Saturday, May 10, 2008


The MTC (missionary training center) was essentially part of the BYU campus. It was located at the north end of campus and it's facilities and services were provided by the university, which is also owned and run by the church. It was a cluster of modern tan brick buildings surrounded by a tall chain link fence. It was completely self contained so that the only reason missionaries had to leave was to go across the street to the temple or down to campus for haircuts at the BYU barber. It had dormitories, class rooms, a large cafeteria, laundry facilities, a large gymnasium with a full basketball court and three volleyball courts and weight room, and a huge auditorium that could hold all of the missionaries in the MTC at once.

Missionaries who were going to English speaking missions were in the MTC for 2 weeks to memorize the missionary discussions (lessons) and practice basic missionary skills. Then they were quickly off to their mission to learn on the job from an experience senior companion.

Missionaries who were called to foreign language missions stayed in the MTC for 8 weeks of total language immersion. The first two days were spent learning the basics of their new language and instructors and missionaries were allowed to speak English. The third day was known as Helen Keller Day. On that day English was no longer permitted except for emergencies and as a result most communication for the first week or more was done with ineffective gesticulation and grunts. Missionaries learning Romance or Germanic languages had a much easier time because the languages share a common alphabet and word roots with English. But missionaries going to the far east to China, Japan, or Korea had a much tougher time and often left the MTC only knowing a few rudimentary phrases and one discussion. It wasn't uncommon for Spanish speaking missionaries to leave after two months with all seven discussions memorized and basic conversational skills.

One of the first orders of business was to pay for my stay at the MTC. We were all volunteers and I brought a personal check from my parents to cover my MTC expenses. No check; no admittance. In the first week or so some of us received additional vaccinations that were required by our missions but weren’t commonly available. In my case I still had to get a yellow fever vaccination and a gamma globulin shot for hepatitis. The yellow fever shot was no big deal, but the gamma shot was something else. It was affectionately known as the peanut butter shot because the serum was so thick. It was fairly large in volume too so it had to go in a large muscle like the buttocks or thigh. They stuck me in the butt and I could feel the large lump. Gamma wasn’t a vaccination but it was supposed to boost your immune system. In our mission we had to get a booster every 3 to 6 months.

The MTC turned out to be the highlight of my mission. I've always been a bookworm and a loner and the monastic lifestyle suited me. The accommodations were comfortable and clean. The food was plentiful and healthy even if it was cafeteria food. We got an hour of exercise and recreation every day except Sunday in the gym. Other than that we spent the remaining time in classrooms. We woke up at 6:00 am, ate breakfast and went to a morning class. Then we had lunch followed by class all afternoon with a break for gym. Then we had supper and all evening was a review class. All our classes were taught by BYU students who were returned missionaries from Spanish speaking missions. Our morning teacher was a very cute red headed sister who'd served in Peru, our afternoon teacher was a towering, slim BYU basketball player who'd served in the mountains of Chile, and our evening teacher was a friendly, bespectacled linguistics major who loved to joke around as he helped us review what we'd learned during the day.

The only break from the routine was preparation day (P-day). On that day we were supposed to attend the temple and then we could do our laundry, write letters home, get our hair cut, and take care of any shopping we needed to do. But we had to stay with our companions and were supposed to visit with friends or family. I stuck to the rules and didn't go visit my friends or girlfriend even though they were only a mile away. I know other missionaries who snuck off, but I think it was the exception.

The environment was one of isolation and conformity. It was a very disciplined, structured academic religious environment. We all dressed the same, had the same rules and schedule, and the same goals. I was raised in a military family and somehow I dropped right into a comfort zone. The leaders noticed and I was made an assistant to the branch president for our missionary branch. This was something of a big deal to me at the time and I felt blessed to be noticed although in retrospect it wasn't really a big deal. I was basically the person in charge of keeping an eye on the missionaries in the branch and serving as the liaison between the branch presidency and the missionaries. I think the most exciting thing I had to do was notify the elders that they weren’t supposed to gather in the true order of prayer taught in the temple. Apparently one group had been meeting each night in a prayer circle like in the temple including giving all of the temple signs and tokens.

The MTC was organized into branches of about 80 missionaries and each branch was composed of several districts that had 8 to 10 missionaries. Each district had the same schedule and went to classes together for the entire 8 weeks. We had 5 elders and 4 sisters in our district. All 5 of us elders were going to Bolivia. The sisters were going to Columbia. We got to know each other quite well and were lucky that we all got along. I think that I annoyed some of the elders with my gung ho attitude, but all I remember was a strong feeling of love and camaraderie between everyone. Without outside distractions it was very easy to focus on our studies and try very hard to live the gospel.

It wasn’t all work and no play. I loved playing basketball and looked forward to gym each day. The long days meant we played hard for the short time we had. Gym started off with Timed-X, a calisthenics program the church had for the missionaries to help them stay in shape, but after that we were on our own. I somehow managed to tear muscles in the arch of my foot while making a cut during a basketball game. They actually had a trainer and could get the foot taped each day so I could keep playing. Then a week later I did the same thing to my other foot. My feet still hurt when I left for Bolivia. But I was lucky. One elder blew his knee out and had to go home to get surgery.

The evening review classes could get goofy after a long day of studying. Our review teacher helped several classes so we were often alone and unsupervised. This allowed us to sometimes visit in English and joke around. The starchy cafeteria food the nasty side effect of giving us all a lot of gas. One evening Elder Follows and I had our own symphony going so we decided to have a contest to see who could fart the most times in a half hour. Everyone joined in and soon the classroom was almost unliveable. I don’t remember who won, but the winning count was in the 30s.

When non-Mormons learn I was a missionary in Bolivia they often ask why I chose to go there. They seem a little perplexed by my perplexed reaction. Mormon missionaries don't get to choose where they go. They submit their papers to the church and wait to be called. The church then chooses where they go. The calling is personally signed by the prophet and most missionaries , including me, thought that the callings were the result of revelation or inspiration by the prophet. It never occurred to me that it was possible to choose a destination and it certainly never occurred to me to turn down the calling. In fact, I remember in shock when a missionary in my branch at the MTC switched to a different mission because his father complained to the church and refused to let him go to South America.

I was later disappointed to learn that the assignments were done by the missionary department based on the needs of the missions around the world and based on the aptitude and appearance of the missionaries and that the signature of the prophet was done by a signature machine. Knowing what I know of the health risks in places like Bolivia and the atrocious medical care provided to missionaries, I’d never allow one of my children to go there on a church mission. But at the time it would have never occurred to me or my family to do anything other than what the church asked of us.

The selection was aided by scores on a language aptitude test taken as part of the application process. This was an odd test. A local member was the proctor and I was the only person taking the test that day. I arrived at the church and was taken to a classroom. I sat at a desk and was given an answer sheet. Then the proctor put an audio cassette into a tape player and pushed play. For the next thirty or so minutes a disembodied voice would introduce the vocabulary and grammar of a completely made up language so that knowledge of a particular foreign language was no benefit. Then they'd ask questions about the language. They'd say a word or phrase or sentence and then ask what it meant. You selected your answer and then it continued. I might have had some advantage on the test because I'd had three years of high school Spanish and 15 hours (3 semesters) of Russian while I was at BYU. The test was a little like learning Russian (in 30 minutes) which uses a completely different alphabet and which has a very unique grammar. I actually thought it was kind of fun and think I did pretty well. At least I don't remember being particularly lost. I could easily imagine some people being lost pretty quickly.

The church never tells you how you did on the test, but the results affect who gets called to foreign language missions. It's not a sure thing since some missionaries still have a terrible time learning their new language. But it mostly works; missionaries usually become quite fluent in their new language. Later in my mission I learned from one of the office elders that the score becomes part of your missionary file. I asked how I did and was told that he hadn't ever seen anyone with a higher score.

At times those 8 weeks in the MTC felt like they were never going to end, but before we knew it the day of departure neared. Family and friends were allowed to meet missionaries at the airport before they left. I arranged to say goodbye to my girlfriend in the lobby of the MTC since she didn’t have any way to get to the airport. I think this was technically ok, but I was confronted by some officious young mission official as I nervously waited in the lobby with my companion and I got many disapproving looks when my girlfriend arrived. We were only allowed to visit for a few minutes before I had to say one last goodbye and give her a tentative hug and a peck.

The sisters in our district had trouble getting visas to Columbia so they were sent to Houston to wait for their paperwork to clear. The church didn’t have a problem getting missionary visas to Bolivia so the 5 elders in my district left on schedule just after Thanksgiving. We were shuttled off to the airport. My companion’s family and girlfriend and I got to stand awkwardly to the side while he visited until our flight boarded and we flew off to a different world.


Anonymous said...

Bull, great stories about your mission. I downloaded them to my PDA and read them on my flight the other day. Looking forward to more.

BTW, I am running my first marathon on June 1. Just hoping to finish but Sideon says you have run a few, any tips?

erlybird said...

Howya Doin', Bull? My time at the MTC is a complete blur to me now. I can remember some things but not I don't remember going to gym at all...but I must have.

It's funny how you call it the high point of your mission. I guess going to Bolivia differs greatly from going off into the picturesque Jura Mountains of Switzerland for 6 months...and then finishing in the south of France. It was tough, real tough.

I remember my first Xmas there in La Chaux de Fonds...walking in the dark by moonlight with my companion on some little road while the snow fell in huge flakes. Thomas Kincaid's schmaltz could not have done any better. It was unreal.

And every morning when I grabbed a baguette from the Boulangerie and some cheese from the vendor around the corner from our apartment in Toulouse the next spring I almost wept with the gratitude that even though I knew by then I was on my way out of the Church and away from religion I knew that Europe had change my outlook on life for good.