Missionaries strive to spread faith without hugs, handshakes

Via social media, young missionaries proselytize from a distance

From left, Elders Maurice Fa’amafoe and Jacob Moeller bike down Railroad Avenue. (Aug. 18, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are known by believers and skeptics alike for their affable smiles and their firm handshakes. What, then, is a missionary to do when handshakes are banned and smiles must be hidden beneath facemasks? For Elders Jacob Moeller and Maurice Fa’amafoe, who arrived Aug. 5 in Cordova, turning down handshakes and home-baked cookies has proven one of the toughest parts of their mission.

“COVID is a very strange and different time,” Moeller said. “We always shake hands because we’re a family, we’re brothers and sisters of God, so that’s something very hard for missionaries. We constantly have to be like, ‘Sorry, we can’t shake your hand.’ … It’s one of the hardest parts of the mission so far — somebody’s offering you food, saying, ‘I made this for you!’ And we can’t take it.”

For young church members, a mission is a coming-of-age experience and a chance to proclaim their faith and participate in community service. Moeller, a native of Kuna, Idaho, served the first 10 months of his mission around Osaka, Japan, before being recalled to the U.S. due to the coronavirus pandemic. Fa’amafoe, who hails from Victorville, Calif., was originally assigned to the church’s Alaska mission, spending the previous 18 months around north Anchorage, Wasilla and Fairbanks. Before arriving, Fa’amafoe pictured Alaska as something like the rainy, small-town setting of the “Twilight” movies, he said. Over the past two weeks, the pair have been won over by Cordova’s natural scenery and the easygoing attitude of its residents.

“Whether or not they’re interested in talking to us, they’re always very respectful,” Moeller said. “We try to be people’s friends. We become citizens of where we live. If nothing else, I want to be able to uplift them and bring a smile to their face — to show Christ’s light and love.”

As well as encouraging elbow-bumping as an alternative to the handshake, the coronavirus has pushed even technophobic Latter-day Saints onto social media. When Moeller and Fa’amafoe arrived in Cordova, Moeller announced their presence not at a community get-together, but via a carefully worded post on the Cordova Alaska Online Bulletin Board Facebook group. Platforms like Facebook have also given church members a venue to exchange ideas on how to conduct their missions while social distancing. In a Wednesday, Aug. 19 Facebook livestream, Moeller held a brief scriptural discussion — the sort of miniature online event that has helped missionaries engage with others in an era without festivals, potlucks or other informal public gatherings.

From left, Elders Maurice Fa’amafoe and Jacob Moeller at Baja Taco restaurant. (Aug. 18, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

For Fa’amafoe, a natural introvert, the challenge of serving a mission in an unfamiliar community is self-evident. For Moeller, overcoming a tendency to stress out and overthink things has been as much a part of his mission as learning Japanese. Sometimes missionaries have to remind themselves not to measure their success by tallying up numbers of baptisms performed, Moeller said.

“I expected it to be easier — not gonna lie,” Moeller said. “But God calls each missionary to the place that he needs them to go to, both for them, and for the people they will meet… I think I’ve definitely become more spiritually self-reliant as I’ve tried to teach people to be more spiritually self-reliant. I think that’s the biggest change that I’ve seen.”

Moeller and Fa’amafoe plan to remain in Cordova for the next two months, available to lend a hand with projects in the lead-up to winter, or to chat on religious topics via Zoom or in person.

“If anyone wants to listen, or is even just curious to look, we’d love to talk and to meet with you,” Moeller said. “We firmly believe that the time of miracles has not ceased: Jesus Christ’s power is still on the Earth, and great things are happening all over the world.”