Making it through the first week of classes at the Center for Training Missionaries, we found ourselves preparing for our first Sunday in Brazil. Informed by the experiences of missionaries who were our seniors at the CTM, we knew what this day meant for our newly-formed missionary family: one of us would be selected as District Leader.
Needless to say, a great deal of speculation preceded the decision. In the few days that we’d known each other, we’d developed a good understanding not only of each other’s personalities, but also the group dynamic.
“I know Carter is really gunning for DL, but I don’t think I could handle that,” Sister Willis said privately on the way to class.
Lancey, Ballenger, and I all agreed without a word. In the few days we’d been together, we noticed a few quirks—his ultra-conservative sense of humor, his devotion to the stringent study schedule, an almost-competitive sense of spirituality. Perhaps that was the road we were all going down, but he was unbearable to everyone but the most good natured in the district—his patient companion, Elder Laramie, and Elder Rockefeller who you simply could not be offended even if you were to make fun of his mother.
“We all know Sister Ballenger would make the best District Leader,” I joked.
“Yeah,” Lancey said, “Too bad sisters can’t be District Leaders.”
We all chuckled and made our way to the sacrament meeting that morning just in time to take the last four seats at the back. The Branch President and his counselors made their way over to greet us briefly before the meeting began.
“Elders, Sisters, I’m President Williams. These are Brothers de Paula and Cruz, the counselors for the branch. I hope you’re ready for interviews after church today. We’re all looking forward to meeting you.”
With that, we sat in our seats prepared for the three hours ahead of us. A sacrament meeting of testimonies and introductions was quickly followed by a Sunday school lesson and another hour separating the priesthood holders from the sisters. It was one of the more familiar aspects of the whole experience in Brazil—one of the few things that would go unchanged from our time as missionaries and as regular members of the church—the same set of lessons happened to be given around the world any given Sunday.
“Welcome, District 37-A,” President Williams said, “We’re glad to have you here and would like to spend the next hour or so getting to know you as a presidency. If you’ll all remain here, we’ll meet with you one-on-one. We’ll have similar interviews at the middle and end of your stay. Also, I’ll be making our decision on who will be District Leader in your time here at the CTM. Can I have some volunteers to start off the interview process?”
Elder Carter’s hand shot up like a drowning man reaching for air Sister Willis and Sister Bangerter also volunteered, sharing a look with each other and with me over Carter’s predictability in this situation. The three of them left made their way out of the room as the rest of us sat around discussing our meetings and the decision to be made. There was an interesting dynamic—a rolling wave of flattery as we suggested why each of the guys in the room would make a great leader. When my turn came—“Elder GMB is just so level-headed and likeable”—I blushed a little before Elder Frazier moved on to Elder Laramie, “You know, you’re probably the most patient. Who else could handle being Carter’s comp?”
We all laughed for a moment and our conversation devolved into jokes at each other’s expense—my glasses, Sis. Ballenger’s height, Lancey’s acne. No one was offended because no one was safe, but we soon quieted down out of guilt.
“Next,” President Williams called from the doorway, returning with Sister Ballenger. “You, Elder GMB.”
I made my way to the next room lit only by the frosted glass. Two folding chairs stood in front of a whiteboard angled towards each other in a 135 degree angle. It was the same setup I’d experienced since I was eight years old. Now I realize that each detail of this ritual of interviews, though not necessarily holding a specific meaning, spoke to the rigidity of the culture in which I lived. Predictably, he asked me to pray, I selected my words purposefully so as to prove myself spiritual and sincere, he gave me a speech on how important my calling as a missionary:
“Heavenly Father has been preparing you for this moment long before you were born. There are souls out there waiting to receive his Gospel through you and it’s in your time here that you must steel yourself for the long journey ahead.” What followed was a short explanation of how I’d gotten to where I was at that point in my life.
“Well, I’ve always planned on doing this. Doing what I was supposed to do. I always expected myself to end up on a mission and then when it got close, it just felt right. I just felt prepared. When I opened up that envelope and got through the initial surprise, I knew it was what I was supposed to do.”
“That’s a beautiful story. It’s through the small and simple things like those feelings that great things come to pass and great boys grow into great men.”
We concluded with a little discussion of life back in the states. He was a lawyer for the Church and asked to use his Portuguese skills (acquired on a mission some fifteen years ago). His wife and daughters accompanied him, seeing as an opportunity to enrich their lives culturally while serving the Lord.
I shared my story and was surprised by how much was school related. “I’m the middle of three boys. I want to be a college professor and teach literature, but l think journalism seems more practical.”
“You look into journalism. The world needs more independent journalists.”
And with that, we closed with a prayer so he could interview the next missionary. I wasn’t sure what to make of that last comment. I’d spent a good deal of my life navigating the hostile roads set out for a liberal Mormon and it was clear he wasn’t particularly friendly to those views.
As we returned to the other room where the missionaries waited, I noted the volume had increased considerably.
“Quiet down! This is a sacred space,” President Williams interjected as a few of the Elders scuttled back into their chairs. “You are missionaries not middle schoolers.” He left the room for a moment to tell his counselors he would be supervising us.
In an awkward silence, we contemplated the bootcamp-like conditions. We couldn’t handle being 100% spiritual, 100% reverent all of the time. If this is what being a missionary meant, I don’t think any of us were prepared for the next two years.
Finally, once all the interviews were finished, President Williams convened his counselors to discuss their leadership decision. In the meantime, Elder Frazier apologized for telling stories about the police catching him making out with his prom date on the roof of a church and Elder Laramie for the Chapelle Show impressions.
“I must say we’re more than disappointed in your behavior. I know that this is a time for growth as many of you have left your families for the first time less than a week ago. You have some powerful lessons awaiting you and I hope this is the first: you are now adults. You will be expected to act as such. As Paul instructed the Corintians, ‘When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.’
“One Elder here has shown a great deal of maturity and devotion in choosing to serve a mission. He’s proved himself diligent according to your teachers and in his interview with the branch leaders. We ask that each of you support and sustain Elder Laramie in his new calling as District Leader.”