Benjamin Wiederhold has less than 15 years to live.
He’s giving two of them to God.
The 20-year-old was diagnosed with a rare terminal kidney disease four years ago. He may only live to be 35.
But he’s spending two years in the Spokane Valley as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“At first, I was told I couldn’t go on a mission because of my disease,” says Wiederhold, a lean, square-jawed young man from Sacramento, Calif.
But when church leaders saw his sincere desire to serve, they made an exception. In 1996, they sent him to Spokane for a two-year mission.
Wiederhold is one of 12 missionaries serving in the Spokane Valley. He’s one of the Valley missionaries helping out at a garden planted by juvenile offenders at 12th and Houk. It’s just one example of how they spread their message of faith.
About 75,000 Mormons live in Eastern Washington and North Idaho, with 210 missionaries covering the region. The church has about 50,000 missionaries with 9.7 million members in 160 countries worldwide.
Each day at 6:30 a.m., Wiederhold and his companion, Cory Barnett, spend two hours studying Scripture. The balance of the day is spent “tracting” - knocking on doors - and doing service projects.
The garden is one of those projects. It was planted by juveniles early this summer, and organizers hope the harvest will feed 12 homeless families in the fall.
When Wiederhold and Barnett arrive at the garden, they shed their ties, stretch their green thumbs, and dig into the ground.
The garden gives them a chance to reach out to troubled youth, says Wiederhold, who describes his encounter with one of the detainees.
“He really opened himself up to me,” says Wiederhold, describing the teen’s experiences of theft, homelessness and starvation. “I learned a lot from him - he recognized what he had done wrong.”
After sweltering in the summer heat, the missionaries join a church family for a home-cooked supper and then return to their apartment for rest.
Their place is a sparse, bohemian-style flat, with one cramped bedroom. Scattered about the apartment are a couple chairs and some tattered books. A tour of the whole pad takes all of two minutes.
Soon, they’re sharing their lives.
“I love to write about things that are real,” says the dark-eyed Wiederhold, pointing to his worn Royal typewriter. “I find a lot of peace and tranquility trying to tame things with words.”
Barnett, from Albertson, N.C., has spent the last two months serving by Wiederhold’s side. He has a thick Southern drawl and jokes with his companion about their missionary “horror stories.”
Last week, the pair was knocking on doors and found an unfriendly surprise.
“A pit bull-terrier mix,” says Wiederhold, wincing. The dog barked at him and then chewed into his right thigh.
They didn’t go back to that house.
A few weeks ago, someone hurled a Taco Bell soft taco at Barnett.
“I was pretty upset,” says Barnett, his face turning red. “I couldn’t believe someone would actually do that.”
Still, most of their missionary experiences in the Valley have been positive. Many young families and single people are receptive to their message, said Wiederhold.
Michelle is a single, 24-year-old financial analyst and lifelong Valley resident. When she saw the two missionaries approach her house, she was reticent.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to open the door,” said Michelle, who asked for anonymity.
She had already stockpiled plenty of rumors about missionaries, but figured she’d never know the truth unless she invited them in.
Plus, they were cute.
“You are not gonna find guys like that hanging out at Swackhammer’s,” says Michelle, referring to a local bar. “They’re very family oriented, and they view marriage as a lifelong commitment. That’s very appealing.”
What keeps Michelle from joining the church, she says, is its teachings on women. While they do not forbid women to work outside the home, Mormons profess that family life should be the top priority of women.
Michelle took Wiederhold and Barnett to task on gender issues, but eventually realized this:
“If I really want to learn anything, I’ve got to shut up and listen, so I’ve started reading the Book of Mormon.” It’s just like the Bible, she says, and there’s nothing “strange or weird about it.”
The Book of Mormon is the church’s companion to the Bible, which they call “another revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Seeing their message change the lives of Valley people is the best part about their mission, Barnett says.
But the two missionaries haven’t been without their challenges.
In January, half-way through his mission, Wiederhold’s mother died.
He was so busy that a family member told him the news on his answering machine.
Instead of going to the funeral, he stayed in Spokane, pouring himself more deeply into his work.
“I knew exactly what I was doing here,” he says, recalling the experience. “And my going home wasn’t going to do any good.”
Barnett faced emotional exhaustion two weeks ago when his father suffered a heart attack. Tears well up in his blue eyes when he remembers the experience.
“For a couple of nights I was totally pouring my heart out to my heavenly father,” says Barnett, “The only thing that comforted me was the spirit.”
These trials have helped the two men rearrange their priorities in life, says Jeffery Yarbrough, president of the Spokane mission.
Despite the challenges of mission work, the young men do find time to relax and just be 20-year-old “guys” now and then.
Although missionaries can’t listen to the radio, Wiederhold sometimes sneaks in some classical music. His favorite composer?
“Bach,” he says. “I love the Unaccompanied Cello Suites.”
“Awwww, they put me to sleep,” Barnett chides, “I’m more into the Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables.”
“You’re into Les Miz?” asks Wiederhold, amazed.
“I didn’t know that. I love Les Miz.”
Well, after all, they’re still getting to know one another.
Barnett says the scariest part of mission work has been learning to trust his companion.
Selfishness was the hurdle that Wiederhold faced before his mission. His struggle with illness and his recent family problems have helped him really appreciate people, he says.
Facing rejection and praise on a daily basis can be humbling, but for these young men, it’s part of the joy.
“We’re not here because we’re forced to, we’re here because we wanna be,” says Wiederhold.
“God’s been in this business for a long time. And it’s neat to be a part of the team.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 6 Color Photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: THE MORMON FAITH Aspiring Mormon missionaries file a formal application. If accepted, they are assigned to a specific world region and undergo eight weeks of training in Provo, Utah. About 75 percent of missionaries are male, and 25 percent female. About 300,000 people convert to the Mormon faith annually. There are currently 4.5 million copies of The Book of Mormon in print. Comparatively, in the first six months of 1997, 164 million Bibles have been distributed worldwide. The total number of Bibles in print cannot be estimated. The United States ranks first in Mormon church membership, with 4.8 million members. Mexico and Central/South America rank second, with 3.2 million members. The 325-voice Mormon Tabernacle Choir last performed in Spokane during Expo ‘74.