When Elder Justin Brian Wilding opened the envelope that contained his mission call, he wasn’t surprised that he had been assigned to serve in a West African nation, the Sierra Leone Freetown Mission.
“I had a unique experience,” recalled Elder Wilding, who hails from Fort Payne, Ala. “Not a lot of missionaries can say this, but when I was growing up, my dream mission was Africa. Opening my call, nobody believed me. My family knew I wanted to go to Africa. I got called exactly where I wanted to go. It’s wonderful. Like any missionary would, I did some research on it. Other than that, I’m just walking by faith.”
One thing he wasn’t necessarily planning on, however, was being sent directly to the missionary training center in Tema, Ghana.
“The toughest thing is the culture change, coming from Alabama to Africa,” Elder Wilding said. “The language, the food, the culture. It takes some getting used to, but I know I’m going to love it.”
Elder Wilding and Elder Tyson Labrum, spent 11 days in the Ghana MTC before departing for missionary service in Sierra Leone. They left their respective homes and flew directly to Ghana, which they say is both a challenge and a blessing.
“I didn’t really know what was going on,” Elder Labrum said of his first day in Africa. “It’s definitely a big change, getting used to the language. They speak a little bit different than we do. That was interesting getting through customs. But I’ve enjoyed it. It’s definitely a lot more humid here. You sweat quite a bit. I’ve never been a big fan of seafood, but I guess I’ll learn to love it. The food is spicy, but it’s not bad. A lot of rice, bread, fish, noodles.”
Elder Labrum is from the small town of Meadow, Utah. Because he has friends who served in Sierra Leone, he had heard plenty about that West African nation.
“I was in awe. I’m from a little town of about 200. And in the last three years, I’ll be the fourth missionary out of my town to serve in that mission,” Elder Labrum said during his final day at the missionary training center in Ghana last July. “There are a couple from my town ... that are there right now. It’s kind of cool how the Lord works like that. ... I was familiar with Sierra Leone. I didn’t know where it was on the map, but I knew about it. One of my friends just got back last July from there. I have two other friends from home that are there.”
The missionary who had recently returned from Sierra Leone had already told him about the experience.
“He loved it. He loved the people,” Elder Labrum said. “They are truly ready for the gospel. I think that’s why the Church is growing so much in Africa — the people are humble and they’re ready. They want that knowledge.”
Time spent at the international MTCs can allow for a more gradual adjustment to many aspects of the local culture, such as food, language and companions from a different culture while the missionaries are still in a rather sheltered environment, Ghana MTC President Stephen L. Graham said, “rather than facing all of the changes at once upon arriving in the field.
“It’s an advantage, because when they leave here and go out into the field, it’s easy for them to adapt because they’re used to it. It’s the ones from the Western countries that have the adjustment.
“Another advantage of having an international MTC is that [we arrange for those who come from outside of Africa] to have an African companion so they can adapt to the food, the culture and the languages right from the beginning. I think a missionary who is trained here, an American for example, will have greater advantage and be already acclimatized when they go into the field. If they come here and they have a chance to have an African companion and have African food prepared for them — which is a mixture of Nigerian, Congolese and Ghanaian — and they’re trying to understand this ‘English speaker,’ Africans have just as much trouble understanding them. It goes both ways. Being at this MTC is a great blessing. The mission president is going to notice an easier adjustment because of what they’ve had here.”
Elder Labrum is glad for the 11 days he spent in the Ghana MTC.
“I think it prepared me more than had I gone to the Provo MTC,” said Elder Labrum. “I’m sure I would have been prepared either way. But it has kind of helped to adjust to the culture — the food and the people. ... It’s quite a bit different from Utah. But one thing I’ve noticed is most of the stuff is the same. The people here love the gospel just as much as anywhere else. We’re all united in one purpose. There’s such an amazing spirit in this MTC. You can feel it. I can’t wait to get out there.”
During their 11-day stay at the MTC in Ghana in July, Elders Wilding and Labrum were the only American missionaries. They were there with nine Nigerian missionaries.
“They’re fun. It was different because in Utah it’s like, everything is the same. When you come here, it’s different,” Elder Labrum said. “We all love the gospel. They enjoy studying the gospel. Elder Wilding and I have had to adjust. It’s been a really good experience for us to get to know these people. I’ve come to love the people here. They’re almost like my family already. I’m sad to leave them, but I know they’re going to go on and do great things.”
Elder Wilding admitted the initial adjustment was difficult, but he has been reminded why he chose to serve the Lord. “You know, the first night, I did miss home a little bit, but really it’s not bad at all because we made this decision,” he said. “We chose to give up those things. While I’m here, I want to completely dedicate myself to serving my Heavenly Father. Those other things can wait. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to be here.”