Forget yourself and go to work by teaching English to missionaries

By Emily Johnson

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, June 29 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

From left, Elders Roman, Cortes, Pereyra and Peralta, Emily Johnson, Sister Villena and Sister Rebello gather for a quick pose at the Peru Piura Mission office.

Provided the the Peru Piura Mission Mission office

PIURA, Peru — Living in a foreign country on my own didn’t seem like such a big deal before I got to Peru. However, actually saying goodbye to my normal American life proved otherwise.

I have been working in Piura, Peru, teaching English at the University of Piura for nearly a year.

I’m one of the few, if not the only, Mormon “gringas” here that isn't a full-time missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or associated with the mission in an official capacity. While I have made friends, sometimes I feel painfully alone.

My language skills have improved but I still don’t speak fluent Spanish, not even after 10 months — much to my dad’s chagrin.

After a brief trip home to Arizona and Utah at Christmas, I returned to Piura with a bad case of depression. I felt that time would never pass, like I was stuck in perpetual limbo or some cruel version of “Groundhog Day.” I yearned to be back home with my family, friends, native language and easy access to high-speed Internet.

I felt useless in the local LDS ward. Sometimes, I would leave church in tears because I was surrounded “in stereo” by a language I barely understood. Yet, it’s nobody's fault but my own that, for the most part, I am mute.

I tearfully pled to the Lord many times to let me be useful and able to endure my time left. I needed to find something to do with my time. The time left feels like an all-consuming weight on my well being — like a constant buzz in my ear wearing me down.

As I struggled and pleaded with the Lord, a mission story about President Gordon B. Hinckley came to mind. I remembered that President Hinckley felt a bit discouraged and wrote to his father. His father’s response? “Forget yourself and go to work.”

I knew this principle was true. Yet I thought, how could I forget myself and get to work? What work could I do here in this dusty desert town in northern Peru?

Thankfully, the Lord showed me many tender mercies. One of them is having the Peru Piura Mission president and his wife in my ward. Though they can’t come often as they often have speaking assignments in other wards or stakes, President and Sister Rowley have been very kind to me. Sister Rowley and I talked about how I could help the mission.

Earlier this year, I sent an emotional plea via email to Sister Rowley. I probably sounded desperate, begging her to let me do anything to be of service to the mission. I wasn’t being purely altruistic — I needed something to keep me busy from the thoughts of homesickness.

She suggested I could teach English classes with the Mormon missionaries. As part of the native Spanish-speaker’s mission requirements, they are supposed to study English in preparation for the American Council on Teaching Foreign Languages’ Oral Proficiency Interview-computer certification test. The LDS Church has developed language-training materials for the missionaries to study English in hopes of giving them some transferable skills after their mission.

Towards the end of March, Sister Rowley and I met to plan a schedule. The classes would be held during my afternoon break from my university courses.

Each missionary was at a different level of English. Some were fairly advanced and some know only a few words. I tried to follow the Spirit to guide me on what activities to do. So, with a combination of my Spanish, their English, the study books, supplemental materials and the Spirit, we are able to make progress.

During one class with the office elders, we did conversation practice with street contact. I worked with Elder Peralta from Bolivia who speaks English very well. As we did a mock conversation, he talked about knowing that Heavenly Father loved us, sharing his testimony that made me feel a strong witness of peace and truth.

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