SOFIA, Bulgaria — From a couple who both joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about 25 years ago to those from the United States serving the mission offices, Church members serving in Eastern Europe have all found many ways to serve. Here are three stories of their experiences and the blessings they've received during their service:
Finding peace in the word
Plamen and Boryana Penev sit in a small living room that tells a story.
Married nearly 22 years, they live in the same apartment Boryana grew up in. A wall of shelves and cabinets displays part of the collection of geodes that were her father’s. Delicate lace crocheted by her grandmother is displayed beneath glass on the living room table.
There’s an old photo of their daughter, Severina, now 21 and away at a university in Wales pursuing her studies in genetics for the third year. There are stacks of books on mathematics and science from their own studies. And there are multiple copies of the Book of Mormon, Bible and other Latter-day Saint scripture.
Plamen Penev describes himself as “golden” when he first met missionaries in the city’s train station in 1992, not long after Communism fell in Eastern Europe and many Christian churches entered Bulgaria. He had been praying just the day before to know if God existed: “If you’re there, show me how to find you!” He recognized the missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as soon as he saw them; they taught him for two and a half months before he was baptized.
Meanwhile, his future wife, whom he hadn’t yet met, also joined the church in 1992. When missionaries knocked on the door and her grandfather wasn’t home, they left a card with their phone number on it. Her mother called the elders and was baptized along with Boryana a few weeks later.
Plamen Penev was the first native Bulgarian called to serve as a missionary in his own country. He calls his fluent English “one of the gifts I received from my mission.” When he was set apart, he wondered why he was given the gift of tongues in the blessing, since he already spoke Bulgarian. But when he stepped into the foyer immediately afterward and encountered American missionaries, he was astonished to be able to understand every word of English they spoke.
He worked as a guard at the U.S. Embassy but says that his ease with English helps him every day. His mathematical abilities were greatly aided by having Boryana Penev as his math tutor when he was earning a master’s of electrical science. After graduating from the University of Sofia, Boryana Penev taught math for 10 years and is now a data processing specialist in a research company. Her husband works as head of maintenance at a private school.
Boryana Penev, who teaches Primary classes for children ages 3-8, said, “The gospel gives me peace and safety” and helps her feel valued.
Thanks to technology, they are able to speak with their daughter every day. One of the great blessings of the gospel, he adds, is that “our daughter was raised a good girl and is now a good woman.”
As second counselor in the Sofia Branch (and having already served twice as branch president), Plamen Penev believes the best way church members in Bulgaria can help their country is to be good, strong members.
“I can see how the gospel helps families, and I can reflect that to the people,” he said.
He tears up when he shares his testimony: “I love God and my Savior. The gospel really helps me to be a better person. Now I know my prayers of years ago have been answered.”
Working for change
When President Stephen Davis and Sister Mary Davis arrived in Istanbul, Turkey, in July 2017, from Riverside, California, they expected to be there for three years, heading the Central Eurasian Mission.
Months later, in April 2018, Bulgaria was added to the mission, and headquarters moved to its capital, Sofia, along with the Davises. At the end of April 2018 all the missionaries were removed from Turkey and assigned elsewhere.
In 1991, then-Elder Russell M. Nelson, who was serving in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, dedicated Bulgaria for the preaching of the gospel, shortly after Communism fell in Eastern Europe, according to President Davis. Since then, there have been nearly 3,000 baptisms, and the church has had as many as 13 meeting locations around the country, including some in rented building space.
Economic opportunity has drawn many away from their native land, and Bulgaria has about 240 active members today. In addition, said Sister Davis, most people in Bulgaria are Orthodox by birth and baptism, and converts are not used to the amount of time required by an active Latter-day Saint lifestyle.
Over the years, Bulgaria has sent 75 missionaries into the field, yet only 28 of those returned missionaries currently live in their home country. The combination of less-active church members and families with few children (Bulgaria’s population is not at replacement rate) affects growth for the church.
“We’re trying to change things” said President Davis. “We have incredible, hardworking missionaries and wonderful faithful Saints here in Bulgaria.” And the mission is using technology to connect with members, missionaries and those they’re teaching throughout Bulgaria and beyond.
The mission has 24 elders and 10 sisters. Included are six missionaries who are Turkish-speaking and are using technology to reach out to those who speak Turkish in distant locations.
He said that with few priesthood holders among local members and a complement of 34 missionaries, it isn’t always feasible to send missionaries to oversee sacrament meeting in distant towns.
The branch presidency makes a personal visit at least once a month to each participating group.
“It is so marvelous to see how technology has helped,” Sister Davis said. She relates how Turkish-speaking sisters who have been reassigned to Bulgaria are still teaching contacts in Turkey via Skype. “The Lord knows how to get through blockades!”
“We’ve had some miracles” as struggling branches have been consolidated into centers of strength, said President Davis. “When we closed down one branch, an entire family became active again.”
As the Davises sit side-by-side in the spacious mission office in a building which also houses a chapel and missionary apartment, their appreciation for the hard-working missionaries under their care is evident. They’re eager to share the latest success story.
“As we’ve been obedient in consolidating into centers of strength and following our leaders’ counsel to talk to more people every day, miracles are happening everywhere,” said President Davis.
Sister Davis said, “We’ve challenged our missionaries to have at least 10 conversations per day (that’s 20 per companionship) with people who are not members of the church, and we’ve seen a spike in interest about the church.”
Neither the mission president, his wife, nor missionaries wear nametags in the Bulgaria-Central Eurasian Mission, to avoid contention with residents. Mission boundaries include Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, but there are only a few hundred members in Turkey and the other countries. It is part of the church’s Europe East Area.
Four of the six couples serving in Bulgaria, including those reassigned from Turkey, will soon return home. The Davises hope their places will be filled.
“We need senior couples in every one of our centers of strength,” said Sister Davis. Her husband notes that almost all the younger people in the country speak English, so language should not be a concern for those willing to serve.
Serving with purpose
Running a mission office for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is second nature to Elder Morgan Lynch and Sister Jan Lynch, who are serving full time for the fourth time in 10 years as an office couple.
This time, they started out in January 2018 in Istanbul, Turkey, but were asked to transfer to the Sofia office in March. All missionaries in Turkey were reassigned in April. Sofia is headquarters for the Bulgaria-Central Eurasian Mission whose boundaries include Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, in addition to Bulgaria.
Most recently from Midway, Utah, the Lynches have previously served in mission offices in Lagos, Nigeria; Milan, Italy; and Wellington, New Zealand.
“We felt like we should serve foreign if we could, and our health has allowed us to,” said Sister Lynch. “The Church is in great need of office couples in these countries.” She and her husband agree that couples should be helping the president so that the young missionaries are free to find and teach prospective converts rather than dealing with office matters.
The Lynches take care of all the temporal details such as missionary housing, vehicles, finances and administrative reports, leaving the missionaries and the mission work to President Stephen Davis and his wife, Sister Mary Davis. The Lynches also assist the mission’s 34 missionaries with travels and transfers.
The senior couples in their mission presently include a humanitarian couple and four member-leadership-support couples in addition to the office couple, the Lynches.
What about speaking Bulgarian?
“The language should not stop anyone from serving,” said Sister Lynch. “We get by just fine with English.” She said they appreciate the variety of experiences they’ve had serving as a couple and value the lifelong friendships they’ve made with other senior couples.
Missionary work is deeply personal to Elder Lynch, who joined the church as a BYU student. He was baptized in the fall of 1965, and the couple was sealed in the Salt Lake Temple in December 1966. Sister Lynch shares his compassion for newly baptized converts: “It must be very difficult to be the first in your generation.”
The Lynches raised their six children in San Jose, California, while running a CPA firm. In October 2008, Elder Lynch officially retired on a Friday, and they entered the Missionary Training Center the following Monday for their first mission.
Noting that a grandson who recently left to serve in Mexico mentioned the example of his grandparents’ service in his sacrament meeting talk, Elder Lynch said, “The grandkids see and appreciate our service.”