Knocking on strangers’ doors, even to ask for a contribution to the lifeboats, can be daunting. But to engage householders in a conversation about religion, and to do it in a foreign language in a country you have never visited, must rank as particularly challenging.
Yet this is what a 23-year-old dental hygienist from Tingwall is planning to do during the next two years.
Kerry Sjoberg, who lives with her mother Edna and step-father Robert Williamson (and is the daughter of the late Saki Sjoberg), belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (abbreviated to LDS Church but better known as the Mormon Church).
As part of her involvement with the church she is to spend a year and a half abroad “sharing the gospel”. Her work will take her to the German-speaking areas of Europe, and prior to starting she will have nine weeks’ training in missionary work and the German language. This will take place at the headquarters of the church, in the American state of Utah.
After the training Kerry will be sent to the Swiss city of Zurich, where she will embark on her proselytising work. During her time as a missionary she will also be based in Austria and Germany.
Going on “mission” is part of the church’s work and is widely practised by young men, who are expected to do it. Young women are also encouraged to do it, but they are not necessarily expected to become missionaries.
Kerry, who was brought up in the faith, decided almost a year ago that this was for her. It would be a complete change from working at Montfield and Brae dental surgeries, her occupation since returning to Shetland after studying dentistry at Dundee University.
Although during the last year she became actively involved with the church by teaching a young women’s group of 12-17 year olds on subjects from religious topics to developing their talents, but always “on a spiritual note”, she wanted to do more. “I felt I wasn’t doing enough with my life.” Her family was “very supportive and quite happy” about her desire to go on mission, and although her friends were surprised they were eventually pleased for her.
Since making the decision “to do something different”, she has saved money from her earnings to fund her trip and her accommodation. All volunteers are required to provide their own finances.
Kerry left Shetland last weekend to fly out to Salt Lake City from London, admitting to being “nervous but quite excited” about her venture. She has been to Utah “quite a few times” to go snowboarding – the state boasts mountains as well as desert – but the training, when she will stay at the Mission Training Centre, will be a new experience. And she has never been to Europe.
Before leaving Kerry said: “I want to share what I believe. I do believe there is a God out there and a saviour who died for us. And when this life is over there is somewhere for us to go, an afterlife.”
Her first hurdle will be to brush up her rusty German, which she studied up to Standard Grade level at Anderson High School. “I wish I’d paid more attention – I didn’t think I’d need it – but I think I’ll get there. It’s going to be a bit scary and I’ll have to get the dictionary out. I think I’ll learn more [German] there [in Europe] when I have to speak it.”
Once in Europe she will go from house to house accompanied by another woman, and between them they will try to explain the beliefs of their faith, which is broadly the same as other branches of Christianity but with different emphases. A conviction of the importance of the nuclear family is central to the LDS Church, which also discourages the use of addictive substances such as alcohol and tobacco.
Was Kerry worried about having doors slammed in her face? “No, I’m prepared for that. I just want to help people in their lives and give them the opportunity if they’d like to know more [about the church]. It’s not about persuading or forcing anyone [to join].”
It will be difficult, but, she said: “I’m determined to do it. I’ll have to see what happens. I’m hoping I can and part of me says I can. I don’t want to fail.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded by Joseph Smith Jr in New York State in 1830. He was the subject of criticism for his claim that he had had a visitation from God and Jesus and that he had discovered a set of golden plates from which one of the faith’s standard texts, the Book of Mormon, was reputedly translated. Persecution of followers of the faith forced them to flee to various other locations, and Joseph Smith and his brother were eventually martyred.
The religion then entered a “pioneering” phase under Brigham Young, and attracted more criticism of the practice of plural marriage. Polygamy was abandoned by the beginning of the 20th century.
The LDS church has 13 million members worldwide who believe that Jesus reveals his will to its president (currently Thomas S Monson) who, together with his 12 apostles, are regarded as prophets.