Yesterday I told you about what a fun time I had talking to the sweet old Chilean couple we met over pizza. So today I thought I might tell you a little about my experience in Chile. I went to Chile nine years ago. I had been called to serve an 18-month mission for my church. After two busy months learning Spanish at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, I touched down in Santiago on December 10, 2001. There’s nothing funny about that, except that Utah was snowed over at the time, and in Chile it was nearing midsummer. I remember walking out of the airport in my winter coat, feeling the heat hit me like a wall, and seeing trees covered in glorious purple flowers everywhere. It was like entering Narnia through a wardrobe, only the opposite.
Aside from the fact that Chilean Spanish appeared to bear little resemblance to the more generic Spanish I’d learned in my classes, I didn’t really experience too much culture shock. After all, I’d returned just a few months earlier from half a year spent in the Middle East. Mostly I noticed how many Spanish words seemed to have come directly from Arabic (hard to believe the Moors left Spain over five hundred years ago), and how few clothes everyone was wearing compared to in Syria. Besides us missionaries of course. With our long dresses and propensity to discuss religion, we were often mistaken by the Chileans for nuns. Since missionaries don’t date or do other typical youthful activities while they’re on their missions I guess in a way we were a sort of temporary Mormon nun. We didn’t read newspapers, watch T.V., go out with friends, or flirt with anyone. Mostly we walked around the streets, talking to everyone who had time for us. We also studied the scriptures a lot, taught free English and piano lessons, and visited people who invited us to teach them about God in their homes.
The experience of receiving a Mormon mission call is unlike anything else I can think of. When you decide you want to go on a mission, you turn in an application including personal, educational, and medical details, and then spend the next month or two waiting on pins and needles. Because you might be called to serve anywhere in the world, and you won’t know where until that envelope arrives. It could be Nebraska or Bulgaria, South Africa or Singapore (I personally have friends who’ve gone to each of those places). In the meantime, you and your friends and family take turns guessing the location. Finally, the long-anticipated white envelope comes in the mail, and you gather with friends and family to open it.
For me, it was even more exciting than usual, because my little brother had received his mission call just a month before I got mine. When I opened it, I found that I was to leave on the exact same day. But we were going to opposite sides of the world. While I was getting sunburnt at Christmastime in Chile, he was trying to avoid frostbite and scurvy in Mongolia. While I was eating cheese empanadas and lúcuma ice cream, he got stuck with raw sheep liver and fermented mare’s milk. Yeah, I wouldn’t have traded. But he says he had a great time too. In fact, for months after he returned home, he constantly referred to Mongolia as “the promised land.” When he went back to college, he lived with a friend who’d been a missionary with him in Mongolia, and they decorated their apartment with various Mongolian artifacts. At the time, he was even planning to move back to Mongolia after he got married. I don’t know if he’s broken that news to his wife yet. He certainly didn’t tell her before they were safely married. Anyway, after all, I do admit it’s a little more exotic to be able to speak Mongolian than Spanish.
My mission was a defining experience in my life. For the first time, I set aside all my own goals and plans to focus entirely on God and other people. I met people from all walks of life, and was constantly reminded that we are all brothers and sisters, no matter what language we speak, where we live, or how different we might seem. And nothing compared to the feeling of watching a family come one by one out of the water as they were baptized, and take their first steps together on the road toward living with God and each other forever. Now that I am a mother, I love teaching at home the same beautiful truths I taught to strangers on my mission, knowing that now I am helping my own children to understand and come to know God, and leading my own family down that same road toward eternal happiness. They must like my mission stories too. Because every week during our family night, when we ask if there are any announcements, my three-year-old invariably pipes up, “I’m going to be a great missionary!”