(The following is a letter McKay wrote to his brother, Chase, with advice on preparing for a mission. Posted here with both of their permission.)
I’m truly sorry for not writing you as much as I should. I get caught up a lot of times in the chats that we do with the family, so the time flies by faster than I want it to. I promise you I will do my best to write you more.
This is kind of a crazy day. I am writing this on the 18th of September, which means that I only have one year left of my mission. Also, it means that in five days, you are going to turn 18! To me, that is unbelievable. It also means that you’re going to be turning your papers in pretty soon so that you can head out on your own mish.
The purpose of this letter is to explain in a little bit of greater depth some of the experiences I have had on my mission, as well as to tell you some of the things I wish I would have known when I was in your shoes.
To start off, serving a mission is amazing! Honestly, I feel that at this point, it is the best thing I have ever done in my life. It is the most rewarding and most spiritually high thing that can be done between the ages of 18-20. The fact that you want to do this is fantastic! There is a very small percentage of people in the world who are willing to give up two years of their life in order to serve God. Feel special! This is a huge thing! But at the same time, it is a great sacrifice. Every day is a constant grind if you do it right. The “ideas” of a mission sound cool – you serve for two years, learn another language (maybe), help others. But it’s hard. Given all that, I know you are going to be a great missionary. You have great gifts from the Lord. Go out and apply them.
Let’s talk a little bit about the MTC. It is awesome! I really enjoyed my time in Mexico. I felt like for me, the MTC helped me learn a lot of things. I learned how little I know about the scriptures/gospel doctrine, ha ha. I remember our second day there, we had a little circle discussion in which we talked about some of our favorite scriptures. Everyone was sharing scriptures from the top of their heads and pulling out marked scriptures from their Books of Mormon. I’m ashamed to admit I had to scramble and look in the index to find good scriptures! Sure, all growing up I went to church and participated in Sunday School. I even took a Book of Mormon class at BYU. But I was nowhere near where I wanted to be when I entered the MTC. Pay a little closer attention to the teachers in priests quorum, or in sacrament meeting. Also, try reading the Book of Mormon every day. Try memorizing the scripture masteries in seminary. Pick a gospel topic and go to the appendix, find that work in the scriptures, and read all the scriptures under that topic. That is something I really enjoy doing and I regret not doing it before the mission. It will help a ton!
Something though that I didn’t like about the MTC is that I felt like I was in a classroom the whole time! It didn’t feel like being a missionary. For the first two weeks, it was awesome because it was a new experience, new things, new language, etc. But for the final four weeks, to be honest, it was hard. You will find that in the MTC there is a ton of time to study. I look back now and wish I could study that much. At the time, I wouldn’t focus 100 percent. I would talk in English with the guys in my district instead of practicing in Spanish. I don’t think that was just me. It happens a lot in the beginning, at least in my district, and with my friends. Enjoy every second of the MTC. Take advantage of it. LEARN from it. Study and practice as much as you can because you’ll find that when you get to the field, the practice you get is just going out and doing the work. My advice is soak it up. Learn everything you can from it.
At the same time, the training in the MTC is limited. Life in the field is WAYYYY different than life in the MTC. I didn’t understand that. In week six right before I went to Chile, I thought it had it all. I never admitted it, but I thought I had mastered Spanish, the mission lessons, and become an expert scriptorian. The truth is, that is pretty silly. You’re isolated in a place of only gringo missionaries who are all speaking the same ative language and all new, and you think that the MTC is the mission. It’s not, ha ha. I loved it in the MTC, I had some neat experiences there, but you should just recognize that it’s only the training.
The first three months of the mission in the field were definitely the hardest three months I have ever had in my entire life. Everything is super new and different. I didn’t know what the people were saying. They didn’t know what I was saying. It was during the holidays (thanksgiving and Christmas) and I was severely “trunky” (which means homesick in the mission lingo). Plus, it was hot as heck, and we were on bikes.
The honest truth is that I was really depressed at that time. I was missing you and the fam so much. I have told you a little bit about my trainer, Elder Llavilla, but I recall one morning I was in our study room waiting for my turn to take a shower, and in that moment, it was like my second week, I was looking at some of the pictures that I had brought with me of you guys. I was starting to get tears in my eyes, and then Llavilla walked in so I wiped my eyes real fast and hid my photos. Then he asked me how I was doing. I told him that I wasn’t doing too good, that these two weeks had been tough, and that I was really missing my family. Then he laughed at me and said, “Que trunky!” and turned and walked out.
That was a turning point for me, but in a bad way. It conformed something I had been thinking about that it was MY fault that I was feeling this way, and really there was something wrong with ME. In that time, I felt like I was the problem to everything in the companionship, in the work, in the sector, etc. It was weird at that time — I was always just so freaking tired for like the first two months. Every time I went to bed, my head would hit the pillow and I was just out. I would also fall asleep a lot in personal study. I would try so hard to just do the simple things – do laundry, make food, etc., but it just wore me down. I felt really alone.
After that incident with Llavilla, I didn’t share much with him. We were just two really different kinds of people, and he didn’t really seem to care much about me, so I didn’t talk about what I was feeling with him. We were also living with two other missionaries at the time – I didn’t really know or like them that much so I didn’t really open up with them either. The truth is, I felt like I was going through all this solo. I didn’t have my moral support system, which was you guys. All I had was an hour and 15 minutes each week to chat with you guys. Dad wrote me amazing emails with wise counsel, so you have that to look forward to. But that was it! The only thing I can think of that’s close to this feeling was the Texas move. It was so hard. But at least then, I had you guys with me. It was tough. Really, really tough.
My advice to you when you get into the field is to know that YOU ARE NOT ALONE. You have a loving family that is behind you, who prays for you every day, and wants you to succeed. You have a loving Heavenly Father who knows and feels what you think and feel. The most intense prayers I have ever had in the mission (and in my life) were at this time. A lot of times I prayed that I could just get through the day. It would be in simple occasions, like on our bikes, chasing my comp who was 100 yards ahead, or just in the shower, when I could be homesick and think about ya’ll.
But what I learned through this is that many times the Lord will answer our prayers, but not through the ways we want. To be honest, some of the answers to prayers that I wanted were a new comp, perfect Spanish, and at some point, an illness that would require me to return home. I didn’t get any of those, but what I did receive is comfort. Whether that was through emails, people, scriptures – the Lord always helped me feel better when I really needed it. Something that I’m realizing now is that when we pray and ask God for help, we shouldn’t ask him to make our situation easier. We should ask him to strengthen US.
Read Alma 31:31 and 1 Nephi 7:17. Those great prophets aren’t asking for the Lord to make it easier for them, rather to give them the power and strength to do the hard task. The Lord isn’t going to change our situation, but the Lord is going to change us through our experiences and situations. That key is truly how we change and become better people. We accept what’s going on around us, becauase the only thing we can do about it is change our own actions. That is how I’ve changed. I have done a lot of things that I never thought I would be able to do, but thanks to the help and strength the Lord has given me, I have done them.
Alma 26:12 talks about how Ammon (missionaries) are nothing, but in the strength of the Lord we can do many things. When times get hard, don’t look within or around you for help. Look UP! He will help. God is rooting for you. And he will be there for you.
Wow! This has been a long letter. I hope you enjoyed it. I am so excited to see where you go and how you do in the mish. I know you will kill it. I will send you more letters like this in the future if you want, but just know that I love you and pray for you every day.
Love you buddy!