Wednesday, February 22, 2006


It's always been interesting to me to see how missionaries change after being away from home for two years. It's quite obvious that missionaries only get out of this experience what they're willing to put into it. Too often young men come home and haven't changed at all. Other times the whole ward practically needs to wear sunglasses so they aren't scorched by the returned missionary's celestial glory. I think it's safe to say most missionaries would like to come home as the latter, but how does one actually attain such a realm?

Many missionaries come out into the field with the intention of completely changing their lives, denying all their passions and becoming a robot. They lose their personality and turn into a scripture-crunching, door-knocking zombie. They get so caught up in the "work" that they forget who they are and practically give themselves stress-induced strokes.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all about the wonderful changes that happen to a young man as he leaves the security bubble of his home and turns his life over to the Lord. But God didn't call me on a mission to become a robot.

The problem with missionaries who come out and drastically change their conduct is that when they go home, they aren't in an environment which will continually motivate such behavior, and they quickly revert back to their old lifestyle.

The best missionaries are those who come out here with the intention of being completely obedient, working hard, but not denying their personalities. We're not here to change the core essence of who we are, but to refine the person that already exists. So when I get home, I don't want to be some unrecognizable weirdo. I want to be the same Sven, with a lot more experience and a closer relationship with my Maker.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


Yesterday was Valentine's Day. In a country where every single holiday ever conceived (and not conceived) is celebrated, one can only imagine the celebrating that goes on for an internationally recognized holiday closely related to the Catholic and associated Orthodox churches. Yeah, surprisingly immoral.

The events of yesterday were at once hilarious and emotionally scarring. Before dinner time my friend and I had some time to go door to door and offer a short message about our Church. We arrived on the selected apartment complex and climbed the five flights of stairs to the top floor. After the first four doors yielded no answers, we were surprised to be invited in very quickly by a 40 year-old woman in the fifth door, before we even had an opportunity to introduce who we were and what we were doing.

The woman told us to wait in the entry while she finished her phone call. I was a little confused because usually people aren't very nice about just letting us in the door like that, and I was trying to think what this woman's motives could be.

She had us come into the kitchen and she turned on some loud music. We all got acquainted and she abruptly told us she wasn't interested in our Church but she wanted us to stay for a little while and talk to her. Lonely.

We obliged and she busted out photo albums of her black and white past. She wasn't all that bad looking in her younger years, but the harsh lifestyle she had been subjected to had definitely taken its toll. Rotted brown teeth, greasy short hair and skin weathered and wrinkled by cigarettes didn't result in the most pleasing image to the eyes. She kept asking us if we thought she was beautiful in the photos, and if we thought she looked horrible now. Low self esteem.

We avoided replying to such questions and kept smiling and nodding and trying to offer her our message. She turned up the music, picked up a glass jar full of what looked like toilet water from a public restroom and took a big swig. Drunk.

She grabbed my friend's head and kissed him on the forehead. The she put her hands on both of our necks and asked us to stay a little longer. At this point of our visit we decided it was in our interest to leave. As she saw us trying to leave she desperately attempted to stop us, telling us she wanted our help. We offered her the help that comes through living the teachings of the Savior. She didn't really want that.

As we gathered our things in the entry way she backed my friend up against a wall and asked him to kiss her. Alarmed, I rushed in as her nasty puckered lips moved only inches away from his lips. I grabbed her arm, pushing her away and yelled "Woman! No!" Such is my broken Russian. After freeing my friend from her assailant she pleaded with him to give her a kiss.

"We don't do that kind of stuff," he replied.

Offended, she yelled at us, "What?! Am I a prostitute?!"

"We just don't do that kind of stuff!" he shot back.

"How do you open this door?!" I asked, frantically messing with the many knobs and buttons that are so typical of Ukrainian doors.

She opened the door for us and we exited the apartment, followed quickly by a loud four letter expletive (that rhymes with duck) and the slam of her door. Feeling somewhat violated by our lonely, drunk acquaintance with low self-esteem, we decided to go home.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


I made some negative comment about the silly traditions of these Ukrainians and their mystical frost. Yeah, I'm eating those words. I have never been so cold in my entire life.

The thermometer dipped below negative 30 degrees Celsius multiple times. The average was about negative 25 degrees Celsius. For those of you who have trouble with math, that's really really cold. Ha ha, we're talking "you-walk-outside-and-your-snot-freezes" cold. Eye-watering, eyelash-freezing paralyzing cold. It's the kinda cold that messes with your emotions - one minutes you're so incredibly angry because you can't comprehend how cold it is, and the next you're laughing because it's so absurd. Some elders heard a news report that it hasn't been this cold in 50 years here. Apparently we get all of the weather patterns straight out of Moscow, so whatever they're experiencing, we get a few days later. Last week they were reporting thousands of deaths from homeless people freezing to death. It's the kind of cold that makes people barricade their doors and turn all the stoves in the house on. It's the kind of cold that makes bread lines frantic as people dart in and out before the temperature of their blood drops. It's the kind of cold that causes all the windows on the bus to frost over, so you have to make a little hole with your finger to look outside and watch for your stop. You feel like you're in a submarine or a space shuttle. It's the kind of cold that makes elders lose their sanity. In short, it's kinda cold outside.

It seems when it's this cold the entire city sort of shuts down, except for missionary work. It's really interesting trying to tract when people absolutely refuse to open the door. It's pretty sad when your highest numbers for the week are "times fallen on the ice" and not "contact received" or "copies of the Book of Mormon given away." We've seen some pretty good falls this last week. Last night I had a pretty good one - served as a good reminder of how beautiful the stars are as I lay on my back not really wanting to get back up.

Our branch asked my companion and I to go visit an inactive family and deliver some Christmas/New Years gifts to their children. We decided to fit it in after our planning session on Friday, which ended up being one of the first days of this cold madness. This family, the Kharchenkos, live about 20 minutes on bus from us, then a 45 minute hike across farmlands. It was one of my most memorable missionary adventures thus far. We got to the end of the busline and looked at the vast expanses of frozen tundra we had to cross to get to the Kharchenkos and then asked ourselves if we were really going to do it. With a resounding "Let's go!" we charged off across the Ukrainian taiga, running as fast as we could to stay warm. I don't think it would've have been so bad if the wind wasn't blowing so hard. I really thought we'd been teleported to Siberia. An hour later we arrived at the Kharchenkos and delivered the items and tried to thaw a little before we headed back out. It was marvelous.

Graduating from Greendom

Technically, there are three conditions that make you a greenie on a mission. If you are still with your trainer, if you are in the youngest group of missionaries in the mission, or if you are still in your greenie area, you are considered a greenie. So by that definition, I'm still considered a greenie, because I have the good fortune to remain in Mariupol. But, being a greenie goes so much deeper than that.

Being a greenie means you're vulnerable, helpless and a complete fish out of water. Being a greenie means you rely on other missionaries to translate for you, that you get butterflies when you have to purchase eggs at the local grocery store and you can't remember how to put the word "egg" into the genitive plural case. Being a greenie means you spend most of your time observing other people talk while you desperately struggle to follow the conversation. Being greenie means you flat out look awkward when you walk down the sidewalk. How do I know all this so thoroughly? After four months of being a greenie I'm quite familiar with the situation. But even I forgot how hilarious greenies were until this last Friday when Mariupol was graced with another new missionary.Elder Hurst is from Bloomington, Indiana. His father is a cartographer for the government (or so he claims) so they've moved around a lot. He's 23. He has a degree in British History and wants to become a college professor. His favorite movie is Rushmore and his favorite band is the Shins (another tender mercy for Sven – remind me to relate the story another time). He's still afraid to eat the food here so he fills up on bread and cheese. And he knows basically no understandable Russian.

Basically when the new guy shows up, the old guy steps up. It's been almost miraculous how much my Russian comprehension and conversation skills have improved in the last five days. It's been a complete adjustment of perspective for me. No longer am I the youngest missionary in Mariupol, and now I have someone else who turns to me when he's completely clueless over what some baboushka just rattled off to him about the cold weather. I've noticed an shift in the branch as well, suddenly everyone talks to me like I'm a veteran missionary who actually gets this language. It's been a blast just talking with people. Last night after youth night my head actually hurt from speaking so much Russian. At first I was afraid to leave my greenie area because then people would expect more out of me, but now I realize that I'm up to it.