Walking down Mission Street on a recent weekday afternoon, Jordan Webster and Cole Castleberry are an arresting sight. Tall and remarkably fresh-faced, they could be college-aged interns at Google checking out new haunts, but their white short-sleeves and neckties are a dead giveaway for something else.
Unlike some other twenty-something white guys in the Mission, they’re not searching for a potential office space for their tech startup or the perfect burrito. Webster and Castleberry have a purpose on Mission Street that’s not dissimilar from the one carried out by Spanish Franciscans of the 18th century for whom the neighborhood is named.
As “Elders” of the Mormon Church of Latter Day Saints, they’re on their Mission in the Mission.
Elder is obviously a bit of misnomer. Elder Castleberry is 20 and Elder Webster is only 18. Like approximately 80,000 others a year, most recent high school graduates, the two new Mission District arrivals are in the neighborhood as part of a two-year stint trying to sell the Church of Latter Day Saints to potential converts. Webster just graduated from high school in Tucson, Arizona and arrived in the Mission mid-Summer. Castleberry, who’s from a small town outside of Salt Lake City, Utah, has been on Mission for a year, but transferred to San Francisco recently.
Though finding potential Mormon converts in notoriously godless San Francisco sounds like an impossible task, Elder Castleberry is relentlessly positive.
“Mostly people are really accepting. A lot of people are really open to a lot of things, others are like: ‘We have our own beliefs and we want to stick to that,’” Castleberry says while meeting me one recent afternoon for coffee. (Only I had the coffee, religious Mormons are prohibited from drinking the stuff as well as alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs.)
Around 50 Elders in the Bay Area working in five languages are on Mission to seek out “investigators,” a Mormon term for potential new converts. In the Spanish program, Castleberry and Webster are specifically targeting Spanish speakers.
They tell me that the LDS Church has been sending two Elders to the Mission for the last 10 years. The Church has a lease in a one-bedroom apartment near 22nd and Mission Streets and the neighborhood is considered fertile ground. Mormonism is on the rise in Latin America, with over 5 million people practicing the religion in Mexico, Brazil, and elsewhere, according to a report by Reuters. The Mission’s Missionaries are riding that trend. They’re not alone either. Mission Street has a diverse crowd of street preachers, storefront churches, and various proselytizers.
Elder Webster says that his brother is currently on Mission in Argentina. (Missionaries don’t have much of say in where they go, but rather “there’s prayers on it, and wherever the head of the church Thomas S. Monson has revelation, that’s where you’re called.”).
Asked whether he is even a little jealous of his brother’s more exotic placement, Webster again displays relentless positivity, saying the Mission is just as unique and exciting as a more far-flung locales: “We’ve met Guatemalans, Salvadorians, Argentinians, and Brazilians. This is definitely a diverse place.”
Of this assortment in the Mission, Webster and Castleberry say they attempt to talk to 20 new people a day. They either find them by approaching strangers on the street or by referrals from other LDS members. Of those new contacts, they say about three or four seem to be receptive to hearing about Mormonism, about half have no interest at all, and “the rest are just nice people who will listen to our message and walk away,” says Webster.
The two young men get to see quite the cross section of the neighborhood. Their average day consists of waking up at around 6 a.m. for three to four hours of studying either religious texts or Spanish. After lunch (typically tacos or at Popeye’s), they hit the streets. While some afternoons they walk around the neighborhood to talk to people at bus stops or hanging out on the sidewalk, much of their time is spent visiting potential investigators’ homes.
Going into strangers homes, who have been referred to the Elders by Mormon family members, isn’t always easy.
“I went into this one house in South San Francisco, and the place was trashed,” says Castleberry. “I could tell the guy was on something, and he freaked out on us. He was just yelling and yelling and yelling, swearing up a storm. I turned to the other Elder I was with and said: We need to get out of here now. Right now. It was freaky…but interesting.”
In a blog in which Webster’s mother compiles weekly emails sent back to Arizona, called Elder Flaco Blanco, he shares a few various misadventures from home visits. He describes impoverished apartments “smaller than my bathroom at home.” In one visit to a potential investigator, he got bed bugs.
Among other characters, they’ve been approached on the street by drunks, exotic dancers, a self-professed Satan worshipper clad in leather and skulls. (“I was like: ‘What the heck was that!?’” says Webster of his reaction to the Satanist.)
Then of course, there’s the liberals.
“I was talking to one guy on the street outside of a laundromat, and this lady comes out of the building and says very directly in my face, ‘You need to leave now,’” says Webster, clearly a little rattled. It’s not easy being told you’re evil by strangers.
When I ask them why they think people might be opposed to Mormons in San Francisco, Websters say he doesn’t really know.
“Maybe it’s because a lot of Mormons are in Utah, which is very white,” he says.
Castleberry, the older and more serious of the two, gets into the history of Mormonism, its newness, its American roots, and more.
Given the general social conservatism of the Mormon Church, there’s a whole host of reasons why a city populated with liberals of all stripes might be antagonistic to the Elders. I ask them about homosexuality.
“We’re not anti-homosexuality. We just teach that families are really important. We try to love everybody,” says Webster, who then tells me that one of his best friends on the volleyball team back in Tuscon is gay.
“We have had several people not talk to us because they think we’re anti-homosexuality, but we’re not,” he adds.
They say they’ve been to the Castro which has “some of the nicest, sweetest people we’ve met,” according to Webster. Castleberry refers me to an address given by LDS Church Elder Neil Andersen in the church’s 2014 annual General Conference, for a softer, more accepting tone on same-sex marriage. (I’ve read it here, and can say it’s far from a glowing endorsement of homosexuality or marriage reform. It’s actually the opposite of that.)
I don’t press them on the various positions of the Church that I find completely retrograde because, ultimately, these two are just well-meaning kids spending two years doing a task that sounds challenging and, frankly, pretty unpleasant. Despite the business attire, Castleberry and Webster feel very young.
“There’s a lot of rules,” Castleberry says of their life on Mission as “Ambassadors of the Lord.”
They can’t make any phone calls except to other Elders in their district or potential investigators. They can only use the internet once a week, and only with their Mission partner standing next to them. TV is a definite no. They can only send emails to their family and only once a week. There’s even whole manuals how to dress and groom—and it gets specific. The Church’s website features diagrams of how far a sideburn can go down an Elder’s face (not very far). Castleberry and Webster were even hesitant about being photographed for this article because a photo shoot could violate their modesty. They worried about being celebrities.
(Castleberry also told me that they’re wary about being photographed because Elders get transferred to other areas constantly. In fact, shortly after I first met the Mission’s two Elders, the Church transferred Webster to South San Francisco and he’ll be replaced in the neighborhood by someone else.)
Some rules are easier to follow than others. “It feels hard not to be in touch with my family as much,” says Webster. This is his first time away from home.
Being disconnected in a neighborhood rife with transformation can also be challenging. They both said investigators have asked for help with finding housing and paying rent. They can neither do much to help them nor seem to have any awareness of San Francisco’s housing woes.
They’ve seen countless posters depicting the face of Alex Nieto and have no idea who he is.
“People are like: ‘Hey, did you hear about that shooting down the street?’ and I don’t have anything to say,’” says Webster.
Castleberry jokes that they always know when the Giants win. They don’t need a Twitter account for that.
Reading Webster’s blog, one also gets a sense of exuberance found in any young person’s first big city experience. In his emails home, he writes eagerly about the thrill of riding BART; of watching street performers; of a stranger who bought the two Elders dinner to a “SUPER EXPENSIVE, DELICIOUS, PHENOMINAL Mexican restaurant.”
They both enthusiastically tell me about how they’ve made friends with one of Mission Street’s hot dog vendors who always gives them free dogs. Free food is a good thing since their spending budget is small. Mormons self-finance their Mission trips.
After their Mission, both Castleberry and Webster plan on going to college—Webster to Brigham Young to study prison psychology and Castleberry to Utah State to study history and maybe become a high school teacher.
For now, however, they’re happy being on Mission.
“You learn a lot more life lessons being on Mission,” says Webster.
Castleberry agrees. “It’s given me an idea of what the world really is like. I’ve been able to see people where they really are. It’s way different from what I grew up with,” he says.
As I walk down Mission Street with them, I watch as they offer warm, though somewhat awkward, greetings to an elderly woman pushing grocery carts, young men in soccer jerseys, a guy with green hair wearing Doc Martens, hipsters in sunglasses carrying a six-pack of craft beer. Some say hello back, most keep walking.
As someone with little experience with Mormons, I could probe them with questions all day, but as we come to the end of block, they say they have to get going for more Mission work. They’ve got places to go, people to see, souls to save.
This post was first published Nov. 18 at 7:50 a.m.