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Mormon church’s Provo MTC: Exclusive look of the largest missionary training facility in the world

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Editor's note: This is the first in a three-day series offering a closer look at how the LDS Church trains missionaries before they are sent into the field.

PROVO — From MLI to LTM to MTC and from TE to TRC to TALL, this is not your father's missionary training experience anymore.

And certainly not your grandfather's.

With a current missionary force of 53,660 volunteering 18 months to two years of their lives to spread the good word worldwide, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in its ninth decade of formal missionary training and celebrating its golden anniversary of centralized language instruction.

And it is taking its missionary training across the globe and into the future, coupling a 10-year expansion project and technological advances at its flagship Provo Missionary Training Center with 14 satellite facilities in as many countries.

These missionaries "fill the Lord's mandate to go into all the world and preach the gospel," said Elder Richard G. Hinckley of the church's First Quorum of the Seventy and executive director of the church's Missionary Department.

"And they do so willingly. They don't know what they're getting into, for the most part, unless they've had siblings or close friends who have served — they do a wonderful job. They're young, they're inexperienced, and by the time they come home, they are mature and wonderful young people."

And the start of that service begins at a training center.

In 1925, the LDS Church established its Church Missionary Home and Preparatory Training School — or the Salt Lake Mission Home — where outgoing missionaries spent up to a week in training and preparation.

Fifty years ago this fall, the church created a Missionary Language Institute (MLI) on the BYU campus for Spanish-speaking missionaries. The name evolved into the Language Training Mission, with additional languages added and similar language-specific programs spread to at church colleges in Idaho and Hawaii.

In 1976, a separate LTM complex was designed and constructed near the BYU campus, while a year later, the first international missionary training center arose, in Brazil. And in 1978, the LTM became Provo's flagship Missionary Training Center, to prepare and refine all missionaries, not just those learning a language.

But don't think the "language" aspect is lessened with the change of names and focus. The Provo MTC still trains in 52 different languages, serving as the starting point for all missionaries called to serve in the church's North America missions and for many North Americans serving in foreign countries.

English-speakers train for three weeks before departing for their assigned areas. Those learning a language remain for eight weeks — 12 weeks for more difficult languages such as Russian, Finnish, Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese.

Provo MTC director Richard I. Heaton says the real story of the MTC is found in the missionaries themselves and in their sacrifices and struggles in what he calls "a place of growth."

"They become strong and powerful people to go on to the next level — the mission field — where they go through the same struggles again," he said.

Heaton adds that perhaps the MTC is best described for what it is not. "It's not a boot camp where you drive them, nor is it an intensive program where you break them down to build them back up. … we're not baby-sitting missionaries or trying to get them to comply or control them, to have them become robots."

Rather, the missionaries are expected to benefit from the regimen and self-discipline. "It doesn't force you as much as it allows you to develop these habits," said Elder Bryan Lozano of Long Beach, Calif., preparing to speak Spanish in the Texas San Antonio Mission.

Provo MTC President Gordon D. Brown underscores the spiritual nature of missionary training. "I call it 'the Lord's university' — I really see it that way," he said, adding, "I've never felt the (presence of God) like I've felt it here. This is a holy sanctuary of the Lord's; this is sacred ground."

Missionaries like Elder Payton Holt of Bountiful, also destined for the San Antonio mission, echo those sentiments. "The MTC has really prepared me spiritually and doctrinally," he said. "It has surprised me how quickly one can learn about the gospel."

The Provo MTC hosts an average of about 2,000 missionaries at a time — reaching nearly 2,900 in July and August as more missionaries arrive between school years.

Able to accommodate nearly 4,000 missionaries, the Provo MTC started reaching that level in the 1990s before the expansion of international MTCs. Now nearly a third of all missionaries are trained outside of the United States.

While most think of Mormon missionaries in terms of 19-year-old or 20-something young men in white shirts and ties, an increasing number of young women, older single women and retired senior couples help comprise the missionary force. The young men welcome their female counterparts and older missionary peers with the appropriate courtesies.

"They open the doors, take our luggage, return our lunch trays," said Sister Lindsay Farr of North Ogden, training for the China Hong Kong Mission.

"They treat us like princesses," agreed Sister Diondre Darcey of Tulsa, Okla., also off to Hong Kong.

Elder Jim Okeson and Sister Jeanne Okeson, senior couple missionaries from Idaho Falls, were in the MTC to start their third mission together — as military affairs specialists in the California San Diego Mission — after previous service in Fiji and the West Indies.

"We didn't have to come here this time, but we chose to come because we love what happens here," said Sister Okeson. "We love that special spirit here and how it sets you up for your mission."

Added her husband: "I walked through the front door and realized again, 'This is a special place.' "

The MTC's regimented daily schedule quickly becomes routine. Up by 6:30 a.m. — although some sister missionaries participate in a special 6 a.m. gym class. Breakfast is followed by an hour each of personal and companionship study and then more studying, planning and learning until lunch.

Class work continues until dinner and again afterward, with next-day planning at 9 p.m., a return to their dorm residences at 9:30 and lights out at 10:30.

Missionaries are afforded a 50-minute exercise/recreation period five days a week in the gymnasium/auditorium or — when it's warmer — on a large nearby field.

Other schedule amendments include worship meetings and firesides on Sundays, Tuesday evening devotionals with an LDS general authority and 75 minutes of weekly service — from cleaning to grounds work, and a weekly preparation day or "P Day."

On P Day, missionaries at the MTC do laundry, write home (30 minutes online access to email parents, with handwritten letters to other family and friends) and attend a temple session. But after dinner, it's back to class, where missionaries generally spend nine to 10 hours daily in lessons, workshops, training exercises and practice in developing language and teaching skills.

Supplementing class instruction are the Training Resource Center (TRC), TE program (Teaching Evaluation) and TALL (Technology Assisted Language Learning) computerized instruction.

The TRC provides some 30 rooms — most representing a typical living room — where missionaries are videotaped in teaching and contacting situations with volunteers role-playing as church investigators and nonmembers. The tape sessions are reviewed and evaluated on language, cultural appropriateness and teaching methodology.

The TE is a progressing teaching program with the same role-playing volunteer, as missionaries build upon augmenting lesson material from one session to the next.

The TALL instruction is for missionaries learning a new language, as they listen to words, phrases and longer readings from a native speaker and record and compare their own pronunciations.

"What really makes or breaks you in learning a language is your personal time," said Elder Russell Homer of Holladay, called to serve in the Russia Rostov Mission.

The Provo MTC continues to grow — both in number of missionaries (the LDS Church forecasts an upcoming demographic upswing in prospective missionaries) and a current 10-year expansion and renovation project.

The current construction focus is a three-story, 40,000-square-foot building to house mail services, clothing assistance, medical and clinical services, a book store, a copy center, a maintenance shop and a receiving center. It will also provide additional office space and residence rooms for 30-plus senior couples.

It is scheduled for completion and dedication in ceremonies later this year that will double as a 50th anniversary commemoration of the old MLI.

Still, the best success stories focus on the missionaries rather than the facilities.

Like Elder Gabriel Ribeiro of Brasilia, Brazil, in the Provo MTC being taught in English — his second language – to learn a third language — Japanese — for his assignment in Japan.

"I write home to my parents about the spiritual feast I have here every day," he said. "I learn so much here. I didn't think I could learn that much — about the gospel, about Japanese. I tell them how grateful I am to be here and to see the church really working."

Email: taylor@desnews.com