The story behind the missionary reality TV show, 'The District'

Published: Friday, April 18 2014 10:00 a.m. MDT

“Let’s do a reality TV show. Let’s go film missionaries doing this,” said Allen, who has a background as an executive TV producer. “So many of our youth today are visual learners. We can train missionaries, film them and use it as a training tool.”

The missionary department requested permission to select one district of four elders and two sisters in one U.S. mission, train them and film them. Permission was granted. Under Allen’s supervision, they began making arrangements for the ambitious undertaking in San Antonio around 2007.

San Antonio

The Texas San Antonio Mission was chosen because it was a mission that had a lot of baptisms. The missionaries there knew how to find people to teach, Allen said, so it provided a good setting for an instructional DVD that would focus on demonstrating principles of planning, finding and working with members.

The first step was to assemble the district. After observing and consulting with Texas San Antonio Mission President Derrill C. Larkin, a list of candidates was narrowed down to six missionaries. The group included district leader Elder Jacob Reis of Hawaii and his companion, Elder Chris Bernal of Colorado; Elder Shawn Hallam of California and his new companion fresh from the Missionary Training Center, Elder Darren Walkenhorst of California; and Sister Krystal Myers of Oklahoma and Sister Shelisa Payne of Utah.

Each missionary came with a unique background.

For instance, Bernal had joined the church only two years earlier. Myers only considered serving a mission as she turned 21. Although she had a boyfriend awaiting her return, she agreed to extend her mission six weeks to participate in “The District 1.”

Walkenhorst was selected en route from the Provo, Utah, MTC to Texas, and he provided an example of the new missionary experience. Reis was originally called to a mission in Mexico in 2003, but neck, back, shoulder and jaw injuries suffered in an automobile accident just before he left forced him to return home for medical attention only a few months later. His recovery was slow and painful. He battled discouragement for the next year while praying for a doctor to approve his return to the mission field. When a doctor finally signed his release, Reis was reassigned to San Antonio.

The day of his transfer into District 1, Reis was pulling his luggage into an LDS meetinghouse when a man he didn’t know tapped him on the shoulder and said, “You were sick for a reason.”

“What?” Reis said.

As Reis recalled, “He looked me in the eye, more like into my soul, and said, 'You were sent home from your first mission for a reason, and you will soon find out why.' It was the first time I met Brother Allen.”

The team of missionaries was pulled into a room with the mission president and members of the missionary department and informed they would be part of a reality TV-type training film. Their reaction was one of genuine shock, followed by feelings of extreme inadequacy. "We were overwhelmed, to say the least," Reis said.

Payne immediately flashed back to a bad memory of when as a 10-year-old she auditioned for a talent agency, only to have a woman tell her she had “no talent and would never look good on camera.” The experience so destroyed her self-confidence that she refused to let anyone take her picture for a couple of years. Her immediate reaction to the news was, “Oh no, you picked the wrong girl.”

“Despite this scene from my childhood coming back to haunt me, I smiled and said I would do my best,” Payne said. “The Lord truly answered my prayers and qualified me to accomplish what I had been asked to do.”

The second phase consisted of intense and exhausting training. Personnel from the missionary department and the MTC spent significant time instructing each companionship every day for several weeks.

Once filming began, the crew could only observe the proceedings. They were not allowed to offer the missionaries any tips or instructions. The filming style was to be up close and personal, Allen said.

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