SAO PAULO, Brazil — Fifty years ago, young Elder Ted Whitaker was basking in the final weeks of serving in the Brazilian Mission, having helped bring a family of eight — the Bittencourts, with two parents and six children — into the Church through baptism.
A granddaughter of the family studying English in the United States reached out in 2009 to Whitaker and his wife, Melinda. The Whitakers, of Orem, Utah, in turn reconnected with the Bittencourts when visiting Brazil in 2012, with the family now numbering 48 Church members, including a stake president, several bishops and a half-dozen returned missionaries.
Fast forward to last August, when the Whitakers, both now retired and serving as a senior missionary couple at the Brazil Missionary Training Center in Sao Paulo, helped greet a Bittencourt grandson — Elder Artur Michelisa — as he arrived at the MTC to prepare to serve in the Japan Kobe Mission.
“I had the opportunity to put his missionary tag on him when he came,” said Elder Whitaker of his personal, full-circle missionary experience.
For Elder Whitaker, his missionary and language training in 1966 entailed three months at the Language Training Mission in Provo, Utah — the precursor to the Provo Missionary Training Center.
Today, missionaries called to serve in Brazil — and Brazilians called to serve in their native country and beyond — spend three to nine weeks at the Brazil MTC, now beginning its fifth decade.
“The MTC helps all these young men and women who come with different cultures and traditions,” said João Roberto Martins Silva, president of the Brazil Missionary Training Center and former mission president and Area Seventy. “It helps them to truly become representatives of Jesus Christ and missionaries of the Church.”
In 1977, the Church established its first two international missionary training centers — one in Sao Paulo, the other in Hamilton, New Zealand.
The first Brazil MTC was located in downtown Sao Paulo in the old Brazilian Mission home. Elder Marcos Aidukaitis, a General Authority Seventy and Brazil native who currently presides over the Brazil Area, was there in the summer of 1979 preparing for his mission in São Paulo. “It could hold maybe 20 missionaries — when I was there, I think there were 15 missionaries,” he said. “We spent a whole week there — and that was it.”
Soon after, it shared temple patron housing in a building near the Sao Paulo Brazil Temple. “At the time, we used to be there for just 10 days,” said Mario Dias, the Brazil MTC administrative director who was baptized at age 18, served a mission in Porto Alegre at 19 and later presided over the Brazil Teresina Mission. “It was incredible — that experience was something you cannot forget for your entire life.”
At the time, the MTC in Sao Paulo served primarily young Brazilians serving in their native country; North American missionaries assigned to Brazil were still trained in Provo.
In 1997, the Brazil MTC moved to its present location in Casa Verde, a northwest district of Sao Paulo. President Russell M. Nelson, then of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, dedicated the complex in a prayer Brazilians are still talking about more than two decades later.
“It was a long prayer — in perfect Portuguese,” recalled Elder Aidukaitis, who attended the dedication as a local stake president. “Even if he memorized the prayer, it was a long prayer, and it was perfect Portuguese. It was a miracle. All of us who were there felt like we witnessed a miracle, the gift of tongues.”
Added President Martins Silva: “In his dedicatory prayer, he said that this building would be a light to the world. But what makes this building special is not the building itself, but the people who work inside — everyone here, the members and nonmembers of the Church, are committed to do the best they can, everything to help the missionaries fulfill their purpose.”
Besides missionary training, the Brazil MTC offers language training — the primary language being Portuguese, for those coming from North, Central and South America to serve in Brazil, Portugal, Angola, Mozambique or Cape Verde. Spanish-speakers learning Portuguese are there for four weeks, English-speakers for six weeks.
Other languages include a four-week Spanish program for Brazilians learning that language and a nine-week Japanese program for Brazilians assigned to serve in Japan (Brazil has large Japanese communities in metro areas along the coast).
Elder Alex Santos of Sao Paulo, preparing to serve in the Japan Tokyo South Mission, admits to struggling with Japanese. “But every time I go to sleep, I think of Jesus and remember that He has passed through everything,” he said. “Here at the MTC, I can remember the Savior and remember the things He did for me.”
In all, the MTC is home to missionaries from 40 different nationalities, with an average weekly intake of 50 to 75 new missionaries — and up to as many as 120. Dot-like stickers can be seen on missionary nametags — yellow dots for those learning Spanish, red for Japanese, and blue dots for first-week missionaries studying Portuguese.
Sister Breanna Davidson, of Boise, Idaho, and assigned to serve in the Brazil Rio de Janeiro Mission, relished her first day last month at the MTC. “Every single time we saw any missionaries, they would always say ‘hi’ or ‘muito bem’ (Portuguese ‘very well’ or ‘good job’) and be very welcoming.”
The Brazil MTC capacity is restricted to its 526 beds, with an average number of missionaries at the MTC at one time typically about 250. But that can change —250 North Americans alone are scheduled to arrive in July, with the MTC total climbing to 430, said the administrative director Dias.
The MTC is staffed by six full-time administrators and secretaries as well as a couple dozen contracted employees who help with food services and maintenance. The Whitakers are one of two senior missionary couples whose responsibilities include administrative work, coordinating medical care and staffing a help desk.
Instructors for missionary training and language are 60 returned missionaries, many are bilingual, and some even trilingual. One is Marie Sunaga, of Sao Paulo whose grandparents immigrated from Japan to Brazil decades ago. She joined the Church at age 12, included English and Japanese as part of her studies, served a mission in Manaus in Brazil’s Amazon area and is in her third year working at the Brazil MTC, now as a teacher supervisor.
Sunaga wants missionaries to have experiences similar to hers as a new missionary at the Brazil MTC in September 2014. “I remember writing in my journal all the spiritual feelings I was having in the classes, in the devotionals and all the time,” she said.
Missionaries are assigned to one of seven branches at the MTC, with branch presidents and their counselors helping missionaries with Sunday meetings, ecclesiastical counseling and other spiritual matters.
The missionaries’ schedules mirror those at other MTCs — up at 6:30 a.m., a rotation of weekly service projects in helping keep the complex clean, meals, personal studying and planning, language and training classes until 9 p.m., and in bed and lights out by 10:30 p.m.
Missionaries are allowed 50 minutes daily of physical activity. They’re required to walk or run five laps on a track inside a long, narrow courtyard of the complex before moving on to play volleyball or basketball or toss around an American football.
MTC-wide devotionals are held on Sundays and Tuesdays, with speakers from the Area Presidency, visiting General Authorities, local Area Seventies, local stake and mission presidents and MTC staff.
Besides typical preparation day activities of writing or emailing family and friends and doing laundry, missionaries are allowed to venture out a short distance to visit some of the local businesses that offer candies, cookies and other treats and clothing and tailoring services.
Activities happening weekly or every other week include attending either the Sao Paulo or Campinas temples or going downtown to the busy Avenida Paulista for Saturday morning proselyting activities.
Elder Caden Grover, from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, going to the Brazil Curitiba South Mission, said his initial experiences there were “really scary” after being rejected by three passers-by. Then he applied what he had learned about following the Spirit.
“There was a guy I saw, and he didn’t leave my mind after I walked past,” he said. “Eventually, my companion and I turned around and talked to him and had a really cool experience."
The missionaries are learning to change, to grow and to “become” while at the MTC.
“You can’t be the same person you were at home. Every single day you need to change,” said Sister Sabrina Rodrigues of Manaus, who will serve in the Japan Tokyo Mission. “I’m comprehending because I’m being tested, and I’m grateful that I can change.”
The impact is not just personal transformation with the missionaries “but miracles happening with their families,” President Martins Silva said, explaining that nonmember family members are being baptized and less-active relatives are returning to Church meetings.
But the greatest impact is the oft-recognized and oft-acknowledged presence of the Holy Ghost, said President Martins Silva.
“It’s because of the lifestyles of the people who are working here and especially the missionaries — they want to have the Holy Ghost helping them,” he said, adding, “I like to say that angels are walking these hallways — and some of them use nametags.”