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Mormon church operates 14 missionary training centers around the world

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The final of a three-part series.

SALT LAKE CITY — For much of the past century, Utah understandably has been seen as the training hub for Mormon missionaries — with Salt Lake City the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and host of the one-time Salt Lake Mission Home and with Provo the site of both the former BYU-based Language Training Mission and the current Provo Missionary Training Center.

However, a current look at the development of new missionaries requires a global gaze, since a third of the LDS Church's missionaries are now being trained outside of Utah and the United States.

The LDS Church operates 14 international missionary training centers — from Argentina to New Zealand — and provides missionary training in 14 languages, including English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Italian, Mandarin, Mongolian, Indonesian, Thai, Samoan, Tahitian and Tongan.

International missionary training centers were established in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Hamilton, New Zealand, in 1977 — a year after the opening of the church's flagship facility in Provo and a year before it would be rechristened the Provo Missionary Training Center and the church's emphasis would shift from language-oriented learning to overall missionary instruction.

Before the advent of international MTCs, many missionaries outside of North America went without both mission-training and temple experiences. Many of the MTCs are located conveniently close to an LDS temple — the Mexico MTC and Mexico City Temple are actually closer together than their Provo counterparts — while a few, such as Brazil and New Zealand, require a bus ride for missionaries to attend.

Whether Provo or Peru, the MTCs share the identical materials, curriculum and operations and correlate the efforts with regular onsite visits and frequent video-conference training and evaluations.

"In every regard, it's the same experience they have here in the Provo MTC," said Kelend I. Mills, supervisor of the international missionary training centers. "We try to make it as consistent as possible to the (Provo) MTC."

Said Nelson L. Bleak, the president of the New Zealand MTC whose own pre-mission training was a week's stay at the now-defunct Salt Lake Mission Home: "We knew it was an intense program here, but the intensity is not as well understood as seeing it in action."

The obvious differences between the Provo MTC and the international centers are the local culture, local food and the predominant use of the local language.

"It forces them to speak and to learn," said President Clifford L. Whetten of the Peru MTC, which hosts an average of 130 to 140 missionaries at a time. "The missionary knows he is going to use all that he knows and each day build upon it."

Also, missionaries in the international MTCs often go out weekly into the city and put principles learned into proselytizing practice with street contacting and door knocking.

"It's a very good experience," said Elder Christopher Reisen of Switzerland, in the England MTC preparing to go to the Germany Berlin Mission. "It's humbling, but it's a lot of fun, too."

The smaller MTCs also afford a more personal setting with teachers, administrators and fellow missionaries.

"Before they leave, their arms are around each other," said President M. Richard Walker of the England MTC, which hosts missionaries from or going to the United Kingdom, Germany and Scandinavia. "They really love each other, and they have a strong commitment to go out and serve."

His wife, Sister Kathleen Walker, agreed: "The intimacy of the small MTC is such a blessing — not only for the missionaries but for us. But this business of breaking our hearts every three weeks [when they leave] is painful."

International MTCs fall into one of three categories — those that focus solely on training missionaries without a new-language emphasis, those that provide "full training" and those that offer "phased training" (all missionaries assigned to North American missions go to the Provo MTC for training).

MTCS in Chile, Colombia, Mexico, New Zealand and the Philippines are examples of operations training missionaries in their native language, with the typical stay for missionaries being 19 days.

But that doesn't mean only one language is spoken at each of these MTCs — training may be offered in a variety of languages. For example, missionaries called from Mongolia to serve in that nation will travel to the Philippines MTC in Manila to be trained in Mongolian and then return to serve in their native country.

"Full training" is when an international MTC not only fulfills its primary function of training the locally called missionaries but can accommodate more missionaries — including those from North America — who are called to serve in the area. The "full" label means a missionary can receive a complete MTC training experience — including the full period afforded those learning new language.

These MTCs include those in Argentina, Brazil, England, Ghana and South Africa — the first two providing Spanish and Portuguese language training and the latter three teach mostly in English. Missionaries from those five countries who require training in other languages attend the Provo MTC.

The "phased training" MTCs — in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Peru and Spain — offer full training for locally called missionaries or for North American missionaries already fluent in Spanish. For those others from North America, they spend three weeks at the Provo MTC and the final six weeks of the training at one of these "phased" international MTCs.

Elder Jacob Hatch of Provo, who will serve in the Peru Piura Mission, spent three weeks in his hometown MTC before transferring to the Lima facility and switching allegiance from Cap'n Crunch cereal for the local churros pastry. "The first thing I said the first night we got here — 'I'm definitely not in Kansas any more,' " he said.

Limited space at the smaller MTCs and the ongoing challenges of visa availabilities and delays can cause MTC numbers to fluctuate and missionary assignments to vary. The Brazil MTC — one of the largest LDS Church-owned buildings in the world at more than 100,000 square feet – can hold just under 700 missionaries at a time, but visas to out-of-country missionaries have substantially decreased recently.

Other recent developments with international MTCs include the New Zealand MTC moving from church-school property in Hamilton to a new, larger building in Auckland last fall and the Philippines MTC expanded to accommodate more missionaries, from 80 to 140. At first, only Filipino missionaries were trained in Manila — now the MTC there welcomes missionaries from Taiwan, Mongolia and Southeast Asia nations like Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand.

The LDS Church had previously established MTCs in Tokyo and Seoul, Korea. However, it found it was more cost-efficient to bring those missionaries to the Provo MTC for training and subsequently shuttered operations there.

In his second day at the New Zealand MTC, Elder Samuel Tempany — of Brisbane, Australia and bound for the Australia Melbourne Mission — labeled his first day "close to overwhelming."

"What I didn't expect to find was the intensity of personal revelation or this climate — it's wholesome, spiritual, pristine," he said.

Sister Terry Bleak, who serves with her husband at the New Zealand MTC, agreed. "It's beautiful here — it's a little bit like living in the temple. There's a dedicated spirit here every day, day and night."

Said Mills of the MTCs: "The facilities all look a little different, but you step inside the front door and you know where you are — the spirit's the same."

It's a conscious effort to provide the same spirit and same experience — such as videotaping the monthly Tuesday night devotional talk at the Provo MTC by a visiting member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. It is translated and then sent to be shown at the international MTCs.

"So when the Brethren speak to the missionaries here, they speak to missionaries in training everywhere."

And missionaries all over the world can see the Provo-based contingent of 2,000 strong and sense the magnitude of what they are a part of.

"I think it would be nice sitting there," said Sister Piroska Szvoboda of Switzerland, in the England MTC prior to serving in the Germany Berlin Mission. "But the spirit teaches you if you listen, and I'm glad to be here."

Email: taylor@desnews.com