The Language of the Spirit (The MTC: Part One)

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    If you drive toward Provo, Utah, on a Thursday morning you will see them coming. The cars are full of moms and dads, brothers and sisters. The family could be on an outing, but they are sitting too quietly for that. And the young man at the wheel is dressed in a suit. You may notice that he is gripping the wheel hard even though there is little traffic on the road.

    As you leave the freeway and approach the BYU campus, these peculiar automobiles grow more numerous. Finally, as you turn onto 900 East it is just you and they. Ancient station wagons and brand new luxury models, four-wheel-drive vans and subcompacts with out-of-state plates. They have little in common except families, young men in very conservative suits, (some good-looking young women in nice dresses too) and their destination. They are all headed for the tan brick building where 17 flags fly in the morning breeze. It is an inspiring setting. To the east the Provo Temple rises from the grassy hillside in a crescendo of white and gold. Beyond it, the massive stone buttress of Rock Canyon rears up to the sky in two pillars of living stone. Marching away on either side are mountain slopes of fiery summer green (or winter white or autumn yellow and red).

    Pulling up at the driveway curb one after the other, the cars disgorge the moms and brothers and sisters, the young men in suits, and a back-breaking load of luggage. The young men struggle to haul the luggage through the glass doors while the dads drive away to park the cars. For some reason the moms and sisters are dabbing their eyes and the brothers are working hard not to. The young men in conservative suits seem to be making a point of not looking at anybody in particular. If you’ve never before seen a mother look proud and sad at the same time or a young man look determined and scared, this would be a good opportunity.

    Almost everyone who pulls up and unloads stops to glance up at the flags for a moment before going inside. One of them is the Stars and Stripes. Many of the other 16 are unfamiliar. They are the banners of many lands. For this is no ordinary building. This is a launching place for those who have chosen to answer the Savior’s call: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). If the well-dressed young men with short haircuts seem a little nervous they are entitled to be, because they are embarking on an adventure with eternal consequences.

    One blustery day last March, a young man named Layne Anthony climbed out of his father’s car beneath the flags to answer that call and undertake that adventure. As he lugged the heavy suitcases through the doors, he may have been thinking of the moving promises and awesome authority that had been given him the night before when his stake president set him apart. He may have been remembering the inspiring missionary farewell in sacrament meeting or the day he was ordained an elder. Perhaps he thought of the moment his eyes scanned down his call letter and he learned he was being sent to the Peru Lima North Mission. Maybe he was even thinking about his last good-bye to his girl friend. There were plenty of memories to choose from, because his old life and the old Layne Anthony were being left behind when he walked through those doors.

    As the new missionaries came streaming in, a battle-wise old veteran of two or three weeks stood observing them with a knowing eye. “Once you walk through those doors,” he said, “you never come out.” And then he smiled and lent a hand with the luggage to show that he was just kidding. But whether by design or by chance, he spoke the truth, because when these young men and women boarded busses for the Salt Lake City Airport several weeks later, they would not be the same men and women who strained at their luggage that brooding gray morning in March. The real journey, the one inside their hearts, the one that would take them where no jet airliner could fly, had begun.

    After leaving their luggage in a large room, the new missionaries and their families gathered in one of the Missionary Training Center’s many chapels. Allen C. Ostergar, administrative director of the MTC, addressed the assembly, telling of the joy of missionary work, recalling his own mission, and explaining some of the rules. He urged the parents not to duplicate the adventure of one lonesome mother who came and hid in the bushes to get a glimpse of her son. Some of the mothers didn’t laugh.

    Recalling his own mission call, Brother Ostergar said, “As I read the call I knew I was doing what the Lord wanted me to do. I knew the Church was true. The Spirit literally touched my heart, and it changed my life. And above all other things that the missionaries will feel here, they will feel the Spirit of the Lord, and they will strengthen their testimonies. Please rest assured that that happens. We love the missionaries as if they were our own sons and daughters.”

    Before long the meeting was over, and Brother Ostergar invited the missionaries to come forward and exit through doors at the front of the chapel. “Anyone who comes up this way, we keep,” he added, “so the rest of you will have to leave the way you came in.” He invited the missionaries to give their mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters a hug and a kiss and shake their girl friends’ hands. They obeyed enthusiastically, as good missionaries should. All the young ladies present were apparently sisters, because there were few handshakes. Elder Anthony gave a good hard missionary squeeze to each of his family and walked through the doors.

    Emerging on the other side, the missionaries found themselves much the same as before, to all appearances, but there was a subtle difference. Now they were really on their missions. The last mooring line had been cast off, and they were embarked.

    Elder Anthony would remember the first week, with its administrative details, orientation meetings, and challenging adjustments, only as a blur. Two events stood out. One was meeting his companion, the other members of his district, and their afternoon and morning teachers. These people were to become his close friends and comrades in his struggle to grow from Layne Anthony, college student, to Elder Anthony, missionary.

    He would learn to love every one of them with all his heart. The other event was a first-day address by President Joe J. Christensen, then president of the Missionary Training Center. The president had spoken to them about the importance of teaching with the Spirit and explained clearly how one could have the Spirit with him on his mission or in his life. Every missionary was to learn that this message contained a great secret of success or failure in the MTC.

    As if to emphasize the point that this was not a holiday, classwork began in earnest on the new missionaries’ first full day in residence. Elder Anthony attended class each day with the other members of his district, the Jauja (How-Ha) District (named after a city in their mission). Or, as their branch president always called it, El gran distrito de Jauja (the great district of Jauja).

    It didn’t take Elder Anthony long to realize that this was a very different place than the one he had come expecting. He hadn’t actually expected to find armed guards at every door, but he had heard rumors that everyone was carefully supervised. He learned instead that the MTC was a bastion of free agency. Indeed there were rules. Indeed there were schedules, but it was left to the conscience of each missionary whether he obeyed the rules and observed the schedules. And it soon became obvious that the schedule and the rules were for a purpose. Follow them and you made progress. Ignore them and you did not.

    People had warned him that it would be difficult, and it was, but no one had told him how much fun it was, how good the teachers were, how much help was available. Above all, no one had described for him the exhilarating feeling of growing into the kind of person you wanted to be. There were difficult adjustments it was true. Staying with a companion 24 hours a day, for one. That took some getting used to. But it had taught him how to think of others before himself, how to compromise and cooperate. Getting up at 6:00 A.M. wasn’t too bad—most of the time. Going to bed at 10:30 was welcome—when you were getting up at 6:00 the next morning!

    As for the hard work, even that wasn’t as bad as he had expected. You spent about ten hours a day in classwork, but there were regular breaks, and the teachers mixed the hard stuff with a variety of learning activities including language games and stories about the mission field. They seemed to know when you just couldn’t absorb one more verb conjugation or vocabulary word. One hour a day was spent in gym, and that was great not only for staying in shape but for blowing cobwebs out of the brain and venting some frustrations on an innocent volleyball or basketball. Forty-five minutes a day were set aside for personal scripture study (who would have believed a few weeks ago how he would gobble up those 45 minutes and yearn for more. How had he ever thought the scriptures were boring?), and 2 1/2 hours for meals. That left 2 1/4 whole hours each day for personal things such as showering, shaving, dressing, writing in journals, and relaxing. Of course, classwork was far from drudgery. The teachers knew how to make it interesting, and your progress was amazing. Your head got stuffed so full of knowledge that you had to get up each morning and look in the mirror to be sure your ears weren’t farther apart.

    True, the first few days were a replay of the Tower of Babel as the teachers insisted on speaking a gibberish which they guaranteed would start making sense. And it did. Somewhere along the line it turned into the beautiful and expressive Spanish language. The language of kings. The best language in the world, no matter what the Portuguese missionaries down the hall thought.

    On the other hand, if you got it into your head that foreign-language missions were any better than English-speaking ones, somebody assigned to the Iowa Des Moines Mission was bound to set you straight. The English-language missionaries made up about 60 percent of the people who went through the MTC, but since they were there for two weeks as opposed to the eight weeks for foreign missionaries, they made up only 40 percent of the missionaries at the MTC at any one time. One thing was sure. They spoke their mission language better than the foreign-language missionaries.

    One day each week—Tuesday for the great district of Jauja—was preparation day. All the missionaries started out their preparation day right by going to the temple, which was just up the hill from them. You always came back from that experience feeling ready to take on all the forces of darkness in the universe, and maybe the imperfect subjunctive as well. Preparation day was the time for doing laundry, writing letters, and just relaxing. A public bus ran between the MTC, a shopping mall, and the BYU campus, so the missionaries could attend to any needs from a haircut to improve the image to a chocolate malt to fortify the soul. Preparation day ended at 5:00 P.M. After that it was back to work. Except for the great district of Jauja. Tuesday also happened to be the day on which the entire MTC held a devotional at which a different General Authority spoke each week. What an experience to sit at the feet of those great men and hear a message prepared just for you. Of course, after that it was back to work for another hour, but at that point you felt like you could learn all 30 languages taught at the MTC.

    Sunday was also a special day. The MTC was organized into branches, so every missionary had access to a wise and loving branch president with whom to talk things over. Each missionary was interviewed regularly by the branch president, and these men always had wise counsel for the problems a missionary faced regardless of whether they were spiritual, emotional, financial, physical, or impossible to categorize. Each Sunday the missionaries had the opportunity of attending priesthood meeting or Relief Society, sacrament meeting, and a gospel study class which corresponds to Sunday School. In Elder Anthony’s district, it was all done in Spanish, every word of it. Before long Spanish started sounding like the only right language for Church meetings. Each Sunday night he attended a culture class to learn the customs of the Peruvian people. Here he learned how to “speak” the culture as well as the language of those he would teach. Everyone listened well, because they didn’t ever want to offend these people whom they were learning to love. After the culture class, each district met briefly to take care of district business. After spending all day long each day with the members of his district, Elder Anthony was beginning to feel that he knew these brothers and sisters as well as or better than his brothers and sisters at home.

    Thursday afternoons were also a special time for the great district of Jauja. At 3:50 on that day they attended their Ambassadorship class. In this class they learned how to be effective ambassadors of Christ. This involved learning how to teach with empathy and respect, avoid prejudice, and adapt the presentation of the message to the needs and beliefs of the recipient. Everyone looked forward to these classes because they not only taught exciting and vital principles but involved fun activities. One day, for example, the class was divided into two different cultures, the “alphas” and the “betas.” The missionaries learned firsthand the devastating effect of prejudice on gospel communication.

    On most days the district had a morning class taught by Elder Bishop, an afternoon class taught by Sister Smithson (this one was divided in the middle by their gym period), and a practice and review class in the evening. In the morning and afternoon classes, the teachers instructed them in language, the gospel, the missionary discussions, and teaching techniques, according to a prescribed outline (although neither of the teachers hesitated to follow their inspiration or observation if they saw that the program needed to be adjusted). The evening class was called Practice and Review, and it was a different story. Although a teacher was available to help, each missionary worked on what he felt he needed most. If he chose not to work at all, he had his free agency, but he soon learned that there were consequences for free agency abused. These consequences were lack of progress and loss of the Spirit. And the loss of the Spirit was what every missionary came to dread above all else, because without the Spirit he or she could do nothing.

    Their classroom became the focal point of their lives. Here they worked and stretched and strained and put on mental and spiritual muscle. A large sign on the wall proclaimed Capte la Vision (Catch the Vision). This came as close as anything to being the unofficial motto of the MTC. This vision was, by definition, something that could not be fully expressed in words, but it involved the eternal implications of missionary work—the stunning reality of the cosmic struggle between good and evil and the central role played by humble elders and sisters. A small sign by the light switch proclaimed “May the 4s be with you.” This referred to a program called “Speak Your Language,” which encouraged foreign-language missionaries to speak their mission language exclusively. Each day they rated themselves between one and four based on their success. Each week in which a missionary accumulated enough fours, he put a sticker on his name tag.

    There were, of course, hard times as well as happy times—times when the language wouldn’t come, times when the discussions wouldn’t stick, times when it all seemed impossible. At such times the inspiration of the district organization was plain. These young men and women loved and supported one another with a fierce loyalty. If one was suffering, they all rallied round. If help with Spanish was needed, the help was given. If anti-homesickness therapy was called for, that was offered. When discouragement or even despair threatened, it was staved off with faith and love and support. Not one of them would call himself successful while a brother or sister felt like a failure. These hard moments grew fewer and fewer as the weeks passed and the power of their missions grew within them. And if some days were hard, most were happy. There was much more laughter than tears. Most of the missionaries came to realize that they had never been happier in all their lives. Whenever the thought struck Elder Anthony that he might not even have come on a mission, it made him feel cold inside, as if he had just been narrowly missed by a runaway bus.

    The teachers were also bulwarks of strength for the missionaries. Full of faith and love of the missionary work, Elder Bishop and Sister Smithson inspired the missionaries to work hard. Never in their lives had these young people studied as intensely as they did now. But along with the challenge they were given unconditional love and support. Every missionary was interviewed each week by one of the teachers, and they were able to frankly discuss needs and concerns and complaints as well as progress and goals. Each missionary was expected to set his or her own goals, and the teachers held them accountable for the goals they set. Whenever things got especially grim, the missionaries could be heard muttering to themselves, “Water to the beets.” This was a favorite saying of Elder Bishop, and reflected the uselessness of knowledge and truth and power that are not actually put into practice. Their hard work paid off, too. They all felt they had enjoyed the greatest learning experience of their lives.

    As the weeks passed, the missionaries also found themselves growing in love and reverence for their Father in Heaven and their Savior. Prayer became as vital as food. And if it ever came to a choice between the two, they sometimes did without food and fasted and prayed for help. Never in their lives had they prayed so much. Each class began and ended with a hymn and prayer. Each night they gathered in their dormitories for a floor prayer. They prayed with their companions. They often escaped to the custodian’s closet for a private prayer. Countless times each day they offered silent prayers of supplication and thanksgiving. Indeed, it almost seemed that life had become one constant prayer. They had all learned by hard experience that they could not succeed without divine help.

    As they prepared to go out and testify to the world, they each had to honestly ask themselves if they had a testimony of the gospel. Some were not satisfied with the answer, and they themselves became investigators, the sincerest of investigators, because their need was great. Most discovered that they had really had a testimony all along. The rest got a brand-new one and treasured it the more for having come by it with fasting, prayer, and a broken heart.

    Finally, all the weeks had gone by. Some of the days had been long, but the weeks went swiftly, and the two months evaporated as if by magic. It seemed more like two days, but the time for preparation was past. Now they would soon find out if all their work and prayer had been enough.

    There is a tree that grows only at the MTC. It is a banana and orange tree, and it looks just like the other young shade trees except that bananas and oranges often hang from its branches like ornaments on a tropical Christmas tree. The banana and orange tree can bloom any time of year, even when the snowdrifts are name-tag high on the tallest elder. It seems to happen especially when they serve bananas and you-know-whats in the MTC cafeteria. The stems of the fruit resemble, strangely enough, the twine that is sold at the MTC bookstore.

    Maybe banana and orange trees remind missionaries of Guatemala and Florida and the Philippines and all the other fun places they’re going. Maybe they are cultivated by nostalgic missionaries from California. Or maybe the MTC is just an enchanted place where such things happen. However that may be, a perfectly splendid banana and orange tree put forth its fruit the night before the great district of Jauja left the MTC. It was a good omen. Also very tasty. It seemed a fitting good-bye to men and women whose lives had borne fruit beyond their own imagining.

    In the warm glow of an early spring twilight, they climbed to the second floor of the Ben E. Rich building for their final testimony meeting. It was a meeting they had looked forward to for eight weeks, but now they had mixed feelings. Tomorrow they would fly away to a land where bananas and oranges really grew. They were eager and ready, but a little solemn as well.

    They file into the room. Elder Anthony and Elder Eckhart, his companion. Elder Eckhart loved surfing. They have great surf in Peru. Elder Eckhart won’t be trying it out. Elder Kirby and Elder Sakavitch. For the first few weeks they didn’t like each other. Now they’re the best of friends. Another small miracle. Elder Gibson and Elder Hancock. Elder Gibson feels that he has been granted the gift of charity in the MTC. Elder Hancock didn’t plan on a mission, until an inspired returned missionary led him by example. Sister Dunn and Sister Carree. Sister Dunn has had experience teaching children. She says it helps her help the elders. Sister Carree is from Reims, France. She came speaking no Spanish or English. Now she speaks Spanish beautifully. Sister Steele and Sister Ellis. Sister Steele is a nurse. She says open-heart surgery doesn’t change hearts nearly so much as the MTC does. Sister Ellis likes to watch people grow. She’s had an eyeful here. Elder Bishop and Sister Smithson come too. They are as much a part of the district as the missionaries. There’s even an interpreter for Sister Carree so that she can speak in French.

    The elders from the district are all going to the Peru Lima North Mission. Sisters Ellis and Steel are going to Honduras. Sister Carree is going to Ecuador. Sister Dunn is going to the Dominican Republic. The sisters all have an additional assignment in welfare services and are looking forward to strengthening the members as well as bringing new converts to the truth.

    Sister Smithson speaks first. “I want each of you to know that I really do love you. I’m proud of you. … Dedicate yourselves to the Lord. Turn your lives over to him. … Remember what you’re teaching. It’s not the discussions. You’re teaching people. You’re teaching souls. You’re teaching your Father in Heaven’s children. … I hope if I’ve taught you anything it’s how to teach with the Spirit.”

    They all nod their heads. This is the one thing they have all learned at the MTC. With the Spirit of the Lord they can do anything. Time after time they have achieved the impossible with his guidance. Other times, when they tried to do it alone, they have all fallen flat on their faces. They have learned to recognize the influence of the Holy Ghost, because they have needed it almost every moment of every day. They know now that they really didn’t come here to learn Spanish. That was important, but not all-important. They came here to learn the language of the Spirit. Words alone, however eloquent, could not contain everything that was in their hearts to share with those they would teach. They had to get beyond words to the one language that could express all truth.

    They begin bearing their testimonies, and a strange thing happens. They are speaking in their native tongues for a change, but words somehow come hard. Still, the room echoes warmly with their new language, their real language, the real language of all mankind. They are speaking fluently in the language of the Spirit. One by one, they bear testimony of the Father and the Son, of the rich outpouring they have experienced of the gift of the Holy Ghost, of their love for one another and their sureness that they have been called of God. The MTC months have been a joyful time of unprecedented growth. They are not boys and girls now but men and women, and there is strength in them. Earlier, in sacrament meeting, they had given their farewell addresses. They spoke in Spanish, and they spoke with fluent authority on gospel principles. The Spanish may not have been flawless, but it was powerful. No one who heard them could doubt that he was listening to servants of God and messengers of truth. They are going to teach a people they love with all their hearts. It is a people they have never met, but for the last two months they have worked and prayed and struggled and sometimes even cried for the sake of that people. Love, the fruit of service, has been their harvest.

    The next morning they carried their luggage out the same doors they had first entered two months since. This time it wasn’t quite such a struggle. Like the pioneers before them, they had found it necessary to lighten their load. Many a precious, unnecessary possession had already been shipped home.

    The hills were green with spring, but the Jauja district was flying away beyond the equator to where fall was just beginning. In 16 months when spring paints the slopes of the Andes, they will return to greet another autumn at home. If a record of such things is kept in heaven, it will show that the great district of Jauja has sacrificed one precious summer to go and answer the Lord’s call. But the thought has probably not even occurred to them. And if it did they would only laugh. They are not counting costs. They carry with them in their hearts a light brighter than the sunshine of many summers.

    So if you’re driving by Provo on a Thursday morning and see a carful of moms and dads and sisters and brothers and one white-knuckled young man in a conservative suit, you might just want to pull in behind and follow him. He’s headed in the right direction.

    [photos] Photos by Eldon Linschoten

    [photo] Along with many other young men and women, Elder Anthony arrives at the MTC on a Thursday morning to begin an adventure in service.

    [photos] A spirited game of Spanish password, Elder Hancock studying his scriptures, and Elder Anthony doing calisthenics all symbolize the diversity of MTC life.

    [photos] Each preparation day begins with a visit to the Provo Temple and provides time for laundry, relaxation, and letter writing. Sundays offer church services and culture classes.

    [photos] Prayer becomes a way of life for the missionaries, a moving force behind the miracles that take place here daily.

    [photos] The Missionary Training Center is a time to grow and to learn—to grow closer to the Lord, to your companion, and to the person you want to become; to learn more than you ever thought you could.