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Forget yourself and go to work by teaching English to missionaries

Published: Monday, Aug. 3 2015 9:29 p.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) 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.

From left, Sisters Callizaya, Maldonado, Huanca and Condori pose for a picture during English class at the Peru Piura Mission office. (Emily Johnson) From left, Sisters Callizaya, Maldonado, Huanca and Condori pose for a picture during English class at the Peru Piura Mission office. (Emily Johnson)

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?

Sister Torres and Sister Rios work on correcting English sentences on the whiteboard in the Peru Piura Mission office. (Emily Johnson) Sister Torres and Sister Rios work on correcting English sentences on the whiteboard in the Peru Piura Mission office. (Emily Johnson)

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.

We begin and close each class with prayer, which gives the missionaries yet another opportunity to practice English. Most of them are nervous, but I’ll never forget Sister Auccapuma — the first missionary that said a prayer in English — who brought such a spirit with her halting, soft-spoken prayer.

Some of the most profound and choice spiritual experiences in our classes, but also in my life, have been through music.

Several weeks ago, I found an English hymnal in the meeting room where I hold classes. I felt prompted to show it to Sister Condori and Sister Maldonado, the sisters I was having class with at the time.

I asked Sister Maldonado what her favorite hymn was. She turned to “Love One Another.” I was surprised that she wanted to actually sing it in English. I don’t know how to lead music and we didn’t have a keyboard or piano, but we three sisters sang it with gusto. The Spirit was like a fire burning in my heart, washing over me like a warm bath of peace. I felt enveloped, as if the sun were directly beaming on me. I felt physically and spiritually embraced by the love of God. It was one of the most powerful witnesses of the Spirit I had ever had.

Though we are all from different countries and speak different languages, through music, we become united as brothers and sisters in the gospel.

These are great missionaries. Their spirits are strong and their hearts are pure. I am truly blessed to work with them.

How good it is for me to be with the servants of the Lord and fellow saints as we serve, learn and build up the kingdom of God. I may help the missionaries improve their English, but they are helping me improve, too — this experience has truly been a lifesaver.

When I forget myself and get to work, the Spirit can work within me. I can’t speak fluent Spanish, lead music, or play the piano, but the Lord answered my sincere and humble prayer to be of service with the gifts I do have.

Emily Johnson has been teaching English at the University of Piura for nearly a year. Read about her Peruvian adventures at peruvianpony.blogspot.com. She earned a Master's in professional communication from Westminster College.

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