MEXICO CITY, MEXICO
Elder Gilberto Aguila took a moment from his companionship study to peer across the vast, florid campus of the recently opened Mexico City Missionary Training Center.
This young missionary, just 18-years-old, viewed his surroundings with both a personal appreciation for its past — and a reverent excitement for its future.
"This was my school for three years when it was Benemerito de las Americas," he said. "I graduated just a few weeks ago, I'm part of the last graduating class."
Elder Aguila admitted to mixed feelings when he learned last January that his beloved school would be transitioned into a missionary training center. The academy, he said, was a blessing to all of Mexico for almost half a century.
"But now it looks even more beautiful. Missionaries from around the world are coming here to learn how to share the gospel," he said.
This sacred facility — built on land dedicated by an apostle to become "a great Spanish-speaking cultural center" — has now become a blessing to all the world.
On June 14, Elder Aguila and his fellow classmates participated in the final Benemerito graduation. Just two weeks later, the first class of missionaries began arriving. In that short time, this 90-acre facility, with its existing chapels, administrative offices, dormitories, classrooms, cafeteria and athletic facilities, has been transitioned from a Church-owned high school to an institution of intense language and gospel learning.
About 730 young elders and sisters are studying at the Mexico City MTC. It will eventually accommodate 300 more. Most of the missionaries here are from the United States and Canada and spend six weeks learning Spanish before departing to their respective assignments of service. Some 100 missionaries are from Mexico. They study the missionary lessons for two weeks in the MTC.
MTC President Carl Pratt, an emeritus Seventy and a proud son of Mexico, said the transition from high school to MTC "is practically complete."
Yes, there have been the expected growing pains over the past few weeks, but already this sprawling campus has, perhaps, become the ideal for a bustling yet peaceful home for missionaries preparing for full-time labor.
"I love it here," said Elder Collin Butterfield of West Jordan, Utah. "You can talk to anyone and they will tell you they are excited to be here."
His companion, Elder Chancellor Slavens of San Ramon, Calif., said language training in Mexico City "has given me the opportunity to be immersed in the culture and learn more about the Latino people."
Such an experience, he said, will serve him well as he teaches Spanish-speaking people in the Idaho Twin Falls Mission.
"You get a lot of practice here speaking with the native Mexican missionaries, and it's a lot of fun."
A lot of fun — that's a common sentiment here. Yes, the work is hard and the days are long. Missionaries traditionally enjoyed nine weeks of language study at the MTC. Now they have only six weeks before reporting to their missions.
But despite the rigor, the MTC in Mexico City is a happy place. Smiles are abundant and the missionaries do their best to greet and converse with visitors in their generally limited Spanish.
President Pratt and his wife, Sister Karen Pratt, recently met with a large group of new missionaries who had arrived a day earlier from their respective homes in the United States and Canada.
"Elderes y Hermanas, Bienvenidos a Mexico," said President Pratt. His greeting suggested that Spanish was now the language of choice for the new missionaries — even though many admitted to learning but a few words in high school.
The president then offered a brief history of the storied facility known for decades as "Benemerito."
"This school was established when there were 50,000 members in Mexico. Now there are over a million." With the recent, well-documented surge in young people answering mission calls, the Lord needed this facility for another purpose.
"And you all," he said, "are the beneficiaries of that."
Sister Pratt reminded the missionaries, "You are here at a particularly historic time." She shared a verse of scripture that has come to define the enthusiasm that has accompanied the policy change that allows young men to begin missionary service at age 18 and young women at 19: "Behold, I will hasten my work in its time" (Doctrine and Covenants 88:73).
President Pratt then chronicled the pivotal transition that has taken place on this peaceful stretch of property located inside one of the world's largest and most hectic cities. Transition also defines each young woman and young man studying at this new MTC.
"Now you're involved in the work of the Lord," they were reminded.
The MTC president saluted the missionaries for making the transition from youth to adulthood, from foolishness to wisdom, from sports clothes to missionary attire and from monolingual to bilingual.
He repeated the words of Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve: "A mission is a process of obedience training."
When missionaries are obedient to the commandments and the mission rules, they put themselves in a privileged and promised position to receive the blessings of the Lord, said President Pratt.
Missionary work is not always easy, he concluded. There will be tough days marked by tears. "But at the end of your mission, if you have given of yourself in the way the Lord expected, you will weep for joy."
Missionaries here say they are being stretched in ways they did not know possible. The moment-to-moment mantra is "Hable su idioma" (Speak your language.) Even elders and sisters who are just hours removed from their arrival at the MTC are asked to communicate with one another in Spanish. Many share dorm rooms with native Mexican missionaries to offer more opportunities to practice their new skill.
"We have a lot of opportunities to get out of our comfort zone and speak the language," said Sister Kaitlyn Taylor of Saratoga Springs, Utah. "We were teaching by the third day here. You learn to rely on the Spirit."
Sister Emily Blankenship of Kaysville, Utah, said the warmth felt across the MTC helps new missionaries overcome fears and inhibitions.
"Plus the classes are small, so you get a lot of one-on-one time with the instructors," she added.
Visitors here can walk outside, face any direction and spot evidence of a missionary training center functioning at full speed. In one corner, small groups of missionaries gather under shade trees to practice teaching the missionary lessons. In another direction, missionaries find a bench to take in a few minutes of personal scripture study, softly reciting the words of, say, Nephi or Alma, in Spanish. And in the distance, the joyful cries of missionaries can be heard as they enjoy a stress-busting game of basketball, table tennis or outdoor volleyball.
Indeed, one immediately recognizes here the fulfillment of apostolic prophecy. On Nov. 4, 1963, Elder Marion G. Romney of the Quorum of the Twelve spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Benemerito school. His recorded words seemed to transcend the events of that day: "This school for which we are breaking ground today is destined to become a great Spanish-speaking cultural center. Its influence will reach far beyond the valley of Mexico. … It will be felt in all of Latin America, including South America. Hundreds of thousands of people will come here. … This school will prepare men for a better future here on the earth and for eternal life in the world to come."
Astrid Aguilera recently said farewell to a missionary friend, Sister Tania Hernandez.
Like Elder Aguila, Astrid is a recent graduate of Benemerito. She too experienced a mixture of emotions when she learned her school would become an MTC. She loved Benemerito. It provided her an education and helped build her testimony.
But Astrid also recognizes the eternal weight behind Elder Romney's words, spoken a half-century ago.
"This place, this MTC, will help the Church grow," she said, adding she wants to go on a mission when she is 19 and hopes to "return here and do my part."