Interview: Claire (Sorella) Bradford, Returned Missionary

Claire, our daughter, returned just three weeks ago from eighteen months of full-time service as a volunteer representative for our church in Italy. Taking some liberties here by ignoring my usual separation of church-and-blog, I want to report on her experience. I’ve captured her attention for a whole afternoon, and the following is a frank and detailed interview about her experience.

If you have any questions––any questions––Claire will respond to them here in the comment thread. Please don’t hold back: ask away! She will do her best to respect your sincere curiosity. As you’ll see, she’s used to answering all sort of questions. (And if for some reason you want this whole transcript in Italian, we do aim to please.)

Rome, St.Peter's Basilica, Sorella Bradford and one of her mission companions

Rome, St.Peter’s Basilica, Sorella Bradford and one of her mission companions

Claire, tell us about your decision to serve as a full-time missionary for your church.

I think I kind of always grew up thinking I would go on a mission. I’d always planned on it, and since both my parents went, it seemed like a logical thing to do. I prayed about the decision, talked to a lot of returned missionaries to hear about their experiences, and then knew it was something I had to do.

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You say, “had to do.” Did you feel pressure?

Well, yes, sort of. Maybe. There was one point, yes. I remember coming back from Tanzania, [where I had spent a semester working as a volunteer assistant warden at a juvenile detention center for boys] and not being sure at that moment if going on a mission was the right thing for me, at least not right then.  I voiced that hesitancy, and I think it surprised you and Dad.  So it made me think. You really hoped I’d have this experience.

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Can you describe the difference between your service in Tanzania and what you did in Italy?

Missionary work of the sort I did in Italy is not about working in orphanages, shelters, detention centers or building huts, digging wells. There are missions of my church meant just for that, for doing humanitarian work. They are all over the world and they do much good. But Italy was completely different, except for the fact that you’re giving 100% of your time to a cause bigger than you are, to something that should help others. As was the case with my Tanzania service, there’s really no quantifiable “gain” from going on a mission, except, I guess, that you could put in on a CV if you wanted to. But that was not my motivation, not at all. And I gained more than one could ever write up on a CV.  Also, I thought my internship in Tanzania would help me on mission.  But the work in Tanzania was different from what I did in Italy.

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You chose to go to Tanzania. But did you choose to serve in Italy?

Right. I chose one, the other was an assignment. If you’d asked me beforehand where I wanted to serve a mission, Italy would have been toward the top of the list. But I never told anyone. I kept that hope a secret. It was one of the places I wanted to go, and not every single missionary gets that answer or feeling right away that their location assignment is right. I remember that I’d prayed about it, and thought, well, I’m studying Humanities at university, and I don’t know if studying Humanities is the right thing, or the most practical thing, so it would be nice if getting my mission assignment would be an indication that my studies were heading in the right direction.  But I opened up that letter and ecco, Rome, Italy!  So, yeah, I realized that I should be studying Humanities. But I read that first line [ from the letter a missionary gets, declaring the mission assignment for 18 or 24 months] and the thing that got me emotional was not that I was called to Italy specifically, but that I would be called as a missionary. Period.

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Was Italy as a culture anything like what you had imagined it would be?

In some ways, yes. I’d lived in West European countries, I knew many cultural aspects of Latin Europe. There weren’t any big surprises, like I wasn’t surprised, as some other American missionaries were, maybe, that Italians built their cities up on hills, that there were strong and distinct dialects, huge 4-hour long meals, stuff that looked sometimes a bit chaotic. Most things for me were not that shocking. What was actually surprising was how much I loved Italy more than any other culture I’d ever lived in. I didn’t expect anything to pass up France or Norway or others places I grew up. Yet I felt so connected so quickly.

Ribs, anyone?

Ribs, anyone?

What do you ascribe that to?

I wonder if it’s the fact that I was serving 100% of the time while I was living there. I loved the people so much. Their quirks (others missionaries on occasion would criticize these things), just all made so much sense to me. They were endearing! They are such a loving people, but they didn’t feel fake or salesy or superficial.  When they trust you, they bring you into their home and treat you like their own child. They are extremely loyal and passionate and yes, some things they do don’t always make sense to outsiders. Look, it’s not really a country run on practicality, hyper organization, some mathematical spreadsheet. It is a culture that is driven by a love for the arts and architecture, painting, the language, the food, passion. And not passion of a sexual nature. How do I say it? There’s a HEAT. Italian culture runs on HEAT. Fluid, flowing, warm and Mediterranean heat. It’s not uptight or antiseptic. It’s more like doing yoga instead of doing punishing crunches and push-ups.

Palermo at night

Palermo at night

Roman countryside

Roman countryside

Gelato

Gelato

So, was a mission anything like what you had imagined it would be?

No. I think I thought the things that made me a good university student would make me a good missionary. I think I thought, okay, I’m organized, task-oriented, goal-driven, I’m good at getting things done, I’m a hard worker, I’m a rule-keeper.  I thought those qualities would make me a good missionary. In school, I could master the system. I could control it. At university, if you do this and this and work really hard, you will have success. You can get a certain grade. It was a straightforward formula. But I don’t think any missionary can ever say they have “gotten” or “mastered” the work.  No missionary ever “masters” it. You don’t master some formula then you can do anything, and you learn very quickly that that’s not at all the reality. Some missionaries are great with language, some are gifted socially, some are deep and sincere, but none of that can control other people’s lives. Nothing you do can control how people will act or react to your message about religion, especially about Christ. I wasn’t expecting that.

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So that sounds hard, not being able to see quantifiable results even from a lot of effort. Can you share other things that were hard?

Being tired emotionally and physically. You want to give your best, and sometimes you want to be all there, but you are totally exhausted. I felt limited by my energy. It is hard to constantly be thinking about other people, all day long. Not just the people you are teaching and working for, but also the people you are working with. If you are in a leadership and training position like I was, ( for many months I trained missionaries newly arrived from America), you have to be thinking about a lot of other missionaries and their needs. That can be exhausting, though always rewarding, with time. Also, it is hard to follow all the rules.

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Please tell us about the rules of being a missionary.

Well, I just mentioned that Italy is a culture run by heat. But as a missionary, you can’t get too close to people either with the language or in touch. In European languages, like Italian, you have the formal and informal form [the lei form and the tu form]. As a missionary, you are supposed to only use the formal form, although in some missions with other languages you can use informal form. To keep relationships professional and to guard an emotional distance (important as a missionary) you’re asked to be formal, socially distanced. Spiritually close, but socially distanced, if that makes sense.  All you want to do is love them, and for me, especially in the south where I served on the island of Sicily for many months, it felt sometimes strained and unnatural to be in such a warm and loving environment but hold my arms at my side.  Not hugging my many friends was hard for me, but the rule was to help me remember the dignity of my calling.  I said to myself more than once, “For the sake of my name tag I will restrain myself.”

During your mission only platonic relationships are allowed. That goes for interaction with those interested in your message, members of the church, other missionaries you work with. There can be no romances, no dating, no flirting, no interactions beyond the strictly professional. Friendships are very encouraged. But they have to be wisely balanced, keeping things non-romantic. This encourages an environment of mutual support and safety and total focus on your work.

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Some rules were a challenge, but I understand that not all rules were hard for you. What else was not hard?

Italian wasn’t really terribly hard for me. I had to study, but I was lucky that I loved to study, and I love languages, and that I loved, loved, loved Italian more than any language I had ever learned. I even loved the grammar. (I’d hated French grammar.) But Italian grammar! I’d sit and look at grammar book for hours and hours. I became known as the Queen of Conjunctivo. (or the subjunctive case).

Being away from family was not so hard. Italians would always ask, “How long have you been here? Don’t you miss your family?” The very idea of not being with family for 18 months was shocking to them. They live at home for 30 or 40 years, sometimes. Much more immediate family cohesion than I’d seen elsewhere, especially in the US where people move apart from parents early on. Not in Italy!

Not being paid was not a problem. Not dating, not going to movies, concerts, not reading the newspapers or literary books, not surfing the Internet. That wasn’t really that hard, neither was keeping a strict daily schedule . . .

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Strict schedule?

As a missionary, you’re required to be up at 6:30 a.m. to exercise until 7:00, then to do different kinds of study (alone and as a companionship) until you leave the house at 10:00. Then you leave the house and work until 1:00.  Then you have lunch and language study until early afternoon, then you are working (out on the streets talking with people, or visiting and teaching people in their homes, and we also taught a popular English course) until 8:00. From 8:00 until 9:00 pm, you have dinner, then until 10:30 you study again and go to bed.

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Sounds regimented. And this was every day except Sunday, 18 months straight? When did you relax?  And visit the Vatican?

Every missionary has something called a preparation day, or P-Day. In my companionships, we spent very few P-Days inside, just lounging. Sometimes, we did a spa day.  We soaked our feet, did facials, painted our nails, got our hair cut.  Most often, though, we went to interesting cultural sites, went food and/or clothes shopping. In all of this, we always wore our name tags. We’d called it a tourist P-Day, but we always wore our name tag, so we could be identified and so we acted the part.

Missionaries on their preparation day

Missionaries on their preparation day

How about never being alone, and always being with a companion you did not choose, but were assigned to?

Oh, that was okay. I served with 9 different Sorelle [sister missionaries] including when I was in the Missionary Training Center.

You didn’t know anyone of these young women before being assigned to work with them?

No, not a one. That’s hard for some people, I guess, but it was not hard for me, although I had prized my alone time before becoming a missionary. I’d had my own room at university, my own car, I was a very independent person and loved doing things my own way.  But I can count on one hand the times in my mission when I needed to sit alone on a little balcony in one of our little mission apartments.

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You lived in how many places/apartments?

I lived in three different apartments, three different cities, two different zones. I lived in Ragusa (Sicilia), Roma 3 (Roma), and Palermo (Sicilia).

And you trained missionaries, right?

“Trained”: You get a brand new missionary that has to be taught the ropes and the language. Yes, I trained four different new missionaries, new “greenies” they are called.

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What did it mean to be an STL?

A Sister Training Leader is an assignment given by the mission president. It means having responsibility for the emotional needs of the various sisters under your stewardship. There is a chain of command within a mission, and it is so stressful being the president of a mission (in our mission alone covering all of southern Italy, there were almost 200 young missionaries. You can imagine the needs that keep coming to the President and his wife.) So, the missions are divided into zones and zones are broken into districts. District and Zone leaders try to handle what needs arise, but if it can be dealt with on local level, (homesickness, language frustrations, health concerns, problems with a companion) you can do what you can as a Sister Training Leader to influence that part of the mission. Sister missionaries would sometimes call the president asking for help, and the Mission President would ask me to take care of it. He would say, “Sorella Bradford, you’re my ‘guy’ for this issue, okay?”  I served in this capacity for 9 months, so the whole second half of my mission.

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What did you learn from sharing messages about Jesus Christ?

(Long silence. Thinking, thinking…)

I found that a lot of people had a kind of memorized or scripted concept of God or an impersonal relationship with Christ. Not that I am any better than anyone else, but it really struck me that few understood that Christ was their personal Savior. They’d  heard things, maybe, from their parents, from school, from sermons, or rumors from grandparents, some truthful but some untruthful things, that they had heard and  memorized.  How many times did I hear, “I’m devoutly religious and I practice my faith,” but in a deeper conversation about the New Testament, for instance, this good person had little idea about Christ’s life, His miracles, parables, they had based their belief, it seemed, on a cultural norm or tradition, but hadn’t gotten much deeper than that.  Then I think we surprised them. They were taken aback that a young foreigner believed in Christ and would then express these very personal feelings about Him.

What did you learn further about teaching others about faith?

To teach simply. Especially going straight on a mission from college. There was a bit of a temptation to use complicated words and teach complex concepts and just blow people out of the water with major gospel knowledge. But the best lessons were when there was a conversation and we spoke simply.  Then I felt something powerful and special. We all did.

Claire and Martina

Claire and Martina

Can you give an example of teaching and having that special thing happen?

Martina. Normal, Roman through-and-through. Married. It was amazing from the very beginning. It was incredible to see someone so prepared for what we had to teach her. She had zero previous knowledge of or background of the church, she had no concept of certain doctrines. She was just, oh what’s the word, someone so normal, just a very normal woman who had some normal human questions and needed someone to just explain certain things, and she did her own research, and came to church and loved it. She was, ah!, incredible, It was incredible to see her progress and learn and become happier. Honestly, I went out of every lesson thinking, WOW.

As missionaries, we want to serve and help anyone who will listen to our message to live happier, more stable and productive lives, have happier families, better health, all that. When they progress and desire more, then we invite them to be baptized. When we invited Martina, she said yes. Her husband, who said no at first, later changed his mind and now both have become members of that congregation in Rome.

How are they doing?

Incredibly.  They are the strongest members in that little congregation.  I’m going to go see them next month. (Big smile. Little squeal.) I hope I know them forever.

Martina at her baptism

Martina at her baptism

Sounds like you miss it. A lot. Was it hard to come home, back to civilian life? Um…to…us?

Yeah. It’s hard to be home. A mammoth let down. For a lot of reasons. I had developed a strong identity that I don’t feel I brought back from my mission. It’s hard for me to be feeling like I’m not the person I was. I can’t demonstrate that I was a responsible leader in my mission, that I was entrusted with decision-making power by my president, I also feel far less on-the-go; the next day as a missionary was always planned and full, now that structure is gone. I really miss a culture that is loud and spontaneous, and so I feel a little lost, floating. I was so needed as a missionary. And so challenged. And I had so many people to love, who needed me.

Even if you’re busy at home doing all sort of good things, nothing will compare to the importance of the world you were in as a missionary. I just loved watching people change all the time. That is a satisfaction I’ve never experienced  doing anything else. It’s just such a dense spiritual experience, and life feels. . . a little superficial right now.

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Is this why you wanted it to last longer?

Yes. I begged to stay longer. But to tell the truth, I was so exhausted in the end. I don’t think the body or the mind is made to live with such intensity permanently. Still, maybe two years would have been the best for me.

If I can insert myself, Claire, I’ve often told you and others that the greatest blessings of my life have flowed from my opportunity to have served a full-time mission (in Austria in the ‘80’s.) The person I married, what I studied in undergrad and graduate school, where and how we have raised our children. Can you speak to that?

No question, this mission will have a huge impact on the rest of life. I can’t say from here what the long-range blessings will be, I can speak in theory. I want to live at some point again in Europe, probably Italy and probably long-term, not just a vacation or semester, but live there. That is my dream.  I won’t use Italian in my remaining two semesters of university, but I have no idea how it will affect my masters studies. For sure, I’ve gained countless life skills, tons and tons of life skills. What I hope is that my mission refined my good qualities, and showed me weaknesses I didn’t know I had. I feel like you can’t go through a process like a mission without being transformed.

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And since coming home as a transformed person. . . you have been keeping weekly email contact with another missionary still serving in Italy, someone you met at the very end of your service. Am I right?

Yes.

Can you ––?

Um. . . This is all new, so I am still not sure of how to––

Would you care to­––?

Let’s just say it’s pretty serious.

But can you tell us about hi––?

He is incredible. He is Italian. And I am committed.

Sounds like it.

(Interviewer and interviewee smile.)

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Any last thoughts?

It is not easy approaching people all the time, trying in the very few seconds you have to convey all of the joy and love you have for this gospel, for the message you are sharing. It is not easy watching people make great steps in their lives, seeing people make such progress, seeing them be happier, and then letting it all go. Letting all of it completely go. It is so hard watching that, and knowing that our job is not to force anyone, not to convince them. So you don’t. That is up to them and their God. You try and communicate why you love your mission, why you love what you are doing, and hope that they will feel that love. All of that difficulty is worth it, however. I have found my best friends in my mission. Some are missionaries, some are members of our Church, but not all of them. I have incredible friends that, for some reason or another, decided to not take our lessons, or decided to not be baptized members of our Church. But I love them so much anyway. You just get to be part of all that love, and it is so rewarding. So worth it.

 From an address Claire gave at a recent youth evening, where she spoke about her mission:

“Many of our missionaries begin their missions thinking they are going to repay Heavenly Father for His goodness toward them by serving Him for 18 months or two years.  But before long they learn an important eternal truth: you can never do more for the Lord than He can do for you.”

––M. Russell Ballard

My Daughter And The Mafia: 10 Reasons I Love My Church’s Missionary Program

Ragusa, Sicily.  Find it on a map, and you see it’s not even part of Italy’s proverbial boot.  Not even the boot’s toe. It’s more like the southernmost point on the underside of some clot kicked westward by the toe of that boot.  As far south as you can possibly go without hitting ocean and swimming as fast as you can to Malta.

Like any fleeing Mafioso.

Solreela Bradford and her group fo missionaries, learning Italian in the Missionary Training Center

Sorella Bradford and her group of fellow missionaries, learning Italian in the Missionary Training Center

Little, quiet hilltop Ragusa is reputedly Italian Mafia headquarters, where the narrow streets seem eerily tame.  That is, except when the ticked-off fruit vendor and irritated barber yell at each other in Sicilian (the region’s spicy dialect), and their insults ricochet off walls like bundles of barbed wire tumbling and scratching away at the dusty limestone.

This is where our daughter Claire (aka Sorella Bradford) earned her Sicilian stripes by beginning her full-time voluntary service as a Mormon missionary. It’s from here that she sent weekly letters that describe missionary life as it is: challenging, educational, humbling, exhilarating, hilarious, rough, purifying. Work.

Sorella Bradford and her first companion, Sorella Dall

Sorella Bradford and her first companion, Sorella Dall

Today I’m particularly grateful for the work of people like Claire.  For the past two months, we’ve had missionaries (who’ve served here in Switzerland, who’ve served in Italy, Finland, Japan, the U.S.) and their families visiting in our home.  Our conversations have revolved often around lessons learned, lives changed and reservoirs of gratitude filled for the life-altering work missionary service can be.

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So before Wednesday comes – the day when we exchange our weekly emails with our missionary – I’m listing 10 (of the 100) reasons why I love that Claire, recently transferred to Rome, has taken 18 moths off of university studies to serve her God and His good Italian people.

10 REASONS I LOVE MISSIONS

1- Missionaries are expected to live within the world (“Mom, we worked the Ragusa ghetto today, and taught English to 41 refugees tonight,”), but to hold themselves outside of what can be vulgar, trendy and materially distracting.

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2- Missionary work is about focusing on the wellbeing of others. The ego is reduced, the heart enlarged. 

3-Prolonged immersion in another culture can forever alter one’s world view. These kids learn a new language to the level of functional, fluent, and in some cases, near-native mastery. Cultural immersion can be rough, and such roughness can smooth corners of xenophobia, bigotry, lop-sided patriotism, and cultural smugness.

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4-Missionaries get to penetrate and observe the heart of any culture: the home.  Visiting homes lets young people learn at close range what works and what doesn’t in family relationships.  Some homes are models. Some are real-life cautionary tales.

5-This kind of work is rigorous training toward independence and self-motivation. Missionaries don’t simply opt out of a day of work because they’re tired or crampy or have swollen ankles.   Or if they have a bad companionship…

6-Because missionaries are always assigned to a companion (you don’t choose where or with whom you serve; these are considered sacred assignments and you learn to make the best of everything),  they learn to compromise, communicate, work as a team, and plan in tandem.  They might also learn why someone else finds them obnoxious. Great prep for any future relationship.

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7-Ever met more ridiculously optimistic young people? Missionaries, with their focus directed outside of themselves, wanting to bring joy to others, are brought on a daily basis to the sometimes painful interior of others’ lives.  And they are happy. Claire’s letters have more exclamation points than any other punctuation.  I’ve never known her so “up”, so fulfilled.

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8- Unpaid and sometimes ridiculed (“So today this lady on the bus screamed at us and tried to rip off my nametag! No one takes my TAG”), or even stoned (“They were just bored gypsy boys, Mom, but when that rock hit my companion, my tiger side kicked in”), missionaries are liberated from the natural tendency toward selfishness. At 18-22 years old, that’s a sheer miracle.

9-Right when many are sowing wild oats, testing (bucking) boundaries, deceiving parents and institutions and perfecting the popular sardonic posturing of the rising generation, missionaries are committing themselves to a life based on deep principles, high values, moral discipline, volunteer service and a world view that extends far beyond YOLO.

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10-At the heart of this all is love.  To learn to love – differences, others, God, self, truth, life, prayer, work, sacrifice, eating raw octopus, being stoned by gypsies, seeing a human heart and a whole life change – is, for me, the essence of the miracle of a mission.

In the words that ended Sorella Bradford’s last letter: I LOVE THE MISSION!!!!!…!!…!!!…!

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**

What pluses would you add to this list?

What experiences, missionary or non-missionary, have you had that have resulted in similar pluses?

What questions do you have about this whole missionary program that Sorella might answer herself?

(I’ll share this post and all your comments with Sorella Bradford. Go ahead. Write in Italian, if you wish.)