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

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

The crew captured the missionaries knocking on doors, teaching investigators, meeting with members, planning, studying and attending baptisms and other activities. The cameras were set at eye level so the audience would feel like they were part of the discussion. Written permission was obtained before any members or investigators participated.

The missionaries wanted so badly to help produce something motivating and inspiring, yet at times they struggled and became discouraged. They didn’t want to let the missionary department or the church down, Reis said.

At a district meeting, Reis said, Allen could sense the group was feeling stressed and made a phone call to Utah that lifted their spirits.

“I remember him walking into the room and saying, 'There is someone who wants to talk to you.' He had it on speaker, and we huddled up,” Reis said. “It was President Dieter F. Uchtdorf (second counselor in the First Presidency). It was moments like that … that made me want to do my best to represent the Lord.”

As they continued to work, the missionaries became more accustomed to the equipment and crew. They were able to be themselves and follow the promptings of the Spirit.

“The camera was right in your face and you could always see the boom mic hanging over your head, just distractions everywhere,” Reis said. “But the miracle and memorable thing for me was once the prayer was said, the Lord calmed my soul and it was like the cameras had disappeared. It was me, my companion and the person in front of us.”

Once the filming phase was over, more than 800 hours of film was processed and edited by reality show experts and professional directors, then enhanced by customized music, Allen said. The final product was presented to church leaders and received approval just in time to be shared at the annual mission president seminar in the summer of 2007.

“The Lord blessed us because he wanted it,” Allen said.

San Diego

With the rollout of "The District 1" over the next two years, the missionary department observed improvement in the principles emphasized but identified “teaching” as an area of concern. So Allen and the missionary department proposed the idea of producing a second DVD set to demonstrate principles of teaching. This time, the work would be done in San Diego with “The District 2.”

“We wanted them to be better teachers,” Allen said.

District 2 consisted of six elders and two sisters: the district leader, Elder Steve Bott of Utah and his companion, Elder Jon Hepworth of Idaho; Elder Mike Moreno of Utah and Elder J. Tyler Christensen of Florida; Elder Alex Murray of Utah and Elder Tevita Tuituu of Guam; and Sister Janet Zaldivar of Utah/Argentina and Sister Laura Voyles of Mississippi.

There were a few differences between District 1 and District 2. First, District 1 often appeared too good, so more flaws were on display with District 2, Allen said.

“Missionaries will prefer this because it’s more real,” he said.

Another lesson taken from "The District 1" was the importance of sharing each missionary’s pre- and post-mission story. The missionary department felt their individual stories were powerful and would connect them with viewers.

“They all have fascinating stories,” Allen said.

Bott came from a less-active family. He didn’t take an interest in the church until he was a teenager. Before deciding to serve, Christensen was a member of a rock band. Hepworth almost died of cancer at age 13.

A few weeks into the filming, Voyles’ brother died. It was a difficult topic for her to talk about on camera.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two projects was the amount of time involved. The San Antonio district took less than a month to film. It took about five months to capture the San Diego district, Allen said.

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