What a remarkable opportunity it is for young people to attend the Missionary Training Center! There are twelve of these special places around the world—in Mexico, Japan, Chile, Brazil, New Zealand, England, Korea, Guatemala, Argentina, Peru, the Philippines, and Provo, Utah.
My husband and I had the marvelous experience of serving at the Missionary Training Center in Provo while he presided over it. We had the opportunity to see great growth in the lives of literally thousands of young missionaries. They worked under the tutelage of six hundred to eight hundred part-time teachers, all returned missionaries. They participated in thirty-one branches of the Church directed by fine men called from the surrounding area. But the growth of all those young missionaries came largely through their own efforts at spiritual awakening. My husband and I often said that we had in Provo the mission with the greatest number of missionaries and fewest baptisms, but still many, many conversions.
Frequently I have thought how much faster and more effectively the missionary work of the Lord’s kingdom on earth could move ahead if we could make every home into a missionary training center. How much it would mean if every young elder and sister came to the Missionary Training Center experience fully converted and prepared to accept missionary discipline, needing only basic orientation before proceeding into the mission field! From experience, I know there are some ways to help that happen.
As president of the Missionary Training Center, my husband taught that preparing young Latter-day Saints for missionary work is much simpler if their personal development has followed the pathway suggested in Luke 2:52, where we read:
“And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.”
As they grew up, our children had the opportunity of holding regular interviews with their father, and he used this scripture as the basis for his interview. He would concentrate on the four areas in which Jesus grew: wisdom (mentally); stature (physically); in favor with God (spiritually); and in favor with man (socially). After their talks, he felt that he knew pretty well how they were doing. Let’s consider each of these four areas and how they relate to preparation for a mission—and life.
Getting along with companions and other people in the mission field can be a real challenge, but it is absolutely essential. Not only for missionaries, but for anyone striving to follow the example of the Master, “people” skills are important. Here’s how you can help your children in developing them:
Service. The love of service needs to be cultivated at an early age. And the best place to start is in the home. We should teach our children to be of service to us as their parents. I remember once when my mother was observing me with my children. She thought that I was doing too much for them and waiting on them too much. “Remember, Barbara,” she said, “if you would have your children love you, have them do things for you.” She reminded me that one of the reasons a mother cares so for her children is that she spends so much of her time in loving service to them. I have found what she said is true. As a child learns to serve in the home, he will very likely continue that service in the mission field and throughout life. We might paraphrase, “Where much is expected, much is given.”
In teaching service outside the home, prepare ways for the child to learn to serve. Suggest that Brother Jones could really use a little help with his lawn this morning. It is a response that has to be learned.
Talent. Help children develop at least one talent that they do well.
Concern for others. Challenge each child to ask himself or herself, “What can I do to make someone happy today?” Each child could choose someone in school who needs a special friend or a friendly overture and then make a report on the project in family home evening.
Respect. Teach respect for others’ opinions, property, and culture. Let me share with you a letter I received from a lady missionary about her experience while she was at the Missionary Training Center.
“When I first found out that my visa had not cleared and that I would be delayed in leaving the country, I was very disappointed. I had looked forward to that day from my first day at the Missionary Training Center. … The day came when my companion and the others departed for the field. ‘Now what are they going to do with me?’ I thought.”
That afternoon, the sister’s branch president called her into his office and said that there was a sister arriving a few days early from a small South Pacific island. Would she, he asked, serve as her companion until the Polynesian sister’s companion came?
“I was introduced to my new companion that evening. … She showed me a book about her island of Panape in the Micronesian Islands and told me about her family and some of her customs. I admired her for her courage to come to this country on a mission. Her life-style was so different from ours! She was already shivering in the air-conditioned halls of our dorms; how was she going to survive a winter in Des Moines, Iowa? …
“I was able to serve as her escort when she went to the temple for her endowment. I was so proud as I watched her come through the veil into the celestial room!
“The day came when she was to leave me and move in with her assigned companion. I helped her get all of her stuff together and then I dug down into the bottom of my purse to find an old key chain to give her for her key, because she had misplaced it a number of times and I didn’t know how she was going to make it through the next week without losing it! It was an old key chain that I had planned on throwing out anyway because it was jumbling up my purse. As I handed it to her, her eyes filled with tears as she thanked me for her ‘present.’ She went over to her suitcase and bent down to get something out. Then she presented me with a purse that had been made by a native of her country out of small seashells that had been strung together with bamboo twine. It was beautiful. ‘This is for you,’ she said.
“That day I learned something that will be more valuable than any of the discussions. I learned what it really means to love!”
5. Independence. Allow your future missionary to spend some time away from home before entering the Missionary Training Center. It is very difficult for some to make the break from home and family if they have not had that experience.
6. Obedience to authority. Teach them to obey those in authority. Those who have not learned this great principle must make a much greater adjustment, and they feel much more unhappiness in making it.
7. Self-reliance. Don’t always do for them what they can do themselves. In the earlier teens, all children should be cooking, learning elementary sewing, and washing and ironing their clothes.
8. Economy. Saving for a mission should begin when each child is very young. This also helps them think in terms of “when I go on a mission” instead of “if I go on a mission.” Missionaries who save their own money usually are better missionaries than those who receive a handout. Help them plan projects to earn money, and help them learn to budget what they earn. President McKay was once asked by a mother of a young son, “What is the most important thing I can teach my son?” He quickly replied, “Teach him to deny himself.” Happy children know what it is like to go without some things. It is not doing a child a favor to fulfill his every desire.
9. Gratitude. Teach him to be grateful. One day a young elder came into the Missionary Training Center dressed in a beige suit with very different lapels. We were a bit startled by the suit, and my husband called him in for a visit. Fortunately, President Christensen is very tactful. He began by asking the elder how things were going, if he was happy, and so on. Finally, he asked the young man if he had everything he needed. Did he have all the clothes he needed? The young man replied, “I only brought one suit, President. I got a real bargain on it. Is it OK?” President Christensen then told him that we had a friend who would really like to help a missionary by giving him a suit. The elder immediately accepted the offer. I’ll quote from his letter written to the benefactor in thanks:
“I am twenty-four years old and the only one of a family of six that is a member. My dad said I was foolish to ‘waste’ two years of my life like that, and my mom barely understood. They are not supporting me, so I withdrew all of the retirement funds I saved when I taught school to help my mission fund. I now have about $2,600.
“I don’t know who you are personally, but I’m sure I can guess who you are spiritually; you’re my brother, and I hope and pray to God that you and yours will be blessed many times over.” Now, from another letter:
“The doctor told me I would have to have an operation on a broken wrist that had not healed. He said he could do the surgery that afternoon at 1:30 P.M. So I hurried back to the Missionary Training Center.
“I went to my room and got some things to take with me. I told the people in my district what had happened, and they gave me a blessing. Then I was off to the hospital.
“Soon I was in the operating room, and I was put to sleep.
“The next morning, the doctor came in to talk. He said that the usual routine for this operation was to take the graft chip from the hip and then open the wrist and do the graft. He said that for some reason he decided to open my wrist and look at the break first. When he got inside, he found that the bones had completely healed together. He said it was one of those things we can never understand or explain.
“Well, I can explain it, and I am very thankful to my Heavenly Father and the power of the priesthood.”
And from a third letter:
“My mother just wrote me about the help you gave her in getting my stolen scriptures replaced. Thank you very much. …
“I also received my glasses safe and sound, and now with these contact lenses I should be moving about without my cane. What a time and place to stumble into such bad luck, here in Peru—blind without my lenses, mute without scriptures.
“I have the greatest little mother anyone could ask for—keeping her vigil at home, at my beck and call to help me out of my bad luck. Here, too, I never really realized just who she was, and is, until I came to a place thousands of miles from her wing—and then needed her help. She flew into action.
“I want you to know, I sat down that Sunday you talked to us, and I wrote my mother—and told her how much I loved her. But I didn’t know just how much until now, reading her letters about her flowers at home, canning fruit, pride for a son who wants to live up to that love. They bring spring.”
10. Healthy self-image. Parents should conscientiously strive to develop within each child a healthy self-image. I think it would be safe to say that we see very few problems with missionaries who see themselves as worthwhile people with unlimited possibilities.
Health does not come automatically. Here are some ideas to consider in teaching children that their bodies are temples and that they have a responsibility to care for them:
Good mental attitude. It is becoming more and more apparent that a positive attitude makes a real difference in our mental, emotional, and physical health. It is a good habit to sit down with each child in the evening and ask, “How did it go today?” “What is the happiest thing that happened to you today?” This will concentrate the thinking more on the positive things of life.
Good exercise program. Children probably won’t think exercise is important if you don’t. Teach them by example. Help each child develop a mode of exercise in which he can excel. Walking is a great exercise and is possible for most people.
Good nutrition. The eating habits of our youth (and many parents) are shocking. Our children should be taught from the time of infancy the importance to our health of the foods we eat. We should place more stress on whole grains, vegetables, and fruits and teach them the damage junk foods can cause.
Proper rest. Children need to get in the habit of going to bed early and getting up early. The blessings of a refreshed body and mind that are promised in Doctrine and Covenants 88:124 are extended on the basis of adequate rest and an early start each day.
Every home should have an excellent set of reference books, and children should be taught to use them.
As I grew up there was never a birthday or Christmas at our house without our receiving the gift of a carefully-chosen book. When we were young and money was hard to come by, and my mother’s favorite books were sometimes out of print, I remember going with her to secondhand stores to buy books. We would look through stacks and sort out the ones she wanted to use as gifts. I have listened by the hour to my mother recite poetry and stories with great morals.
There are many places of learning that are fun and cost nothing for admission. One couple, honored because the children they had reared had become so accomplished, were asked how they did it. The father told of a custom they had had in their home. Whenever a substantive question was asked, it was written on the chalkboard for everyone to see. A plan was then made to find the answer. The family would go together on learning outings. They visited the power plants to see how power got to their house; they went to the phone company and discovered how the phone worked. They made trips to the library and studied the scriptures together. Then in family home evening they reported their findings.
We need to pique the curiosity of our children. I suppose one good motto for families today could be, “Turn off the TV and begin to learn.”
Every child should be encouraged to learn a second language, beginning early in life. Even if the parents do not know one, the family can learn together with books or tapes. It makes no difference at all if the child is not called on a mission to the country where that language is spoken. The skills gained in learning one language makes learning another much easier.
Spiritual training should begin in early childhood. Learning to pray, singing sacred songs, and hearing stories about Heavenly Father and Jesus are but a few of the ways to begin early. We must realize that this early training must take place first in the home. Later on, the Church will assist us, but the primary responsibility will remain ours.
Several books for children are now available that make studying the scriptures fun and exciting. Parents can use them for bedtime stories and family home evenings.
Parents also should begin early to teach children to recognize the Spirit and help them develop spiritually. We should teach our children to be humble and teachable. Only those who are humble will be in tune to hear the promptings of the Spirit. We should encourage them to attend seminary and institute throughout their school experience.
The spirituality our children gain as they mature will depend a great deal on our own measure of spirituality. My husband used to give new missionaries ten questions to test their spirituality quotient. Perhaps you would like to score yourself on these:
Do I read the scriptures daily? Do I feast on the scriptures, or do I nibble? Study of the scriptures is as much nourishment to the spirit as food is to the body. We cannot teach what we do not know. We must, as Brigham Young said, become “profound theologians” if we are to teach our children well.
Do I really pray and not just say prayers?
Is my fasting meaningful? I learned more about this from a humble young missionary who dropped into my office one day at the Missionary Training Center to make a special personal request: “Would you call my dad and find out when my mother is going to have her surgery? I really would like to know because when my youngest sister was born, my mother almost died. All of us, including my five-year-old sister, fasted for her and she got well. Since that time, I worry when I think of operations; they make me nervous. So I need to know when the surgery is going to be scheduled so that I can begin my fast.” I dialed his father’s telephone number, then asked the elder if he would like to speak personally to his father.
“No, because I know it is against the mission policies. Besides, I think it would make me homesick if I heard my father’s voice.”
“Oh, he’s going to be disappointed,” the father told me. “He can’t fast before the surgery, because she already had it—yesterday. It lasted for five hours and she is doing very, very well. We are so thrilled.”
After the telephone call ended and the details about the surgery were explained, this great young elder commented, “Oh, I’m so thankful; I will fast anyway—in gratitude.”
4. Do I go to bed early and get up early? It is interesting that the scriptures do not say “thou shalt sleep eight hours” but rather go to bed early and get up early. They also do not say “unless you happen to be a night person.”
5. Am I essentially a happy person? How do people feel after being around me?
6. Do I work hard?
7. Am I concerned about how, rather than where, I serve?
8. Do I love everyone—even enemies—and keep romantic feelings in their proper perspective?
9. Do I strive for unity (oneness) with others as well as within myself—between my ideal and actual self?
10. Do I share my testimony at every opportunity?
While my husband and I served at the MTC we saw much evidence that missionaries are assisted in their preparation from both sides of the veil. Let me share a letter from a sister who had a marvelous experience at the Missionary Training Center:
“The sisters in our branch were scheduled to sing in sacrament meeting one Sunday. We were practicing for the last time before going into the meeting when some of them decided the ending would be much better if a higher harmony was sung with the last few notes by one of us. I was chosen to sing that part because I could hit the notes and my voice carries.
“We sang the song through one last time, and because I was unsure of the part and it was not written on the music, I sang it wrong. We did not have time to go through the song again so I could practice my part.
“The meeting seemed to be an extra special one that day. The Spirit was so strong that many had trouble holding the tears back. One of the sisters spoke on the life of Christ, which prepared everyone for this beautiful song.
“I was very worried. If I sang my part incorrectly it could ruin the whole song. Should I just give up and sing with the other sisters, or should I try it and hope I did it right?
“I began to pray, telling Heavenly Father my problem and asking for his help. I prayed silently in my mind as we sang the song. As the end approached I paused for just a moment, and as I did I heard a voice near my right ear singing the first note. I blended my voice with the other voice as I did when I sang in choirs. The notes came out clear and pure and in harmony with the other sisters.
“Later I wondered which of the sisters had been prompted to sing with me. I asked each one of them, only to find out that none had sung my part. I was the only one who sang that part, and I was the only one who had heard that other voice.
“At that time, the Spirit bore strong witness to me that my mother, who died twelve years ago, had helped me sing those very special notes. Heavenly Father had allowed Mama to help me so that I would know I was not serving this mission alone and that I was very much loved.
“After the meeting, some of the elders complimented the sisters by saying that it sounded as if angels had sung that song. They didn’t realize how true that statement was, and they couldn’t understand why several of us began to cry.”
It was a bit of comfort for a daughter in need. It is also an indication that a loving Heavenly Father is eager to bless each one of the thousands of his daughters and sons who prepare for and enter his missionary service each year.
How wonderful that some of them are able to experience these blessings while they are in the missionary training center! And yet how much more valuable it would be to families—even those not now active in the Church—if the spiritual discovery that brings about these blessings took place in the home, where its effects could be felt by father, mother, brothers, and sisters. May our Heavenly Father grant that every Latter-day Saint parent or prospective missionary will see the value of making each home a missionary training center.