Sunday, March 17, 2013

El Convenio

October 6, 2007 – October 17, 2007

Most of our MTC zone in front of the Provo Temple.

After you get used to the routine, MTC goes from being an exhausting, stressful experience to being one that just seems like it will never end. Those of you reading this blog are probably starting to think the same way (“What’s all this about Utah? I thought he said he went to Mexico!”). For most missionaries, the cabin fever sets in after just a few days and only gets worse the longer you’re there, and I was no different. That said, I do have a few more stories to share about my MTC experience before moving on.

The weekend after English died was General Conference. General Conference is a global, church-wide meeting in which some of the most senior officers in the church speak and teach about different topics in the Gospel. It takes up the better part of the weekend, split into five sessions of two hours each over Saturday and Sunday. It happens twice a year, in April and October. In order to reach all the church membership in the world, the meeting is broadcast by satellite and the internet and translated into different languages. The highlight of Conference is hearing from the president of the church (currently Thomas S. Monson), who we believe to be a prophet in the same vein as figures such as Moses, Peter, and Joseph Smith. Conference is a big event to members of the church.

Anyway, in the MTC, they put all the missionaries together in the auditorium and show Conference on a big projector. Watching Conference in the MTC was the first time that sitting through all five sessions didn’t make me bored and sleepy, probably because the alternative would have been sitting in our classroom, studying. I even took notes on all the talks. One talk felt particularly important to me. Henry B. Eyring, a very senior church officer, spoke about recognizing God’s hand in our lives and the small miracles that happen to us every day, if only we’ll notice. He recommended writing in a journal at the end of every day in order to record those little miracles that are so easy to forget over time. Just a few days later, I bought a new notebook from the MTC store and resolved to write in it every day. I had written journal entries before, but I’d never even attempted to write every day. Looking back, I’m so glad I kept a daily journal. Even if I didn’t write a detailed account of everything I did in a day, having something written down makes it easier to remember other things that happened, and the memories I’ve recorded on my mission and since then have become some of my most prized possessions. Without my journal, this blog would probably have been impossible.

After Conference, it was back to studying. A week and a half after our dear friend English passed away, we were already supposed to be speaking Spanish full-time. But of course that wasn’t really happening. I think all of us were trying, but English’s ghost kept haunting us. It was just so much easier to swap back into English whenever we didn’t know how to say it in Spanish, especially when it was something like an idiom or a joke, something that requires good timing and delivery to make its point. But our instructor, Bro. Toledo, helped us develop our Spanish at a much higher level.

Bro. Toledo teaching in our MTC classroom.

His idea was this: all of us, as a district, decide to never speak English to anyone that understands (or is supposed to understand) Spanish. If we agreed, we should all pray together and make a convenio (a covenant, or promise) to God to follow this method. I don’t remember us being sold on the idea right away, but Bro. Toledo didn’t give up on us. He promised us that if we honestly did it, we’d be fluent by the time we left the MTC. He even included himself in the agreement: since he was just starting to learn English, he agreed that the only time he would speak Spanish would be while working with us at the MTC. In other words, Bro. Toledo, who was not a missionary, just a part-time instructor with a real life outside of his job, agreed to give up speaking his native language, even when he was with his other Hispanic friends that probably preferred to speak Spanish most of the time. This kind of willingness to sacrifice his own convenience just to stand in solidarity with us, a group of run-of-the-mill missionaries he’d met just a few weeks before, was typical of Bro. Toledo. That was just the kind of person he was. We all agreed, kneeled, and promised God we would only speak Spanish from then on, unless we were talking to people who didn't speak Spanish themselves.

If only it were that easy. As far as I was aware, we all managed to not speak English for the rest of that day, though that basically meant that we just talked less altogether since the usual jokes and banter were so impossible to translate that we didn’t have as much to say. My journal entry from the following day reminds me that I was the first person to break the promise. When our alarm went off at 6:15, I yelled across the room to Elder Stojic to see if he was getting up then, or at 6:30 (the latest time allowed). In my groggy state, I forgot to use Spanish to ask him. Oops. I’m pretty sure everyone else broke the promise sometime that day, too.

Thankfully, we didn’t give up on it, though. Instead, we reminded each other if someone let English slip out without thinking about it and tried to help each other with vocab we didn’t know. It was super frustrating at times, but we all took making a promise to God seriously enough that we stuck to it anyway. By forcing ourselves to communicate in halted, misconjugated sentences, we gradually started to learn Spanish for real. I also started to feel closer to the rest of the district at this point. Where I’d previously felt separated from the others, I suddenly found myself with people who were struggling through some of the same difficulties I was, and having made this pact together made me more a part of the group. My district had become less a collection of random strangers and more a group of sincere friends working towards a common goal.

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