May 25, 2017 (letter originally sent by regular mail)
Dear Family and Friends,
One year. It's been a year since I've been serving as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It's been a year of unforgettable experiences, little miracles, adventures, and learning.
I'm not much of a letter writer, but in this letter I'll attempt to tell you about some of the things I've learned and experienced on the mission. Hopefully this doesn't get too boring for you, but if it does, take a nap. I won't mind. And remember: this is just a hundredth part!
It seems like a long time ago that I left my family behind and boarded a plane to get to the MTC and the beautiful mountains of Utah. Time in the MTC just sped up and in three weeks I was done with the classroom study blocks and lessons, and was flying with my group to Hungary. There we were greeted by our mission president and his wife, and the Budapest missionaries—all of whom, by the way, knew that I was the elder Elder Gonzalez's brother (see the joke I made there!), but I of course was a greenie, didn't know who most of them were. Anyways, after a night in a hotel, I got my trainer and we headed up to my first city: Pécs.
Pécs is probably one of the prettiest cities in Hungary, and I learned a lot about missionary work on my three months there. I remember how good it felt to give a person a copy of The Book of Mormon, feel the spirit as we taught a discussion, or prayed about where to go finding and then getting a let-in, or finding a cool potential investigator. Giving my first priesthood blessing was so special and I felt God's power working through me. Teaching English class was always fun, and the branch was always very kind to us. But of course there were the hardships, the stuff most people don't like to talk about. Getting rejected day after day isn't easy. Neither is getting kicked out of an apartment building, dogs barking at you endlessly down a whole street, getting sworn at, or having someone threaten to call the cops on you. Without the Lord's help we would all give up. But I've learned how much he loves us, and he doesn't let us fall. God puts great investigators, helpful members, fun experiences, and our family's support into our lives that makes it all worth it. A mission is a compilation of many small things that together make something great. If you forget about those tender mercies or don't stop to smell the roses, you'll miss it all. And moments of reflection and meditation let you see the big picture. Wow, look at me getting so deep! I should be a philosopher.
Halfway through my second transfer, something really unexpected happened. I got assigned to serve in the mission office as a secretary. So, suddenly, instead of knocking on doors all day, I got to sit on a nice office and do computer and paper work. Being an office elder had lots of perks: I got to know everyone in the mission, developed my computer skills, didn't have to travel very far, and got to stay indoors most of the day when it was cold. I developed in a different way as a secretary, learning workplace skills, training myself and others on computing, and experiencing what it's like to work on an office job. We also did lots of hospital visits in Buda. It felt so great to do what Jesus would do and comfort those who were sick and in need. Even though these were never measured, it was still the right thing to do. I loved most aspects of the office and had fun there but after a while I knew I had to go on and return to the field. Goodbye Budapest!
I got to spend Christmastime and the subsequent months in a pretty little city called Kaposvár. The lights, the main square, the festivals, and the market were great and gave me (literally) a delicious taste of Hungary's rich culture. The branch in Kaposvár was tiny with less than 20 active adult members, but they were super nice and I quickly got to build good friendships with them. I learned a lot from these people about humility, sacrifice, and faith. Many of them live far, have small homes, or have difficult circumstances, but they still put their trust in God and do all they can to serve Him. It also really made me appreciate all the things I have back home. During one of the Sunday services, lots of members went up to bear their testimonies. You could feel the spirit of unity and friendship they had there, and the love they had for each other and for their families. Number-wise, this branch was weak but in God's eyes, it was strong. The senior couple serving in Kaposvár taught me a lot too about being patient, optimistic, and loving. They taught me how we see people in seasons. We may see a man in his winter season and judge him as a struggling alcoholic. But if we do that, we might not see that he's a normal good guy in the summer (figuratively, of course). I learned in Kaposvár that if we pray in faith, God will answer us. Doors literally opened to us when we did that.
It was a privilege for me to travel up to Veszprém to witness the baptisms of a couple whom I had started to teach back when I was in Pécs. They were such a beautiful, strong family, and it was so wonderful to see the fruits of the seeds I had planted. Following his baptism, the husband said that since meeting the missionaries, his life has completely changed. From marital struggles to marital unity. From curiosity to testimony. These two people have grown so much. It is so touching to be part of that change. The gospel truly changes lives. And as missionaries, we are here to change lives for the better through the gospel of Jesus Christ. A week later a 13-year-old boy we had taught in Kaposvár was baptized and confirmed. Giving him the gift of the Holy Ghost was probably one of the most powerful experiences in my life. I felt God working through me, and I felt His spirit. Afterwards, we sang the sacrament hymn "I Stand All Amazed." And I stood all amazed (as I sat, hahaha.) Amazed that God made me, an imperfect person, an instrument in His hand. Amazed that He worked through me. Amazed that God gave me spiritual power, His power to bless others. Amazed that I was part of it all. My stay in Kaposvár was marvellous and it wasn't easy to say goodbye to the people I loved, the friends I made, who meant so much to me. Missions are hard but the people make it all worth it.
Now I am in my fourth city, Kecskemét. The ward here is strong and great. We have lots of cool people we are working with. It feels good to make people laugh and smile, to help someone build his faith, and to teach with the Spirit. Last week, an American investigator I had taught got baptized and confirmed in my previous city. It is so great to be part of that chain that led to someone entering in through the gate. This man had a very uncertain life ahead of him and had lots of concerns when I first met him. But now he has embraced the teachings and laws of the gospel, and pushed forward despite many challenges.
Half my mission is over. But I still have half to go. More cities, more people, more experiences, more memories. I am sure I will grow some more, become better than I am now, and make lifelong friends. But time goes by extra fast on the mission, and from what I heard, the second year is even faster. So before I know it, I'll be back home. I hope the mission will teach me lessons that will be a foundation for the rest of my life. But a mission should be the preface of our lives, the very beginning.
I would now like to share a verse that I read that really touched me and summarizes the mission well. Alma 26:30. "And we suffered all manner of afflictions, and all this that perhaps we may be the means of saving some soul; and we supposed that our joy would be full if perhaps we could be the means of saving some."
Missions are hard, but missions are good. Being a part of someone's conversion, be it an investigator, a member, another missionary, or you, makes everything worth it. It is not about getting baptisms or leadership titles, or looking good in front of others. It is the change that happens within you. It is the light you share with others. It's all about loving others, loving God, and being more like Christ.
I'd like to finish this letter with a simple testimony. I know that God is real. I know that God loves us because God is Love. Everything points to this simple fact. I know that God gave us His Son, Jesus Christ to die for our sins and be resurrected that we may all live again. The Holy Spirit is true. Follow it, feel it, make it a part of your daily life. Joseph Smith, like many of us, had a simple question. And God answered him personally because He loved him. Because He loves us all, Joseph Smith restored Christ's original church and now we can all enjoy the blessings of the priesthood. We have the Book of Mormon, which stands as evidence of all of this. It explains the plan, the gospel, the commandments, but most importantly it testifies of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is our Saviour, and if we do what He would do, we will always make the right choice as our prophet, Thomas S. Monson taught. The church is true. And I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
I love you all. See you in a year!
Elder Felipe Gonzalez :)
P.S. Don't get me started on the fun too of missionary life. Just a sample: taking a random bus to a random village and tracting it, keeping a pizza restaurant in business, dancing in the main square with the whole city around a bonfire, going to a graduation and then getting fed like a king. Great stuff! I'll tell you lots of stories once I am home. In the meantime, make some good stories of your own!