What’s in a Missionary’s Suitcase?

How do you cram all that you’ll need for 18 months into one suitcase? Where do you even begin? Our friend Karissa Skinner-Karatassos shows how it’s done in this video.

Do Not Attempt in Heels hits Middle School

Maddie Arvanitas, an 8th grader from Pennsylvania, chose to research an unusual subject for her English assignment: missionaries. Not only did she get an A, she cited Do Not Attempt In Heels, too! Below is the link to her assignment and also the text of her paper.

Go Maddie, go.

Mormon Missionaries

In October of 2012, during the 182nd semi-annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, President Thomas S. Monson announced that the age in which members of the church could serve full time missions had been lowered.  Instead of 21, girls could leave at 19, and rather than 19, boys could leave at 18.  His statement left hundreds, maybe thousands of young adults worldwide with mixed feelings, quite bewildered in the presence of such a historic event.  

            Soon, the number of applications for missions jumped up as high as 471%, as stated in the Deseret News article, “LDS Missionary Applications Jump 471 Percent” by Joseph Walker.  And so the high school graduates left their homes, their friends, and their families to the serve the Lord for 18-24 months.  There was one young woman, a college student at the time of the age change, who decided to join the mass exodus into the mission field the following year.  Her name is Sister Sydney Arvanitas, who is currently serving a full time mission in Daejeon South Korea.  

            In the book, “Do Not Attempt in Heels” compiled by Elise Babbel Hahl and Jennifer Rockwood Knight, Sister Arvanitas has an excerpt describing her decision to serve.  She writes, “The process I endured in deciding to serve a mission certainly wasn’t an easy one.  As President Monson made the announcement, I, like so many other girls that day, saw myself as a missionary.  I experienced a jolt of joy and peace and …understanding.  For a brief moment, I knew that I would serve a mission.  In that moment, I wanted to serve a mission for myself, for my future family, and for those waiting to hear the glorious message of the gospel” (Arvanitas 48).   

            It would appear that sister missionaries were not that common before the change.  As mentioned in the Transcript of Interview with Elder Evans, the Executive Director of the Missionary Department, the number of sister missionaries went from 15% of all missionaries to 24% after just one year after the age change announcement.  That’s about 11, 000 more sister missionaries. Knowing just how many teens/young adults leave on their missions-even more so with a lowered age requirement-brings many non-members to a question many may have heard before.  Why do they willingly sacrifice so much while so young?

            There is actually quite an abundance of reasons why but a few in particular have been expressed quite often.  They leave to help others by sharing with them the gospel of Jesus Christ.  They leave for the blessings they will receive by serving.  They leave because they love the Lord.  

            You may see these young people with their prominent black tags over their heart, walking around knocking on doors, or talking to people on the street or on public transportation.  They truly are everywhere.  These missionaries are bees, scattered about, working hard.  

            One question that is often asked, is what do they do?  Usually, not feeling up to going into a detailed description on every little thing missionaries do, some simply state that they teach about Jesus Christ.   

A more detailed explanation, however, is best described by the missionaries themselves.  Although each and every mission has its own unique occurrences, benefits, and issues, there is one thing that remains consistent: miracles.  Elder Nicholas Arvanitas, who is serving in Queretaro Mexico, expressed an example of this in one of his letters found on his blog, “The Nebraska of Mexico”.  He noted, “So this week we really focused in finding new people or people that were just less active.  So we knocked on a lot of random doors that were in our lists of people to try and find.  We went to go find this one lady’s house and instead, we found an entire condominium of 50 houses…she lived really far away too. So we’re like, well we didn’t come here for nothing.  So we said a prayer and kinda just asked for help to know where to go, and just for help.  Immediately, we felt something different, and we’re like, go here.  So we knocked at a random house, and a lady was just leaving but she says, ‘Yeah, I want you guys to come back.’ So two days later, we did.  She kind of just started breaking down crying.  She told us that she was having a lot of problems.  She said that a long time ago she talked to missionaries like us and about a week ago she remembered them.  So she told us that she prayed for help from God and the next day we were there.  It was kind of a miracle” (Arvanitas).

In a brief interview about missionaries, Kristy Arvanitas stated what she thought of missionaries.  She stated that what they do is difficult.  They leave their families for a long time, teaching what they believe.  Regardless of this, they don’t always get such a warm welcome.  They sometimes endure verbal abuse, being spit at, and people throwing things at them, when they’re only 18-22 year old kids.  She mentioned that she had a lot of respect for them, for they serve, and teach people about something they love and strongly believe in while sacrificing their own comforts and delaying going to college.   

            We may be likened unto the men of World War II and their thoughts toward the women of that time.  We don’t see what’s really there.  In this case, some may see the missionaries as miracle workers or kids involved in a hoax, but they really are just young people, struggling and striving to do their best to teach and serve.  These young kids, fresh out of high school or into college serve diligently and faithfully, which couldn’t be said about many others today.  If someone was not willing to receive their message, then they should at least learn from their example. They teach, they face trials and tribulations, they serve, they sacrifice more than people know, and still, many have not yet heard “I regret serving a mission.” 

À Ceci Tous Connaîtront (“By This Shall Men Know…”)

Christ with ApostlesUn, deux, trois….”

My feet hit the cold, hard tile as I continued jumping.

Quinze, dix-sept, seize, dix-huit….hang on, that’s not quite right!”

Surely counting my jumping jacks in French would help me master the language and bear a powerful testimony of the restored gospel, n’est-ce pas?

It was 6.45 and I was well into daily exercise and mental preparation for the day.

“You’ll never be as bad at French as you were yesterday, so it can only improve from here!” I mentally encouraged myself, all the while listening intently for noises from the attic, dreading the moment when she would wake up and come downstairs.

Just a few weeks earlier, I’d arrived in the mission field. I adored my trainer from the moment I met her — a native and seasoned missionary who could teach me the language, the culture, and the fundamentals of missionary work. All my life, I’d dreamed of serving, and I was ready to learn and grow and finally become a real missionary.

I realized that things would be different than I imagined a few days into my first week during our nightly planning.

“We will be teaching this person for the first time tomorrow,” my companion explained slowly enough for me to understand.

“Great! Should we teach her lesson one? Can we talk about Joseph Smith? Let’s present her with a Book of Mormon!” I excitedly stammered, hoping to be helpful despite my language difficulties.

My trainer’s response shocked me. Fixing me with a cold gaze, she said in a voice that nearly froze my blood, “We do not hand out copies of the Book of Mormon on first contacts.”

Taken aback by her tone, I debated arguing with her that not only was it possible to do such a thing, but our MTC teachers recommended it.

“Oh,” I replied a little hurt and wondering if I had somehow offended her. We finished planning, and I wandered up to bed, reflecting on the incident.

Things did not improve. Everything I did, from the way I made my bed to how I did my hair bothered my companion. I was too emotional, too expressive, too…American for her tastes, and she let me know it.

I was terrified to speak during lessons, terrified of messing up, constantly glancing at my companion out of the corner of my eye to see if she was upset with me. Nightly planning sessions became interminable nightmares as my companion regarded me in silence, waiting for me to recite to her all of the wrongs I’d committed that day. Anything I missed she catalogued for me. I wanted to improve, but felt my confidence slip away each time I was corrected. I felt trapped in a culture I didn’t understand, trying to speak a language that smothered my personality, working with a companion who resented everything about me. The only way I felt that I could really express myself was through the tears that seemed to constantly stain my cheeks.

I am happy to say that things did get better. Missions are for growing and improving, making compromises, and learning to love people. My sole confidant was my Heavenly Father, and I learned to rely wholly on Him. My prayers became constant pleas for help. I asked Him to give me opportunities to serve her and also provide opportunities for her to serve me. I hoped that our hearts might soften and that we could learn to accept and love each other.

Then I acted. Through small acts of kindness and service on both parts, our relationship changed. I washed her dishes and she made my bed. She served me before herself at dinner, and I carried her bike outside before we left for the day. We started laughing and confiding in one another, and she even told me she was grateful that I was her companion.

We still had disputes; sometimes I was wrong, and sometimes she was. But it was in those moments of hurt and self-pity that I saw that it was most important for me to put aside pride and serve. It was through that process, that on our last day together as companions, we left each other as friends.

While I still carried some hurt from certain experiences, I found that by the end of my mission, both she and I had forgiven and forgotten. The night I left, she came to the airport, kissed me on the cheek, and told me she loved me. I did the same. Because no matter what the culture or the problem, when two people are committed to living the gospel of Jesus Christ and truly becoming His disciples, things can get better.

How Long Shall We Wait?

by Jana Gillman

I remember sitting in a Zone Conference in the month of May when a fellow sister asked, “how long do you wait?  What I mean is, how long do you continue visit someone who has fallen away?” It was a good question, one that I’d pondered as well.   She then related a story ever familiar to every missionary in the room.  It was about a family she’d been visiting for a couple of months.  They allowed her to visit, but they weren’t progressing.

Expecting my Mission President to give a clear answer of “how long” was good enough, I whipped out my pen ready to jot down whatever he said.  His answer was profound, deep, and has influenced my life still to this day.

He said there isn’t a specific time frame.  Of course, we need to follow the Spirit and work effectively.  I expected that kind of answer, however, it’s what he said next that struck my heart.  He asked us to turn to Moroni chapter 7, verse 36.  He quoted the last part of the scripture, “. . . as long as time shall last, or the earth shall stand, or there shall be one man upon the face to be saved…”  That is how long the Savior will wait for us, and as representatives of Christ, we too should wait that long.  Those who have strayed are someone’s mother, someone’s sister, a part of a family and we should never give up on them because the Savior won’t ever give up on them either.

Wow.  I was speechless.  I’d visited countless less-actives during my time as a missionary, and not a single one had returned to church.  Some days, when we would  stop by to visit a particularly friendly inactive, I wondered if we were doing any good if we weren’t seeing results.  Yet, this counsel pierced my heart, and I knew that no matter what, I could never give up on these individuals.  That counsel was so timely.  Less than a month later, I saw my first inactive return to church in over 15 months as a missionary.

Sister Wada’s story is monumental for me as a missionary.  Not only was she the only inactive I saw return and stay, but she came as an answer to fasting and prayer.  My companion and I had opened our area for sister missionaries.  This particular Zone hadn’t had sisters for years, and we were the first.  It was an exciting time.  I was a seasoned missionary, confident in my language skills, and I’d opened areas before.  So I knew what hard work itwould be to learn a brand new area, and begin with no contacts or investigators. We were working hard every day but seeing no success.  We talked to everyone.  We gave out a record number of Books of Mormon, but still had zero investigators and felt so defeated.

 In early February,  we decided to fast to ask the Lord to help us specifically know who we should visit each day, and also that He would open the hearts of the people. We prayed and then made phone calls making appointments for that day.  We called Sister Wada that morning, and she agreed to see us later that afternoon.  What we didn’t know was that afternoon she found out that her father had fallen terribly ill.  She was leaving that night on a train to be by his bedside.   We showed up at our appointed time, talked to her briefly and shared a scripture.  I remember the scripture we chose was one out of the ordinary, one that I normally wouldn’t share with a less active.  However, the Lord knew what she needed to hear.  It touched her heart and she broke down in tears.  She relayed how her day had gone, and how that the scripture had comforted her in a way that she hadn’t felt in a long time.  She repeatedly thanked us, and invited us back when she returned.  We prayed together and then we left.

For me, this was a turning point in my mission.  This experience had let me know that the Lord was mindful of my companion and I.  He recognized our hard work, and of course, “God is mindful of every people… whatsoever land they may be in; yea he numbereth his people and his bowels of mercy are over all the earth.”  (Alma 26:37)

We continued to visit Sister Wada almost every week after she returned.  During this time, I got a new companion and we were warmly welcomed into her home. Although she said she’d come to church with each invitation, it didn’t happen.  This is where the Zone Conference training became vital.  I began to be frustrated and wondered how long we should wait for her?  I wondered if I was doing the right thing as a missionary? I knew she was feeling the Spirit, but I questioned how effective we were being.  The President’s counsel kept ringing in my ears, “…how long would the Savior wait?”  I confidently made the decision to keep visiting her, clinging to the hope that she would return.

And then it happened—on a Sunday in early June.  Sister Wada returned to church and was received with open arms!  I’ll never forget the look of excitement that the members of that Branch had for her.  They were filled with as much joy as we were to see a friend return to the fold.

This was one of the only times in my mission that I saw the fruits of my labors fulfilled; it was truly  “…sweet, above all that that I ever before tasted…” (1 Nephi 8:11)  Most importantly, I learned a lesson that I have leaned upon repeatedly:  that the Savior doesn’t give up on anyone, and neither should we.  I can’t count how many less active sisters I have visit taught since this experience, or the friends and family who have struggled with their faith, where I have drawn upon this lesson and was able to persevere- with patience, show my love, and help them feel the Spirit.  I am grateful that I was a tool in the hand of my Savior, and I am grateful He waits for me.

Christmas in the Amazon

by Jacqueline White

Amazon forest near Manaus

Four years after being baptized in 1980, I was able to serve a Mission in Brazil.  It was Christmas 1985 that I was transferred two weeks before the Holiday deep into the Amazon to a city called Manaus.   My Christmas on the Amazon was one that I was not prepared for and one that I would never forget.  It was hot, averaging about 90 degrees everyday with 90% humidity (including about 18 days of rain throughout the month of December).  The surroundings seemed dirty to my American sensibilities and there was a kind of poverty that I had never seen before or could imagine existed.

Manaus pic

Having served in the country for only 3 months, the language was still challenging and more of a barrier than a bridge to the people around me.  This town nestled in the middle of the Amazon was 1200 miles from our mission home in Brasilia, only accessible by a flight, which prevented us from joining the rest of the mission for the Holiday Christmas conference.  

Best Brazil map

So in addition to culture shock and acclimating to a new climate and food,  I was feeling very ‘cut off’ from my non-member family, from the friends that I had left at BYU, from other English speakers and now from the rest of our mission.  I longed for the holiday cues that I had grown accustomed to in America.  The cool weather, the cozy traditions and the familiarity of my beloved culture were missing.  I was disoriented and a bit sad, wondering if my nonmember family was right in telling me that I was foolish to interrupt college and spend 18 months far away from everything I loved and everyone who loved me.

On Christmas Eve, our zone of 14 missionaries loaded up in an old, rusty school bus that a member of the branch owned for his job and we drove around to the homes of various investigators singing Christmas Carols.  It was a bit depressing to me and I hadn’t anticipated feeling this kind of alone-ness on a Mission.  Wasn’t Missionary work supposed to be joyous and rewarding?  I knew it would be soul-stretching as well, but loneliness was hollowing out my heart, and I was ashamed that I felt so much sadness and unanticipated homesickness.


Then at 9pm, our rusty school bus stopped to sing our last song of the night outside the home of a one particular family.  As I stood in the dirt road, sweaty from the heat and humidity, feeling filthy and gritty it dawned on me that perhaps the actual first Christmas wasn’t much different from what I was experiencing.   I realized that  Mary and Joseph were far from home in what must have felt like dirty surroundings that we know were very, very humble.  Nothing about their situation was what they had expected or anticipated.  And perhaps they felt a longing for all that was familiar to them as well.  With this thought in mind, I watched the young Brazilian family, standing outside their humble little home, light up over our simple act of holiday kindness.  A calm spirit of pure joy flooded my heart and mind. I was far away from home and everything I knew, but the feeling of the Holy Ghost was familiar and all I needed to make that Christmas meaningful–a Christmas I have never forgotten.

Now, almost 30 years later, I have my own 22 year-old daughter and 20 year-old son each serving missions.  I miss them, but the sacrifice of not being together as a family is worth the good that they are doing for the people they are serving, and for the good that they may never know they are doing.  I know that they will also feel sadness at times, even in the very service that is supposed to bring joy. They will feel loneliness amidst the labors that we are told are divine.  But I know that these experiences will force a reliance on the Holy Ghost and forge an unbreakable bond with God (as it did for me), which will serve them well.  That will be the invisible force that instructs and protects them long after I am no longer here to provide motherly oversight.   And that is the very best gift that I could ask for.


Dum Dum Diddy to the Rescue

When I’d been out on my mission in Brazil only a couple of weeks, the ward mission leader gave his 3-minute spiritual thought at the weekly ward social and then looked at me.

“Sister–what’s the game tonight?”

I swiveled in desperation for my trainer’s assurance that I’d misunderstood.  Her sympathetic eyes confirmed my fear: the next 27 minutes, with 40 Brazilians and my pidgin Portuguese, were mine.  A quick prayer brought to mind my most dreaded Girls Camp campfire tradition: Dum Dum Diddy.  It was a silly clapping and singing song that we had to do all my six years of Girls’ Camp.  I thought it was dumb even back when I was 12 (and I couldn’t manage to keep up!).  But this evening, in a little town in the middle of nowhere, it was a heaven-sent cross-cultural smash hit, as I taught Brazilians from age 2-85 the Philadelphia Stake Girls Camp campfire tradition.  It took all 27 minutes, and absolutely everyone had a grand time.

Here’s my family–I taught it to the kids five minutes before we taped this.  Usually you start out slow and do it a few times, picking up speed.

Weaving Missionaries into the Fabric of the Ward 

by Emily Snyder

My boss happens to serve in the Boston Mission Presidency. They have been working hard to help missionaries be “woven into the fabric of the wards” – which is easier to say than do!!

While serving in Russia, I saw how Sunday meetings didn’t really happen without the missionaries. We had missionaries serving in the branch presidency, teaching in Young Women’s, planning activities, and on and on. Our goal was to help the missionaries to involve themselves less in the details of the ward.

But I realize that there needs to be a balance. The work of the members is the work of the missionaries and the work of the missionaries is the work of the members. If I could be a full-time missionary again, I would want to reach out to the Primary teachers and the youth organizations and suggest ways I could help – teach lessons, visit students, write thank you notes, or plan a lesson with the Relief Society president. I wouldn’t wait to be asked. I wouldn’t wait to have the ward think of ways for me to be used – I would just jump in.

At least I hope I would!

As an assistant in my work life, I have learned some traits that I want to use when I serve full-time again:

  • I am here for the cause–not for my glory, not for my vision. The irony is that the more I give to my boss’ cause, the more I am trusted and the clearer my career path becomes.
  • My job is to make my boss’ life easier. (I want his life to be seamless, so I happily kick under the water as hard as I can.)
  • I am here to help him with his goals and vision and to help him achieve what he wants – not what I have decided he should want.

Maybe this is a reminder for me now, not just in the future. Maybe this is the “ah-ha” for my work with missionaries and who I want to be in my member role . . .  the role of an (almost) full-time missionary who just happens to need to pay bills, too. Maybe this is what I need to be doing to help those I love come to know Jesus Christ better.