By Kent Larsen
Mission Impossible: How Serving a Mission is Hard -- at least in Finland
HELSINKI, FINLAND -- Nearly two years ago, a reporter from the
Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat visited the Missionary Training
Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and there
met eight missionaries learning Finnish and preparing to serve as
missionaries in Finland. Now, as those eight missionaries are
completing their two years of service, reporter Laura Pekonen spent a
day with one of them, Elder Jeff Eschler of Salt Lake City,
discovering that his two years of service has changed him.
Elder Eschler, and his companion, newcomer Elder Aaron Stevenson, are
currently assigned to Helsinki's eastern suburb of Herttoniemi, where
they find the work very hard. During the day they try street
contacting and knocking on doors with little success. But they are
teaching a couple of people, including an immigrant from Palestine
who challenges most of what they say and a young man who finds it
hard to give up his coffee. They are also hobbled by the Finn's
association of Mormonism with America (not a positive association)
and by mundane issues like the closing of outside doors in apartment
buildings at 8pm, making night tracting impossible.
But unlike the Finn's perception of America, Eschler has gained a
positive appreciation of Finland. Before coming, Elder Eschler admits
he knew little about the country, "I really did believe that there
would be penguins and polar bears here. And that people would be
living in log cabins." His companion, Elder Stevenson adds, "I was
surprised at how technologically advanced Finland was. It's so easy
to pay invoices when you don't have to use cheques". [Like much of
western Europe, Finland uses bank transfers instead of cheques.] But
both Elders still yearn for some familiar US products, like Skippy
peanut butter, Tumble dryers and gallon jugs of milk and orange juice
instead of litre cartons.
But the Elders are also ignorant of a lot of Finland, reporter
Pekonen points out. She writes that they don't know anything about
Finnish politics because they don't read the news. They don't have
much contact with Finns their own age, because their contacting
mainly reaches those at home during the day. Eschler admits that he
doesn't have many Finnish friends, "Sometimes I wonder if I would
have made more Finnish friends if I had come here as a simple
exchange student. But that is not our task. We are the front line of
our faith, teaching others to teach the word."
Elder Eschler admits to reporter Pekonen that the rejection of the
Finns was tough at first. "To begin with it was pretty tough on one.
I had the feeling that everybody hated us, and all I wanted to do was
go home," he says. But he no longer takes it personally, realizing
that the Finns are rejecting the religion, not him, and remembering
that even the Apostles have been rejected. "When it hurts most is
when you have actually been able to get to know someone", he says.
"When you come back a second time, all hopeful, and you see the Book
of Mormon hanging there on the outside of the door in a plastic bag,
and inside there's a note saying 'No thanks' and nothing else."
Knowing what he knows now, Eschler says he wished he'd had different
advice, "If I could now go back and advise myself as I was two years
ago, I'd tell myself not to take everything quite so seriously." He
also says that he has been humbled by the experience, "I came here
with the attitude that I was ready to conquer the entire world", says
Eschler. "And then I met with some Lutheran ministers and I realised
that I didn't know the Bible by heart, and in fact that I didn't know
much of anything as yet." But even that realization he has accepted,
and learned from, "In a sense it was a relief to discover that people
have to make their own decisions on their own faith", says Eschler.
"We can only do our best, and we should not focus blindly on results."
Of course, the article also discusses the things that missionaries
give up while on a mission -- the music, movies and girlfriends.
Elder Eschler's girlfriend wrote him a 'Dear John' letter while he
was on his mission, and married someone else. He says its even a
challenge to avoid thinking about women, "If girls walk by on the
street, you just have to stare fixedly ahead of you and not turn
around for a second look", remarks Eschler. For this, he is thankful
that he is serving in Finland instead of California, "At least in
Finland people are wrapped up from head to toe for most of the year."
In spite of the love he's gained for Finland, Elder Eschler also
shows excitement for returning to Utah. He's had a lot of changes in
his family since he left -- his widowed mother has remarried, and
with his ex-girlfriend married, he will have to try to find someone
else. But, he tells Pekonen, returned missionaries are highly
sought-after among girls from Mormon families.
Difficulty of teaching Mormonism in Europe also Explored
In addition to Pekonen's profile of Elder Eschler, she also reviewed
the difficulty that LDS missionaries face in most of Western Europe.
Finland Mission President Kim Johnson says that success in Europe
isn't among the established population. "In Europe we reach a lot of
immigrants and refugees, but we would like also to be reaching the
local populations", says Johnson. "In some German cities, for
example, our missionaries are these days baptising native-born
Germans only very rarely." He tells Pekonen that Finland has just
5,000 LDS Church members, and that 15% of new baptisms are from
immigrants to Finland.
Pekonen points out that part of the problem is the traditional
Finnish connection of the Evangelical Lutheran Church with Finnish
nationalism -- joining another Church is almost unpatriotic. Another
source of the difficulty is the Church's connection in the minds of
Finss with America and all things American. In Finland this isn't
necessarily a positive connection.
The LDS Church's reputation has also been damaged in the country by
its association with the various Utah polygamist offshoots who have
been in the news recently. Pekonen says that scandals like the
Kingston clan's abuse of a 14-year-old girl two years ago "easily
left a stain on the reputation of the entire Mormon Church" even
though it wasn't involved.
Mission Impossible - A day in the life of a Mormon missionary in Finland
Helsinki Finland Helsingin Sanomat 29Apr01 N1
By Laura Pekonen
The Finns are a tough assignment indeed