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

Published: Tuesday, March 22 2011 9:15 a.m. MDT

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, Utah — 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.

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