10 May 2011

Obtaining a Visa

About a week after a missionary receives his or her call from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, another lovely piece of correspondence arrives. This is where the fun really begins. Be watching for this paperwork. When you are headed to Brazil, it will have the following items inside:

  • Master Letter--this is going to be your Iron Rod. Except when it's not. So don't lose it. Don't even breathe on it. It's that important. It has an interesting due date on it which we will discuss momentarily.
  • A list of the Secretaries of State for all 50 states and various provinces, and their contact information--This is also important. Calling them is excellent if you have any questions. If you get stuck at any point and you hit a dead end, someone in one of those offices should be able to help you.
  • Pre-addressed envelope for mailing your documents to the Church travel office
  • 2 Visa applications--to be filled out according to the instructions on the letter (requires passport)
  • Blank Curriculum Vitae Form
  • Blank Seminary Graph letter
  • Blank Seminary Certificate form
  • Yellow (well, mine was yellow) Information sheet
  • Flight information--this information assumes you will be leaving for the Brazil MTC, so it is subject/likely to change

I tend to panic in situations where I'm totally unfamiliar with what is expected of me--especially when, upon discovering the expectations, I discover that I am ill-equipped to meet them. I mention this because my first moment of unadulterated terror struck me as soon as I read the date on my Master Letter by which all of my documents needed to be received.

The date printed on the letter reads 12 April 2011. That date has been whited out with a white out strip, and has MAR 14 2011 stamped over it.

I didn't have a passport. Those documents were not going to be received by MAR 14 2011. That was the first of many panic attacks induced by the contents of my visa packet, and it had been in my possession for less than two minutes.

So, I called the Church travel office contact enclosed with my visa packet. After a brief conversation, I discovered that I could send the documents in two batches, arranged as follows:

First mailing: These documents can be completed once you have your passport and sent directly to the Church travel office.
  • Passport
  • 2 completed visa applications, with passport photo attached to each
  • 2 additional passport photos [NOTE: 4 passport photos at Wal Mart are about $14]
  • 2 copies of your birth certificate
  • Yellow information sheet
This information MUST be received as soon as possible. This information allows the Church travel office to begin negotiating your visa, while you complete the rest of your documents.

Second mailing: These documents must go through your state's State Department before they can be sent to the Church travel office
  • Notarized AND authenticated seminary certificate
  • Notarized AND authenticated seminary graph letter
  • Notarized AND authenticated Curriculum Vitae form
  • *Notarized AND authenticated Police clearance letter* (This document is a complicated exception, which will be discussed shortly)
You see above that two of these documents require you to have gone to seminary. If you are a convert like me and you never finished seminary, call your Church travel office contact as soon as possible. They will ask you if you've attended institute. If your answer, like mine, is also "No," I hope for your sake that you went to BYU and attended religion classes. My Church contact arranged for the Church Education System to make a seminary certificate for me based on my BYU religion classes. She negotiated my certificate with the Brazilian consulate and I haven't thought about it since.

Moral of the story: Go to seminary! If you don't, you might regret it some day.

For the Curriculum Vitae and the seminary graph letter, they must be notarized and authenticated. This can be done in your local circuit courthouse. If they don't know where to direct you, ask for the licensing department. Notarizing is around $2 a document, and authentication is somewhere around $3. Mail these to your state's Secretary of State, with a letter which tells them you're going to Brazil. Call ahead to check what they charge per document, and include a check or money order for that amount. Also include a stamped and pre-addressed envelope so they can forward your documents to the Church travel office. The Master Letter gives you that address.

The last piece of paperwork included in the visa packet has been the most difficult for me to complete because no one I spoke to understood what I was talking about. This is partially because police clearance letters are obsolete in the state of Maryland, but mostly because most people are born, raised, and die in this town. The line of people trying to do what I'm doing is not long. I'm not only the first one in my family, I'm one of the first in my community--probably the only one

Suffice it to say, a police clearance letter is a background check. This link from the U.S. State Department explains the old method, as well as the new. Getting a police clearance letter was a similar process to getting the other documents notarized and authenticated. The instructions included on the Master Letter in the visa packet assumes that this is what you will do, so I'm not going into it.

In Maryland, the local and state police don't provide criminal record checks for international travel. Background checks are performed through the Criminal Justice Information Services Division of the FBI.

What's the difference? For me, it was a drive to a suburb of Baltimore in the rain, a $38 $39 fee, and a 15 day wait for paperwork that I have no idea what to do with once it comes to my house. Yet another speed bump on the road in a journey which was never meant to BE a road trip. The trigger to a breakdown, an existential crisis when the directions I was given won't actually take me directly where I need to go.

I--gasp--might actually have to work through my own problems with revelation and common sense.

I say that in light-hearted jest, but I'm not going to lie. In that jest is a microscopic portion of genuine dismay that I have to "figure it out." It's comparable to how I felt when I realized my father had let go of the back of my bicycle when he was teaching me to ride it. The betrayal I felt in that moment was very real, although perfectly unreasonable. I'm pretty sure there was an element of spite to it when I immediately crashed into the neighbor's car--as if to say, Bet you won't do that again. Who do you think you are, letting me go like that?

But there comes a point where Heavenly Father's help becomes counter-productive. He can tell me what to do, He can show me, repeat Himself, give me training wheels, and even steady me and stand beside me. But if I'm ever going to master a skill, I have to do it without His help. That independence isn't a step away from Him because I'm developing skills and coordination which make me more like Him, with a greater capacity to glorify His name.

In the truest imaginable sense, I have to be without Him in order to be with Him.

Remembering that as I've been working on my visa packet hasn't been easy. I've experienced my share of pain and despair in life, and my experience with my visa packet doesn't rank with those. It would be melodramatic to even think it. But it has easily been among the deeply frustrating seasons of my life. This hasn't been a simple matter of filling out some forms and dealing with unhelpful people and lots of confusion. If it were that simple, I could've laughed my way through it like I do everything else.

But this was different. The internal opposition I faced was nearly tangible as it weighed upon my soul, and it has been my constant companion these long weeks. It feels like a literal weight upon my back, making it harder to feel joy or keep a healthy perspective as I'm accustomed to keeping. I've felt weak and disoriented, unsure and self-conscious--feelings which I can usually work through without much effort.

To be deeply burdened by something so simple as paperwork--that isn't normal for me. That was the most unexpected part of this entire process--how much I would struggle in a private war against unseen foes. With each piece of paperwork I complete, I draw closer to my goal, and it feels like the standard is raised each step of the way. The internal fight becomes more bitter, the external opposition more obvious. And what has really solidified this as one of the most deeply frustrating periods of my life is how small an impact anything I do seems to have on that struggle.

What I'm learning from that--paradoxically, I'll add--is to rid myself of the assumption that I always have to do more to be better. Right now, the only way I'm going to grow spiritually and accomplish what I really need to do is to do less. Moderation is the name of the game from here on out.

Moderation requires a yielding spirit--a heart that listens for and recognizes the counsel of the Lord continually. I could help myself a lot if I got rid of a couple of projects I'm working on presently. I have expectations attached to them, which make them hard for me to give up. But expectations are like opinions--sometimes they're just garbage and the best thing to do is get rid of them.

I think I should spend some time counseling with the Lord on how to get rid of ridiculous expectations I have of myself. I've always been hard on myself, and now is the time to stop. Especially now that I'll be going through the temple and I'm going to put my soul on the line for this work, I need to be willing to do exactly as I'm told--no more, no less.

Even though I have felt the bitterness of my separation from God, I know that the Lord has been with me throughout this learning process. He has helped me and guided me, never truly leaving me to my own devices, but giving me just enough freedom to learn and to truly grow. I love Him dearly, and I'm so grateful for His kindness. His mercy is so abundant, and I would be nothing without His patience. I know the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is His restored church, from whom the blessings of the restored gospel flow. I'm grateful for the opportunity I have to serve the Lord in the capacity of a missionary, and I'm excited to moving ever closer to the day I leave for Brazil.

I bear my witness in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen

06 May 2011

Disbelieving Joseph Smith: A Foolish Attempt

If I were a farm boy in the early 1800s with the equivalent of a third grade education—if I wanted to make up a religion and found a church to intentionally deceive people—I would keep my lie as simple as possible.

I wouldn’t have the education or the insight to write a historical narrative that synthesizes dozens of religious narratives spanning over a thousand years. I wouldn’t be able to create a record full of Semitic complexity, consistent in its language and content with ancient Jewish culture. And I certainly wouldn’t make up a book that leads--no, commands--people to a deeper study of the Bible, especially not the prophecies of Isaiah. If I were a liar, it’d be too easy to see it in comparison to such a powerful witness of Jesus Christ. And under no circumstances whatsoever would I teach people about the Holy Ghost. It would cause people to ask of God if my teachings were true. God would reveal the truth of it unto them, and if I were a liar I would be out of a job.

If I were Joseph Smith and I were trying to deceive people, I wouldn’t have written anything like the Book of Mormon. Not because it is a lie and my conscience would compel me against it—but because it is too true, too historically complex, too focused on bringing people to Jesus Christ through the combined testimonies of too many honest men. The Book of Mormon teaches too much of revelation—a volatile force that depends on truth and communication with the Source of all truth—to be a reliable source of manipulation and control.

If anything, this book—which encourages its readers to seek a testimony of it exclusively from God Himself—is the antithesis of manipulation and control.

The only thing more foolish than disbelieving the Book of Mormon because of Joseph Smith is to disbelieve Joseph Smith because of the Book of Mormon.

Quite frankly there are simpler, more dishonest ways to tell a lie.

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