Saturday, November 23, 2013

Contacts, Kisses, and Confirmations

November 28, 2007 – December 2, 2007

The Christmas decorations at the cathedral in downtown Xalapa. The man in the banner is Rafael Guízar y Valencia, a Catholic bishop in Xalapa that had been canonized (made a saint) only a year earlier. We knew his face from all the houses with stickers in their windows that said “En este hogar SOMOS CATÓLICOS” (“In this home, WE ARE CATHOLICS”). The idea was to keep missionaries like us from knocking on their door. We usually ignored them.

As I mentioned in the “Practice and Patience” post, one of the toughest things for me to do as a missionary was street contacting. I didn’t like the idea of interrupting people who had things to do and places to be and, at least on average, didn’t want to talk to us. But it’s a really important way for missionaries to meet people that might be interested in the church. The handful of interested people you find that way makes all the rejections worth it, in the end.

There were also some cultural barriers that made street contacting more difficult for me. The parts of Mexico I lived in weren’t very diverse. In my whole time in Xalapa, I think I saw maybe two non-missionaries that I thought were probably white Americans. Being a blond, six-foot-tall white guy wearing a white shirt and tie, I already felt like I was under the microscope most of the time. The last thing I wanted to do was attract more attention by stopping random people in the street to talk to them. Lots of teenagers would yell little phrases at us in English they’d learned from watching movies. Most of these were vulgar, of course. There were lots of times throughout my mission where I seriously considered dying my hair black to see if it would make me stand out a little less. (Of course there was no way to hide my height.) The reality is that a lot of good missionary opportunities come from looking different than everyone else. A lot of people recognize us as Mormons, so if we’re polite and hard-working like we’re supposed to be, it gives people a positive impression of the Church.

Sometimes, people took one look at me and assumed I didn’t speak any Spanish. One time my companion started a conversation with a man on the street. He explained what our message was about and why it could be a blessing in this man’s life. I wanted to support what he was saying but couldn’t think of anything substantial to add, so when my companion finished his pitch, I just smiled and said, “¡Sí!” The man glanced up at me, and then turned back to my companion and said, “Él no habla nada de español, ¿verdad?” (“He doesn’t speak any Spanish, huh?”) The worst part about the whole thing was that I knew I spoke pretty darn good Spanish for a missionary who’d only been out as long as I had, but my shyness about contacting made me nervous and uncertain when it was time to make a first impression.

Elder Guerra was an experienced missionary trainer, and he was really good about contacting. He would initiate conversations with tons of people, and he would often pause after starting and look to me to finish it, so that I’d get some experience. He also would tell me things like, Okay, this next one’s all yours, as we were walking towards someone, to make me get used to doing it myself, too. Still, though, I regularly struggled to reach the goals we set for street contacting. It never got easy for me.

Elder Guerra and I doing weekly planning for our area. Some previous missionaries must have bought that little Christmas tree. Elder Guerra found it and decided it was time to set it up.

Once a week, each missionary companionship takes a couple of hours to review the results of their work and make plans for the next week. We would go through all the people or families that we were teaching and figure out what the next things we needed to teach them were and which commitments we would invite them to make (like coming to church with us or giving up coffee, for example).

This process can take a long time, and a lot of missionaries I met thought it was boring and pretty useless. But it could be helpful if you did it right. This time, I looked through the records previous missionaries had left behind and found the names of several people that had listened to the missionaries previously but hadn’t been able to progress towards baptism for whatever reason. We decided to try contacting some of them to see if they’d be interested in having us teach them again.

Later that day we went to visit the Guerreros and help them get ready for their upcoming baptism. Joel let us in, but this time his wife wouldn’t come listen to us. Instead we only got to teach Joel and his two older children. Joel himself also seemed hesitant towards us. We asked when we could schedule a baptismal interview for him, but he said he was busy the whole rest of the week. We offered to come earlier than usual to be able to catch him before he went to work, and he finally accepted. We were glad, but it made us nervous for them.

The next day I swapped places with Elder Schwarting, one of our zone leaders, for the day. He went to Alborada with Elder Guerra so he could interview Ana, Karina, and the Guerreros, and I went to his area, Américas, with his companion, Elder Breceda. This was my first time doing splits in another area, and it was really interesting.

They didn’t have a lot of appointments during the day, so we mostly knocked on doors and did street contacting in the morning. We taught a few first lessons to new investigators, but I knew that I probably wouldn’t see them again because I was only there for the day. Still, I did my best to work sincerely and to enjoy a chance to learn from Elder Breceda directly. He was upbeat and very knowledgeable whenever someone asked us a question.

It was also refreshing to have something of a clean slate with Elder Breceda. He’d never seen me teach to real people before, so when it was my turn to teach one of the lesson points, I didn’t feel like I had to perform in a certain way. I was less self-conscious, and I think it helped me teach better. The nice thing is that I was able to carry some of that confidence back to my area with me when I went home.

One of the few specifics I remember from that day in Américas was when we visited one of the investigators Elder Breceda and Elder Schwarting had already taught. I don’t remember much from the lesson itself, but I remember the woman we were teaching was very friendly and seemed happy we were teaching her. After the lesson we set an appointment for the next visit, and I mentioned that I wouldn’t be there next time because I’d be going back to my area. When she heard this, she walked right up to me, hugged me, and did one of those kiss-greetings where you put your cheeks together and kiss the air next to the other person’s head. It’s as normal as a handshake for Mexicans, but I’d never done this before and had no idea what was going on until it was already over.

In my mission it was a well-established rule that missionaries didn’t hug people of the opposite sex, ever. The most friendly you were allowed to be was a firm handshake. While that probably sounds odd enough by itself, the weirdest thing about this rule is that it’s not even in the handbook. It says not to flirt or be alone with anyone of the opposite sex, but as far as I can tell, it doesn’t say anything about how you can greet them. I guess it all goes back to the MTC, where our branch president told us to not hug any of the sister missionaries. But my whole mission I just assumed it was somewhere in the handbook. That assumption made a lot of moments like this one, where the woman knows nothing about missionary rules, much more awkward than they needed to be.

Inter-area splits between missionaries often last twenty-four hours, so that the leader has more time to train the other missionary and can get a better picture of how they’ve been working on their own. That meant I would be spending the night in Américas with Elder Breceda and wouldn’t go home until after our study hours the next morning. The Américas elders lived in a very different apartment than ours. Theirs was a studio, so everything was in the same room, but it was spacious and clean.

The best thing about inter-area splits is that you’re usually happy to start them, and you’re usually happy to end them, too. It’s refreshing to get a chance to work with someone else, learn from them, and get yourself out of any ruts you might be stuck in, but it’s also nice to return to your companion and go back to what you’re familiar with. When I got back to Alborada, I learned that Ana and Karina were both ready for their baptisms that day, but that the Guerreros, unsurprisingly, were not.

Ana, Elder Guerra, Karina, and myself at their baptism.

Karina, and then Ana, were baptized that evening. Unlike Ray, they became members of our ward, so we saw them many more times after this. My journal says that the service went well, and that I thought they could feel the Spirit and the importance of their choice.

The next day, Ana and Karina got confirmed in church. One at a time, during sacrament meeting, they came to the front of the room, and authorized members of the church (in this case, the bishop and his counselors, though it doesn’t have to be them) put their hands on each of their heads to confirm them as members of the church and to give them the gift of the Holy Ghost. While anyone, member of the Church or not, can feel the influence of the Holy Ghost, we believe that only properly confirmed members enjoy the gift of the Holy Ghost, which is the privilege of having the Holy Ghost’s constant companionship. Through the Holy Ghost (which we also call the Holy Spirit or just the Spirit), members can tell right from wrong more easily and can receive personal inspiration to be able to feel when spiritual teachings are true or not. This means that having the gift of the Holy Ghost is a great help to new members of the church because it helps keep them pointed along God’s path for them.

While we were happy about Ana and Karina, we were also sad because none of the Guerreros came to church that day. In fact, none of the people we’d been teaching came. We’d been praying that at least someone would come, though, and we were surprised to see that there was a man at church that we’d never met. Someone had just invited him along, so we got in contact with him and asked to visit. It was an answer to our prayers.

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