Faith, Lessons Learned, Milestones, Reflection, Thoughts On...

Some Reflections on Serving an 18-Month Mission in a Foreign Country

Ten years ago yesterday, I wheeled my two suitcases into the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, said goodbye to my family for a year and a half, and began what will surely remain forever as one of the greatest adventures of my life–the chance I had to serve a religious mission for 18 months in the country of El Salvador.

Surprises came quickly, and often, starting with my very first day in the MTC, when I discovered that I’d been put into the beginning Spanish language class (even though I’d taken two years of college-level Spanish), which necessitated a whole slew of changes, including the fact that rather than spend the first 9 weeks of my mission in Utah, I’d spend the majority of them in the Missionary Training Center in Guatemala instead.

In the MTC, you frequently watch or listen to talks given by church leaders on various subjects, and one particular talk (by church leader Jeffrey R. Holland) always especially stuck out to me—in it, he talked about how much he loved his own mission, and said something to this effect: “In the five decades that have passed since I served my mission as a youth, there might have been a day or two that I didn’t think back upon my mission. But if there was, I don’t remember it.”

I can attest to the same phenomenon–how even now, ten whole years later, I still think back to my mission on a nearly daily basis, and how I can attribute much of the growth and goodness of the past 10 years to that experience.

While I could write a book on my experiences in El Salvador (and did, in fact, fill 3 journals plus a book of letters I sent home to my family each week), I wanted to focus this post on just a few general reflections on how my mission has shaped my life in unexpected ways. I obviously anticipated that I’d grow a lot spiritually (which I did, and even more than I could have anticipated), but I also grew a lot in ways I hadn’t necessarily expected, too.

Here are a few observations.

1.Wealth is relative, and happiness is not dependent on it.

I’m sure many who have not lived for an extended period of time in a developing country could say the same observation, but on my mission, I REALLY internalized this. For 18 months, I lived out of two suitcases. And I still owned a lot more than many of the people that I served. Living so simply (and seeing how simply much of the population lived, though not usually by choice) drove home the lesson that you really don’t need as much as you think you do.

No, you really don’t.

In the last area I served, there was a man who was over 100 years old that we taught. He lived in a tiny cave that had been hollowed out of the side of a hill, and his entire stock of earthly possessions fit into one small room made of dirt walls. He had a spare tire for a chair, an old bunk bed for sleeping (with the top bunk being used as storage), and a series of notebooks in which he was writing his memoirs. That was about it. He scavenged daily for his sustenance (and thankfully had a neighbor who often brought him tortillas and little meals here and there), and he was a delight to visit and teach.

Here he is, on his tire seat

When I came back home to the States, I distinctly remember the feeling of overwhelm I had when I stepped back into the home I grew up in. It was (and is) a fairly average-sized home for the U.S., but I remember being completely blown away by the sheer amount of stuff and wealth we had always possessed, but never been truly aware of (because it’s all relative to what’s around us). I remember kneeling down and literally rubbing my face into the carpet (a fact which horrified my mother, who thought I’d gone crazy while abroad), simply to feel its luxurious texture (as not a single dwelling or building had carpet in Central America).

I think my experiences in the mission field are largely what made me so eager to embrace minimalism when I first discovered it a few years later—I missed the simplicity of everything fitting into just two suitcases, and I knew that all these things were not necessary for a fulfilling life.

(I wrote more about this subject and included some pictures of where I lived down in El Salvador in this post.)

2. I thought I was a generous person, but the people of El Salvador taught me that I still had a lot wanting in that area.

You don’t realize how much of who you are is cultural until you enter a totally foreign culture and realize with a shock that there are entire frameworks governing your choices that you’re not even aware of. I had always strived to be generous from a young age–I had loved baking cookies and taking them around to people in the neighborhood, I always paid a 10% tithing, and I looked for ways to volunteer my time and money where I could.

But here in the States, I also grew up with definite ideas of ownership, and I had the idea in my head that you usually gave away the excess, not the principal thing.

On my mission, I saw poverty that would make your heart break (and that did make my heart break). And I saw those same people giving their last to ME. I’ll never forget the example of one woman we often visited, whom I affectionately called Mama Aide (Heidi) because she became one of the women who mothered me while I stayed in that area (I always found good women who took such good care of me!). Mama Aide was raising her two grandchildren, and even though she was well into old age, she still left the house each and every morning to sell homemade sweets so that she could provide for her grandkids.

I had no idea of the dire financial straits the family was in until the grandson approached me one day, embarrassed. He said that his grandmother hadn’t been able to go out and sell and was ill, and that they had no food in their house. She was a proud woman and not likely to want to accept charity, so we devised a plan to have her teach us how to make arroz con leche (I actually posted the recipe here on the blog) in order to give the family some food (and we brought some other things to round out the meal).

When we went to check on her a couple days later, she was still feeling a bit ill, but she said that a kind neighbor had dropped off a bag of oranges (when we asked if she needed us to pick her up anything to eat). She then proceeded to make orange juice for my companion and I, using up the rest of the fruit, even though it was literally the only food in the house. As I brought the cup to my lips, I saw ants floating in the top of the drink, but you better believe I drank the entire thing down…I knew all too well what it had cost.

I had a sister literally give me the shirt off her back (after she changed into a different one, of course) simply because I’d complimented her on it. I had families use their only pennies to buy us a refreshment, or give us small tokens to show their love and appreciation. Whenever I said goodbye for the last time to the people in an area I’d served in, I was showered with innumerable recuerdos–small personal tokens that were pressed into my hands, along with the assurance that they would not forget me.

I saw a young boy on a bus who was given a piece of candy by a stranger (which does not invoke the fear that the same act would here). Rather than greedily eat the candy quickly himself, he turned to the small boy beside him (his brother) and proceeded to share the miniscule piece of candy with him, which was about the size of a small Tootsie Roll. There was no parent around making him do it, or anyone pressuring him. That simply is how the people are—what you have, you share. Period.

When I came back home, I made a promise to be much more hospitable to visitors and much more generous than before, and while I might never reach the level that so many in that country are at naturally, I’m still trying every day.

I wore through MANY pairs of shoes on my mission, as we walked basically everywhere (I’m sure sometimes over 10 miles a day). My fingers on the left are going through the BACK of the shoe.

3. Human beings are incredibly adaptable. And we are stronger than we know.

I was first assigned a mission companion who spoke English, whom I served with for a few months. She’d only been out in the mission field for about six months when she started training me, and her spoken Spanish was still a bit broken, but her comprehension was nearly 100%. I had the opposite problem—my ability to speak often led native speakers to believe I could also hear and understand everything THEY were saying, but not so—my comprehension of spoken Spanish always lagged behind my ability to produce it.

When I had not been in the mission field for more than 3 months, I was told I’d be training a “mini missionary” (a young girl from one of the church branches there who would only be serving for a total of 6 weeks). I have always been directionally challenged and still felt unsure of where everything was in our area, and I still had a problem comprehending everything people said. Oh, and the mini missionary? She only spoke Spanish. Twelve weeks into my mission, and I was expected to call all the shots, set up all the appointments, take the lead in teaching the lessons, and so much more. Oh, and not have ANY English speaker by me for the majority of the day to lean on.

I remembered being overwhelmed with doubt at first, but I knew that the work had to go forward. So I pressed on. And I found that while I wasn’t perfect at understanding everything or knowing how to get everywhere, I was a lot more capable than I thought I was. That same feeling came back when I was faced with my first death on the mission (of a beloved woman we’d taught for many weeks), or the first time I faced gunshots outside the house where we were teaching, or the time I had to help a woman find an adoption certificate so that her adopted daughter could not forcefully be taken back to the abusive home she’d left behind. Each of those situations initially brought fear to my heart, but when I realized that these people depended on me and that I had a very specific job to perform, I swallowed my anxiety and my trepidation, and I got to work.

I often felt the heaviness of my calling, but I also grew to know with a surety that with God’s help (and only with His help), I was absolutely capable of facing whatever came.

4. No matter how broken an individual, relationship, or family, it can be healed through Jesus Christ and His gospel.

I heard horrific stories of what people had suffered while on my mission, and I regularly came into contact with people whose lives were in total pieces, often through no real fault of their own.

And I had the honor of witnessing their lives completely change when they embraced the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s not that the trials always went away, or that the people who had hurt them always accepted the gospel too (though that sometimes happened, and it definitely helped speed up the healing process). It’s that they realized that the only way to experience true peace in this life–no matter what you are going through–is to embrace Jesus Christ and His gospel.

There was a middle-aged couple I taught for a long time. The marriage was a shambles, largely due to the husband having gone out for years on almost a nightly basis to the local bar to drink and cheat on his wife, and then come home and tell her all about it. There was no trust and no joy in the marriage, and the wife was desperate for a change. So she invited us in.

Over several months, we saw a miraculous change come over both spouses. The husband stopped going out at night. He started to feel real sorrow for what he’d done, and the hurt he’d caused. He offered sincere apologies to his wife. And they started coming to church together, praying together, and studying the gospel together. And gradually, over time, their hearts both began to change, until one day the wife told us, “I don’t know what you’ve done, but things are just different around here. I’M different. I feel hope for the first time in years. I feel forgiveness. You have been a light in the darkness.” And, as we always explained, it wasn’t us that did anything—we were just the messengers.

Before my mission, I was scared about a lot of things in the future, namely, getting married and starting a family. I worried about the divorce rate, the fear that I might not be a good mom, and a lot of other things. But, once I saw over and over again, with my own eyes, that even the most broken things can mend when hearts are fully turned to God, I lost my fear. I knew that as long as I did all in my power to stay close to God and live the gospel, I would be strengthened through every trial and healed of every heartache. It didn’t mean that I wouldn’t experience hard times (or that I don’t still experience hard times), but living the gospel brings me peace despite everything that comes.

And that is a lesson beyond any price.

If you are curious about my beliefs as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, don’t hesitate to reach out with questions (you can comment below or email me at torrief@gmail.com) or check out this website.