Excerpt from Chapter 2: Towards Europe, Part 2

At last, after a long, exhausting journey, with two airplane transfers, they arrived in Sofia. The airport boasted with modern, metal architecture. Elder Nelson took his suitcases, stopped, took a deep breath, fixed his hair, and put his missionary name tag on his jacket pocket. He curiously looked at the “Exit” sign, written in Bulgarian and confidently went towards it. It’s starting! This is it! He would spend two years of his life in Bulgaria – two of his best years. He had seen a lot of photographs from Bulgaria in the Missionary Training Center, but the feeling that he was among Bulgarians on Bulgarian ground was overwhelming. The whole group of missionaries left the arrivals lounge together. Before he could realize what was happening, elder Nelson found himself in the arms of the Mission President. Happy faces, brothers’ arms reaching, smiles, flowers, love – he could barely take the excitement. Welcome to Bulgaria! We are so happy to meet you, brothers and sisters! Come to the cars and we are going for lunch to the mission home!

The April sun was generously warming Sofia. All of the newcomers were glued to the minibus windows. The driver made the traditional, for new missionaries, tour of Sofia. Green parks, wide boulevards, smiling people, shiny shop windows, and there is even a McDonalds, oh, and a Subway – the city looked nice through the window. Oh, there is a cart with horses! Is that for fun?

In a 1-square-kilometer area there are holy houses of four religions – a synagogue, a mosque, a catholic church, and an orthodox church. Not far from there is also the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Bulgarians are used to religious variety and tolerance between different beliefs. Even though they are poor and don’t brush their teeth regularly, they are an ancient and wise nation. Anyone who has gone through the trouble to get to know their culture, art, and history, is amazed by their rich and significant 13-century-long European presence. Bulgaria is 1310 years old and while in 681 there was already a country here, in Utah, the Ute Indians thought that apart from them, there are only coyotes, wild goats and salt lakes on the land. They considered the smoking of tobacco and marijuana en masse a religious ecstasy, as well as the dancing and singing in a circle under the sun – that’s where their red faces come from too. This is the time when an ancient master was creating out of gold plates the pages of The Book of Mormon. Its burial was yet to take place.

The Mission President fatherly welcomed the new missionaries in the mission home. They talked, conducted inspiring interviews, prayed together, and had lunch. They discussed quotes from The Book of Mormon and The Bible. The President’s wife spoke to the sisters in a separate room. Everyone was assigned to serve their mission in different cities.

Elder Nelson was appointed to serve his mission in Sofia, along with elder Stephens. The latter had been on his mission in Bulgaria for over a year and was already very familiar with communicating with the locals. He also spoke fluent Bulgarian. They brought the “greenie’s” suitcases in the crumbling panel block where their apartment was; they talked about the rules, prayed and went to work. That very same evening they had a meeting with a family, which was preparing to get baptized. Today they had a discussion about tithing. It is always hard to talk about money, but this is a topic which is very straightforward and clearly explained in the gospel principles of the Church. Elder Nelson had repeatedly trained teaching that principle in the MTC. Smiling and cheerful, they turned up at the door of the Popov family. The door was opened, and the missionaries had clearly been expected. They took their shoes off, which mildly shocked elder Nelson, and they went in. It is very nice to feel the warmth in the family home of good people. The missionaries were trained to hide their feelings, but they adored visiting such families, and inside they were very happy. So happy they forgot they were hungry and didn’t eat the food they were offered. They relaxed but they were telling that only to their families in their letters, when they were writing emails in front of the computer.

The Popov family was a middle-class family, according to Bulgarian standards. Mr. Popov, around 40 years old, was working as a bus driver in the city public transport, and his wife – as a cashier in a big supermarket. They also had a daughter, Ani, who was 18. It was through her the light of the Gospel was brought to their home. After the jokes and general talk the conversation went towards today’s topic – tithing. Elder Stephens explained that the money every member of the Church decides to donate is put in an envelope and is given to the Bishop personally. He also mentioned that the size of the donation is voluntary, but it is to be no more than 10% of your personal increase.

“So, what happens later on with this money?” asked quietly Mr. Popov.

“This is holy money for God,” explained elder Stephens, “they go for the needs of His church.”

“And how does it go to God?” insisted Mr. Popov, “He’s in the heavens, isn’t he?!”

Elder Stephens smiled mysteriously and bravely said, “Here is how: The prophet along with two of his counselors gathers all the donations and goes on the roof of the temple in Salt Lake City. They start throwing the money up in the sky and say: ‘Here, Heavenly Father; this is Thy money, take it! If, however, Thou hast no need for some of it and it falls back on the ground, we will use it for the needs of Thy church on the Earth!’”

The apartment became completely silent – if a mosquito had buzzed, they would have heard it. Elder Nelson’s ears, God knows why, became red. Ani bit her lip. Her mother was staring intently first at one of the missionaries, then at the other. Then, all of a sudden, everyone busted out laughing, freely and friendly, until they were crying with laughter.

“I really like you boys! You’re great!” said the head of the family, “I want to get baptized in your Church!”

“I want to get baptized as well!” said confidently Mrs. Popov, ”I will not separate from my husband!”

“Mom, dad, can I get baptized as well?” asked Ani.

Elder Nelson could not say a word or hear anything for a moment. He could not see or feel anything. He just felt cold and at the same time was sweating. Everything around him froze silently in still, color spots. He could hear clearly only a choir of angels in the sky gloriously singing “Hallelujah, Hallelujah!” He even thought he saw them out the window for a moment. Or was it just the hanging laundry from the upper floor apartment; who knows?