Picture this: you're 19 years old, and after two years of your Ivy League education, you leave it behind. You choose to leave behind your family, friends, and just about everything else as well. What for? For 18 months without a smartphone, no calls home except on Christmas and Mother’s Day, no TV, a head full of lice, and a daily 6:30 AM wake-up call. No days off. No breaks or sleeping in. In other words, to be a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, AKA a Mormon missionary.
If your knowledge about Mormons stems from South Park episodes, the Broadway show “The Book of Mormon,” or an NCIS episode about a creepy polygamous cult, then you might want to keep reading.
If you have heard that Mormons don't drink, don't smoke, don't have sex before marriage and don't even swear, then what you’ve heard is true. Simply put, we are Christians. We believe in Jesus Christ and in God, our Heavenly Father. What makes us a little different is that, not only do we believe in the Bible, but we also believe in the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. We also believe in modern-day prophets and eternal marriage—not just “until death do you part.” And no, we are not polygamists or a cult.
There are nearly 16 million Mormons worldwide. Here at Cornell, there’s about 20 undergrad Mormons — a whopping .001% of the undergrad population!
Thankfully, being a Mormon here at Cornell isn’t that rough for me. Most friends respect the choices I make at parties/social events (and in life in general), and I never feel pressured to live contrary to my beliefs. In fact, the biggest challenge for me was making the decision to leave everything here to spend 18 months as a missionary.
At 19 years old, I decided I wanted to serve. Missionaries can be placed abroad or in domestic locations. We don’t personally decide where we go, so you have to be prepared to go anywhere you’re needed. I was sent to Mexico. That hit a soft spot for me. Growing up, I would hear proud and heartbreaking stories of how the Mexican side of my family made it to America, the land of opportunity. I heard how my great-grandmother, whose name I carry, made the best handmade tortillas. But now, years later, and with nothing more than my blood composition to prove my heritage, I had the chance to go and finally feel a connection to part of who I am.
Over the 18 months I spent in Mexico, I ended up talking to about 8,000 people in a language I was learning on-the-go. My focus was to share and teach about the Gospel of Jesus Christ in its purest form. Outside of that, nothing else really mattered. Forget a cellphone, God is calling. Forget normal communication with your friends or family, a daughter has been missing for 15 years. Forget the Instagram posts, a boy is hurting because he's gone too far with drugs. Forget prelims, the real test is how to help a dad heal from losing his son. Forget planning weekend social events, someone has to plan how they'll have enough money to send their kids to third grade. Forget the Snapchat story uploads, you gotta use both hands to make tortillas. Forget about yourself, you're here for a bigger reason.
As a missionary, we never used our first names. We girls are called “Sister,” followed by our last name. “Hermana Osumi.” That was me. “Christa” was put away for a little while. I found true meaning in Jesus’ words when he said, “whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.”
There's nothing glamorous about serving a full-time mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, especially when you’re living in a less-developed country. We walked down every street, asking people if they would want to learn more about Jesus Christ. Doors were slammed in our face. But the miracles, the individuals who chose to accept Christ, and the personal growth, made it all worth it.
I remember a young teenage boy who had been neglected his whole life. Both of his parents were alcoholics, they were squatting in a broken-down apartment. He was told to go sell nopal (or prickly pear cactus) outside a store every day. As we sat on overturned buckets in his home and taught him about God, I felt an overwhelming sense of compassion and sympathy for this boy. He felt lost, forgotten and unloved—like he was just a mere speck on the wall. But as he learned more about God and his relationship with Him, his demeanor quickly changed. I still remember the awe-struck smile on his face when he told us how he really started to feel God’s love in is life. He began to feel like he had a purpose. He lived in a tiny town, in the middle of nowhere, far from any tourists’ eyes, full of dirt roads, and probably not even registered in Google maps. But I still remember how it felt to know in that moment with that boy, that God loves all His children, no matter their economic or social status or where they might be.
Then, it was time to come home. So here I am, starting my junior year back at Cornell. And to be honest, I’m a little scared.
When I was back in Mexico, I felt like I had finally found the rest of myself, that missing piece of my Mexican heritage. It was so familiar—the culture, the values, the dancing, the families—it was like it had been a part of me my entire life. I even started to think I was better at joking in Spanish than I was in English. I felt like I had found home. Then it was like it all just got ripped out of my hands.
Coming home was full-on culture shock. I was greeted at the airport by family and many close friends. Someone shoved a phone in my face and said, “Christa! You’re on Facebook live!” “Christa”? I hadn’t even used my first name in a year and a half. What does Facebook live even mean?!
The first month I was home, I was full of questions. “La La Land” —that’s seriously the name of a movie that came out? What’s a “Boomerang”? She’s “salty”? How can she be a flavor? Is it weird that I feel guilty for hanging out with friends instead of focusing on God’s work? And on top of all these questions, my English is crap (my sister edited this article), and I’ve forgotten basically everything about daily life here. I stared at the pump at a gas station for a solid three minutes trying to remember how it worked.
So it’s a little nerve-wracking that I must now continue an Ivy League Education. The other day, I said, “Well, that plane took off already,” instead of the phrase “that ship has sailed.” How am I going to participate in class discussions when I speak like this?!
In the end, it’s all pretty trivial—the messed-up phrases, not knowing about current trends, being super awkward in social settings—but they’re things that constantly remind me of the lessons I learned and the experiences that have made me into who I am today. Now that I’m home, it’s tough trying to balance my spiritual life with the demands of the real world, which can be deceiving and contradicting. Yet, when I think of all those heart-stirring, joyous, and life-changing moments in the tiny homes of hundreds of people in Mexico, those adventures are worth any challenge I’m facing now. I’m ready to allow this experience to influence my way of thinking, my lifestyle, my college years, my career path and relationships with others. I am so grateful for the opportunity God gave me. I am forever changed because of it.
So next time you run into Mormon missionaries, have a Mormon classmate or coworker in a future job, you’ll know a little more about who we are and what we stand for. And if you see me on campus, you’ll know why I am struggling to put a sentence together.
Cornell University class of 2019