SANTA ROSA, California — Mormon missionaries famously go door to door, but not the way two did last week during Northern California’s disastrous wildfires.
The idea germinated when the young women fled their fire-threatened apartment in the wee hours of Oct. 9 and became some of the first evacuees to shelter at the Stony Point Ward meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"Seeing the people who lost their homes was difficult. We watched all of the people coming to the church building all morning long, with tears in their eyes," said Sister Chanel Smith, 20, of McCammon, Idaho. "Observing them and listening to their stories, I felt what they were feeling, the fear they were feeling, the feeling of wanting to know why this happened, the feeling of wanting security."
People came and went, but night after night dozens slept on the floors of the meetinghouse, one couple or family per small classroom. The large Primary room, used on Sundays for young children, was partitioned for single women. Other rooms housed young men serving missions.
Sister Smith stopped by daily with her infectious smile, cleaning the bathrooms, vacuuming the halls, preparing and serving meals and cleaning up afterward with the missionary assigned to serve with her, Sister Hailee Myler, 19, of Eagle, Idaho. They met their fellow evacuees. They listened. Sister Myler sang hymns during meals.
At night, the two slept on mattresses in the kitchen of a safe missionary apartment with 11 other sister missionaries. The 13 women shared two bathrooms.
Somewhere amid chaos that killed 41 people and displaced 100,000 more, they adapted.
Sisters who listen
LDS missionaries work in pairs, but they change companions every few months. California Santa Rosa Mission President Jim Wright assigned Sister Smith, who is in the final weeks of her missionary service, to Sister Myler, who is only beginning, a week before the fire.
“We had one normal week," said Sister Myler, who paused and broke into her own easy smile. "Then … we had a different week."
President Wright, who is from Mesa, Arizona, is assigned to lead 155 young missionaries and seven senior couples. A third of them were disrupted by the fires in Santa Rosa and Napa.
He said in an email to church leaders last week that LDS Church members consider missionaries consecrated and special, set apart to teach others about Jesus Christ and serve them.
"You have a very experienced missionary," President Wright said, "and one who is quite young, but you talk about good missionaries. Sister Smith and Sister Myler are assigned to the Peterson Lane Ward and they love those people. Their ward has been devastated more than any other ward in the mission. Many, many families lost their homes, including the bishop."
More than 115 Mormon families across a half-dozen LDS stakes lost homes in the fires. More than 10 percent of the losses struck the Peterson Lane Ward.
Sister Tina Wright serves alongside her president-husband and knows the sister missionaries best. She said she felt their joint assignment was inspired. In two short weeks, she said, they have become like actual sisters.
"Sister Myler has been delightful and Sister Smith just never meets anyone that she doesn't have a smile for, that she isn't gentle and kind with," Sister Wright said. "I think, what a blessing these two sisters are to that ward right now, to Peterson Lane, because they are both sensitive, and they will be sisters who will listen and won't be quick to jump in with an answer. I'm grateful they are there."
Thursday began like any other day in a different kind of week. The 13 sister missionaries woke up together at 6:30 a.m. and were all ready to go by 8:30.
"They've taken turns and there hasn't been any complaining or impatience," Sister Wright said of the cramped quarters. "I really appreciate that about all 13 of them."
Sisters Smith and Myler had a new idea. They decided to go door-to-door, but inside the Stony Point building. Classroom to classroom, they visited the houseless and the evacuated.
They shared the church's 2017 Easter video "The Prince of Peace: Finding Lasting Peace Through Jesus Christ."
"Being a missionary at this time has been a special privilege," Sister Smith said. "Even though there is change all around us, with all the devastation, with all the challenges that we have been facing right now, Jesus Christ is our constant. He's the one who never changes.
"We told them he can turn this heartache into hope, and he can turn their challenges into triumphs. As we've shared that with people, they've felt more peace," she said.
President Wright said Sisters Smith and Myler are typical of his missionaries. Flexibility and adaptation were required throughout Northern California last week.1 comment on this story
Stony Point is one of three buildings that sheltered more than 115 evacuees last week. Displaced missionaries used the chapels to teach by video chat. Local LDS leaders began to set up a housing information center and provided evacuees with packets of information about filing insurance claims and accessing resources.
"These are resilient young men and women," President Wright said. "They love the Lord and they mostly want to help people. They are outstanding."
Sister Wright said Myler and Smith learned life lessons.
"I think this will bless their lives as they see that sometimes life isn't easy, sometimes there are things we don't expect," she said. "A lot of times it's people in the background that make things pleasant for everyone else. They've been able to do that."