Sunday, March 10, 2013


March 2007 – September 5, 2007

I didn’t keep a regular journal until more than a month into my mission. The first four and a half weeks are missing, so my memory of them is pretty hazy. It’s a shame, too, because the first few days are brutal; everything was unfamiliar, and I found was working harder than I’d ever worked before. That said, I’ll try to recall as much as I can about leaving home and starting out.

Becoming a missionary is actually quite a process. When you become a missionary, you’re an official representative of the church, and, we believe, of Jesus Christ himself, so it’s a title church members take seriously. Today, men can be missionaries starting at 18, and women starting at 19. When I was a missionary, men had to be 19, and women 21. Prospective missionaries have to begin the application process many months before they actually become one. I scheduled a series of meetings with my bishop (the local congregation leader) sometime in late winter of 2007. Your bishop talks to you about your experience with the church, your financial situation (where possible, missionaries and their families are expected to fund their own missions) your familiarity with the scriptures (the Book of Mormon and the Bible), your worthiness (adherence to church standards of behavior), and your testimony (your personal conviction in the doctrines the church teaches). If any of these areas are weaker than they should be, the bishop helps you make goals and plans to strengthen them or make the necessary changes before proceeding in the application.

The application itself is as long as any college application. Most of it is just biographical, but it does take some time to fill out. It asks you whether you’ve had any foreign language training, and it asks you to rate how much you would enjoy serving abroad. Beyond that, missionary applicants have no say in where they go. In my case, I had taken several years of Spanish in school and said I preferred to go to a foreign country. When I finished filling it all out, I submitted it online, and my bishop and stake president (another local leader who oversees several bishops and congregations) submitted their approval as well. The complete application gets processed by church headquarters in Salt Lake City, UT. Based on the information in the application, and after asking God to help them know where each applicant should serve, very senior church officers assign each applicant to a mission.

My mission call in its envelope.

I received my mission assignment in a large envelope on May 11, 2007, several weeks after submitting my application. Opening mission calls are often a big deal for LDS families. I waited until my dad got home from work to be able to open it with everyone present. When I started reading aloud the letter telling me where I would be serving, I couldn’t help it; my eyes glanced down the page and saw I was headed for Mexico. When I my mouth caught up with my eyes, I read the full mission name: the Mexico Veracruz Mission. I had taken years of Spanish and knew how to pronounce it, but I was so nervous I pronounced the V in Veracruz as an F (as though it were German). I remember being embarrassed since both my parents also speak Spanish, so they probably knew I butchered it. They were gracious enough not to say anything, though.

Mexico! Okay, I thought. Most of my male friends at BYU were leaving that summer on missions as well, and lots of them had gotten calls to exotic places like Russia, Italy, and Spain. I had hoped I would go somewhere equally “cool.” I’m embarrassed to say it now, but at the time, I kind of dismissed Latin America as a boring or at least a typical place to serve a mission. I was happy I got to go abroad, and I knew my Spanish would be useful, but to be honest, back then I would have preferred to have been called to somewhere different (I had no idea how wrong I was).

I knew where Mexico was, of course, but I had never heard of Veracruz before. I got on to Wikipedia to do some research about my new home for the next two years. Veracruz, it turned out, was the largest city in a Mexican state of the same name. I never figured out why missions are named backwards; they’re always referred to by the country (or state, if in the U.S.) and then the city, rather than the other way around, so I was going to the “Mexico Veracruz Mission” in the city of Veracruz, Mexico.

I don’t remember much from what I read then, but I remember the article said it was a “musical city” with a losing soccer team. Okay. I also deduced that it would be really hot there. I grew up in Denver, CO, where it gets warm (what I used to call “hot”) in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s also arid, so humidity is rarely an issue. Veracruz would be none of this. It would be hot and humid all year long. Okay. Oh, and one more thing: I wouldn’t get to start my mission until September 5th, almost four months from then. I had said I would be ready to leave in June, but again, that’s something that applicants don’t really get to control. So now I would have to keep on waiting through the summer to get on with the next phase of my life. Okay.

“Wait” is about all I can say I did for the rest of that summer. I had hoped that my mission would take me away within about a month, just enough time to say goodbye to friends and get the remaining things in order. That hope turned into laziness as I wasted away the extra months my mission call had given me. I never got a job, was bored most of every day, and only hung out with friends a couple of times a week in the evenings. I read a lot of books, but it didn’t keep me from feeling sluggish and lonely. I had made lots of new, close friends at BYU, but they weren’t in Denver with me. I lived for the time I could spend with my high school friends, as that was the extent of my occupation for the next few months. In retrospect, I definitely should have gotten a job, if only to keep busy. Sitting around being lazy all day doesn’t make you feel like you’re a very worthwhile person. It was probably the worst summer of my life, and it was all my own fault. I did learn my lesson, though.

Finally (and I mean finally), September began to approach. My friends threw a “fiesta” for me and took me to Chipotle the week before I left. There was a piñata and everything. I had submitted the paperwork to get a Mexican visa. My parents had bought me new clothes and a few other necessary items, but you don’t bring much on a mission. Missionaries have very limited access to most of the distractions we surround ourselves with, like cell phones, iPods, TV, and computers, so you don’t have to bring much of anything beyond clothes and your personal copy of the scriptures.

The Sunday before I left, I gave my “farewell” talk in church. Each week, the bishop asks a couple of members of the ward to speak in the meeting. Departing missionaries are almost always asked to speak shortly before they leave. Some people invite their friends to come hear them speak. I was too shy, but I wish I had, now. I remember I was asked to speak on faith. I repeated an explanation of faith I learned from my biology professor at BYU: Draw a giant oval. This represents all the knowledge of everything in the universe. Now draw a tiny circle somewhere inside the oval. This represents what we’ve learned about the universe through science. Now draw another tiny circle somewhere else inside the oval. This represents what we’ve learned about the universe though religious teaching. Just because we don’t see how those circles connect and support one another doesn’t mean they don’t somehow. When my rational doubts make me question my religious beliefs, I remind myself that faith is what lets me accept both stories about the universe: the scientific one, and the religious one, even when, on their face, they appear to contradict one another. I still think that’s a great way to think about faith, though I’m pretty sure that’s the only thing I remember from that bio class.

A few days later, on the night of September 3rd, 2007, my family and I went to our stake president’s house so that I could be set apart as a missionary. A setting apart is a ceremony in the church where a church leader gives another member the authority to perform a certain duty in the church, by putting his hands gently on the member’s head. After a brief explanation about why what I was doing was important, Stake President Millet put his hands on my head and set me apart as a missionary in the Mexico Veracruz Mission.

But not so fast; you don’t just show up in Mexico ready to go. Instead, missionaries are first sent to one of several Missionary Training Centers (MTCs) around the world to teach them the language and general missionary way of life. At the time, the largest MTC was located in Provo, UT, right on the BYU campus, only a few minutes’ walk from where I’d lived just a few months earlier. So at this point I actually wasn’t headed to Mexico, but Utah. The day after my setting apart, my parents brought me to the airport and said goodbye. I actually don’t remember the sendoff; I think only my mom was there since everyone else had to be at work or school. Sitting in the airport concourse waiting for my flight, I found myself with nothing to do, so I opened up a notebook and wrote my only true journal entry of the first month of my mission.

The entry shows some of the anxiety I was feeling:

I’m doing my best to let go of things. I’ve done a pretty good job of saying goodbye to most people, and I’m not sad, at least at the moment. My biggest problem will be to stop thinking about myself. I tend to think of things in terms of how they affect me, and I think that needs to change in order to be successful on the mission.

I went on to talk about how I wished I were going straight to Mexico rather than back to Utah. I knew this was the right thing for me to be doing, but in reality I knew almost nothing about what my daily life would be like, so it was hard for me to get truly excited about starting.

That night, I stayed with my grandparents in Salt Lake City. The next day, September 5th, 2007, they drove me down to Provo and walked into the MTC with me. I’d never been there before. There was a huge crowd of people there, full of families dropping off their missionaries. As soon as you walk in, the first thing you do is sign in, where they give you your black missionary nametag, which you wear from that point on at any time you’re not in your own bedroom, basically. At least when I was there, they then took everyone (the missionaries with their families) into a large room with lots of chairs set up. Almost as soon as we walked in, a large, tall MTC administrator came up to me and asked if I would say the opening prayer for the meeting. I said sure. They asked everyone to sit down; I walked up to the podium, said the prayer, and sat back down with my grandparents.

I can’t remember if they showed a video at this time or not. Maybe there were just other MTC admins speaking. I do remember it was a pretty short meeting. At the end, they had missionaries go out one door, and families to go out another. From here on, the mission starts, ready or not. 

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