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RELIGIOUS FREEDOM OPENED WAY FOR FIRST CZECH MISSIONARY

Two years ago, Martin Pilka was a downhill skier in Czechoslovakia whose desire was to win a championship.

Today, he's Elder Martin Pilka, the first missionary from Czechoslovakia in modern times, zealous in sharing the message that changed his life. Now in the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, he will soon serve in the Washington Seattle Mission.The freedom that came to his country at the end of 1989 opened new and undreamed of spiritual horizons.

Elder Pilka, 25, said his skiing career ended when he was sidelined by an illness. During his recuperation afterward, he began to feel that something was missing from his life.

"Early in 1989, I was invited by my girlfriend, Hanna Burdakova, to a party of young people," he explained. At the party he met several Latter-day Saints. Because proselyting was not legal at that time, the members shared the love and joy they felt, but did not preach gospel principles. Later, when religious freedom was granted, he and Hanna began taking lessons from members, including prominent longtime LDS member Otakar Vojkuvka and Dr. Olga Kovarova, who now teaches at the Missionary Training Center in Provo.

They were baptized and became part of a group of 20 members in their hometown of Uherske Hradiste, near the center of Czechoslovakia. "Now there are 70 members in the branch," Elder Pilka said. "The Church is growing quickly. Our branch is young, but our people are very excited. The Lord has abundantly blessed them. We are all brothers and sisters."

After his baptism, he taught the gospel to his friends. "I taught of Jesus, life after death, and what is important in life. When the first missionaries came, I helped them. Their Czech wasn't so good at first."

He recounted that before freedom came, police often watched the members. "Until just a few months ago, singing hymns was prohibited," he said.

Outside the Church, the freedom has brought with it challenges. "Now we have political freedom, and people don't know what to do with it. They are not happy because we have a bad economic situation."

A mission costs two lifetimes of Czechoslavakian earnings, he observed.

He also explained that in Czechoslovakia, students must complete their university training without interruption or they are not permitted to return. He recently graduated as a civil engineer and was offered a contract that he declined in order to fill a mission. Other barriers to serving a mission included the likelihood of losing his apartment during a serious housing shortage.

Thus, the difficulties of serving a mission can appear insurmountable.

"I feel able now to serve a mission," he said. "I know it is where God wants me to go. After I received the Melchizedek Priesthood, it became very clear to me what I could do or not do. It was all so wonderful. I feel God loves everybody, and I love Him. I couldn't choose another way."