Thursday, March 10, 2016

Learning Spanish from doing missionary work

I once mentioned to my Spanish professor in 2012 that I was reading the Book of Mormon in Spanish to practice the language. Although this particular professor was not a Mormon herself, she approved of this endeavor on the grounds of its tendency to improve my Spanish; and she asked me point-blank if I had served a mission for my church. I actually got the same question a year later from my employer of that time (specifically, my boss's boss), and the man asking me the question this time around was not a Mormon, either - which is probably an indication of what visible symbols of the Mormon faith its missionaries are; with the young men in white shirts and ties being an internationally recognized symbol of my church's proselyting efforts.

Photo obtained from church website

The answer to their question is actually a complicated one (although it was probably less so then), and this is probably the first time that I have ventured to go into detail on this question. This answer depends somewhat on what your definition of a "mission" is, since it is not as straightforward as it sometimes seems; so I will attempt to explain clearly what my religion means by that term, before I go into any sort of detail about whether my service would qualify for this honor.

Photo obtained from church website

"So in the context of Mormon culture, what exactly is a 'mission,' anyway?"

The most common meaning of the word in the Mormon faith is an extended period of full-time service as a representative of the church. Some have served in a humanitarian capacity, while others have served in a family history capacity, while still others have served in any number of other church-approved ways. The most common way for a missionary to serve, however, is as a proselyting missionary; who attempts to convert people to the Mormon faith by traveling door-to-door, going online, or doing any number of other things to try and obtain converts. Although female missionaries have long been welcome in the church, the work is particularly important for young adult Mormon males (my own demographic), who are almost universally expected to serve full-time missions as a matter of duty; with this service almost looked on as a rite of passage in the culture of the church.

Photo obtained from church website

"So if full-time missions are normally expected of young men in your church (you might be asking), why didn't you go on one yourself? I mean, you said yourself you're in the 'right demographic,' right - why didn't you go on a full-time mission like other Mormon males of your age group?"

There are actually some rare circumstances in which Mormon males are excused from this sacred duty (such as for health or other limitations), and my own circumstance is - believe it or not - in one of these categories. My full-time mission was up in the air for a few years due to the poor state of my health, and it was not at all certain whether I would go or stay home. Thus, I was actually asked by my local church leaders to wait for an indefinite period of time; and so I did for some four years before finally putting in my mission papers (or the application for full-time missionary service) at the age of 23. At this time, it was decided by the Missionary Department in Salt Lake City, Utah - where my church's headquarters on the earth is located - that my circumstances were of such a type that I was not eligible for full-time missionary service in my twenties (though the door was left open to later service in my old age). Thus, I was "honorably excused" from full-time missionary service during my single years (with an automatic disqualification for medical reasons); and I could thus move on to other things and resume my life - something I was actually quite happy about, to the surprise of a few of my fellow Mormons. (I was actually quite apprehensive about going on a full-time mission with my particular medical problems; and the news that I would not have to attempt such a massive undertaking came as something of a relief to me - allowing me to continue with my other plans where I left off.)

Church Office Building (the headquarters of the church) - Salt Lake City, Utah (in the United States)

"But you didn't say earlier that you hadn't served a mission (you might be observing) - are there other kinds of missionary service that you were able to perform instead?"

The answer depends somewhat on your definition of a mission; and in the strictest Mormon meaning of that word, I have not served a mission at all (as noted previously). But I have served in a number of callings in the church; and among them, I served as the mission leader for the local Spanish congregation in my area. I am not a native speaker of Spanish, I should note; but I wanted badly to learn the language, since the language is a highly useful one in the Southwestern United States, and I thought it might be useful to my future career to know it. Thus, I voluntarily attended the Spanish congregation in my area for three hours a week; and was eventually asked by its local leader to serve as its mission leader - a calling I was somewhat reluctant to accept, given my history with the work. I have had bad experiences with talking about missionary service, with dreaded questions from well-meaning members about the particulars of my situation; and so I avoided the subject like I might have avoided the plague. But I did actually accept the calling at this time despite this; and grew to love the work in my area, as I worked with local Hispanics who were curious about the church - an often-rewarding work that had secular benefits as well, as I saw my Spanish improve from the increased use of the language as a local mission leader.

The church building in Prescott, Arizona where my local Spanish congregation met

"How has serving as a mission leader affected your life (you might be asking)?"

Its effect has been unequivocally good. As I mentioned earlier, I enjoyed the secular benefits of seeing my Spanish improve; which was one of the few things about full-time missionary service that had ever appealed to me (I admit with some chagrin). But the blessings in my life have included some spiritual ones as well; as I gained a familiarity with the work that only experience can bring, and felt closer to the Lord as I served in his kingdom. After I completed some 19 months of service as a local mission leader, my bishop told me that "for all intents and purposes," I was a returned missionary - a lofty status that I had been reluctant to assign to myself before that time. Completing a full-time mission is of such importance in my church that many Mormon women are reluctant to consider a man who has not served one; which was something that I had then found less-than-helpful to my dating experiences (although its liabilities were less pronounced after I was honorably excused from service). I still do not know if this will reap romantic benefits for me in this life - I may well be single for the rest of my life, the way things are looking right now - but even if I don't, the spiritual benefits of the work are blessings enough; and I will always be glad that I was willing to serve whatever the risks. (Even if I had been called to full-time service with my particular medical problems, I would have made every effort to serve in such a position faithfully; and I made that clear to my local church leaders of that time. It would have been hard indeed, but I would have been willing to do it anyway.

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