a blast. Shockingly, I did not see the Destroyer upon the face of the waters…

  47. Left Field says:

    Then there’s Tal Bachman who claimed to have been in mortal danger in Argentina from crocodiles (which don’t occur within 1500 miles*) and from “poison-spitting frogs” (which don’t occur on earth).

    Somehow, 40 million Argentinians live with the danger.
    *He probably saw caimans, which are small and harmless to humans.

  48. @macthenaif, if your comment about tsunami’s is an oblique reference to missionaries swept away by a wave, there is this:


    On the other hand, when I said we knew who the drug dealers were, I perhaps I should have said we assumed we knew that based on what we saw. That was only in one area, on a particular corner, where it looked like they had a very consistent daily operation. I was actually skeptical at the time (if they were really dealing and we knew it, how could the police not know?) but I became less so.

    And since you brought up sex workers, I could share some less credible stories, like how on two occasions while knocking doors we found brothels (we were told this after the fact; the people there did NOT look like sex workers) and at one of the brothels our only investigator was leaving as we got there. (He is the one that told us it was a brothel, a day or two later, but I wondered if he was messing with us. He was not a real serious investigator).

    In cases where a story lacks credibility, it might be worth making an effort at ascertaining the nuggets of truth. In your video about Hillary Clinton (I didn’t watch it, but I remember (hopefully correctly) the controversy) I have assumed that she was briefed at the time about local security threats and then falsely “remembered” the situation as more dire than it actually was.

    In reference to the OP, the referenced study on safety will likely try to measure safety in a way to distinguish real safety concerns from perception. Perceptions vary greatly. One person’s “bad neighborhood” where it isn’t safe to be alone is another person’s home. It is often difficult to separate perception from reality.

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