The São Paulo Missionary Training Center
SAO PAULO -- The young men are wearing white shirts and dark ties.
They and the nicely dressed young women are carrying scriptures.
Many of them can be seen studying. Others talk quietly or play hacky-sack in a courtyard.
At dinnertime, the Wednesday night menu is pizza, and the soda machines are busy.
Brazilian missionaries at the Sao Paulo training center have finished dinner in the cafeteria and are headed to evening classes.
These young people are Mormon missionaries at the Centro de Treinamento Missionario de Sao Paulo -- the Sao Paulo Missionary Training Center, or CTM -- and the scene would likely be similar to the Missionary Training Center in Provo.
But there are some differences.
The busy street on which the Sao Paulo center is located is full of small businesses and shops -- many painted in bright colors.
The drinks in the center's cafeteria have different names: the national Brazilian soft drink Guarana (both regular and no-sugar), agua com gas (water that's carbonated) and such juices as passion fruit and mango.
The dominant language heard in the Sao Paulo hallways is Portuguese.
The Brazilian missionaries stay less time because they're serving "stateside" missions.
"The Brazilians don't need to learn Portuguese," said Elder Vernon Christopherson, executive secretary of the center.
For that reason, the center's missionary districts are either all Brazilian or all North American. And their Sunday meetings are done in their native languages -- Portuguese or English.
Elder Christopherson, of Orem, Utah, served a mission to Brazil from 1961 to 1963 and is back here with his wife, Jerry, as a senior missionary couple. They will return to the United States in March.
With room to accommodate 646 missionaries, the center is second in size only to the one in Provo. But in mid-January, there were only about 50 missionaries there; last October, there were close to 400. The problem was visas for North American missionaries called to Brazil.
"We're not receiving many (missionaries) from the United States now," Elder Christopherson said then.
That situation has now improved.
Jose Pecanha, a training supervisor, stands near a painting of Christ in the center's front entrance.
Jose Pecanha, a center training supervisor who has worked here for 3 1/2 years, said in an e-mail that as of Feb. 14, there were 132 Brazilians and 75 North Americans training there.
When the North American missionaries do arrive, they come in at different levels of missionary experience because many have spent time in U.S. missions while awaiting their visas.
In a January meeting with former missionaries who were touring Brazil, Elder Christopherson shared information about the Centro de Treinamento.
When new missionaries arrive, he said he likes to quote President James E. Faust, who served in Brazil, about the two kinds of missionaries -- those who have calls to Brazil and those who wish they did.
Elder Christopherson said Brazil is "the second nation of the church" because of the number of faithful Melchizedek Priesthood holders. "The power and knowledge of priesthood holders are equal to those in the United States," he said. And São Paulo, a city of 22 million people and more than 20 stakes, "is a wonderfully dynamic place to be."
The Centro de Treinamento has basketball and volleyball courts, peaceful interior courtyards with lush tropical landscaping and a small indoor track -- 14 laps make a mile.
Missionaries attend classes, of course, including those for doing role plays and practicing door approaches. They are recorded on videotape so they can watch their performances and learn from them. There's also a room set aside for one-on-one teaching so they can get more experience and special help as needed.
The missionaries also get a crack at real proselyting while at the center.
A church van takes them to a downtown street -- usually Paulista Avenue, one of the city's busiest streets -- and they do street contacts to pedestrians. Or they might just go to a street in the center's neighborhood and do cold contacting there.
"The U.S. missionaries are terrified to do it (the first time because of the new language)," Elder Christopherson said.
North American missionaries at the center have the proselyting experience twice during their stay, while Brazilian missionaries do it once because of their shorter stay.
There's also a temporal component to their time at the center.
"Everybody is expected to do service," he said.
Missionaries mop floors, polish the furniture, run the vacuum cleaner and pick up litter on neighborhood streets.
The Centro de Treinamento Missionario de Sao Paulo has room for 646 missionaries.
They also go to the Sao Paulo Temple -- a little more than 10 miles from the center -- almost every week. Some of the trips used to be to the temple in Campinas, about 60 miles northwest of Sao Paulo.
"We have cut back on expenses," Elder Christopherson said, "and it's a great blessing to have the temple so close."
Pecanha, who served in the Brazil Rio de Janeiro Mission and is now studying international relations at Faculdades Integradas Rio Branco, said working at the center is "the best job someone can get. Here you're surrounded by incredible young men and women of the church, not only because of the missionaries but also because of the other teachers who live in a high moral standard and are always willing to (improve) their lives."
For him, the best part of working at the CTM "is to see how committed the missionaries are to the work and how the church, through the gospel principles, can help us have a higher vision about the world and about our purpose in life. ... When I see a missionary crying, because he or she is having a hard time learning the language, or learning a lesson topic, or acquiring patience or any of the Christlike attributes, I think about what the gospel has brought to them and to their family. I wish each member of the church could see how engaged they are to this work."
Pecanha said another favorite part of his experience is seeing the missionaries after they've completed their missions.
"It's mesmerizing to see how much they grew and how they learned how to love the culture and the people they've served. We see after that they learn how to become leaders. It catches my attention because I have an impression that our countries don't strive to make leaders anymore but followers, and through the mission they learn how to think by themselves as they learn the gospel."
Elder Christopherson said that despite the language differences, the North American and Brazilian missionaries have no trouble integrating.
"I don't know of a friendlier people than Brazilians," he said.
And the smiles of the missionaries -- whether Brazilian or North American -- are a large part of a universal language.
By Robert Walsh
Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2010