Last week, Anna Sloan, preparing for her Latter-day Saint mission to Taiwan, entered the “Missionary Training Center” — her blue bedroom.
Like three of her older siblings had done before as missionaries, Anna arises at 6:30 a.m., dresses in modest clothing, dons her iconic black nametag, studies the faith’s scriptures, eats a quick breakfast, and then dives into learning a foreign language — in her case, Mandarin.
Unlike her brothers, sister and generations of other prospective proselytizers for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though, the 19-year-old Salt Lake City resident did not — in fact, could not — leave her home for these weeks of language and religious training.
Her house is her MTC.
It’s all due to the coronavirus sweeping the globe and upending normal patterns and programs. All of the global church’s Missionary Training Centers are closed, but missionaries are still being assigned to their 18-month (for young women) or two-year (for young men) missions around the world. They are learning online what they need to know.
The immediate future is, of course, up in the air. Anna is scheduled to leave for Taiwan in mid-May, but whether she will fly there as planned or be reassigned temporarily will depend on what happens with the pandemic and its aftermath.
Still, the church’s missionary organizational efforts are very much in place, says Anna’s mom, Martha Sloan. “A couple of days before she started, she received a big box with all her study materials and Mandarin scriptures.”
Her nametag came in the mail.
Every morning, Anna logs into Zoom to study Mandarin with her district — five “elders” (males) and herself (a “sister,” as female missionaries are called) — for three hours with a female instructor. Every evening, she does it again for another three hours with a male teacher.
In between, she practices the language with her “companions” (people assigned to be with her all the time, but, in this case, they are in several time zones so they “meet” over the internet — and, because she’s the only sister in the district, her companions are both elders).
“They keep them busy all day long,” Martha says. “She gets her own breakfast and lunch. I can always hear her talking, (sometimes laughing), speaking Chinese. We see her briefly throughout the day; other than that, she’s busy.”
Because of the virus, there are six members of the Sloan clan, including Anna, confined to the house — (one doing Brigham Young University coursework, one doing University of Utah classes and three working from home).
“At night, we try to have family prayer and scriptures,” Martha says. “She makes sure she goes to bed on time.”
For missionaries, that’s 10:30 p.m.
Anna is disciplined, the proud mom says, then quips. “We are all waking up a lot later than she does.”
Sometimes, they help Anna with vocabulary cards and with advice. And on her weekly P Day, or preparation day, mother and daughter have been able to go on walks.
It has been nice, Martha says, “that we can talk with her and be with her.”
Teaching from a ghost town
Provo’s 35-acre Missionary Training Center was once a teeming city — filled with 3,700 proselytizers-in-waiting, 200-plus teachers and hundreds of workers — learning more than 50 languages as well as how to present the faith to the world.
Its classrooms, dorms, cafeterias and gyms now sit empty like so many of the world’s spaces.
These days the only visitors to the sprawling campus are a smattering of language instructors who are using the rooms to “meet” with their students over Zoom.
“We have about 230 teachers conducting the virtual training across the 10 MTCs worldwide,” church spokesman Daniel Woodruff explains, “and just over 800 missionaries participating in virtual training.
“That number,” he adds, “will increase over the coming weeks.”
Chad Mourino is one of the virtual Mandarin instructors, and Anna Sloan is in his district.
Three of his students are in Utah, one is in North Carolina, one in California and one in Washington state.
Mourino served his Mandarin-speaking mission in Melbourne, Australia, where he taught mostly students in their 20s.
“You’d be surprised how many Chinese were there,” he says. “Worldwide, the church has over 40 Chinese-speaking missions.”
When he finished his two-year volunteer stint last year, the future instructor returned to Provo, where he’s a student at BYU, and started teaching at the MTC.
The home study language program is similar to what he did in person, Mourino says. “It’s the same work and same kind of missionaries with different faces, and they are all over, instead of in one classroom.”
Zoom allows them to have a single conversation, or to huddle one on one “in different rooms,” he says. “So that personal attention is not lost. That surprised me.”
The missionaries are also on various internet platforms together during the day, holding their own videoconferences, Mourino says. “Because they are at home, I invite them to get in contact with people who speak Chinese on social media.”
Doing it this way “takes a lot of self-motivation because they are not surrounded by other missionaries all day long,” he says. “I am inspired by these students because their motives are as pure as can be. They accomplish the impossible every day.”
They are, Mourino says, doing God’s work.
‘She’s putting her all into it’
The Sloans traveled to China to adopt Anna when she was 2. They also had adopted another daughter from China, who eventually served in the Hong Kong Mission, where she learned Cantonese, says Martha. That young woman was born right outside her mission boundaries in a Cantonese-speaking region.
But Anna’s Chinese family would have spoken Mandarin, the mom says. “She has had a desire for many years to learn Mandarin to be able to teach her family the gospel someday.”
This mission, Martha says, is “something she’s wanted for so long. She’s putting her all into it, and we can feel that.”
They certainly felt that when she gave her “farewell” address — weekly services had been canceled — to an audience of seven gathered in the living room and watching online.
When Anna’s church leader “set her apart” — prayerfully authorized her for mission work — he promised her that it would be “a unique experience,” Martha says, and that she would learn how to “use the Holy Spirit and grow close to God.”
So far, that’s been true for the whole Sloan family, the matriarch says. “When we do have those moments with her, you can tell she has that light with her.”
Home-based MTC has been “a lovely experience,” Martha says, “because we get to be part of it.”
At least for those parts when Anna isn’t in her blue bedroom.