An MTC Experience

This excerpt comes from Under the Long White Cloud: A Missionary Memoir of New Zealand by Miles Farnsworth. It tells the story of a two-year Latter-day Saint mission, starting with President Thomas S. Monson’s historic policy announcement lowering the age of service for young men and women. The book is more a travelogue and coming-of-age story than doctrinal exegesis and explores the highs, lows, and emotional labor of serving a mission, as well as the culture of New Zealand.

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Instead of the MTC gates in Provo where I said goodbye to my brother two years before, my farewell occurred at the Salt Lake Airport. This was fine except it all felt too Hollywood, too scripted, a cliché departure from the nest with all the longing for home, fear, and anticipation engulfed in one long hug before I turned my back on adolescent attachments. A real stoic wouldn’t have looked behind, but whether for reassurance or rescue, I glanced at my parents one more time before I handed the TSA agent my passport. I must have looked young in that too-large, straight-legged suit. If my parents had any doubts, their eyes betrayed nothing.

Airport security was the veil between my past and my new identity. I stood like a sheep before the shears, a sinner before the River Jordan, ready to be erased and reborn as an “Elder.” And I wasn’t alone. A dozen clean-cut elders and a handful of sisters in bright, garish skirts congregated near our gate, each ready to make a first impression. I thought I had joined a club, not landed on William Golding’s Coral Island for a spiritual survival of the fittest. People boasted of their preparation and high-school accomplishments to establish a social hierarchy while I stayed back, content to observe, less out of cool-headedness than uncertainty. In hindsight, maybe they all felt like me: lost, already homesick, terrified of the unfamiliar.

We flew first to LAX and departed late that night for Auckland. I read my scriptures and tried to sleep in the purple glow of the 747 but mostly strained to hear the New Zealand accent spoken in hushed whispers across the cabin. When we landed, a pair of enormous Tongans threw our luggage into trailers, and we climbed into large white vans for the MTC.

The square building looked like a typical Latter-day Saint meetinghouse: single-story, brick, reverently unassuming except for a line of international flags along the path up to the front steps. The inside looked like the meetinghouses of my youth as well, with familiar plum carpet, scratchy textile walls, and white tiled ceiling. All this seemed purposeful to elicit keen claustrophobia. This was my inescapable home for the next twelve days.

Three Maori couples managed the MTC affairs and daily activities. Each had a long history of service in the Church, especially President Taumata and his wife, the training center’s primary leaders. President Taumata had cropped grey hair and bronze skin, and beneath his glasses, his eyes crinkled with a constant smile. He walked with a slouch and a shuffle like a wise old hound dog.

President Taumata and his counselors gave us our room assignments and paired us with a “companion”. I shared my room with Elder Armstrong and Elder Jones. Elder Armstrong was small and thin, wore thick black glasses, and came from a little town in Pennsylvania. He and I got on well. We were both on the quiet side, me because of homesickness, him because of deep introversion. He had a year of college under his belt and told me that leaving home for New Zealand didn’t feel as scary as it could have. At BYU, he roomed with two guys from my high school, and though I didn’t know them well, it was enough to break the ice.

Elder Jones was from Utah. He was also on the shorter side yet dominated the room with outspoken bravado. I felt myself withdraw under his intense demeanor, unable to convey any form of self-expression. Early on, he decided to create his own schedule. Though we followed a strict study schedule each day, Jones determined to go the extra mile and announced his desire to read the entire Book of Mormon cover to cover—500 pages of dense, King James-style scripture—during our short stay at the MTC. He stayed up every night to fit in extra exercise and read. I had the bunk bed below him, irritated and drenched in the light of his 100-watt lamp. His morning schedule was worse. We were already supposed to rise at 6:30 a.m., but at 5:30, a sharp metallic alarm clock pierced the room. He managed to turn it off quickly, yet it still woke us all. After a few days, he was so tired, he slept through the shrill, soul-shaking noise even though it sat a foot away from his head. Were I not so depressed, I may have strangled him. Both Elder Armstrong and Elder Jones would join me in the Wellington Mission after we finished at the MTC.

My companion couldn’t have been more different than Armstrong, Jones, or myself. His name was Elder Kewa, and he came from Papua New Guinea. He was also twenty-five years old. A group of Papuans arrived midway through the first day, each assigned to a white, American companion. The Church was only thirty years old in New Guinea. That meant any Church member from the island was at most a second-generation member. Though he was from the capital, Port Moresby, the difference between MTC life and island life at home was stark. The Papuans silently wandered the halls with glazed eyes as they adjusted to the new language and culture. Kewa spoke decent English, yet when he was around the other Papuans, he went back to Pidgin, or Tok Pisin, the common language of New Guinea. He taught me a few words like “best friend,” phonetically pronounced “bata-stret,” our new title for each other over the twelve days.

Kewa and the Papuans weren’t the only ones who struggled in a new cultural environment. While the Americans were the largest group at the MTC, culturally, we were the minority. Represented in my cohort of sixty missionaries were elders and sisters from across the Pacific and Micronesia: Tongans, Samoans, Fijians, Vanuatuans, Solomon Islanders, Kiribatians, Tahitians, and more, not to mention New Zealanders, Australians, South Africans, a Brit, and some from Asia like Taiwan and the Philippines. The teachers were almost exclusively Polynesian or Maori.

The Island culture was tangible in our interactions with other missionaries. Two rules guided MTC relationships. First, Americans had more of everything. Second, your possessions were not your own. Fascinated by the new fiat, most American missionaries converted their paper money for coins and plastic New Zealand dollars at the airport or traded freely with other missionaries. New Zealand coins allowed access to the lone vending machine in the MTC that stored a trove of Whitaker’s chocolate, Moro Bars, and various gummies. I saw elders spend upwards of $50 on sweets in twelve days. We shared in kind, however, and in the evenings before bed, sat in the hallway and passed bags of candy up and down the line, talking of our home countries and exaggerated stories of the girls we dated.

One day, I experienced the second law of Island economics even more abruptly when a Samoan elder with limited English knocked on our dorm room. He said a single word, “tie,” and then pointed between himself and me. The exchange was clear. I had lots of ties, and he wanted one. I accepted the deal. Nowhere was Polynesia more acutely felt than in our hour of daily exercise. On the first day, we stayed outside, and the Islanders endeavored to teach us rugby. We learned slowly, and some Americans, unable to restrain their patriotism any longer, threw a Hail Mary or planted an unexpected stiff arm in a Tongan’s chest. On the third day, they opened the doors to a gym next door to the MTC. I had looked forward to a game of basketball ever since we arrived. I suspected the elders thought I was a nerd since I talked about books, writing, and music. Eager to correct any lasting damage to my already fragile identity, the basketball court seemed like the best chance at salvation. When I stepped into the game, I caught the ball and took two dribbles to the hoop before 250 pounds of pure mass flung me into the wall. This wasn’t the organized, fluid game I played in high school. No, this was Island Ball, and at 175 gangly pounds, I was ill-equipped to throw shoulders and take hits for a bucket. Dribbling appeared optional, hacking inevitable, and scoring, well, scarce. I rotated in for a few minutes but left disappointed, another twist of the knife in an already terrible first week.

Instead, I joined Armstrong for a run around the MTC grounds. He was a cross-country runner and set a brutal pace about the small field. I lasted a few laps until I proved incompatible with his rigorous routine. Ironically, across the freeway from the MTC was New Zealand’s only theme park, Rainbow’s End. By American standards, it lacked enough rides, yet the occasional gleeful scream and colorful lights mocked us, prisoners inside the MTC fence.

What added to my gloom, and ultimately the biggest hurdle to comfort in the MTC, was the food. Every day a kitchen staff cooked three flavorless, fatty meals. Breakfast was the worst. Served buffet style, it started with bacon that was more like a floppy slice of ham and went downhill from there. Available dishes included poached eggs, noodles in tomato sauce from a can, and baked beans. Throw the lot on a piece of toast, and you had what I considered one travesty of a breakfast.

I opted for the cold offering and saw a tub of already unwrapped granola bars in a metal tin. As I bit into one, I realized it was not a granola bar, but a brick of thin, compressed wheat cereal, not unlike plywood in appearance and taste. Later, a New Zealand elder explained that it was Wheat-Bix, a favorite cereal among Kiwis that must first dissolve in milk before it can be redeemed with sugar, fruit, honey, or anything that brought it into the realm of edibility.

The days were long and dark. The sun never rose until we were well awake and into our studies. In the morning, after we took our seats in the classroom, I looked up from my scriptures and watched the sun fill our window and splash over the tan ceramic shingles of the houses down the hill. The first hours were the hardest. I awoke consumed with loneliness and thoughts of family. Once the day progressed and filled with tasks, I could forget about them, but until then, I sang hymns under my breath and prayed earnestly for comfort and peace. By the time we ate dinner each night, the sun had set, and the rest of the classes continued in darkness. The overcast, drizzly Auckland winter was a stark contrast to the dry, sun-soaked Utah summer I had just left.

Midway through the twelve days, we loaded into buses to drive down to Hamilton to visit the Temple. I looked forward to the trip, not just for the holy respite, but to leave the MTC for the day. Kewa and I sat next to each other on the bus, and he promptly fell asleep while I kept my eyes glued to the window for my first glimpse of New Zealand aside from the airport or MTC fence. It felt more like we were in a cloud, floating in the drops of moisture suspended between us and the hills that rolled off into the fog. We rushed by pastures and hillsides so vibrant and saturated from the rain they glowed with unearthly green light. Neon signs radiated mysteriously in the nebulous din. At one point, we drove next to a cemetery and saw crumbling headstones and elevated coffins unearthed by vagrant roots as they tilted up the hillside and vanished in the mist. Ninety minutes later, we arrived at the Temple. It was tall, narrow, and very white, like an illuminated obelisk in the soft green and grey sheen.

It was Elder Kewa’s first time in a temple. As his companion, I escorted him through the different ceremonies, and at the day’s end, he was visibly drained and a little confused. I felt refreshed, buoyed up from the familiar worship and atmosphere, at ease, for now, with the incomprehensible two years before me. It was time, more than anything, that weighed on my mind and haunted me as I awoke each morning and lay down each night.

After the Temple trip, the last half of the MTC experience went much better. We managed to organize a more traditional basketball game with real passes and moderate fouls. I never killed Elder Jones. We even sang a song together at an evening devotional. That’s not to say everything felt normal or comfortable. I still struggled with homesickness, and Elder Kewa and I needed to address obvious issues in our companionship. Thanks to my childhood in Utah, the hub of Church membership, I had a better grasp of the doctrine we were supposed to teach, plus, as a native English speaker, I possessed the vocabulary to explain gospel concepts. Advantageous as that should have been, it started to feel like an Achilles’ heel. I overcomplicated the core message and drowned our fake students in needless Church history and laborious jargon.

Kewa’s challenge was the opposite, yet what he lacked in knowledge and language proficiency he made up for in humility and sincerity. His face became deadly serious, eyes intense, brow furrowed, while he explained a principle to our teacher-turned-student. He spoke in short sentences, and once he made his point, he relaxed, leaned his head to the side, and flashed a smile to the teacher and me. Between the two of us, our lessons failed spectacularly. I rambled through a technical exegesis, and Kewa followed with a non-sequitur and a grin.

After one particularly unremarkable lesson, Kewa and I shared grievances that had privately plagued us. Kewa went first and confessed to how homesick he felt. Unlike the rest of us who had messaged our parents earlier in the week, he had been unable to email home at all since he arrived. Caught up in my letter writing, I ignored his inability to access his account. He had timidly asked for help, but since it wasn’t a quick fix, I didn’t try for more than a minute. His heartache broke me. I had wrongly assumed I was the only one who missed home, and to have denied him access to his family when he desperately needed it was the most selfish thing I could do. I had been less than generous on several occasions, not just with his rudimentary knowledge but with his steep learning curve adjusting to western life. Furthermore, he was seven years older than me. All of this resulted in a communication barrier inadequately bridged by desperate attempts to make each other laugh. Neither of us could figure out how to connect at a deeper level, until now. We both cried and hugged, grateful to feel understood. The next day, our MTC teacher helped us configure Kewa’s email account and gave him an hour to email home.

Just as life began to feel comfortable, our time at the MTC ended. Half of us left for Wellington and the others dispersed across the Pacific and Australia. Elder Kewa went back to Papua New Guinea along with a few Samoans and Tongans. I would likely never see him again, though we promised to write. Twelve days was not a long time to know anyone, but naively, all of us felt like we accomplished the impossible together. More accurately, the MTC exposed our insecurities like never before and then dismissed us with our tails between our legs. It had been far simpler and rosy than what lay ahead.

Miles Farnsworth lives with his wife and son in Maryland. He graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in Interdisciplinary Humanities and works in B2B media. Right now, he teaches early morning seminary and tries to find time to write in his free time.

Under the Long White Cloud is available in paperback and ebook format from or Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes and Noble, Google Books, and more.