For the past six months, Larry and Casi Smith have been living in a trailer on the windy plains of Wyoming. As church-service missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they assisted 18,500 pioneer trekkers — mostly LDS teenagers and their adult leaders — among the Mormon Handcart Historic Sites, specifically at the Willie Center/Sixth Crossing Site, about 60 miles from Martin's Cove.
It's been a physically demanding six months, filled with long hours meeting the needs of trekkers and other visitors to the sites, including sharing pioneer stories, building and maintaining restroom facilities and teaching square dancing. Along with 19 other church-service missionary couples, they also found time to tie dozens of quilts, which they donated to local charities, and build — with a little help from a handful of skilled professionals — a 9,500-square-foot log visitor's center, three stories tall, looking down on the Sweetwater.
"It was a very rigorous, physical mission," Casi said from her home in American Fork, Utah, to which she and her husband have recently returned. "We were working day and night, in all kinds of weather, battling mosquitoes and that constant wind.
"But it was also joyful," she continued. "It's a very spiritual mission — they call it 'the crying mission,' because hardly a day passes without tears because of the spirit you feel. We absolutely loved it. We wouldn't have missed one minute of it for anything."
Such energy and enthusiasm for service is not unusual among church-service missionaries, according to Joel S. Moriyama, who directs the church-service missionary program for the LDS Church's Human Resource Department.
"Our missionaries comprise a very dedicated, very passionate workforce," said Moriyama, who has been overseeing the program for four years. "Their service is motivated by a wide variety of reasons, but they have at least one thing in common: they are there because of faith and testimony."
Since about 1979, the program has provided a growing and varied number of opportunities for members of the LDS Church to serve. "This important missionary workforce helps many church departments and operations provide needed products and services," Moriyama said. "Serving others brings great blessings to those who serve and to the church worldwide."
During the April 2011 general conference, it was announced that 20,813 church-service missionaries served during 2010 – the first time these missionaries have been included in the church's official year-end statistical report. Moriyama pointed out that that number reflects the total number of church-service missionaries who served during any part of the year, since there are a number of "seasonal" assignments that only last six months at a time.
"At any given time there are 13,000-14,000 church-service missionaries out in the field serving," Moriyama said. "During 2010, those 20,813 missionaries donated more than 8.8 million hours of service. How many employees would we have had to hire, and at what cost to the church, in order to accomplish all that these wonderful missionaries have accomplished during the course of a year?"
The beginnings of the church-service missionary program are not as clearly identified as most major efforts of the LDS Church. There was no announcement of the new program in general conference or no breaking news story in the media. In a church historical document dated February 25, 2000, J. Russell Homer who was the Managing Director of the Human Resource Department at that time, tells the story this way:
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