On 20 March, Ana Liza Torres walked into an empty classroom inside the Philippines Missionary Training Center (MTC) and conducted her first day of training.
Her trainees, which consisted of ten missionaries, were on the other end of her laptop waiting to begin their first virtual missionary training.
Traditionally, missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints begin their service by reporting at the MTC to receive either a 19- or 40-day training. The online missionary training was an adjustment that came after the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles sent a letter on options for missionary service amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Torres, a returned missionary, was one of the 50 instructors employed at the Philippines MTC. She has been training missionaries at the only training facility in Asia for two years and three months.
It’s the first time for her to conduct the training virtually. “It felt a bit strange,” she said after conducting a session online. “It never crossed my mind that virtual MTC training of the missionaries will be possible.”
As the online training commenced and as days turned into weeks, she saw how the hand of the Lord helped her and the missionaries to have almost the same experience as in on-site training.
“It’s more than two weeks already since this virtual training has started, and I can say that I am well-adjusted. Though I’m used to the traditional type of training the missionaries, which is being with them in person, I felt the same Spirit when I trained these wonderful missionaries virtually,” she said.
On 8 April 2020, the first batch of the virtual MTC training ended on a successful note. It’s a day that will be imprinted in the history of the Philippines MTC. This historical milestone became possible through faith, prayer, and sacrifices.
A Tale of Faith, Prayers, and Countless Sacrifices
When Sister Langa of Escalante Philippines Stake in Cebu received an email from the Missionary Department to inform her that her MTC training will move online, she became worried. Like many of her missionary batch mates, she doesn’t have a laptop and a stable Internet connection at home.
“It’s somewhat challenging. I don’t know where to find a device to use for my training and how to get home early [as mandated by the government under the Enhanced Community Quarantine],” she revealed. “I just prayed, and God provided everything.”
Through the help of God and her local Church leaders, Sister Langa was able to receive her training at her ward’s (congregation) meetinghouse. She will serve in the Philippines Angeles Mission.
Meanwhile, Elder Regacho of San Jose del Monte North Stake in Bulacan completed his online training at a home that’s not his.
“The neighboring family provided the space, the Internet access I used, and additional support for my training,” Elder Regacho said. Called to serve in the Philippines Butuan Mission, his virtual MTC training showed him that God does provide a way to accomplish His commandments through other people’s kindness and generosity.
When asked what he learned most from his online training experience, he shared, “Everything will not go as I had planned, but the main purpose of MTC training can still be performed.”
His district mate, Sister De Sesto from Aguilar Philippines District in Pangasinan, echoed the same thoughts. She said, “I may not be at the MTC for real, but as I prepared myself as best I could to find each little spark of good every single day of my training, I knew and felt that the Spirit was evident, helping and guiding me.”
Sister De Sesto, called to serve in the Philippines Davao Mission, saw her virtual training experience as a faith-builder rather than an obstacle. “To be trained online was not the expectation of many,” she said. “But this was perhaps the way our Father in Heaven had set to test our faith and patience.”
And faith and patience, along with obedience, were what the missionaries learned as they faced distractions, technological issues, and communication gaps.
Nevertheless, the missionaries were not the only ones learning from this online training. Family members, local Church leaders, teachers, and even neighbors learned more about service when they pledged their support to make the virtual MTC training a success.
Each time a missionary attended a class instruction, there were behind-the-scene stories of faith, charity, and generosity of the people involved. At the heart of the success of the first virtual MTC training were hours of daily walks to reach the chapel, of Church members welcoming fellow Latter-day Saints whom they just met in their homes, of sharing of Internet connection, and of buying prepaid Internet data even when the family budget was tight.
Indeed, the virtual MTC training had brought out the best in the renowned Filipino custom, Bayanihan, a practice of communal unity, work, and cooperation to achieve a goal. In missionary service, that common goal is to “Invite others to come unto Christ by helping them receive the restored gospel through faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement, repentance, baptism, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end.”
More Blessings than Challenges
At first, the missionaries had mixed reactions about the virtual missionary training. While many were excited, some were also disappointed.
Sister Rivera, for example, had been looking forward all her life to the traditional MTC experience. “I really wanted to have a physical MTC training experience, so at some point, I was sad and kind of disappointed,” she confessed.
However, Sister Rivera, assigned to serve at the Philippines Cagayan de Oro Mission, saw the beauty of online training and its added perks. “I realized that our batch will be the pioneers of this unique training, so it made me excited at the same time. Through virtual MTC training, my family relationship also became stronger.”
Elder Pengoy, on the other hand, learned to be more obedient and disciplined. He said, “I’ve learned to obey [the missionary] rules even when I’m alone. I’ve also learned to use my time wisely and use technology the right way.” Elder Pengoy will serve in the Philippines Urdaneta Mission once the travel ban is lifted.
According to Jovanne Al Lopez, Philippines MTC Manager of Training and Operations, receiving training at home can be a challenge. “It takes a true disciple to be at home, in an environment where, most often, you are the only missionary. Yet you follow the standards for missionaries,” he explained.
The first batch of virtually trained missionaries like Elder Pengoy and many others attested that this unique training experience made them learn beyond the curriculum, particularly about the true essence of discipleship.
MTC teachers were also recipients of the blessings of the virtual training. Roselyn Batan, a returned missionary, shared about how her online interactions with the missionaries made her a better disciple of Christ.
“Having witnessed the faith and sacrifices of these young missionaries helped me to develop a greater love for others and for missionary work.”
Spanish-speaking Instructor Melody Borja’s eyes were also opened to new possibilities of missionary work. “The virtual MTC Training made us witness and realize that the Lord’s work of salvation can go further even in a sudden pandemic season. It also provided a unique opportunity for us to learn and to grow,” she said.
The missionary work of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Philippines and in other parts of the world will continue through every possible means.
The virtual training, although new and unfamiliar, is no less than the face-to-face training at missionary training centers. The means for training may have changed, but the same principles of face-to-face training govern the virtual training. They are equal in magnitude.
“Through the virtual MTC, we are not just teaching missionaries online, but we are teaching them how to teach online,” said Lopez.
As the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic persists, online training, proselytizing, and gospel teaching remain to be the best options available to continue the missionary work.