Siberia, December 1994. My second full day on my mission was perhaps one of the most depressing days of my life, at least up to that time. I struggle to think of one more mentally crushing since. I faced two years in Siberia. Arriving to such a place in the middle of winter, with the shortest day of the year just a week away, compounded the problem. The sun seemed to come up around ten in the morning, and often it only made a weak attempt to push a limited amount of light through the thick layer of gray clouds. By around four in the afternoon, the darkness began to settle back in for the long night. Two years seemed like an eternity.
Then there was Elder Wetzel, my companion and trainer. The expert whose job it was to teach me not only how to teach the Gospel, but how to survive in Russia. I don’t remember if he was kind enough to spare me the news the first day, but by the second day together I was aware that he had been in country just less than three months. My expert trainer suddenly looked to me like to be just a little less green than me. Missionaries from the Russia Moscow Mission had opened our mission. By the time we began to arrive, there were only a handful of experienced missionaries left from Moscow and they were dying off quickly. The result was a group of new missionaries training newer missionaries. I felt my enthusiasm and resolve drop even further.
For two weeks I walked around everywhere thinking about what a blessing it would be if I could slip on the ice and break my leg so I could catch a flight home to reassess my intentions. Two years seemed impossibly long, especially with the food we were eating. Among Elder Wetzel’s shortcomings was finding and fixing good food. Even the first time we ate at a Russian’s home, I was so scared of the food I could hardly enjoy it, even though it was surprisingly tasty.
Of course, I had to deal with the language as well. It was so overwhelming that my brain would shut down early in the day, unwilling and unable to process anymore. This left me more time for self-reflection. Self-reflection at that time was the enemy.
Elder Wetzel, while seemingly inexperienced as a trainer, understood the key to missionary work—work. He knew how to work and he enjoyed working. Each day we were up and studying at the appointed hour, we were out the door at the appointed time, and we worked all day. Within two weeks I was beginning to develop interest in our investigators. I was beginning to be able to pick out words and phrases as we visited with individuals and families. As the work progressed I began to think about broken bones and roads home less often.
The Lord and my mission president blessed me with a wonderful trainer who taught me three valuable lessons—the value of hard work, that the Lord stands with his missionaries and that it’s okay to have fun as a missionary. Elder Wetzel is one of the Lord’s lower lights that helped show me the way.
So with that I’d like to share a few stories, mainly about Elder Wetzel and my experiences with him. Most of them will be on the funny side, but I’ll try to share a bit of the serious as well.
Love of a Dictionary
Of all the missionaries I served with during my two years, and there were thirteen of them, Elder Wetzel studied the language harder than any of them. He carried his pocket Oxford Russian-English Dictionary everywhere with him. As we would leave the apartment he would tuck the dictionary into his coat pocket. When we entered someone’s apartment he would put it in his suit coat or pants pocket. I’m not exactly sure what went on in his mind, but I’m convinced that he struggled to put every thought into Russian. When he couldn’t find the word he needed, he would pull out his dictionary and look it up while walking without slowing down. His dictionary was the closest thing he had to a girlfriend during those two years. At zone conferences our mission president would have him pull it out to show other missionaries how tattered it was from extreme study. After only three months in country and two months at the MTC, pages already were falling out.
Despite my occasional warnings regarding the danger of reading while you walk, (I spoke from experience), he continued to look up words and sentences on the move. Eventually, as I feared, he almost lost his eye. While looking up another word on an uneven path between apartments, he caught a solid tree branch right in the face, leaving a nice cut just to the side of his eye. He wasn’t happy at my initial laughter, (once I saw he still had his eye), but eventually I think he saw the humor in the situation.
A few months later, after we were no longer companions, we were in a large group of missionaries traveling on the tram in Novosibirsk. Standing right in front of him, I slipped my hand into his coat pocket and removed his dictionary, quickly hiding it in my own pocket. I let a few of the other missionaries know of my crime. As we stepped off of the tram, I asked out loud how to say some obscure word in Russian. Per my expectations, he reached into his pocket for his dictionary. Soon he was frantically checking all of his pockets and within seconds he was mumbling the word “dictionary.” A sudden look of comprehension and terror came over his face, and then he did something I didn’t expect. He jumped onto the tracks in front of the fully loaded tram that was just beginning to move and he held his hand up to get the driver to stop so he could somehow search the entire vehicle. Realizing I was about to become the cause of his possible injury or death, I pulled his dictionary and began waiving it at him while shouting. Luckily, he jumped back off the tracks in time, saving me the need to write a very embarrassing letter to the mission president.
Tracting as a missionary in Russia is like opening Christmas gifts every day. Or, you could compare to the old television game show Let’s Make a Deal. We never knew what would be behind each door. It was difficult to even guess who or what we might find. Elder Wetzel was a big fan of tracting and contacting. One day, as I was just beginning to differentiate individual words in Russian and follow along at least part of the discussion, we tracted into an interesting family. The husband invited us in and I immediately smelled the alcohol. In my previous life the smell of alcohol would have warned me to stay away, but the smell was so common in Russia that it barely registered. As we entered we were introduced to the man’s wife and some other gentleman who may or may not have been part of the family. There was also a babushka, a grandmother, with them.
Once we were seated in the rather dark living area, the man yelled at the babushka to bring food and drink out. As she carried first the plate of bread and then the makings for some type of tea, she kept whispering to me a word I recognized from the local buses. At first I thought she kept asking me if I was leaving. I was so focused on figuring out what she was saying that I ignored the conversation between Elder Wetzel and the gentleman and his friend. The wife seemed to be asleep in a chair, occasionally glancing up with a confused look on her face.
Finally, as I noticed that the tone of the voices was getting louder, I understood what the lady was saying, at least mostly. She was repeating the words “Leave” and “Very Drunk”. Quickly I turned my attention back to Elder Wetzel hoping to pass on the warning. It was then I realized that Elder Wetzel had a Book of Mormon in his hand and he kept telling the gentlemen that he had to hear a discussion before he could have the book. The argument quickly escalated, as the man demanded the book. Elder Wetzel must have told him we were leaving because we headed for the door with him in the lead. Just as we reached the door the man grabbed me by my wool scarf and begin shaking me around, demanding that we give him the Book of Mormon. Elder Wetzel stood over my shoulder telling him that he couldn’t have it unless he heard a discussion first. Just as I realized I was likely to get punched before we could make it out of the door, there was a blur of activity and the man’s previously near comatose wife was near the door with us.
In a flash she grabbed her husband by the arm, spun him around and open handed slapped him as hard as she could across the face. She looked at us and yelled, “Run!” The babushka quickly helped open the door and we took off. After that experience I decided if anyone ever wanted a copy of the Book of Mormon I would give it to them, discussion or not.
Part II coming soon.
- Jarad Van Wagoner
- Jarad Van Wagoner