For those Mormons who go through it, the missionary experience is transformative and often defining. New missionaries leave Salt Lake full of optimistic zeal. Heavy scripture study and memorization give them confidence that they can explain and defend the gospel. Intensive, total-immersion language training makes them certain that they can communicate in their new language and eventually speak with the “voice of angels.”
That confidence may deflate as soon as they get off the airplane. Missionaries walk into a cafe at Rio’s Galeão Airport wanting to show off their mastery of Portuguese, only to be reduced by an uncomprehending young server to pointing at pictures of menu items. They begin right away to learn how much they didn’t learn, and how inadequate their best efforts can be.
From the airport, newly arrived missionaries are taken to the “mission home,” the residence of the mission president and his family (mission presidents are always married, they serve for three years, and they take their families with them). There they get a quick welcome, are told where they will work first and who their “senior companions” will be (missionaries always work in pairs, a junior and a senior companion), then are loaded onto a bus and sent off into the field.