The Adriatic South Mission consists of three countries: Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo. I was called to serve in Macedonia, located in Eastern Europe just north of Greece for those of you who don't know (which included myself before I was called). The whole time I spent in the capital city, Skopje. The country has only been open to missionary work for about four years, so I was very surprised any time I talked to someone there who had actually heard of the church before. Some older people there still remember communism. Many are poor and struggle to find work. It is not uncommon for a business to simply stop paying an employee until they notice and then leave, and many are laid off. Protests against the government are frequent. The lifestyle is very simple. The majority are native Macedonians, but there are Albanian and Roma minorities who face discrimination from the people in general and also from the government. Walking around on the street, there are many beggars and street vendors, some of which are children; there are cobblestone streets in part of the city, and horse-drawn carts made of wood. That being said, many people still can afford to dress nice and have an iPhone. The language is Macedonian, but most know at least some English. Serving in this globally insignificant country, it's not hard to imagine why the last time I'd heard of Macedonia was in the New Testament, but God did not forget this place and His children there who He loves dearly. I felt privileged and extremely blessed to be one of the first missionaries called there. Countless Macedonians love God too. The main religions are Orthodox and Islam. In most parts of the city you can hear the call to prayer coming from mosques five times a day. On the bus whenever we passed a church, passengers would cross themselves three times and sometimes kiss their fingers at the end. Once or twice someone crossed themselves after reading my nametag. Initially they usually thought I was a nun, a Jehovah's Witness, or just remained confused until I explained further.
There was no Macedonian teacher at the Missionary Training Center, so while there I learned Bulgarian and then had to make the switch to Macedonian once I arrived in-field. My teachers at the MTC assured me that anyone who spoke Macedonian would understand Bulgarian. One of my first investigators was Benjamin, an Albanian Muslim who wanted to study law. The lessons with him were slow and pain-stakingly done, because my mix of Bulgarian-Macedonian was hard for me to communicate in, and my companion had only been in the country for two months more than me and didn't know the language either. Macedonian was not Benjamin's mother tongue. Once in a while I didn't understand a question or comment he made, and would just nod and continue on with my next point. Several times I wouldn't know the Macedonian word for something but would offer the Bulgarian word. He would say, "I don't speak Bulgarian." He ended up getting baptized. After a while he was still coming to church, passing the Sacrament, and we were still teaching him. I said to my companion one day, "Do you think Benjamin knows he's a mormon?" Later in a lesson he said, "I'm a mormon," so, our worries ceased. With time I got better at Macedonian. All the time the Lord made up the difference and picked up the slack that me or any other missionaries made. To quote President Henry B. Eyring, "...you do not work alone. The Lord will magnify what you say and what you do in the eyes of the people you serve. He will send the Holy Ghost to manifest to them that what you spoke was true. What you say and do will carry hope and give direction to people far beyond your natural abilities and your own understanding. That miracle has been a mark of the Lord’s Church in every dispensation. It is so much a part of your call that you may begin to take it for granted...When you are released from your calling, you will learn what I learned... God magnifies those He calls, even in what may seem to you a small or inconspicuous service. You will have the gift of seeing your service magnified. Give thanks while that gift is yours. You will appreciate its worth more than you can imagine when it is gone. The Lord will not only magnify the power of your efforts. He will work with you Himself. His voice to four missionaries, called through the Prophet Joseph Smith to a difficult task, gives courage to everyone He calls in His kingdom: 'And I myself will go with them and be in their midst; and I am their advocate with the Father, and nothing shall prevail against them.' Because the Savior is a resurrected and glorified being, He is not physically with every one of His servants at every moment. But He is perfectly aware of them and their circumstance and able to intervene with His power. That is why He can promise you: 'Whoso receiveth you, there I will be also, for I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up.'...If I only think of my own performance, my sadness deepens. But when I remember that the Lord promised that His power would go with me, I begin to look for evidence of what He has done in the lives of the people I am to serve. I pray to see with spiritual eyes the effects of His power...I know then that I have done enough for the promise made by Joseph Smith to be fulfilled once again: 'Let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed.' You can have the utmost assurance that your power will be multiplied many times by the Lord. All He asks is that you give your best effort and your whole heart. Do it cheerfully and with the prayer of faith. The Father and His Beloved Son will send the Holy Ghost as your companion to guide you. Your efforts will be magnified in the lives of the people you serve. And when you look back on what may now seem trying times of service and sacrifice, the sacrifice will have become a blessing, and you will know that you have seen the arm of God lifting those you served for Him, and lifting you." End of quote.
As they tell you a thousand times in the MTC, baptism is not the only way to bring others closer to Christ and is not the determinant for success. The successful days I had as a missionary were not only the ones that someone was found who ended up being baptized. Our mission president emphasized to us the importance of bearing testimony while contacting, so multiple times every day when someone stopped to talk we did so. Every lesson we testified more than once. I think it is safe to say that every time the person was either pacified, or felt our sincerity, or the conversation changed, or they were then willing to give their phone number or take our card, in other words, every time it brought the Spirit. I don't know if those people had ever felt the Spirit before. I did not completely realize this from the beginning. One day when a sister from Albania came for exchanges we were contacting in the mall and almost every time once I was done talking to someone she would say, "You could tell that person was feeling something. Because she kept trying to keep the conversation going," or something to that effect. And that sister did not even understand the language. The Spirit speaks all languages and all people everywhere, members or otherwise, can feel the power of the Holy Ghost. I hope I was able to influence some people for good by being a tool in Heavenly Father's hands and sharing the testimony He gave me with others. I know there have been days in my life when one small good thing has happened to make me feel better, for whatever the time frame. Those things have included hearing from a friend, reading an uplifting thought whether on Pinterest or on a billboard or in the scriptures, listening to a good song, finding out that some circumstance of mine had somehow changed, for example. If those insignificant things were enough to help me, how much more could a witness of the Spirit, the temporary (for them) presence of a member of the godhead in their lives? Only those of us who have the gift of the Holy Ghost have the power to do this, and we can do it by simply bearing testimony. As President Faust once said, the testimony that is borne in living good lives can be a very powerful and life-changing one for others. But I think it helps to state our beliefs in spoken testimony as well.
Because I was a set-apart missionary, I had a special ability to help and comfort those that I taught. I remember one time when the sister missionaries were able to help me when I was a teenager. I was at the Salt Lake Visitor's Center and two sisters came over to talk to me and my mom. They asked what we were doing in Utah and I ended up telling one about how I had moved from the east coast about a year prior. The sister listened well and was very sympathetic and asked if it had been a hard move. I unexpectedly got emotional as I told her about it and I never forgot how cared about she made me feel that day. Years later on my mission we were standing in the square one night contacting and a woman walked up to me before I'd even had time to greet her. After a short introduction and small talk I could tell there was something she was wanting to say, so I asked if I could help her with anything. "There is no church I can find rest in," she said, and continued to tell me that she suspected her daughter was headed down a really bad path and she felt powerless to help her. I got my companion and we went to go sit and talk more. We prayed with her and gave her a Book of Mormon. She said that just being around us she felt her burden lifted a little bit, a relief she had been able to find nowhere else. She repeated how good she felt around us and told me that when she had approached me that night she "felt led" to me and that she should tell me about her problem. Unfortunately the woman wasn't interested in meeting again, but I felt good being able to do the same thing for someone that the sister missionaries had done for me long before.
Some words I would use to describe missionary work in Macedonia would be unstructured, erratic, and random. I had service opportunities, like teaching kids English. Sometimes we went to the US Army base in Kosovo and taught the mormon soldiers there. Once in a while I went to Albania or Kosovo for exchanges or just conferences. It was so nice being able to work for or with an organization or just more organized people because it required less planning and improvisation on our part. Trying to explain to people in Macedonia exactly what we did, what we were about, and what we stood for was difficult since missionary work is a spiritual work. They usually ran through the list of all the religions they knew asking me if I was each one--Orthodox, Catholic, Adventist, Jehovah's Witness, Evangelist, Methodist, Baptist, and to each I would respond no. I would tell them the name of the church and they would reply, "Ok but which church?" A lot of times people tried to convince me that I was unneeded there or that what I was doing had no effect.
I remember one night while contacting on an old bridge I talked to a young Muslim man about our two faiths. I invited him to church and he invited me to the mosque. I told him I had already been and declined his invitation and he said, "See? Christians don't want to be Muslim, and Muslims don't want to be Christian." I tried to share a little more of our message to try and make him understand. I asked, "If Jesus were the Son of God, though, wouldn't you want to know?" He said, "No," but before we parted gave me his number and offered to come and beat people up for me if anyone ever gave me any trouble. I remembered at the beginning of my mission being mad at my MTC companion for saying to me, "You're going to plant a lot of seeds in Macedonia." But on that night on the bridge I felt satisfied with just being able to tell the young man about the godhead, and that not all Christians believed that Jesus and God were the same person. We in fact worshipped the same God. Said an Elder from Kosovo, who worked with Muslims more often than I did, "Muslims always ask how God can have a Son, and they want to know whether God has a wife that He could have a Son. Even we ourselves do not understand the logistics of it. But the thing is, Muslims believe in the immaculate conception. They believe in miracles. All we know is that Mary was Jesus' mother and the Father is God. We don't know anything else. So essentially, we believe the same thing about Jesus that Muslims do." I've got one more thing to say about Muslims and finding common ground until I move on, because I could talk about this all day. One of the last days of my mission, I stopped another Muslim man who did not want to accept Jesus as the Son of God. "Nothing and no one can be like God because God is one. There is only one God," and went on to explain that all things were created by Him and if someone was like God they would also be powerful like God, which thing was impossible. "But don't Muslims believe that Jesus wrought miracles?" I asked. "Yes," he told me. "Then how were those miracles done, if not by the power of God?" I asked. He thought and then just repeated that God could not have a Son because the Qur'an said so. "I have not read the Qur'an so maybe it has truth, maybe it is a good book. But it was written by men and so if it says that Jesus was not the Son, those are just a man's words. I know that the Bible is the word of God, that it is holy and contains the truth. In the Bible God Himself says, 'This is my beloved Son' referring to Jesus. If it comes from God's own mouth that Jesus is His Son, it has to be true. And how can you believe that God really said that? Well, do you believe that God answers prayers?" "Of course He does." "Well then you can pray about these things, you can ask God the question, 'Is Jesus the Son of God?' and He will answer you. And I know that He will tell you that Jesus is His Son, because I know that He is and that He is the Savior. If God tells you that, how can you think anything else? What greater witness can you receive than from God?" The man was quiet and thoughtful for a little bit and then just repeated that he was Muslim. My companions then caught up to me and he told them, "This girl is trying to convince me to not be Muslim!" He laughed and walked away.
The most frustrating part of God's plan, at least that I noticed as a missionary, was people's agency. How could they receive a witness and then choose not to accept it? We know that there is a difference between testimony and conversion. A testimony is just receiving a spiritual witness of the truth, while conversion is entirely changing yourself to act in accordance with God's will. It happens over time and with a lot of effort. Those people who made it to be baptized were those who were truly converted. The ones who kept their committments the whole way through and changed. Said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland on this subject, "Anyone who does any kind of missionary work will have occasion to ask, Why is this so hard? Why doesn’t it go better? Why can’t our success be more rapid? Why aren’t there more people joining the Church? It is the truth. We believe in angels. We trust in miracles. Why don’t people just flock to the font? Why isn’t the only risk in missionary work that of pneumonia from being soaking wet all day and all night in the baptismal font? You will have occasion to ask those questions. I have thought about this a great deal. I offer this as my personal feeling. I am convinced that missionary work is not easy because salvation is not a cheap experience. Salvation never was easy. We are The Church of Jesus Christ, this is the truth, and He is our Great Eternal Head. How could we believe it would be easy for us when it was never, ever easy for Him? It seems to me that missionaries and mission leaders have to spend at least a few moments in Gethsemane. Missionaries and mission leaders have to take at least a step or two toward the summit of Calvary. Now, please don’t misunderstand. I’m not talking about anything anywhere near what Christ experienced. That would be presumptuous and sacrilegious. But I believe that missionaries and investigators, to come to the truth, to come to salvation, to know something of this price that has been paid, will have to pay a token of that same price. For that reason I don’t believe missionary work has ever been easy, nor that conversion is, nor that retention is, nor that continued faithfulness is. I believe it is supposed to require some effort, something from the depths of our soul. If He could come forward in the night, kneel down, fall on His face, bleed from every pore, and cry, 'Abba, Father (Papa), if this cup can pass, let it pass,' then little wonder that salvation is not a whimsical or easy thing for us. If you wonder if there isn’t an easier way, you should remember you are not the first one to ask that. Someone a lot greater and a lot grander asked a long time ago if there wasn’t an easier way. The Atonement will carry the missionaries perhaps even more importantly than it will carry the investigators. When you struggle, when you are rejected, when you are spit upon and cast out and made a hiss and a byword, you are standing with the best life this world has ever known, the only pure and perfect life ever lived. You have reason to stand tall and be grateful that the Living Son of the Living God knows all about your sorrows and afflictions. The only way to salvation is through Gethsemane and on to Calvary. The only way to eternity is through Him—the Way, the Truth, and the Life." Close quote. So, as I stated in some way or another many times as a missionary, conversion cannot happen all at once. It will come over time through experience as we strive to understand God's plan, reading the scriptures, praying, and so on. I know that God will help us as we try. He is always there and can help us immeasurably. He aches to reach out to His children. He loves us. But initially we have to choose to act. We do have to do something for God to make up the difference in our lives. He cannot reward us for doing nothing. 2 Nephi 25:23, "...it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do." The decision has to come from our end, and it must be followed by action. As it says in Mosiah , "...if you believe all these things see that ye do them." James 2:15-20, "If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?"
At some point in another I learned a very important lesson on my mission. God doesn't expect us to be perfect. Which I've heard a thousand times, but it seems some things can only be learned through experience. All He asks is that we try. That we rely on Him. As missionaries, we would still keep meeting with an investigator and working with them even if they didn't perfectly keep every commandment from the very beginning. As long as they still wanted to follow that commandment, we still wanted to help them. Everyone stumbles. That's why there is repentance. I thought missionaries could kind of be compared to the Spirit. As long as we remain worthy, the Spirit stays with us. As long as our investigator wanted to meet and keep trying, no matter how minimal the effort, we still wanted to meet too. When they lost that, we withdrew. But if an old investigator called and said he wanted to meet and try again, we would come back. I remember telling another missionary that Heavenly Father asks us to serve missions so that we know how He feels. As my patience and empathy for those I worked with grew, so did my patience and ability to forgive myself. I am no longer a perfectionist, like I was before my mission, at all. At some point I just realized how much I really do rely on the Savior, and on His grace to save me from everything. I was trying hard as a missionary, and still made so many mistakes. I feel like the debtor in the parable who loved the creditor more because he was forgiven more. I heard given in some talk in church, that often missionaries go out on their missions wanting to repay God for all He's done for them, only realizing that on their missions they need His help more than ever. Mosiah , "I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants."
Which brings me to another point. Many missionaries are converted on their missions. I was. Before I left my two return-missionary roommates told me that I would see so many blessings from serving. I asked what they meant and they told me I would see. While on my mission I started to see so many big, positive changes in myself that I knew were the result of me serving. I heard a lot of other missionaries say that had observed similar things in themselves. It made me wonder what it was, other than the Lord's desire to bless his servants, that made such a big change in a person. I believe it was a combination of two things. The first is a reliance on Heavenly Father. Missionaries are always praying, individually, in their companionships, with members, with investigators, to begin and close each meeting. They study the scriptures for hours every morning and continue to discuss, think about, and apply them throughout the day. Their days are spent in charity. I know from personal experience how much more present Heavenly Father's help is in my life when I am actually accomplishing those spiritual duties. D&C 88:63, "Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you; seek me diligently and ye shall find me; ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you." Communication to God and His communication back increases significantly. The second thing, to quote Elder Bednar, is the load. Serving a mission is hard. I'm sure I don't have to list the reasons why. I think when tough, character-building experiences are combined with a heavy reliance on the Lord, He can work miraculous changes in us. We come closer to Him. We live a large part of God's will for us to come to earth to gain experience and also have faith. To quote Elder Bednar again, "Sometimes we mistakenly may believe that happiness is the absence of a load. But bearing a load is a necessary and essential part of the plan of happiness." One of my companions said to me, "God cares more about us than He does about our happiness." I do know, though, that the hard times end and we can be most happy by living His gospel. The Savior's arm is outstretched to us all the day long. I would encourage anyone thinking of serving a mission to stop thinking about it and just go. The prophet Joseph Smith said, "After all that has been said, the greatest and most important duty is to preach the Gospel."
(Then I bore my testimony in Macedonian)