The following is a written version of the story I told at our Corvias alumni retreat last summer.
Can I tell you a love story?
Some of you may know that a few years ago I was a Mormon missionary in Italy. You’ve probably seen missionaries around—they’re often young guys in white shirts with black name tags riding around on bicycles like nutheads; yeah, that was me, except I wore a skirt (even on the bike, which is a totally different story that I’ll have to tell another time).
Me near the beginning of my mission after having biked home in the pouring rain.
There are a lot of rules you’re asked to follow as a missionary, including being with a companion missionary 24/7. You don’t get to choose who your companion is, but once you’re assigned together, you’re supposed to stay within sight and sound of each other for a six-week period called a “transfer”. At the end of the transfer, the mission president, typically an older, married man who leads the missionary efforts in your area, will send you and/or your companion to a new area, or leave you there for another six weeks.
Being a missionary was the most wonderful, awful, terrifying, challenging, amazing, difficult, and life-changing thing I’ve done in my life thus far. I literally would spend all day stopping people on the street to talk to them about Jesus, which, for my somewhat introverted self, was terrifying every single time, and almost assuredly annoying for everyone with whom I attempted to converse. One of the general LDS church leaders once described this terror by saying something along the lines of: “Missionaries are just as terrified to be there standing on your porch as you are finding them there.” So don’t worry the next time they knock on your door–you definitely have the upper hand.
There are a lot of reasons why I decided to serve a mission and none of them was motivated by a desire to get anything from anyone; I simply wanted to help others and do what I thought I needed to do. I quickly realized, however, that being a missionary was an amazing opportunity for me to learn, and I wanted to make goals in order to maximize my experience. I decided to make a list in my journal of things I wanted to learn from my mission, but for the entire length of my 18 months as a missionary, I could only ever come up with one thing I wanted my mission to teach me: love. I’d heard from people who’d already served missions about how much they loved the people in the areas where they served; I wanted to learn how to recognize and accept love and how to give love.
My mission goals, from my actual journal
Missionary convention dictates that you forsake your first name in favor of your last name, so I became Sister Soh, or in Italian, Sorella Soh (male missionaries use the title “Elder”, or “Anziano” in Italian). I spent the first nine weeks of my mission at the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah, where they teach you how to be a missionary and if you’re serving in a non-English speaking country, they teach you the language of the place in which you’ll be serving. Missionaries don’t get to pick where they get to serve, so being sent to Italy was like winning the lottery. The country is beautiful, the people are beautiful, and the food is beautiful (I gained 30 pounds). And despite some unpleasant experiences (people can be very mean), I had many, many unforgettable moments of joy and happiness and love. I felt like I was on track to meet my only goal.
Over the course of my mission, I had eight different companions. I got along great with my first few companions, considering the fact that we were together every moment of every day; they were all Americans, and we’d often talk about home and our lives before the mission and what we wanted to do when we got home. Our mission president encouraged us to serve each other, cook and eat lunch together, and look out for each other so we would get along and be more effective missionaries.
About seven months into my mission, the mission president called me and told me I was getting transferred from the coastal city of Savona to the big city—Milano. Summer was just starting, so the thought of leaving the breezes of the Mediterranean for the sticky, stifling heat of the city was disappointing, but he told me he had a special assignment for me: My new companion, Sorella Sanchez*, needed some love. Right up my alley.
Sorella Sanchez was from Peru, but had lived in Rome for 10 years before serving a mission. She was 11 years older than me and didn’t speak any English. When we were together, the church members would often ask me about her personality, which was hard for them to read. The only explanation I could give them was that she was particolare, which is a word Italians use to describe people who they don’t understand. In English, some might have described her as “awkward”, but there’s no word for that in Italian, and even if there was, she wouldn’t have known what it meant because she wasn’t awkward—she was just particolare.
Once, in the middle of July when it was 9 a.m. and 90°F inside our study room, she got mad at me because I’d turned on the oscillating fan and the fan-generated wind touched her. “Artificial air is bad for you, Sorella Soh” she’d told me, before asking me to move the fan two inches to the left so it wouldn’t blow on her. Whenever we went anywhere, she always walked five feet behind me, and if I tried to slow down so she could catch up and walk beside me, she’d just slow down to match my pace. When we’d get on a train or the metro, I’d look for two open seats, sit in one, and then watch her ignore the open seat next to me and sit in a totally different spot. Particolare.
I was beginning to understand why Sorella Sanchez’s past companions had struggled to get along with her, and I almost couldn’t blame them. I tried to serve her and love her, but I always felt that she was resistant. Even when I asked her if she wanted to cook lunch together, she looked at me blankly and simply said “I don’t think so.” I felt like the language and cultural barriers were unconquerable obstacles; she just did things differently than all my American companions, and she NEVER talked about home or her life before or after the mission. I loved her, at least I tried to love her, but I couldn’t understand her. Everything she did was unexpected, and I wondered if there was something wrong with me.
In Florence, about a year into my mission. And yes, I was absolutely as tired as I look in this picture.
One morning we had an appointment with someone on the far side of our assigned proselyting area, and on the bus ride home, the heat and the bumpy road started wearing down on me and I began to feel motion sick. When we got back to our apartment for lunch, I knew I needed to recover from my nausea before I could even think about eating. I didn’t want Sorella Sanchez to think I was being lazy, which is probably what she would’ve thought, so I told her, “I’m not feeling well, so I’m going to lie down for a half hour, and then I’ll make my lunch” and went to bed.
After my half hour repose, I was feeling better and walked back into the kitchen where Sorella Sanchez was washing the dishes from her lunch. She saw me walk in and with no emotion or expression said, “I have some extra lunch, you know, if you want it” and turned back to the dishes. As soon as she said it, my first thought was a sarcastic one: “Gee, thanks, Sorella”, but no sooner had that thought crossed my mind when another thought popped into my head: “She just offered you food. She almost never makes extra food, and she certainly never offers it to you when she does.” In that moment, it felt like a lightning bolt struck my heart and opened my mind to understanding: “She did that on purpose. She knew you were feeling ill and she made you lunch.” She was making an offering of love.
I accepted her leftovers and couldn’t stop thinking about it the rest of the day. It’s like the floodgates had opened and suddenly I started to understand everything. She loved me. She’d loved me the whole time, she just didn’t know how to show it. And when she did show it, I was too blind to recognize it because I was expecting love to come in a different way. I’d expected love to be like it’d been with my other companions, talking about home and laughing about silly little things. But that wasn’t Sorella Sanchez. Her love was different. It was particolare.
Upon recognition of this love, I immediately felt terrible about how I’d been treating her and how frustrated I seemed to always be with her; after that moment in the kitchen, everything changed. The light switch turned on in my head and I started to trust her love. Without even trying, we started to fall into sync. We began having inside jokes. I’d make eye contact with her across a train car, cross my eyes, and she’d laugh. We laughed all the time. We laughed with each other. We laughed with the people we met. One day another missionary even approached me and said, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but I haven’t seen Sorella Sanchez this happy in months.”
It wasn’t just Sorella Sanchez who was happier—I was happier, too. She loved me and I loved her. She still drove me nuts sometimes, but the more I saw her through eyes of love, the more I noticed the effect she’d had on me. She still walked 5 feet behind me, but I noticed she was often texting people on our phone (we only had one for the two of us), checking on them and making appointments. She still never sat next to me on the train, but she was always talking to other people about our message, and because she wasn’t sitting next to me, it made me talk to more people, too. And because we never talked about home, I never felt homesick. Everything she had done had been slowly transforming me into a better missionary, and was helping me to become more like the person I wanted to be.
After 12 weeks together, Sorella Sanchez was transferred to a different city to finish out her mission. I saw her two or three times after that, but it’s been more than five years since the last time I saw her as she boarded her train home to Rome at the end of her mission. But a part of her is always with me, and will remain with me forever, written on my heart. Without her even knowing it, she’d changed my life. She gave me far more than I could have ever given her: she taught me how to give love and how to accept love, especially when it comes in ways you don’t expect.
*Name has been changed