Over the past 6 months, I’ve watched as our oldest daughter went back and forth about which high school to attend. She eventually decided to attend a smaller school that most of her friends will be attending. We discussed the different approaches to academics, orchestra, and other after-school activities, but her decision was primarily influenced by friends. Had most of them decided to attend another school, I have no doubt that’s where she would be.
In the mid-80s, I came to a decision to serve a mission in much the same manner as my daughter selected a school. I didn’t feel a lot of pressure from my parents to serve. They made it clear that it was my decision. I did feel peer pressure from my friends and had heard all the lessons in church about how serving a mission prepares young men for life. Nearly all the girls I dated in high school were Mormon, and if I felt any pressure to serve a mission it came from them. None of them admitted they wouldn’t marry a man who didn’t serve a mission, but it was implied. Or at least that’s how I took it.
As a graduation gift, I wanted braces and had them put on about 6 months before I turned 19-years old. I knew that I would not be able to enter the Mission Training Center (MTC) in Provo until my braces were off, or about 5 months after I turned 19. This allowed me to do two things: attend a quarter of school at Weber State College and further contemplate serving a mission. During this time I attended a Missionary Prep Class. I hit it off well with the instructor who was the father of a girl I’d been friends with for many years. During this time I also read the Book of Mormon from cover to cover.
Taking these preparation courses was a turning point in my decision to serve because I took them with several close friends. I couldn’t imagine hanging around Weber State College for two years while my friends were serving missions around the world. My first friend to be called on a mission was John Minnoch, who was serving in Portugal during this time. The couple of letters he wrote me were filled with positive experiences. Two more friends, Darin Bosworth and Daniel Ulrich, were also planning to enter the MTC around the same time I would be there. That we’d all be teaching the gospel at the same time was compelling.
I had taken four years of German in high school and figured that might play into where I’d be called to serve, so it wasn’t a surprise that I was called to Frankfurt, Germany. Darin was called to Brazil and I was thrilled to hear that Daniel and I were called to the same mission. It felt like God had a hand in the process. Any doubts about leaving home for two years were abated when I knew Daniel and I would be in Germany together.
About 3 months after my calling arrived, I was headed to the MTC.
The MTC is an odd place. I had heard so many different rumors about it that I was genuinely intrigued to experience it for myself. I was placed in a District of 10 men (Elders) and 4 women (Sisters) who would be serving in Germany or Austria. We spent at least 12 hours a day together studying, singing, playing basketball and cleaning toilets. It didn’t take long until I loved each of them. I missed my family, but I had joined another family of young men and young women who were there for the same reasons I was. They had the same insecurities, fears, and self-doubt I had.
I loved the MTC. I really loved it, even though I struggled to learn German. I was overconfident in my ability to learn another language and quickly fell to the bottom of our district in terms of language proficiency. But my struggles didn’t dampen my enthusiasm to be a missionary. I figured once I got to Germany, I’d pick up the language in a flash. As you will see in my next post, I was mistaken.
Although I loved the MTC, I had a few experiences that challenged my perception of the church. I assumed that I’d been called to serve in Germany because that’s where God wanted me to be and that my personality and way of teaching would mesh well with those I met, taught and eventually brought into the church through baptism. From the time I stepped into the MTC until the day I returned home, it was pounded into my head that I was called to “increase the number of convert baptisms.” I wasn’t called to make friends, tour the country, attend the temple or even render service. Everything I was taught was centered on the goal of convincing others be baptized a Mormon. In this regard, my personality or individual traits were not important. At times I wasn’t sure if I was part of a church or a military because obedience superseded everything. Rules such as what color of tie I could wear felt arbitrary, but I found out that wearing the wrong tie could get me kicked out of class.
Another part of my MTC experience is more difficult to discuss and might come as a surprise to those who are not familiar with the church’s obsession with chastity.
At least once, and sometimes twice a week, each member of our district was asked to step into the hallway to be interviewed by one of two instructors. One instructor focused on teaching German and the other spent most of his time teaching us how to teach the six discussions that cover the core doctrine of the church. Each time I was called out of class to be interviewed, I was asked a set of questions ranging from how I was getting along with my companions to the growth of my testimony. I was also asked if I had a problem with masturbation.
I didn’t think much about this last question the first few times it was asked. Missionaries must pass at least two worthiness interviews before entering the MTC. Both my bishop and stake president had already asked me if I was engaged in any sexual behavior with my girlfriend or myself. Since I passed both pre-MTC interviews, I didn’t understand why I was continually asked about masturbation at these weekly interviews by men just a few years older than myself. I began to wonder why my church was so obsessed with my sexual activity. And why they didn’t trust the answers I gave them? I have no idea if other missionaries in my district were asked similar questions. It’s not something I felt comfortable discussing with them at the time.
One last experience I want to share is about testimony. While at the MTC, each missionary is expected to have a firm testimony of God, Christ, Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. I was also expected to believe that the Mormon church is the only true church on earth, meaning the only church that is directed by God himself and therefore able to perform required ordinances in his name such as baptism and confirmation. I was raised in the Mormon church and knew little about other Christian religions let alone other world religions such as Islam, Buddhism or Judaism. I was taught at home and in church that other religions could have a fraction of truth to them and that they consisted mostly of honest believers, but they didn’t contain a fullness of the gospel like my church did. I believed that I had something most others did not, and my job was to take that message to Germany and help others understand the error of their ways.
Maybe every other week our district would assemble, often outside on the grass, and bear testimony to each other. Many tears were shed as my fellow missionaries knew that God was at the head of our church, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and that the Book of Mormon was true. Those were the core beliefs, and each of us was expected to witness of their truthfulness. No doubting allowed. I sat through these testimony sessions wondering if something was wrong with me because I couldn’t say I knew for certain these events were true. Unlike Joseph Smith, no angels had descended upon my bedroom at night. Neither god nor Christ had ever whispered in my ear that these doctrines were true. Some Mormon doctrines sounded realistic while others, such as Joseph digging up plates of gold, sounded more suspect. Why would god take the plates back and not leave them here for us to examine? Why was I being asked to believe the extraordinary claims of another man? It was all so confusing. Like my struggles learning German, I assumed that once I got to Germany, my testimony would flourish as I witnessed miracle after miracle. I believed I was on God’s errand. I was part of his army. Surely he would provide me with the same conviction and assurance he provided the rest of my district, wouldn’t he?
A week before I flew to Germany, each missionary in my district stood up and said they knew this and that doctrine to be true, beyond a shadow of a doubt. I sat on the grass, contemplating what I should say. Did I know anything for certain? Was I less of a person because I had doubts? Why did everyone else seem so confident in their beliefs while I had questions? When it was my time, I stood and said I hoped that one day I could say I know what they know to be true, but that I couldn’t say that today. I sat down in silence, wondering if I’d been too honest. Nobody quite knew what to say to me that evening, although most tried to offer their support, telling me I’d eventually be able to say “I know”. But I felt I had been true to myself that evening.
I flew to Germany having learned a lot about myself. Although I struggled to learn German, I was confident in my ability to teach others. I never once considered leaving the MTC to return home. I made a number of close friends I still keep in contact with today. When I think back to my time at the MTC, it brings a smile to my face because the good experiences far outweighed the bad.
I’ll cover the time I spent in Germany over the next post or two.
**I’m sharing my recollection of my mission mostly for myself but also for my children. I want them to know about this time of my life, and this allows them to learn a little more about their father. Each missionary experience is unique, and I don’t claim to speak for any other missionary, including those I served with.