It’s ... the same feeling you get when you’re in the temple or when you serve someone. There is a feeling of joy and doing something important. You’re beginning the process for someone to unite their family — you have to be excited. —Doug Lowe
Each morning, Doug and Patricia Lowe would begin their day by fighting the traffic of buses and taxis into downtown Lima, Peru. They would walk down stairs that led to a basement they described as moldy, dusty and smelly. It would often shake due to earthquakes, and there was a jail on the other side of the wall.
Although it may initially sound like an unappealing place, this basement was where the Lowes were called to further the work of the Lord.
Once they were downstairs, the Lowes would retrieve old books that were up to two feet tall and three inches thick, placing them on moveable tables connected to overhead cameras. The Lowes worked together for about eight hours a day to photograph the civil records found inside the books. Page by page, they archived birth, death and marriage certificates.
“It was not a clean, modern archive,” Doug Lowe said of the conditions records are housed, which can range from traditional libraries to archives he and his wife found. “We were expecting kind of a Library of Congress situation, and it was not a Library of Congress situation.”
Eighteen months of long hours and challenging working conditions followed those first few weeks in Lima. And yet, for this Mormon missionary couple, it was the beginning of an experience they said was one of the most rewarding of their lives.
Increased global interest in family history — along with increased technological efforts — has increased the need for non-traditional missionary work.
FamilySearch, which serves as one of the world’s largest genealogy organizations, receives worldwide assistance from nearly 3,000 missionaries who serve family history-related missions. By the end of 2014, FamilySearch leaders hope to raise that missionary total to 5,200, according to a press release.
Broadening the definition of what “missionary work” can be, FamilySearch has five different types of service missionaries, including FamilySearch support missionaries, family and church history missionaries, indexing pod missionaries and area office missionaries. The fifth and their most pressing need is record preservation missionaries, officials say.
As part of the efforts to photograph and archive the world’s remaining supply of untouched records, more missionary couples are being assigned to serve as record preservation missionaries in countries around the world.
Between missionary couples and senior sisters, there are roughly 140 record preservation missionaries currently serving in the field, according to FamilySearch missionary and volunteer coordinator Karma Tomlinson. By the end of this year, FamilySearch hopes to raise that number by 40 couples.
When they are called to serve a record-preservation mission, the missionaries are trained on how to use camera equipment to capture digital images. These missionaries are then sent to locations around the world, traveling to archives in hopes of reaching records before natural disasters do.
With modern technology, photos are taken by missionaries across the world and are available on FamilySearch.org within two to four weeks for volunteers to index.
Often, these records are hundreds of years old and have only ever been seen by a handful of people, said Paul Nauta, public affairs manager for FamilySearch.
“The experience of holding and seeing records hidden from time is a very special experience,” Nauta said. “The fruits of their labors (those involved in preserving records) will bless thousands of others.”
The Lowes, who had been saving for a mission all their married lives and retired in 2007, represent just one of the thousands of missionary couples and seniors who serve the Lord through family history work.
The Lowes knew they wanted to be part of the record-preservation process.
“I would be fumbling with microfilm (in the family history library), and the first few frames would show the name of the person who gathered the photos,” said Patricia Lowe, 65, who has been a family historian for many years. “I would say in my head, ‘Thanks, "Joe," for making this film available.’ I wanted to give back. I had always been the recipient of records and I wanted to be on the front end of family history.”
Several years ago, the couple submitted their mission papers and requested to serve a family history mission. Shortly after, they were called to serve in the Asunción Paraguay Temple.
After completing their service in Paraguay, they submitted their papers again — this time being asked to answer a specific call to preserve records in Peru.
After serving for nine months in Lima, the Lowes were transferred to the city of Huancayo within the Andes Mountains, where they continued to archive records each day. They worked with a handful of other employees in a very small archive — a facility that often made them miss their basement in Lima.
To accommodate workers, a portion of the archive’s reception area had been carved out, with 4-inch plywood walls set up around it. There was a weak, metal door that did not keep out the cold, and the building had no furnace.
Despite these physical challenges and the fact that the work could be "hard, exhausting, boring and even tedious at times," the Lowes said they loved each day of their missionary service.
“There is nothing better you can do with your time,” 64-year-old Doug Lowe said. “It’s ... the same feeling you get when you’re in the temple or when you serve someone. There is a feeling of joy and doing something important. You’re beginning the process for someone to unite their family — you have to be excited.”
The Lowes said they would strongly encourage couples to serve as record preservation missionaries, regardless of fears or challenges those couples might have. The Lowes said that when they left to begin their missionary service, they had concerns about leaving family for such a long time.
“Our family was better taken care of,” said the Lowes, who are in the process of moving from Minnesota to Florida. “They were better blessed than if we were here. The Lord takes care of you and your family while you are away.”
Couples and individuals who serve family history missions are considered full-time missionaries and remain in the field for a period of 12 to 23 months. See FamilySearch.org/mission for more information.