The following is the first in a multi-part series about my experiences as a returned missionary who came home earlier than expected. Commonly, we’re referred to as early returned missionaries. However, in 2016, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints requested that this moniker no longer be used (source: personal correspondence with Cedar Fort Publishing & Media).
It’s my sincere hope that something from my experiences will help those who find themselves in the same situation, dealing with the challenges that come with an earlier-than-expected return from a full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I think all parties involved in this situation — including family and friends — can benefit from the experiences shared here.
On a Saturday morning in early June 1987, I hopped on my prized 10-speed bike and rode to the local post office to check the mail. P.O. Box 225 was 33 steps from the post office entrance. I was expecting a letter from Salt Lake City, but didn’t think it would be there for at least another week. Surprisingly, when I opened the box, my mission call was nestled between junk mail and bills.
I calmly gathered the mail, walked the 33 steps back to the post office door, and out to my bike. Straddling my bike at the curb, I decided then was as good a time as any to open my mission call.
“Dear Elder Martinez,” started the letter, “You are hereby called to serve as a missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You are assigned to labor in the Colombia Bogota Mission.” My report date to the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, was in September 1987.
This is the point where, by today’s standards, people repeat the missionary’s destination to each other, cheer, “ooh” and “ahh,” and mention someone they know who’s served in that same mission or somewhere within a thousand miles of it.
Not in my case.
I calmly rode my bike home, told my parents about the call, called my brother, and then made a few more calls to friends and extended family to deliver the news.
That night, as I lay in bed, I wondered if I’d bitten off more than I could chew.
Like most newly called missionaries do, I spent a lot of time researching the country in which I was going to spend the next two years of my life. The thought of living in a foreign land scared me. The longest I’d ever spent away from home and my parents to that point in my life was one week. Two years terrified me.
As I thrust myself into mission-prep mode, I was able to stifle the feelings of fear and focused on the enjoyable experiences with family and friends who were excited and happy for me.
A letter from the mission office in Colombia pushed my MTC report date back to October, which seemed to come as quickly as a speeding freight train.
Saying goodbye to my friends and family was difficult.
With the painful goodbyes behind me, I dove into missionary mode. My companion was from Oregon and the rest of the elders in my district were from North Carolina, Washington, Idaho, and New Mexico. Our group got along royally and there was an instant sense of brotherhood between us.
My companion and I were a little older than the other elders; he was 22, I was 20. His reason for being older than the others was that he’d joined the Church just a year earlier. My reason was simply not being ready until then.
At least, I thought I was ready then.