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Inside the Missionary Training Center — Arrival day for missionaries means quick goodbyes, and hello to brand new world

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

PROVO — Arrival day at the Provo Missionary Training Center — it's practically the only public MTC event, and even then, it only lasts for a few brief moments.

And that shared arrival experience of incoming missionaries saying goodbye to their families has gotten even shorter.

Before June 2009, family members accompanied their missionary into the Wilford Woodruff Administration Building for a brief, large-group welcome session — a hymn, a prayer and a short message from MTC leaders.

Then in heart-wrenching fashion, missionaries were directed to an exit on one side of the conference room and family members to another exit on the other side, exchanging tearful goodbyes and embraces to last for the next 18 months to two years.

In a drive-through process reminiscent of fast-food meals, the Provo MTC has since instituted a drop-off used for several hours every Wednesday, the changes coinciding with — but not the direct result of — the 2009 swine flu outbreak.

On a bright but chilly Wednesday last month, 361 new missionaries were scheduled to arrive at the Provo MTC. Some traveling alone came in early on international or domestic flights, shuttled in from the Salt Lake International Airport. Another 15 were temporarily stranded in snowbound airports in the eastern United States.

That left some 325 missionaries to arrive by car, with missionaries scheduled alphabetically by last name. Vehicles lined up 25 at a time in two queues from the 900 East entrance, directed to the campus' south end.

Each carload is given several minutes to unload the missionary, snap a photo and say a last goodbye. The MTC accommodates 100 cars every 15 minutes — but could handle as many as 600 on a single Wednesday.

The 12th of 14 children in her family, Sister Whitney Lewis of Springfield, Ore., had witnessed the MTC arrival/goodbye routine previously with older siblings — now she was experiencing it for herself.

She had bid her parents farewell at home several days earlier and had traveled to Utah to spend a couple of nights with her older sister, who saw her off at the MTC. It was a roundabout of sorts, since Lewis had seen her older sister off on her own mission some years earlier.

Greeting each arriving missionary is a pair of "host" missionaries, themselves having arrived only weeks earlier.

As host missionaries, Elder Julian Egger of Innsbruck, Austria, and Elder Ryan Shumway of Payson, reminded new arrivals of the rules upon entering: leave your personal keys and cell phones with your family, bring your updated list of immunizations, and don't forget your luggage.

Moms and sisters leaned out open windows to shout a final farewell as their cars drove off and their missionaries walked the opposite direction. "No cryin', Mom," a new elder shouted back.

"Just to see the mothers crying," said host missionary Elder Hayden Perry of Mountain View, Wyo., "it makes you think of your own mom."

The hosts then accompanied the new missionaries to the administration building, taking their luggage to the exit and waiting for them to complete the initial processing.

Assisted by scores of volunteers at the check-in, newcomers confirm their identities and assignments; have their photo taken; receive a packet containing their name tag, room key and other information; collect a padlock for a secure drawer; and acknowledge they have previously attended an LDS temple, and possess a church-issued ministerial certificate.

New missionaries also receive a blue electronic card that is used to enter the cafeteria or to log onto MTC computers to write home. The card also carries monetary credit: elders receive $6 a week and sisters $8 to pay for laundry, haircuts, extra supplies, bookstore purchases and vending.

New arrivals receive a red-dot sticker on their name tags, so faculty, staff or tenured missionaries can offer to help if they spot a bewildered "red-dotted" missionary.

After the processing, host missionaries deliver the new elders and luggage to their residence rooms, where they are paired up with a companion. Then it's on to classrooms to meet teachers, followed by an orientation session with the MTC presidency and their wives.

"The most important thing to do is develop your own testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ," MTC President Gordon D. Brown told the newcomers. "You are the most important convert of your mission."

The rest of the day is given to dinner, unpacking and then returning to the classroom for the first of many sessions — three weeks for English or native-language missionaries and eight to 12 weeks for those learning a new language.

Upon concluding their MTC tenure, they'll depart for their assigned missions — in airport-destined groups as small as a solo missionary to as large as 160 at time, bound for missions as far as halfway around the world or as close as a three-minute van ride to the nearby Utah Provo Mission.

Usually 300 or so missionaries depart the MTC weekly, altough more leave in the summer months when MTC attendance is higher. That's a far cry from the highs of the '90s — before the expansion of international MTCs — when as many as 800 might depart in a single week.

A weekly average of 45 to 55 groups leave the MTC. The same tour-size buses and vans used to transport missionaries to the Salt Lake airport may also deliver missionaries to Utah-based missions.

MTC buses make between 15 to 20 trips a week; some days, several buses make three runs each.

But that's at the close of the MTC experience On arrival day, entering missionaries focus on what lies ahead.

"This is a special moment," said Elder Ian Collins of Redding, Calif., bound for Madagascar. "I just said goodbye to my parents, and I won't see them for awhile. But I'm very excited to do this. I've been looking forward to this for a long time."