Bret Weekes is from Vermont, his missionary companion Brian Fairbanks from Canada.
LAS VEGAS -- The presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney put the Mormon Church in the spotlight last year, but an administrative change recently approved is causing even bigger ripples for the Mormon faith.
Church leaders approved a change in the age limits for Mormon missionaries. It's now okay for an 18-year-old to apply. The church has already seen a nearly 500 percent increase in applications.
The Las Vegas district has about 150 young missionaries at any given time. That number could jump to 250 because the age limit dropped from 19 to 18.
How those Mormon missionaries end up in Las Vegas is sort of luck of the draw. They are sent from all over the country, and all over the world to a city that, in the eyes of some, needs all the spiritual counseling it can get.
Day and night, all over Nevada, all over the world, teams of LDS emissaries pound the pavement and knock on doors to spread their message, but what is life like for the pious youngsters assigned to preach in what is widely viewed as the most sinful city in the world?
Getting that notice in the mail can be a shocker for families.
"I had to read it a couple of times to let it sink in. My mom wasn't too happy about it," LDS missionary Bret Weekes said.
Bret Weekes is from Vermont, his missionary companion Brian Fairbanks from Canada. For the past few months, they have spent every moment, 24/7, within sight and earshot of each other.
They live in a two-bedroom apartment owned by the church but bunk in the same room. There are snippets of personality on the walls, but they are by no means typical roommates for their age group. There is no TV, no radio, no movies, no Facebook or Twitter, no dating of any kind for the two-year duration of their assignment. Even contact with their far-away families is limited.
"We keep in touch with our families through emails each week and then on Mother's Day and Christmas, we call home and talk to our families," Fairbanks said.
That is one email per week, two phone calls per year. Homesickness can be a serious problem for many, so the church keeps them busy, starting with 6:30 a.m. exercise, then a few hours of bible study and planning out their day, and then hitting the bricks until 9 or so at night, much of it just cold calling, knocking on doors but strictly within their assigned neighborhoods.
Talking to people, about 90 percent of the time, they say, the people who answer are not interested.
Las Vegas, being what it is, presents special challenges. You never know if the person answering the door is a sleepy shift worker, exotic entertainer or angry gambler who is lost one too many hands.
Some people are nice, some not so.
"We knocked on this one door and the guy jumped out with a gun pointed at us, pointed at all three of us, " LDS missionary Cody Conklin said.
"Wanted us off the property, they started taking out the hose and started spraying," LDS missionary Kevin Sanders said.
The missionaries all have their stories but are reluctant to gripe. You can imagine the issues faced by those who navigate Las Vegas traffic via bicycle every day: the cold of winter, the blazing heat of summer, angry or distracted drivers, DUI'S. About 30 percent of local missionaries use bikes at any given moment.
The others are assigned cars or trucks. In one month, five of the local vehicles were totaled in accidents. Missionaries in other parts of the world face more dangerous challenges: kidnappings, murders, hit-and-run fatalities.
Mission President Jerry Black says, for the most part, Las Vegas is remarkably friendly toward the youngsters he oversees. And despite our image, many of them like it so much they later end up returning here to live.
Black decides which missionaries are paired together, where they live and work, and for how long. His decisions are based on prayer but are organized like a military operation. Las Vegas presents temptations not seen elsewhere.
"They have to keep their thoughts clean and pure, and all you have to do is drive down any freeway to know you have challenges with that," Black said.
While they are here, they are not allowed onto the Las Vegas Strip.
The missionaries and their families save money to pay for the two year missions, averaging about $10,000. They suspend college education, even scholarships, put everything on hold, and not just the youngsters. Jerry Black says he had a successful dental practice in Utah when he got the call to come to Las Vegas for three years. He had to shut down his practice and uproot his family.
Regardless of what you think about the message they deliver, the sacrifices they make to do this is impressive.
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