It used to be that Utah missionaries traveled half a world away to share the gospel — and they're still doing that — but now missionaries from half a world away are also coming to Utah to share the gospel.
Among the missionaries from far-flung parts of the world serving in the Utah Salt Lake City Mission under the direction of Pres. Donald R. McArthur are four young men and a young woman from the eastern regions of Europe –Estonia, Greece, Poland, Russia, and Yugoslavia.They are: Elder Jaanus Silla from Estonia; Sister Eleni Souphou of Greece; Elder Andrezes Barchwic of Poland; Elder Andre Turutin of Russia; and Elder Rudolf Ruter of Yugoslavia. Other missionaries from that region are serving in nearby Utah mission as well.
Two of the missionaries — Elder Silla from Estonia and Sister Souphou of Greece — are the first from their countries to serve. Elder Silla is also the first missionary from what was then the Soviet Union when he received his call in December 1990. He entered the Missionary Training Center Jan. 16, 1991.
The missionaries were alike in exclaiming their surprise to be called to Salt Lake City, " where everybody belonged to the Church." Now, as experienced missionaries, they find plenty of opportunity to share the gospel.
Elder Silla told of performing the baptism of a family who emigrated from overseas to live in Salt Lake City.
The father in the family gained a testimony, said Elder Silla. "He knows God answers our prayers, if we have faith. I had the same experiences and that is why I feel very close to them."
Elder silla's conversion came while he was investigating a Christian religion in Tallinn, Estonia. He was invited to a meeting with nine other investigators that was held in November 1989 in the home of Enn Lembit, an investigator. Lembit had heard of the gospel teachings from his father-in-law, Valtteri Rotsa, who was baptized in Finlland July 16, 1989. When he returned to Estonia, he brought Church literature to his family. Brother Lembit was later the first to be baptized in Estonia, On Dec. 16, 1989.
"Enn explained to us the principles of the gospel," recalled Elder Silla in a personal history he compiled. "We understood and we were happy that God's plan is so perfect …and was for us simple and easy to understand."
LDS Finnish businessman Pekka Uusituba, who was visiting in Estonia, arrived at the meeting and shared his testimony of the Book of Mormon.
"We prayed and asked is that true?" recalled Elder Silla. "I felt that it is true."
Nine of the 10 investigators were later baptized. Four of them, Eve Reisalu, Alari Allik, Jaana Lass and Kristi Lass, were baptized in Tallinn on Dec. 17, 1989. Because Jaanus Silla couldn't find the location of the baptism, he had to wait until missionaries came on Jan. 6, 1990.
Branches in Estonia for Estonians and Russians are well-established now, said Elder Silla. The Church received formal recognition in Estonia on June 29, 1990.
"When the missionaries came, we tried to find so many people for them to teach," he explained.
He said that one day he and a friend knocked on the doors of 20 homes. "We tried to speak like the missionaries do," he said. "We told the story of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. The people were happy. They called us back.
"But when we told the missionaries, they said:
"'What! Why did you do that? Who gave you the authority?'"
Elder Silla explained that "we didn't know. We read in the Bible that everybody must be a missionary and we also wanted to do something."
Missionaries encouraged him to serve a mission, and he volunteered to go immediately. Although surprised to be called to Utah instead of Estonia, he is pleased and impressed with the strength of the Church in Salt Lake City.
"The organization of the Church here is an example for every other country," he said. "I did not know that it was so well organized. We receive a lot of support from the members."
He urged all the Church members to "go on their mission."
Sister Souphou had the experience of being among the first baptized in recent years in her country of Greece.
She explained that she learned about the Church shen an LDS relative, a cousin, visited he homeland. "Whe he came to Greece, he didn't tell me anything about the doctrine but I really liked the example he set. "I got interested intellectually to know more, and when I read the Book of Mormon and prayed about it, I knew it was true and I was baptized."
She was baptized in Athens, Greece, in 1988. She was called on a mission and entered the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, on Nov. 7, 1990.
"There are many good people in this valley," she said of greater Salt Lake City. Sister Souphou explained that when she was baptized only six missionaries were stationed in Greece. Now that number has increased to 55.
In the branch, "We are like a family, and we try to do our best. Every Sunday, services are a real spiritual experience. In Utah, I have missed the small congregations; I like them."
Elder Barchwic of Poland said about 30 people met in the branch when he first attended services.
He was introduced to the Church through a friend and was baptized a month later, on Sept. 27, 1989. The only member in his family, he arrived at the Missionary Training Center Oct. 3, 1991.
"I learned a lot at the Missionary Training Center. It is a very special place," he said. "But I am happier to be out here." He added that he would be happy preaching the gospel anywhere in the world.
Elder Turutin, from Vyborg, Russia, met the missionaries through a friend. "He told me about a pair of Americans who wanted to speak with him about Jesus Christ. As a result, I became a missionary myself."
He said that he and his companion work with Russian people in the Salt Lake City area. He doesn't know how many Russian people live in the area, but they are busy teaching those who are interested.
"I just want to say that the people here are very nice people. This is a very good experience."
He said going to Temple Square was an emotional experience.
"Temple Square — wow!" he said, adding that it was difficult to describe his feelings. "If I ask you to describe these mountains how would you describe them? There are no words."
Elder Ruter from Yugoslavia was introduced to the Church while on a baseball team. He explained that at the time, "I was an athiest. It was hard for me to pray, but somehow I made it." He said the experiment of the seed and faith, mentioned in Alma, helped him gain a testimony.
He was baptized Oct. 23, 1987, into a branch with 30 members.
Later, he met Kresmir Cosic, former BYU and Olympic basketball, who was president of the district. "You can't miss him. He's one of the legends of basketball. He helped bring the Church to Yugoslavia.
" Elder Ruter said he felt the people of his homeland are being prepared for the gospel. "When [the people accept the gospel in greater numbers], it is going to be great," he said.
He played amateur baseball after completing his high school education and plans to finish university and play more baseball.
"I am really happy to serve here [in Utah]. People are really receptive here. It is wonderful."