ODESSA — Tyler Madsen has written his mission goals in a hyperorganized notebook.
"Where was it?" he says. "I know I had it in here."
The other missionaries are playing basketball. They get three hours for this, once a week. Their white shirts and slacks are piled in the gym of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Odessa, topped with ties and name tags and dress shoes worn from hours of walking.
Madsen, one of hundreds of young men who come to Florida each year as Mormon missionaries, doesn't like basketball.
He furrows his brow and flips the pages. Here we go. Listening better. Being humble. Getting up earlier. For this, he has set five alarm clocks in his assigned Brooksville duplex. At 6:15 a.m., a CD player blares Called to Serve, the anthem for Mormon missionaries.
Onward, ever onward, as we glory in his name.
These men are 19, 20, 21 — the rope bridge between childhood and maturity. They are assigned here via revelation from their spiritual leaders.
The two-year missions are as much for their own development as for acquiring new believers. They can't watch TV. They can't play video games or read magazines. Sexual transgressions, Madsen says, are second only to murder and disowning the Lord.
When you ask their names, they say Elder Madsen and Elder Taylor and Elder Heath. They get to be "Elder" for only two years.
They pay their own way, $400 a month, which the church redistributes to all the missionaries. Since he could count, Madsen saved 45 percent from his chore money back home in Utah. At 9, he upped it to 55 percent. It's worth it, he says. He has already baptized three people.
Each morning, they exercise for 30 minutes, minimum. They eat breakfast, then study scripture alone, then with a designated companion. Some missionaries spend an extra hour studying a new language. They search for Floridians who have strayed from God. There are 234 Mormon congregations in Florida, five missions and one temple, in Orlando.
They knock blindly on doors, handing over pamphlets. They work until 9:30 p.m. It's scary sometimes. Trevor Heath, a 19-year-old missionary from Los Angeles, says someone pulled a gun on him in South Tampa. Someone else told Madsen, 19, that he worshipped the devil. Another man saw him trembling from nerves in the doorway.
"Kid," the man said, "you have to calm down."
They call home on Christmas and Mother's Day. They e-mail once a week, Monday, when they also do laundry and buy groceries and play basketball. They wear Nike shorts and tie-dye shirts and, for a moment, look like teenagers. They have ice cream cake, because it's Elder Samuel Taylor's 20th birthday.
They slice through words scrolled in icing.
Don't forget to testify.
Stephanie Hayes, Times staff writer