“We’re Just Jesus People” and Street Cred

Another one of the Benson boys is serving a mission. Piano Man, who is now Elder Benson, wrote to us from his mission in California:

“There is some serious gang activity here. I hear cops all the time, and I’ve heard gunshots. Gang members have talked to my trainer in the past;  he says gang members are  really nice and don’t bother us (missionaries), because we’re just Jesus people.  One of our investigators, who used to be in a gang, told us the only gang that will mess with missionaries is a gang moving in from Fresno called the Bulldogs. They beat up pretty much everyone, but the other gangs have had a ceasefire with each other, and are focusing on getting the Bulldogs out. There is a lot of pot here. The air smells like a mixture of dry, sea salt, and Mexican food. It’s interesting.”

Richard Drutcher's States of Grace


Am I worried? Well, yeah kinda.  Elder Benson is a happy, confident, hippie-kind-of-guy who could make friends with a rock;  except for stray bullets and getting hit by a car while riding his bike, I think he will be okay. What I am wondering, how much “Street Cred” do Mormon missionaries get in dangerous areas around the world. For those of you who have served in places which “kinda made your mama nervous”, what kinds of advice or tales do you have to share with me, and the rest of our readers.  Please do tell, because inquiring minds want to know.


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About JA Benson

Joanna entered the world as a BYU baby. Continuing family tradition, she graduated BYU with a degree in Elementary Education and taught for several years. Growing up in Salt Lake County, her favorite childhood hobbies were visiting cemeteries and eavesdropping on adult conversations. Her ancestral DNA is multi-ethnic and she is Mormon pioneer stock on every familial line. Joanna resides in the Southeastern USA with her five children ranging in age from 8 to 24. Her husband passed away in 2009. She is an avid reader and a student of history. Her current intellectual obsession is Sephardic Jewish history, influence and genealogy. She served as a board member for her local chapter of Families with Children from China. She is the author of “DNA Mormons?” Summer Sunstone 2007 http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2007/04/dna-mormons/ and “Becoming Hong Mei`s Mother” in the Winter Sunstone 2009 http://theredbrickstore.com/sunstone/becoming-hong-meis-mother/.

20 thoughts on ““We’re Just Jesus People” and Street Cred

  1. I served in the Los Angeles area. The worst physical thing that happened to me was I accidentally walked into an air conditioner my second week out and I had to wear a bandage on my head. Other then that the usual, bikes were stolen, people yelling at you, etc. I have never heard of any gangs roughing up any missionaries, they always left us alone. Spanish people people sometimes thought we were the immigration service so they weren;t going anywhere near us, plus we got confused sometimes for being Police so they definately weren’t going near us! I saw stuff but never happening to any missionaries. In the two years I was down there, I never cried or barfed due to sickness or anything, so I was happy about that!

  2. I served 1978-80 in Bolivia. During those two years, we had 6 presidents of the country and 2 military coup d’etat. There always was tension between the communists and the military.

    I remember being invited to an anti-American rally once by the university youth communist group. We noted to them that we are American. They responded that it wasn’t the same, because we are religious leaders. We politely turned them down, as we could just imagine the political anger suddenly being turned on the two gringos in the crowd.

    After a military coup occurred, there was a national strike. They blocked roadways and paths, insisting people join them. They did, however, allow us to pass as we insisted we were neutral in all politics.

    This isn’t to say we were always looked upon well. I recall walking down a street with my companion, passing by an army barracks. One of the soldiers out front laughed, said “Oye huevos!” (not a nice term), then as we walked past, pointed his rifle at us. I whispered to my companion to walk and not look back. Then we heard the click of his rifle, as he pulled the trigger with no bullet in the chamber. He laughed loud with his buddies.

    Just a year or so prior to my arriving in the mission, a military coup brought General JJ Torres to power. He gave the American missionaries 72 hours to leave. Fortunately, he was quickly overthrown by another General (Hugo Banzer) the next day. Two of Banzer’s daughters were LDS.

    There was a companionship arrested in the La Paz mission while I was in the Santa Cruz mission. The American elder took photos of military during a coup d’etat. They called him a spy and arrested both him and his Bolivian companion. He was released after a week, but his Bolivian companion spent several months in prison.

    Today, there are no USA missionaries in Bolivia, because the current president has tossed them out.

  3. JA, I lived in Rio de Janeiro for four years. Rio is a very interesting city in that the slums are everywhere, even in the richest parts of town. And of course the slums are where the drug and gang activity takes place. The official policy is that the missionaries are not supposed to go into the “favelas” (slums), but sometimes they do. Most missionaries told me they are left alone. The major danger seems to be getting caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are often firefights between different gangs or between the gangs and the police. There have been a few missionaries killed in the Rio area in the last decade or so, and again it is not because they are targeted: they simply were in the wrong place. How much street cred do the missionaries have in Rio? Well, there are a lot of different religious groups, and the Mormons definitely look different, but there are other missionaries from other groups walking around, so Mormons are not as unusual as they might be in other areas.

  4. This is anecdotal, of course, but one of my college roommates served in Yekaterinburg, Russia. She was abducted by the Russian Mafia. When they saw her name tag, they apologized, dusted her off and set her back out onto the street.

    In my mission, I was chased by a guy with a shotgun, but that was the most excitement I got. Guns are illegal in Germany.

  5. I served in Uruguay back in 1977/1979, no GANGS activities there but we had the TUPAMAROS (a gerrilla group). We were told to be carefull on our daily work, I saw military men pulling mebers of the TUPAMAROS from houses in Montevideo. The thing is that in this cases we never knew when an attack could take place so being carefull wasn`t much help. I think it is a question of faith, obeying the mission rules and acting smart did help. By this I mean that if there is a shooting, staying away from it would be a good idea. Surely no potential investigators there.

  6. In Bulgaria we were harrassed by gangs of teenagers, general hooligans, Orthodox preiests and so on. I cannot tell you how many times I was felt up on the bus by horny men as well — that’s really fun. Some of the Elders were beat up, some got arrested, most of it was verbal abuse and people sicking their yappy dogs on us (yappy dogs make great footballs –I”m really good at yappy dog kick-off returns). I even got arrested…but because the police officer thought I was pretty and wanted a “date” (and a little bit more than a date, get my drift). I know there was danger around us, and 99% of the time I felt totally safe though. I knew there were angels “’round about us” — big ones, with serious muscle. I also know though, I never felt in danger when we were where we were supposed to be and following the rules. We had a rule that we could not track once in got dark in the stairwells of apt buildings. Some missionaries had problems with that and kept on tracking in those places — they got maced, and learned their lesson really quickly that, that rule was there for a reason. I think as long as your son does what he is supposed to, obeys the rules and listens to the spirit he will be fine. A good friend served in Harlem as well, and said the gangs there would always leave the “Cracker boys alone, because they were for Jesus”.

  7. I served in the California Carlsbad Mission from 2004-2006. I was companions with Fui Vakapuna (starting BYU running back, who is now pro). His uncle is (or was) high up in the Tongan Crips in Salt Lake City, so when the local gangs in a certain city (can’t remember which) messed with the missionaries, apparently President Garner sent Vakapuna in to talk with the leaders. It apparently worked, and they left the Mormon Missionaries alone.

    This story might be apocriphal, seeing as I heard it from one of his companions, and Fui never mentioned it. However, I believe it, because Fui was one of the most humble, hard-working, and nicest men I have ever known.

  8. I thought my mission call came with a certificate that allowed me to do just about anything in the LORD`s name. No matter the risks, there was a work to be done but there were also mission rules and rules kept us close to the gound. It is also true that converts can be found in the most unlikely places and situations. I did things then that I am not sure I would do them today should I go on a mission again or had I known then what I know today. In any case, it was an unique and rich experience. Lives changed including my own.

  9. Guns are illegal in Germany.

    No they are not, though brandishing them at passers-by is. This happened to me and my companion as we were on our way to the church one evening. A young male and his girlfriend passed us going the opposite direction, and as they did so the guy spit on my companion. I fussed about his lack of decency which resulted in him pulling out a handgun and waving it in our direction. His girlfriend became hysterical and batted it out of his hands, after which he charged us. Fortunately(?), he was drunk and his blows were not well-placed, though my companion’s flying kick was. He finally admitted defeat and ran off, but not before swearing revenge.

  10. I served in Chicago. I saw or heard some moderatly dangerous things (shootings, drug deals, creepy drunk guys) but nothing too bad, though as sisters we (usually) weren’t put in the worst areas. I never heard of any missionaries being hurt by such things while I was there (only things like heat stroke – man, that was a miserable heat wave – and car accidents). However, some of the elders liked to brag about how close the bullets were, and my mission president lectured us (i.e., crankily reprimanded in a raised voice) in zone conference to knock it off, that the point was to by far from the bullets, not close to them.

  11. Oh, I just remember this. I never shared with my parents some of the questionable activities I saw (there really weren’t many; it was rare and kind of exciting, seeing as how it was my first time living in the big city and all). However, when I was in my first area, someone in my home ward had lived in Chicago and was talking to my mother one Sunday. She asked where exactly I was serving, and my mom had a letter with my return address on it, so told her (I was serving on the west side of the city at the time). The lady then went on and on about how surprised she was that sisters were in that area, and how dangerous it was. Thanks, lady, for stressing out my poor mother. Sigh.

  12. Once during the riots after a coup d’etat in Bolivia, my district was walking downtown towards an ice cream shop after playing sports on P-day. As we walked, we noticed a bunch of young people running past us. We wondered what was happening, and then the tear gas canister whizzed past my head.
    We quickly turned around and found another route to the ice cream shop. Later, we were all holed up at the Zone leader’s home, writing letters. One elder was putting together a cassette tape for his family, and started passing it around to us to add some stuff. I suggested we tell them about the events of the day. We assured his parents that their son was okay, was not bleeding…much, and that the doctor said he would be walking in another week or two….

    The rest of the day, we had to avoid various areas where rioting was going on. Of course, the bigger dangers were in the mountains (Andes), where the miners would throw blasting caps at the soldiers.

  13. I served in Manila. Missionaries were rarely targets of crime (besides the occasional pickpocket or burglary, my apartment was burglarized once). I think this is due to the mostly Catholic population resulting in a a common “superstition” that messing with any type of missionary will bring wrath.

    There is a communist rebel group called the NPA that was rumored to have kidnaped missionaries in the past, but they never seemed interested in us and seemed to focus exclusively on military and law enforcement targets.

    I was in the middle of Manila during the revolution that overthrew President Estrada and there was a lot of anti-American sentiment at the time, as Estrada was viewed as a pawn of the U.S. government. I never saw or heard of any of this sentiment being directed at missionaries.

    I was also in the Philippines during September 11th. There is a fairly large Muslim population there. I never experienced anything but kindnesses and respect from Muslims. There was an awkward moment once when I was in a Muslim market and Al-Jazeera was playing the latest Bin Laden tape.

    There is an Al-Qaeda affiliate called the Abu Sayyaf that kidnaped and beheaded missionaries from another denomination while I was serving there. The church took great pains to keep us away from areas where the Abu Sayyaf were active and I never heard of any encounters with LDS missionaries.

  14. Peter, I wasn’t specific enough, since it was incidental to the point. The type of gun he had at the time I served was not legal. A lot has changed since then.

  15. I served in Argentina (80-82) while it was under the control of the Junta and during the Falkland War. We were not allowed to take pictures outside of church property (members homes were ok) because two missionaries were arrested for taking pictures near a military base and the church had to pull a lot of strings to get them released. We would occasionally get to look at the business end of an UZI while the local police or military would look over our papers, but I think they did that mostly just to screw with us. I did get knocked upside the head with a chain one time by some drunken wine delivery guys. The next day some of the local toughs told me that they saw what had happened and wanted me to know that they liked us because we “Jesus guys”. They also told me that if I wanted they would “take care” of the guys who hit me. I have to admit that I was tempted…

  16. I love all your stories. Thanks for sharing.

    Whizzbang- I think it is amazing you did not barf once in 2 years. I doubt that in my entire life I have not gone 2 years without barfing 😉

    Rameumpton- Bolivia sounds like a scary place. Let pray it settles down, so that the gospel can be preached there again. Also I have something to be thankful for tonight, at least Elder Benson is NOT in Bolivia!

    Geoff B- Wrong place- wrong time is my nagging little worry.

    SIlverrain- What is this world coming to when a woman is chased by a shotgun wheeling man! What a freaking double weenie!

    Enrique Arturo- “I think it is a question of faith, obeying the mission rules and acting smart did help. By this I mean that if there is a shooting, staying away from it would be a good idea. Surely no potential investigators there.” Excellent advice, I will mail it to Elder Benson. Also your second comment was very heartfelt and sincere. Thank you.

    Joyce- Good stories. You are one tough lady!

    Clark- Is it not amazing how G-d can work in the most interesting of people and situations? I have never heard of Fui Vakapuna ( I do not follow sports at all), but I will keep an ear out for him.

    Peter LLC- I can see it now; two missionaries pulling out their amazing Kung Fu moves! Well done my friend!

    Tanya- ” the point was to by far from the bullets, not close to them.” Ha Ha! Exactly. As for your mother’s friend, there are many women who love to torture other women.

    Sgarff- It is wonderful how the Catholic church/mothers are able to impress a fear/respect for men/women of G-d in even the worst of thugs.

    Kent- You and I need to talk. My late husband also served in Argentina at that same time. He told that same story about the pictures and the military base. He served in Buenos Aries South MIssion. He was in the office with Rory Reed. Email me, please: JoannaBensonatmillennialstardotorg.

  17. Send him another wallet. Ask him to carry two wallets. His real normal wallet, but another wallet in the other back pocket, with only $2, coupons, etc, and other things that don’t matter if they’re stolen. (And nothing that will identify him by name.)

    If they get mugged, throw down the ‘fake’ wallet, and run. The mugger will be so focused on the money, that he probably won’t notice there is no drivers license and important things in it.

  18. Ok Bookslinger. I will let him know tomorrow in our weekly correspondence. Question for you, since you are a fountain of knowledge; in a earthquake situation, does one crouch under or on the side of a larger object? I have seen pros and cons either way. Earthquakes scare me. I would rather face down a tornado, because in a tornado you have some warning, earthquake not so much.

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