Friday, February 12, 2016

La Investigadora de Oro

February 9, 2008 – March 5, 2008

Every once in a while, missionaries find what they call “golden investigators” (in Spanish, “investigadores de oro”). Golden investigators are those few people that are very receptive to the missionaries’ message. They already feel a drive to find true doctrine, so when you teach them, they don’t need much convincing or persuading. They take responsibility for their own conversion and often become strong members of the church after joining. This is the story of one of the first such people I met as a missionary.

But for context, let me first give a little background about what missionaries teach during their first lesson with a new investigator. At the end of that initial lesson, missionaries usually explain about the Book of Mormon. We believe that the Book of Mormon is an ancient record that was written on plates made of gold by prophets that lived in the Western Hemisphere. One of the last prophets to write in the book, and the one that compiled it from the writings of other prophets, was named Mormon. His son, Moroni, finished writing in the record and then hid it in the ground for several centuries. In the 1820s, Moroni appeared, now as an angel, to Joseph Smith, who retrieved the gold plates and then translated them by inspiration from God. The resulting translation was published as the Book of Mormon. Members of the church consider both the Bible and the Book of Mormon to be divine scripture.

Needless to say, many people investigating the church are unfamiliar with the Book of Mormon, and they can be skeptical of the account of where it came from. So what missionaries usually do is ask investigators to take a Book of Mormon and read it on their own, after the missionaries have left. Then they ask them to pray and ask God whether the Book of Mormon is true. We believe that if they’re sincere, God will help each person feel and know for themselves that it’s real. When investigators come to believe that the Book of Mormon is true, it helps them have confidence in all the other new ideas that missionaries teach them and ask them to do. So missionaries are always trying to get people to try reading the Book of Mormon for themselves.

Unfortunately, even among the relatively few investigators that were interested in having us visit them again, it was fairly rare that they had read and prayed about the section of the Book of Mormon that we’d left for them. I think that missionaries frequently get so caught up explaining the Book of Mormon’s miraculous origins that they tend to gloss over the invitation to read it and the significance of knowing whether the book is what we say it is. Whatever the reason, we typically had to teach investigators several lessons before they really understood how important it was that they read and pray about the Book of Mormon on their own. So when we found an investigator that did read it, they really caught our attention.

Mayra was one of these golden investigators. I don’t remember how we found her originally, but she lived in La Reserva with her mother and her toddler son. We taught her a fairly typical first lesson and gave her a Book of Mormon, asking her to read a specific chapter. We also invited her to attend church with us the following Sunday, which she said she would do. We set an appointment to come back a few days later.

As it turns out, Mayra not only came to church without us arranging a ride for her, but she also brought her mother along, too. And when we went back to teach her again, she told us that she read the chapter we assigned twice through to make sure she understood it well and then taught her mother about everything she’d learned during our first visit. Elder Nájera and I were blown away; I don’t think I’d ever had an investigator take such a quick interest in what we were teaching before. We asked Mayra what she thought of the Book of Mormon. She told us that while she was reading it, she could feel that it was true. We explained the connection between the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and that of the church. Then we taught about the importance of baptism and the process of how God had given his authority to the restored church to perform baptisms and other ceremonies. And then we asked the question—would she let us help her prepare to be baptized in the church? She accepted without hesitation. We were ecstatic.

Over the next couple of weeks, we taught lots of lessons to Mayra and her mother, who also had become interested in the church. Giving the lessons was a breeze, and when Mayra finally got baptized, I didn’t even feel like I could take any credit for teaching her; it was clear that she’d done almost all the work herself. Even so, it felt great to know that she would become the newest member of the ward.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Waterfalls and the Witch Doctor

February 17, 2008 – February 21, 2008

In February a member of the ward asked us to go with them to meet a mature couple that was interested in the church. We went and were introduced to Elpirio and Ana. The first thing we noticed was that Elpirio had no legs. He used a wheelchair to get around, which is hard enough in the United States, but in Mexico it’s an especially severe limitation because of how little accommodations there are for people with disabilities. The streets where they lived were unpaved and full of mud and potholes. Elpirio was in generally poor health as well; he was also nearly blind and was going in for surgery around that time, too. Despite their difficult circumstances (or perhaps because of them), they were very receptive. A family in the ward that owned a minivan gave them rides to church, and Elpirio and Ana started progressing quickly towards baptism.

As we taught them, we learned even more unique things about their background. For one, they were legally married to each other, which is surprisingly rare among the investigators we had. This makes baptism a much more achievable goal because even when an couple wants to get married, it can take a long time to obtain the required birth certificates or divorce papers if either of the people was previously married to someone else. We also learned that Elpirio had previously performed magic cleansings of the kind offered by witch doctors in the region (I’ll talk more about Mexican brujería (witchcraft) later). By the time we met them, though, his days of witchcraft were long gone, and they were ready to become members of the church.

The day before the baptism was our P-day, and our zone got together for an activity. A member of our ward that owned a large van and was able to take the day off of work took the whole zone out near a small town called Xico, Veracruz, where there was a park with a hiking trail leading to several waterfalls.

The Pico de Orizaba as seen from Coatepec, Veracruz, a larger town located between Xalapa and Xico.

Some of the zone walking across a footbridge to the waterfalls.

This “bridge” was just to the right of the one we crossed. I can see why they replaced it.

There were some really enormous trees there, too.

The zone together at one of the waterfalls. Top row: Elders Bada and Frampton; second from top: Elders Breceda, Durán, and Brandt; third from top: Elders Tovar, Schaumann, Hernández, Nájera, and Lindsay; bottom: Elders Eduardo and Sharp.

A better view of the waterfall above.

Eventually we came around a bend in the trail and saw the Texolo Waterfall below. This waterfall appears in several movies, including
Clear and Present Danger.

When we got back, we had to move up Elpirio and Ana’s baptism because he was going in for surgery in the middle of the week. The baptism required some creativity because of Elpirio’s disability. We decided to have Elpirio sit on a plastic chair and then have us carry him and set him down in the baptismal font, still on the chair. When it came time to perform the ordinance, Elder Nájera said the prayer with the three of us in the water, and then both he and I carefully lowered Elpirio under the water and then back out. It was a very special experience for all of us.

Elder Nájera, Ana, Elpirio and me just before the baptism.

Finally, later that week we had Victoria’s baptism, which had previously been postponed.

Victoria and some friends from El Mango at her baptism. Victoria is in the center.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Superconference with Elder Bednar

February 16, 2008

The streets of Boca del Río, the municipality just south of the port of Veracruz. The only thing I knew about getting to the temple from the Veracruz bus terminal was to take the bus that said “Vía Muerta” (“Dead Way”).

In February President Johnson announced that Elder Bednar, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, one of the most senior governing bodies of the church, would be visiting our mission. This was a big deal to us missionaries, and especially for those who hadn’t lived in Utah before. To most of us, members of the Quorum of the Twelve were celebrities, people we’d seen on TV during General Conference or read about in magazines, but never in real life before becoming missionaries. Some of us may have heard one of them speak in person at the MTC or BYU, but almost none of us would have met them before. My understanding is that these kinds of visits to missions were regular events, but still rare. This would be the only time an apostle would visit while I was on my mission.

Another part of why it was so exciting was because the entire mission would be gathering together for a massive conference. I looked forward to seeing many of the missionaries I’d gotten to know that had been transferred away to other places, especially Elder Stojic. This conference was something of a bonus, too, since we’d already had our zone conference for that transfer. I was so excited the night before we left that I had a hard time writing in my journal.

Early in the morning on the day of the conference, Elder Nájera and I got on a bus to Veracruz. At the Veracruz bus terminal, we once again got on a city bus that would take us down past the temple. The conference was being held at the stake center on the temple grounds, the same place we had the Christmas conference only a couple of months prior.

When we arrived, President Johnson seemed a little nervous. He was trying to get all 190 or so missionaries seated and ready for Elder Bednar before he got there. He was asking zone leaders and district leaders whether all of their groups had arrived, who wasn’t there yet, and what was going on. I remember one pair of elders walked in late (though still before Elder Bednar arrived) and got singled out for it. I was glad we hadn’t hit traffic or had some other delay. With everyone accounted for, we filed out of the chapel to take a group photo of all the missionaries.

The entire mission in front of the Veracruz Temple for the conference with Elder Bednar. They lined us up by height, so I’m on the back row.

Once we were done with the photo, President Johnson got up to prime us for Elder Bednar. He mentioned that visiting authorities like Elder Bednar frequently offer opportunities for missionaries to ask them questions about church doctrine, their job, or other things. I remember President Johnson specifically telling us not to ask Elder Bednar any really strange, unknown questions like, “What’s the name of God’s wife?”

A minute or two later, Elder Bednar walked in, and the conference began. The first thing he told us was to avoid writing down everything he said, and instead to listen carefully and write down impressions and connections that came to our minds while listening. My notes show that Elder Bednar encouraged us to be bold and unafraid since fear was an expression of a lack of love towards the people we could be talking to. I probably wrote this down because I definitely didn’t feel like I was bold, and I knew that I didn’t have enough love towards the people around me because I was still feeling culture shocked. I couldn’t feel comfortable adapting myself to the attitudes and lifestyle of most of the Mexicans around me, so I think I frequently ended up judging them more than serving them. My notes have a few more items, but it’s clear that I only wrote down things that seemed particularly relevant to my own mission.

When he had finished his remarks, Elder Bednar invited us to ask questions, just like President Johnson had predicted. Elder Bednar had obviously been asked a few curveball questions in the past, because before he let anyone ask anything, he also said to try to ask good questions, such as, “What has your role as an apostle taught you about prayer,” to which he could give a detailed, productive answer, and to avoid bad questions, such as, “Where is the Sword of Laban,” to which Elder Bednar said his only answer would be, “I don’t know.” I chuckled and wondered how many times eager missionaries must have asked apostles (or mission presidents) questions like these, for them to both go our of their way to give examples of what not to ask. As for myself, I was too worried about looking silly to ask anything in front of the whole group, but I listened to the answers he gave to others’ questions.

When his time was up, the whole mission lined up to meet Elder Bednar and shake his hand individually. It was too brief of a meeting for him to learn anything personal about us, but it was a nice gesture and it was still exciting to all of us.

As with the conference when Elder Grow visited, this superconference went much later than a typical zone conference. By the time it was over, the sun had already gone down, so we needed to hurry back to the bus terminal and then back home to Xalapa. But before I left, I managed to say hi to lots of the missionaries I hadn’t seen in a while, including Elder Stojic. He and I hadn’t talked since we arrived in the field, so I was eager to hear how things were going for him. He had spent his first few transfers in the southern half of the mission, where the climate and culture are pretty different from Xalapa. He said it was always really hot and that the food was heavily seasoned and spicy. I could tell by looking at him that he’d lost a lot of weight since the MTC. His suit looked big on him and his face was a lot more narrow. I wondered if the southern food had been rough on him.

Elder Stojic and I after the superconference.

It was great to talk to Elder Stojic again. By this point it seemed odd to me that I had had a tough time when we were companions in the MTC. It hadn’t even been four months since then, but it felt like more than a year, given how much we’d gone through in the field. Now I considered him among my closest friends in the mission and hoped I’d have a chance to work with him again in the future.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Three Baptisms and a Wedding

February 7, 2008 - February 14, 2008

As I’ve mentioned previously, investigators that live with domestic partners must either separate or get civilly married before they can get baptized. Elder Nájera and I had been teaching a mother and her daughter that lived in one of the apartment buildings near where we lived. The mother, Mariana, had previously been cohabiting with a man that had left to work in the United States. This meant that while they technically were no longer living together, they also couldn’t get married until he came back, which could be a long time. This was a tricky situation for us as missionaries because when we taught the law of chastity, we basically had to give Mariana a choice between getting baptized and telling her partner that she wouldn’t be willing to live with him again until after they got married. Mariana had been very receptive to everything we’d taught her up to this point, and she wanted to get baptized, but this was a real struggle for her.

Despite this, she and her daughter, Arranza, continued to go to church with us. Arranza was eight or nine years old, which is pretty young, but old enough to be able to be baptized if she wanted to and if her parents were supportive. So we taught Mariana and Arranza together. We hoped that Mariana would make the tough choice to be baptized, but in the back of our minds we knew there was a chance that it wouldn’t work out. But there was nothing keeping Arranza from being baptized, so we set a baptismal date for both of them, knowing that it might actually only be Arranza getting baptized in the near term.

This issue was extremely common among our investigators. We’d also been teaching another mother and her teenage daughter that lived in El Mango. However, only the daughter, Victoria, made real progress towards joining the church. Victoria was interested in finding religion and had been studying with the Jehovah’s Witnesses prior to meeting us. Her mother was also interested in listening to our lessons, but her neighborhood vigilance duties made it hard for her to go to church regularly, and she had a complicated relationship with Victoria’s father, whom we’d never seen. In the end, Victoria’s mother approved of Victoria’s decision to get baptized, but was unable to get baptized herself.

Meanwhile, we had had a breakthrough with the Martínez family. They were the young family of four that I’d met my very first week with Elder Guerra that also couldn’t get baptized because they weren’t civilly married. Since our first few lessons with them, we’d visited them occasionally to try to find the father, Bonifacio, at home. Finally, there was a period where his job wasn’t taking him out of town all the time, and we were able to teach him as well. We were ecstatic to find that was just as receptive as Ana was.

Each February, the Veracruz state government offered civil weddings in front of a judge for free, as part of a campaign to get more domestic couples married. The Martínezes didn’t have a lot of money, so we took advantage of this opportunity to get them married. Elder Nájera and I went to the civil register at the state capitol building to help Bonifacio and Ana get official copies of their birth certificates, which they didn’t have before, and then on February 13th, we went with them to get them married.

It arguably wasn’t much of a “wedding” in the traditional sense. Bonifacio and Ana had already lived together for years and had two kids, so it didn’t really mark the beginning of a new chapter in their lives. There wasn’t a fancy ceremony, either, just some members of the ward that came to show support and sign as witnesses. There were lots of other couples taking advantage of the free marriages, too, so the whole process was crowded and felt a bit rushed.

Ana and Bonifacio marking their marriage license with their thumbprints.

And yet, it was a big deal. Now that they were civilly married, the Martínezes could finally get baptized. We had their baptism set for the next day. We had also scheduled Mariana, Arranza, and Victoria’s baptisms for the same occasion. Unfortunately, Mariana was not able to get baptized at this time because she was still deciding what to do with respect to her partner. And actually, Victoria told us she wouldn’t be able to get baptized that day either because she was “en sus días” (literally, “in her days”), which I then learned meant she was on her period. We postponed her baptism until the following week. So in the end, it was just Bonifacio, Ana, and Arranza getting baptized that day. Since both of the Martínezes got baptized, they had the potential to work towards getting sealed in the temple, so it was very exciting for us.

Elder Nájera, the Martínez family, and myself at the civil register after the Martínezes’ civil wedding.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Pres. Hinckley’s Funeral

January 27, 2008 – February 6, 2008

The morning of January 28th, which was a P-day, we got a call from the mission offices informing us that the then-prophet and president of the church, Gordon B. Hinckley, had passed away. At the age of 97, he had been in declining health for several years, so while it wasn’t particularly surprising, it was still significant news for all of us. Pres. Hinckley was the only president of the church that I’d grown up with. I’d been too young to remember either of his two predecessors, so having the presidency of the church change felt very strange to me.

When the prophet dies, the next-most senior apostle takes his place. He selects two new counselors, and a new person is called to fill the most junior seat in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. There’s no election or political vying, so there’s no confusion over who the prophet is. At the next General Conference, the entire membership of the church has the chance to give a sustaining vote to the new leadership. In this case, Thomas S. Monson was the most senior apostle, so we knew he would be called to be the next president of the church.

Pres. Hinckley’s passing affected us in a couple of ways. First, we had to get used to presenting Pres. Monson to investigators as the current-day prophet rather than Pres. Hinckley. This was something we almost always did during our initial lesson with a new investigator, so it was easy to get stuck on autopilot and talk about Pres. Hinckley if we weren’t paying close enough attention.

The other way was that the church held a funeral for Pres. Hinckley in Salt Lake City that they televised to congregations all over the world. Our mission president told us that we should plan on attending the broadcast, which was a couple of days later.

The funeral ended up being sort of like a session of General Conference. There were lots of senior church officials that spoke, as well as members of Pres. Hinckley’s family. They even held the funeral in the same place as Conference. While I didn’t have any personal connection to Pres. Hinckley, watching the funeral service made me feel old, like part of my childhood had been torn away. Pres. Monson would be the prophet during my adulthood, not Pres. Hinckley.

The broadcast also included shots of the procession through downtown Salt Lake City. Ironically, this may have been the part of the whole event that affected me the most. There were shots of mountains on the horizon and snow on the ground, which made me miss home for the first time in a while. Unlike a lot of missionaries, I generally hadn’t felt very homesick; there were things that I missed from home, but it was never something that really made me feel down. I was definitely culture shocked, but it usually didn’t make me want to go home. But something about seeing mountains and snow and familiar locations on the screen made me “trunky,” which is missionary slang for thinking too much about going home (as in, they’ve already packed their trunk). Feeling trunky usually means that the missionaries aren’t as effective because they aren’t focusing enough on the work they need to do. Thankfully, I didn’t stay trunky for too long after the funeral was over.

Right around this same time were transfers in the mission again. This time, though, nothing really changed for me. Elder Nájera and I would both be staying at least another six weeks in our area. I had figured this was the most likely result, but transfers days always held a bit of wonder for most missionaries. Lots of missionaries in my mission spent transfers nights trying to guess where they or their companion might get sent next. But this time the only thing that changed in our district was that Elder Schwarting was being transferred to Veracruz to be the new assistant to the president, and we would be getting a new zone leader, Elder Schamaun.

Starting a new transfer also meant that it was time for zone conferences again. I’ve already talked a lot about zone conferences in previous posts, and this was a fairly typical one, so I won’t go into a lot of detail this time, but I will mention that this was when I finally got most of the packages that people had sent me for Christmas. Packages take a long time to go from the states to Mexico, and any mail that arrives has to sit at the mission offices in Veracruz until the missionaries that work there have some reason to travel to the other zones (like a zone conference). In this case, I didn’t get my Christmas mail until early February. But I did get a lot of it.

Elder Nájera and me with my big stack of Christmas packages.

To be fair, one of those packages was a mission-provided box of Books of Mormon to give to investigators, and another was a box of caramel treats that I won as a prize during the zone conference. During normal zone conferences where we aren’t rushed, the missionaries would play pesquisas, a scripture-chase game where one missionary starts reading the text of an obscure verse of scripture somewhere in the Book of Mormon. Everyone else has to try to locate the scripture in their own book without getting a reference or any other context. I had played games like this before my mission, but the scriptures involved had always been well-known, important verses, and they were usually from a set list that was known beforehand. I assume the point of this version of the game was to incentivize the missionaries to be studying the Book of Mormon all the time.

The first time I saw the missionary version of this, I was pretty impressed that people could find them at all. It was usually no more than a few seconds before someone found the quoted verse. The first person to find it got to choose from a nice selection of Mexican and American treats. When I played this time, I won one of the rounds and got the orange package of Hojaldradas, which are a pair of big wafers with thick caramel in between them. They made for a nice pick-me-up whenever we got home in the evenings.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Ghost Town Showdown

January 2, 2008 – January 31, 2008

A silly video I took of myself one cold morning in Xalapa. I’m wearing one of the abandoned sweaters I found in our apartment.

When you first get your mission call, the church sends you a packet which has information about the mission and a list of supplies you’re expected to bring along with you. When I got mine, it told me to bring things like a coat and a sweater. At the time, I didn’t own a dressy coat or sweaters, and based on my experience in tropical places, I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t need them anyway, so I didn’t bother to get one. In fact, I probably would have been fine, except for the fact that my first area ended up being in Xalapa, one of the few cool climates in the mission. November was fine, but December had a few days that were chilly enough that I would have liked a sweater.

By January, I couldn’t ignore how cold it was. The humid weather was totally different than anything I’d experienced growing up in Colorado. Back home, 50-degree days in January were shorts weather. Here in Xalapa, 50 degrees felt much colder, and if we got rained on, then I spent the rest of the day wet, which made things even worse.

Another issue which I hadn’t considered was the fact that no buildings in Veracruz had any insulation, let alone heating. Even the nicest homes were just concrete caves that got hot when it was hot out and cold when it was cold out. On winter mornings, it was generally colder inside our apartment than outside since all the heat escaped during the night and didn’t warm up until the sun was higher in the sky.

Long story short, I was cold. But our apartment was still full of ancient junk left behind by years of previous missionaries, so I started looking through the closets and other storage to see if there was something I could use. I eventually found a couple of sweaters that fit well enough to not be embarrassing. They weren’t the nicest ones I’d ever seen, but they worked. I was glad to have them; they spared me from having to go buy one from somewhere, and I hated shopping for clothes enough that I might have just tried to make do without one.

One of these cold mornings, Elder Nájera and I decided to go explore a part of our area that we’d never visited before. For some reason, the experience sticks in my mind as a warm, nostalgic memory, even though it was actually cold and windy. It was a small neighborhood called La Loma (“the hill”) not far from where we lived that was, unsurprisingly, isolated on top of a nearby hill. We hiked up the road to La Loma, and when we got to the top, a breeze had blown in a thick fog. Between the fog, the cold, and the isolated area, there was almost no one out in the streets; it almost felt like walking into a ghost town.

We started knocking on doors trying to see if anyone was interested in talking to us. We didn’t have much success this time. After about an hour and a half, we finally had a family invite us in. It seemed very promising. The father and mother were both present (which was ideal, but rare), and I believe at least one of their kids was there, too. They were very polite and offered us drinks before the discussion. We started teaching roughly the same way we always did; talking (among other things) about how God is our Father, how He loves us and teaches us through prophets, and how He had also called new prophets in modern times. At this point, the father cut in and started asking pointed questions based on verses from the Bible. It was only at this point that I noticed the translation version that he was using. It was a New World Translation. In fact, the mother and their child were also each holding their own copies. I realized we were talking to a family of devout Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the next several minutes, Elder Nájera and I found ourselves trying to answer questions from the whole family that were backed up by scriptures that seemed to contradict what we’d been trying to teach.

To be clear, Mormon missionaries are happy to talk to all types of people, from any background, religious or not. I wasn’t offended by this family’s religious beliefs, or by their desire to share and defend them. After all, that’s what we were out doing every day! Not all the Jehovah’s Witnesses I met were like this family, and obviously not everyone that wanted to debate with us on my mission were Jehovah’s Witnesses. But in this case I felt kind of intimidated. This wasn’t the first time I’d met with people looking to debate theology with us; but it was the first time since Elder Guerra had gone home, so I wasn’t sure of the best way to approach the discussion. It was very tense for me. When they cited Bible verses that seemed to make our beliefs look wrong, I threw out other verses that made theirs look wrong. When they asked us loaded questions, I wanted to return the favor. It felt to me as though we were the last line of defense of the truth, so we had to “hold our ground.”

All in all, it was a big waste of our time and theirs. In the heat of the moment, it was hard for me to say, “Okay, we respect your beliefs and appreciate your inviting us in; we probably need to get going now.” I wanted to prove them wrong, as though doing so would somehow convince them that our church was the right one, and they’d get baptized and love us forever. In reality, anything we said in the context of this heated debate was just going to offend them and make them less open to listening to Mormons in the future. The best I can say about my involvement was that it was a learning experience for me. I did my best to never let a gospel discussion get that contentious again.

It also gave me a bit more empathy for all the people that we talked to that really weren’t interested in hearing our message. It can be uncomfortable to have someone push their religious beliefs onto you, so it’s important to share your beliefs in a way that respects everyone’s right to choose for themselves. And if someone isn’t interested, we should just be respectful and move along, and not get hung up on it. One of the best things about the way missionaries work is that they invite people to learn a little bit and then pray to ask God to help them know for themselves that what they’re learning is true. That way there’s no need for this kind of heated debate.

Friday, February 27, 2015


January 15, 2008 – January 27, 2008

A little bit of missionary humor. This is the front door of an apartment we stopped at. The sticker in the top left says “I accept! It’s that easy,” but the icon of the Virgin of Guadalupe indicates that this family is Catholic, and probably not very interested in receiving Mormon missionaries.

Elder Nájera and I had a few setbacks during the early part of 2008. Our area was very large, so we had to plan our appointments carefully to make sure that we weren’t spending too much time and money taking buses between different neighborhoods. Several of our investigators had lost interest in listening us, or in coming to church, so we had to stop teaching them to free up time with others. In some missions in the world, the people are much less open to listening to Mormon missionaries, so when missionaries find people that want to listen to them, they’re able to spend more time with each of their investigators, and probably don’t decide to stop visiting them unless the investigator asks them to. One of the tricky things about my mission was that there were always a fair number of people that were willing to listen to us, so we had to learn to prioritize our lessons based on who seemed most likely to progress toward joining the church. It was nice to know that we would eventually find people that wanted to be baptized, but it was still hard to stop visiting people with whom we’d already formed relationships just to go back to going door-to-door and street contacting again.

When Elder Guerra went home, the leadership in our district changed. Elder Guerra had been the district leader, the one responsible for a few pairs of missionaries and teaching a weekly training meeting. When he left, the sister missionaries in the area next to ours were also transferred, and two new elders, Elder Tovar and Elder Eduardo, replaced them. Elder Tovar was the new district leader. Elder Eduardo was a new missionary, fresh from an MTC in Mexico City. Unlike the MTC in Provo, the Mexican MTC was small, and only hosted missionaries bound for missions in Mexico that already spoke Spanish fluently. Today, that MTC has been replaced by a much larger one, also in Mexico City, that hosts a wider variety of missionaries.

The Xalapa Zone after a district meeting in January 2008. Standing: Elders Eduardo, Lindsay, Nájera, Breceda, Calzada, Bowman, Bada. Sitting: Elders Hernández, Schwarting, Alonzo, Sharp, Durán, and Kowalski. Not pictured: Elder Tovar.

Elder Eduardo’s presence meant that I was technically no longer “the new guy,” but he was probably still more effective than me since he was more familiar with the language and the culture. We did a couple of rounds of splits with Elders Tovar and Eduardo, and I got to work with Elder Eduardo. It was simultaneously cool and intimidating to work with each other since we had so little experience between the two of us. We didn’t always know what to do, but we managed to muddle through our lessons. I was glad I’d had the experience of doing splits with the local teenagers in Alborada, so it wasn’t quite as hard as it would have been otherwise.

Another one of my difficulties during this time was my impatience with my own progress and situation. As a junior companion, I was constantly doing things wrong, and I didn’t feel very great about my own abilities. In retrospect, I think I was craving recognition and praise. I had grown up as the oldest child in my family and was used to being good at the things I tried to do and being congratulated for it. I’d done well in high school and had also just come off a successful freshman year of college the year before. Compared to these victories, being stuck in a foreign country talking to people about my religion took me out of my comfort zone and made me feel kind of defeated about my own abilities.

The unfortunate result of this struggle was that I started to fantasize about being assigned to a leadership position. The LDS church uses a lay clergy. Teachers and leaders in the church aren’t paid for their service, so they have to hold normal jobs in addition to the time they devote to church service. This also means that there’s no career clergy, so leaders and teachers and all other types of positions in the church are filled by extending callings, or assignments to specific positions.

We’re taught not to covet specific callings just because we want to be recognized as important. This is kind of backwards from much of the business world, where ambition and drive to get a promotion can be seen as a good thing. Most of the time this isn’t a problem since the “higher” positions in the church just require more of your time and still offer no compensation, so theres really no reason to want them. But in this case, I really did want to be assigned to be a leader, probably because I felt insecure about my abilities. I knew it was wrong, but it’s still how I felt.

I did my best to channel my ambition into trying to become a better missionary. Brother Toledo, my MTC instructor, had given each of his students a packet of notes he’d drawn up for a training meeting when he was a missionary. It was titled “How to Be an Effective Leader,” but it had lots of good general missionary advice drawn from Preach My Gospel and supplemented with his own experience. I read through it again and felt motivated to try to apply some of its suggestions.

A few people around me had also unknowingly contributed to my interest in leadership by mentioning that they thought I’d eventually become a leader in the mission. Brother Toledo was actually the first. He had been a fantastic instructor, and I had a lot of respect towards him, but that also meant that when he said I’d probably be a leader, I believed him and took it as a deep praise, when it was probably just meant to inspire me to be better. It happened again in Xalapa when the zone leaders surprised us with an evening visit. They stopped by just to talk to us and get a sense of how the work was going in our area and within our companionship. While they were talking to me, Elder Breceda said I’d probably become a leader in the mission eventually. Elder Nájera said the same thing during one of our study sessions one morning when he could tell I was getting frustrated with my teaching ability. Each of these occasions made me want to be a leader even more.

To be clear, I’m not including this issue in my blog to brag about my leadership potential; I’m including it simply because it was a real part of how I was feeling during this time. I’m actually pretty embarrassed to admit how much I thought about it back then. The best I can say for myself is that I did try to keep my feelings to myself. I knew it was wrong for me to be jealous of others’ leadership positions, so I never talked about wanting one. More than anyone else, Elder Nájera probably suffered for my pride. It’s not easy to be companions with someone who thinks he’s too good for his position, and I’m sorry to say that Elder Nájera had to deal with my bad attitude more frequently than I’d like to admit. In retrospect, I’m glad he was so patient with me, even when I wasn’t patient with myself.