Monday, March 25, 2013
November 6, 2007
The Mexico Veracruz Mission more or less as it was when I arrived. This map it very outdated now; about halfway through my mission they combined several zones to make 14 zones into 8. More significantly, since I went home, the mission has been divided twice; once in 2010, creating the Mexico Villahermosa mission, which included the Acayucan, Minatitlán, and Coatzacoalcos zones in the southeast, and again in 2012, creating the Mexico Xalapa Mission, which included the Xalapa and Teziutlán zones.
We spent that morning in the offices getting oriented. The mission president and the assistants explained some rules and policies specific to the mission. I don’t remember everything from this, but there are a couple of things that stick in my mind.
First, Pres. Johnson told me directly that I needed to either put a part in my hair or slick it back with gel (a look that was more popular among Mexican missionaries at the time). I was a little disappointed. Any time before my mission, I would have grumbled about not being able to control my own hairstyle, and I hadn’t had a part in my hair since I was a little kid. But instead of arguing, I just decided to accept it and move on. I promptly went to the bathroom and wet my hair enough to part it. I told myself that doing it would just be an act of faith and obedience to God.
Second, the leaders of the zones in the city of Veracruz itself had come by the offices to pick up the new missionaries and bring them to their areas when they were done with orientation. One of them was named Elder Coleman (which all the Mexicans invariably called “Elder CO-leh-man.” He mentioned that one of the missionaries that would be a trainer to a new missionary arriving that day had been his companion previously. He pointed to his picture on a wall in the offices showing all the missionaries in the mission at the time. According to Elder Coleman, his name was Elder Guerra, and he was one of Elder Coleman’s best friends in the mission. For some reason when I saw Elder Guerra’s photo on the wall, I had a sudden feeling that I would be his companion. It wasn’t a complicated thought, just a feeling that it would be me to work with him.
Third, Pres. Johnson interviewed each of the arriving missionaries to talk to us personally about how we were doing and figure out where to place us. Despite looking and speaking English like an American, Pres. Johnson was actually from Mexico. His hometown was originally founded by Mormon pioneers in the state of Chihuahua. A substantial percentage of his town is of Anglo descent, and many are bilingual in Spanish and English. Before being called to be a mission president, Pres. Johnson owned and operated orchards in Chihuahua.
I had grown up hearing horror stories about awful mission presidents that abused their substantial discretion in managing their missions, so I remember feeling pretty apprehensive around Pres. Johnson that day. From my limited experience with him so far, he seemed to have a very direct and strict demeanor about him. I felt intimidated as I sat down across his desk from him. But I had resolved ahead of time to be an obedient missionary and follow my mission president’s instructions even when I might think he’d made a mistake because I believed that the reason he was the mission president was because God wanted him to be, the same way I believed God wanted me to be a missionary in this particular part of the world.
After getting to know me a little bit, Pres. Johnson asked me what I thought about obeying all the missionary rules. I remember telling him that my time in the MTC had helped me recognize the importance of obedience to the rules and that I would follow them here in the field, too. He thanked me and asked me to send in the next new missionary.
Once Pres. Johnson was doing interviewing all the new people, we got back together in the conference room where he gave us our area and companion assignments. A mission “area” refers to a specific geographic part of the mission, usually associated with one or more local congregations. Generally, only one pair of missionaries works in each area. Pres. Johnson stood up and started telling the new missionaries a little about their new companions (who were not present) and where they would be working.
When he arrived at me, he told me I would be going to an area called Alborada, in the city of Xalapa (pronounced ha-LA-pa, as in jalapeño. The name of the chile just means “from Xalapa”, the way “Chicagoan” means “from Chicago”). Xalapa was a larger city up in the mountains about 100km northwest of Veracruz. My trainer would be Elder Guerra, just as I’d felt he would be. Seeing it actually happen helped me believe more strongly that missionary companions were assigned through divine inspiration, a theme I would see over and over again throughout my mission.
Unfortunately, this spiritual moment got cut short. Pres. Johnson mentioned that I would be Elder Guerra’s last companion since he would finish his mission and go home in just six weeks. Remembering the mission slang I’d learned from Bro. Nelson in the MTC, I responded with a chuckle, “Ah, ¿lo voy a matar, entonces?” (“Ah, so I’m gonna kill him then?” (Since missionaries “die” when they go home, their last companion is said to “kill” them)). I guess I must have expected Pres. Johnson to laugh and think what a confident and well-adjusted new missionary I was. Instead he gave me a surprised but stern, disapproving look. I was so embarrassed. Here I was trying to gain the trust of my new mission president, and I throw out silly mission slang in front of a bunch of other new, impressionable missionaries. I made a feeble recovery attempt: “Pues así dicen, ¿verdad?” (“Well that’s what they say, right?”) Perhaps seeing how embarrassed I was, Pres. Johnson just dismissed the issue and said something like, “Well, yes, I suppose they do....” Not my finest moment. I was happy to get out of there when we were finally ready to go.
The assistants took us to the bus terminal and helped us buy the right tickets to get to our areas. Traveling by bus in Mexico is super easy and super cheap. There are bus terminals in almost every moderately-sized town, and you have a great selection of times to leave for most regional destinations. My ride to Xalapa, which was about an hour and a half away from Veracruz, cost less than ten dollars and left in only a few minutes.
Also traveling on the same bus were Elder Bowen, another new missionary who’d been in another zone at the MTC, and Elder Breceda, who was being transferred from the southern part of the mission to Xalapa. He would be one of our zone leaders there. When I first saw him, I, like many others, thought he was American. He was tall, fair-skinned, and had lighter colored eyes. But then he started talking a million miles an hour in Spanish. I thought I spoke pretty good Spanish for being as new as I was, but I could only pick up about sixty percent of what he was saying. It got a little easier after a while of listening to him once I got used to his accent. Turns out, he was from Chihuahua. That made me feel a little better. At least I wasn’t struggling to understand a gringo’s Spanish. He also told Elder Bowen and I that we were lucky to be going to Xalapa. He explained that there are only two parts of the mission where it gets cool: Xalapa and Tezuitlán, which is even farther north into the mountains. Everywhere else, he said, it’s brutally hot. After spending so much time in the south of the mission, he said, going to Xalapa felt like a reward.
When we got to Xalapa, our new companions were waiting for us. Elder Bowen went with his trainer, Elder Antonio, to their area in Coatepec, a town just outside Xalapa. Elder Breceda went with Elder Schwarting, an American missionary even taller than me, to their area in Xalapa, and I finally got to meet my trainer, Elder Guerra, for the first time. We all exchanged one of those funky Mexican handshake-hugs and split up to go to our areas.
I actually don’t remember very much about our first interactions. I remember he helped me with my bags and explained that he didn’t speak any English at all, really. He’d trained two missionaries already, but both of them had been Mexicans, so he didn’t have much experience teaching Spanish. I tried to reassure him that I spoke pretty decent Spanish already, so I hoped that wouldn’t be too much of a problem. He seemed surprised that I was able to even say that much in Spanish. We took a cab (also very cheap and easy in Mexico) from the bus terminal to our apartment in our area. During the ride, Elder Guerra struck up a conversation with the driver and asked him if he wanted to know more about the church. I think I stayed totally silent. But here I was, actually on the mission for real, now. Next time it would be my turn to talk to the cabbie.