, Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — When Alex Balinski prepared for his Mormon mission to Argentina five years ago, he went to the library and rented a few documentaries to learn more about the South American county where he would be spending the next two years.
Today's young Mormons like 18-year-old Jake Townsend, however, are much more likely to pull out their iPads or laptops and scour the web to learn about their mission countries.
That's why Balinski, a 23-year-old student at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, has spent the last eight months creating a website that serves as a database of YouTube videos about the food, history and traditions of many of the countries where Mormon missionaries serve.
The website, www.preparetoserve.com, features nearly 10,000 videos about 85 countries and 34 American states, Balinski said. Most of the videos are existing ones he found on YouTube that have been indexed within the site. About 1,300 of the videos are based on interviews Balinski has done with returned missionaries.
"When it comes to understanding the country, the people, the place and the food, I think there is a need there that can be filled," Balinski said.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has its own website for missionaries, and sends men and women first to special training centers where they learn languages and prepare spiritually for missions that are considered a rite of passage for many Mormons. Men serve two years while women go for 18 months.
Balinski doesn't want to interfere with that training, and got the blessing from a local church leader to move forward with the site, which is not an official church site. He believes his website supplements that preparation by helping missionaries better understand the cultures they'll be living in. Each video has been screened to make sure they are appropriate for young missionaries. Beach scenes, for instance, are edited out, he said.
Townsend, of Draper, Utah, is going on a mission to Saltillo, Mexico, and found the videos about Mexican culture and traditions quite helpful.
"I've grown up around the church, but the members there are probably different than the members of church here," Townsend said of Mexico. "It's cool to know some of the differences."
The website is hitting its stride just as the Mormon church sends out more missionaries than at any time in its history.
Within weeks of Balinski quitting his job last fall and deciding to go all in on the website, LDS church leaders made a surprise announcement that there were lowering the minimum age for missionaries from 21 to 19 for women and from 19 to 18 for men.
That led to a surge in mission applications as new, younger missionaries joined older missionaries already planning to go. The 70,000 young men and women serving missions now is a record. Church officials say there will be 85,000 by the end of the year. The previous record total of missionaries at one time was 61,600 in 2002, church figures show.
"The timing could not have been better," Balinski said.
More recently, the church leaders announced that missionaries will do less door-to-door proselytizing, and instead, use the Internet to recruit new church members.
Balinski said his website is mainly geared to helping missionaries and their families before they leave, but said he'd be ecstatic if church officials allowed missionaries to view the site while serving.
For now, he's just working about six hours a day to improve the site by adding more videos. His goal is to make website profitable enough to serve as his main job.
He pulls in about $600 a month from businesses who pay to have their ads on the website, which gets about 200-300 visits a day.
He weaves the work in alongside his final college internship and his responsibilities to his wife, Rebecca, and 10-month old son, Nephi. His wife served a mission in the Philippines.
"We are both very passionate about missionary work," Balinski said. "We'd like to help missionaries get more excited than they've been before and help them learn everything they can."
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