The Mormon conquest

Their most famous son is trying to win the White House, and now an army of young Mormon missionaries is criss-crossing Britain on a march to convert the faithless. Jerome Taylor on the religion no one can ignore

Sandiso Hlilaphi is a perfect salesman. With his crisp white shirt and smart suit, he bounds up to strangers armed with enthusiasm and a bucket full of charm. Rejection slides off him.

He knows he'll soon meet a person who is happy to hear his pitch. But Sandiso Hlilaphi isn't selling goods. He's selling God.

"I know that someone out there will listen," he says with a grin. "Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but someone out there is prepared to receive this gospel."

Elder Hlilaphi, 26, is a missionary, who trawls east London for up to 10 hours a day with the aim of saving souls and finding new converts for his faith. He first came across the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – aka the Mormons – nine years ago when he was a teenager in Cape Town, South Africa.

Intrigued, he and some friends went to the nearby church where he was baptised and became Elder Hlilaphi.

In Britain, you are most likely to meet a Mormon on the streets. They are easily recognised, and most are unfailingly polite.

Elder Hlilaphi is in charge of missionary work in a wide section of East London and has taken his colleague Elder Nadir DouDou to Stratford for the day. Elder DouDou, the son of an Algerian father and a Catholic mother from Berlin, converted a few years ago when missionaries knocked on his door. He is less experienced in proselytising, and shy, but observes his colleague closely.

Elder Hlilaphi keeps a frenetic pace. He winds his way through market stores trying to make eye contact with potential converts. Most dismiss him with a shrug but his hit rate is still impressive. In half an hour he receives 13 rebuffs but speaks to six people, three of whom agree to meet him at a later date to hear more about what Mormonism has to offer. The others take a pamphlet or a copy of the Book of Mormon.

A place like Stratford, with multiple races and religions, is fertile recruiting ground. Most of those who stop are Christians from Africa or the Caribbean, where evangelism and religious competition thrives. An elderly Jamaican lady called Daisy is delighted to be accosted. "I can see you have the light of Jesus in your eyes," she says. She's a member of a nearby congregation but is intrigued, and agrees to meet the pair again.

Evangelism is a part of many religions, but the Mormons have turned proselytising into an art form. Their global network of 55,000 missionaries form the spear tip of an astonishingly well-oiled machine which nets hundreds of thousands of new followers every year. The London mission headquarters next to the Science Museum, a towering golden spired concrete structure built in the 1960s, boasts more than 130 full-time missionaries from more than 40 countries. In a religion where all adherents are expected to give 10 per cent of their wealth to the church, more followers means more money.

This week the Mormons lowered the age at which followers can become missionaries. It comes at a time when the faith is receiving unprecedented attention thanks to Mitt Romney's presidential bid.

Traditionally, men could become missionaries at 19, but that has been lowered to 18. More significantly, the minimum age for women has been lowered from 21 to 19.

In Mormon circles the announcement was hailed a major turning point for the church – some even likened it to the seminal moment in the late 1970s when the religion desegregated itself and welcomed black congregants.

When the announcement was made during an annual gathering of senior church leaders in Salt Lake City it was met on the nearby Brigham Young University campus with "shrieks, tears and disbelief" according to the local student newspaper The Universe.

It may not seem like much but by lowering the age at which women can do missionary work, the Mormon senior leadership has sent out a signal that it wants women in more prominent roles – a significant move in a faith that traditionally places huge emphasis on the role of women as mothers and home-makers.

As the Mormon blogger and author Joanna Brooks, put it: "Mormonism is a pragmatic faith tradition, and there is no higher honour than being useful to the work. And some Mormon women, we go our whole lives and never feel that we've really been useful in all the ways we could have been – might, mind, strength, and all that."

Currently, only 15 per cent of those who sign up to the church's missionary schools are women. They're not discouraged from joining but they're not encouraged in the same way men are.

The change in rules mean there will be more women like Sister Katie Ritchel, from Lebanon, Missouri, and Sister Jaimee Buckley, from Hamilton New Zealand. Both have recently arrived at the Mormon's London headquarters, and are the first people you meet when you enter.

"It's been such a great blessing to be here," gushes Sister Ritchel, a 21-year-old picture of modesty in a long floral dress, who has taken a break from her degree to do missionary work for 18 months.

Mormon missionary work is no picnic. Those who sign up must live far from their families for up to two years (Romney spent his missionary period in France). Contact is restricted to an email or letter once a week and two phone calls a year – usually on Christmas Day and Mothers' Day. Missionaries have no say in where they are sent, and the days are long. As with all Mormons, alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee is off limits but missionaries are also expected to avoid magazines, newspapers and pop music to concentrate their mind on the task in hand. Back in Stratford, Elder Hlilaphi continues to find people who are at least willing to sit do wn with him at a later date to discuss his faith. He meets a Romanian mother-of-two called Illana, and within minutes is involved in a deep theological discussion. Illana, a devout Christian, says she'll let her children choose their own faith, which is music to Elder Hlilaphi's ears.

As she makes to leave he asks her to meet them again. "It's been lovely to meet you," she says. "But we have such a busy life. I don't want to lie to you. I might give you a call." As she walks away Elder Hlilaphi beams. "That's good enough for me".

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