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story.lead_photo.caption Norman and Karen Hansen (front center), leaders of the Arkansas Little Rock Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stand with some of its missionaries as Renee Carr (not pictured), director of public affairs for the church, takes a group photo. - Photo by Francisca Jones

The missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Arkansas Little Rock Mission will present the concert series "Come Unto Christ: A Missionary Musical Tribute" throughout the state beginning Sunday in Conway.

Norman Hansen, mission president of Arkansas, and his wife, Karen Hansen, decided to create the series after arriving in June from their previous mission in Tacoma, Wash., where a similar series they headed had been successful for the past six years.

Rehearsals have been piecemeal, Karen Hansen said. Missionaries have rehearsed in small groups as time has been available, and the longest rehearsals as a group will take place just hours before each concert.

"We're not the Tabernacle Choir," she said, referring to the more than 300-member Mormon singing group that tours the world, "but it's more of their spirit that [the missionaries] bring to it, their enthusiasm and their testimony about the Savior."

It's also because the missionaries, who hail from around the nation and places including Guam and Puerto Rico, have come to Arkansas with one purpose, as told in a guide distributed to all missionaries called Preach My Gospel: "... invite others to come unto Christ by helping them receive the restored gospel through faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement, repentance, baptism, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end."

The church's Arkansas Little Rock Mission is a geographical area that stretches from the Hope area in southwest Arkansas up to Paragould in northeast Arkansas, and into western Tennessee and northwestern Mississippi.

For the mission's 182 members -- volunteers who range in age from 18 to 22 -- missionary life began with a piece of paper stating two details: the state or country in which they will serve, known as a calling, and the language they will serve in for the duration of their mission (18 months for women, and two years for men). The concerts will each feature about 60 missionaries, depending on a person's geographical proximity to a performance location and other factors.

For missionaries Ellie Brumett, Sarina Van Orman and Turner Lumpkin, that language was American Sign Language.

The three women -- addressed as "Sister," as men are addressed as "Elder" during their mission -- speak English regularly but act as sign language interpreters for deaf church members, and will sign song lyrics during the concerts.

Brumett, who also will sing a duet with Van Orman for the concerts, believes the unembellished nature of sign language cuts through inflection and simplifies the sharing of "beautiful truths."

"When you're [signing] you're speaking so simply -- the language is so beautiful and blunt and simple ... you're just getting the meaning of what [the message] is instead of the fluff that we like to put in," Brumett said. "And so it's just simple [messages], like 'God loves you,' or 'You can repent,' and people can come clean again."

Missionaries live their lives in pairs, each assigned to a "companion" of the same sex with whom the other must remain at all times. For the Little Rock mission's 91 pairs, being with another person helps ensure safety, but companions are also relied on by the church to police one another -- in addition to a missionary's self-policing -- to avoid temptation or rule-breaking, and stay focused on mission work.

"I think [missionaries] pretty much know what they're getting into before they go," said Karen Hansen, who said it can be difficult for missionaries who arrive unprepared for missionary life.

"It's their decision, and these people know the rules and that they are committed to live that [way] for a period of time," she said. "But that doesn't mean it's not going to be hard."

One area in which she has heard voiced resistance is technology. Missionaries must carry tablets to record details about their missionary work to track their progress, and in an age where teens are seen as "glued to their phones," missionaries have mixed feelings about leaving or taking devices.

"The missionaries have felt different ways [about bringing tablets]," she said. "Somebody said, 'You know, I was kind of disappointed to come out to mission with tablets, because it's like going camping with a television -- you want to go away from all the noise and social media.' [Another] said, 'You know I was really hoping to get away from [technology] and kind of immerse myself in my Scriptures and in the Gospel.'"

The mission requires members to rise daily at 6:30 a.m. -- "That is mandatory," she said -- and go door-to-door, encouraging others to join the church and to spread the word of the Gospel, a practice known in the church as tracting.

Preston Russell, 19, flew to Little Rock about a year ago from Wyoming to become a missionary. He walks or bikes 10-12 miles a day to tract through North Little Rock and Maumelle. As the mission's violinist, he will play while Brumett and Van Orman sing "A Child's Prayer" -- a song also in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's repertoire.

"I don't think I have found anything else harder," Russell said of missionary life. "But there's so many reasons to come out and help somebody else every day. If there's anything to prepare you for normal life, it's this."

Norman Hansen echoed Russell's thoughts on how missionary work prepares one for life. The trip he and Karen made to the Little Rock mission found the former stake president and stake mission president completing a circle, for this mission is the one where Hansen -- originally from Rupert, Idaho, served as a missionary from 1978-80.

"Having a companion was the best marriage course I ever took," he said. "In the heat [of serving] in August, I learned patience and different ways of thinking ... I went back home and my study habits were better."

Nathan Smalling, 20, came from Utah to serve in the Little Rock mission. At the day's end -- the curfew is 9:30 p.m. for missionaries and lights out at 10:30 p.m. -- a flurry of texts from sets of companions let Smalling, who is also head of one of the mission's five geographical districts, known as zones -- know they are in for the night, among other responsibilities.

When Smalling performs with the other missionaries, he will play using a borrowed cello. All missionaries are required to leave musical instruments at home and are limited to the amount of luggage -- and items -- they can take. Leaving behind his cello was hard for Smalling, he said, but in his work he leans on Matthew 16:25, a verse of Scripture that has been a source of strength in his mission.

"The savior asks us to do hard things because [in doing so] we find ourselves, and that's something we all have to learn," Smalling said. "We can't do it if we're focusing on ourselves instead of focusing on Him and others He loves. 'Whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it.'

"That's when we're strengthened, and I have found a lot of strength in this. Every missionary has."

Photo by Francisca Jones
Nathan Smalling (left) and Preston Russell, elders in the church, have an impromptu rehearsal on the cello and violin, respectively, before the mission kicks off a series of performances on Sunday.
Photo by Francisca Jones
Mormon missionaries sing at the North Little Rock stake office. The 182 members of the Arkansas Little Rock Mission will be giving a series of six concerts, also called musical devotionals, throughout the mission beginning Sunday.

Performances will be held at 6 p.m. Sunday at 2045 Dave Ward Drive in Conway; at 6 p.m. Oct. 15 at 8150 Walnut Grove Road in Cordova, Tenn.; 7 p.m. Oct. 22 at 4195 Kirby Whitten Parkway in Bartlett, Tenn.; 6 p.m. Oct. 29 at 13901 Quail Run Drive in Little Rock; 6 p.m. Nov. 18 at 301 E. Highland Drive in Jonesboro; and 6 p.m. Nov. 19 at 6110 T.P. White Drive in Jacksonville.

Religion on 10/07/2017

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