Universal Language
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“Universal Language,” New Era, Aug. 1997, 12

Universal Language

First-Place Article

I felt like a parrot, repeating the only Spanish phrase I knew. Then I discovered a language beyond words.

“Hola, cómo estás? Hola, cómo estás?” I sounded like a broken record. Or even better, a bright, colorfully feathered parrot thrown into a Mexican restaurant where customers would shout the same phrase at it day and night, trying to get the English bird to talk back.

Last year my father was called to serve as president in the Barranquilla Colombia Mission, and for the first few weeks I really felt like that parrot. Coming to a Latin country where beautiful brown skin and short people are common, I could easily admit that my red hair, pale skin, and height of five feet, nine inches definitely made me appear out of the ordinary.

But sticking out was the least of my problems. My main concern was the language. If you hear, “Hi, how are you?” a million times in Spanish, you’re bound to catch onto the phrase sooner or later. But you can only get so far with knowing that phrase, and then what do you do?

Our family’s first Sunday in our new country soon arrived. Being filled with excitement and anticipation for the experience that awaited us, we all piled into our little Colombian station wagon and made our way toward the chapel.

We found the right building in no time. The chapel was small and simple. Wooden benches had been lined up along the cement floor, facing the pulpit. Four fans hung overhead, trying to circulate what little air was making its way around the room.

As we walked in to sit down, I looked around the chapel and counted only 20 people in the congregation. This appeared very unusual to my family, considering that in our ward in California the overflow area frequently had to be opened.

It was fast and testimony meeting, so most of the members bore their testimonies. My brothers and sisters and I just sat in the congregation in a small state of bewilderment. As each person got up to speak, I tried to listen for familiar words or phrases, but everyone seemed to talk so fast that I couldn’t make out a thing. I was quickly losing confidence of ever learning to understand.

When sacrament meeting came to an end, my sister and I went to Young Women. We both felt extremely awkward and out of place as we sat down next to the other girls. The Young Women president then came into the room and began the class.

This was going to be impossible, I thought. How would I ever be a part of something I could not understand? At that moment the young women began to sing. The words made no sense to me, and I was completely lost and frustrated.

Then something made me stop and ponder for a moment. I listened harder. Wait! The tune sounded very familiar. I looked at my sister, and she recognized it too. Together we were joined in song with the other girls.

I remember the mixture of the Spanish and English words clashing together in a most unflattering way. But we all sang our hearts out with one purpose in mind. The words were unmistakably different, but the meaning was clearly the same. Heavenly Father understood our voices perfectly. Every word. To him we sang in perfect harmony.

As I closed my ears to the words and opened my heart to the meaning, I felt the beautiful spirit that encompassed the room and I began to understand. The Spirit was our translator. We couldn’t communicate to each other through words, but we could hear the peaceful whisperings of the Spirit through the music we sang there together.

I don’t even remember what the name of that hymn was. It doesn’t really matter. What’s important is the love and acceptance we felt for each other at that very moment.

As we sang the final words of the hymn, there was complete silence. We just sat there looking at one another, hanging on to that wonderful feeling in the room.

Then the young women turned to my sister and me and they smiled.

Hey! I recognized that. So I responded with a smile of my own, and they understood. I knew right then everything was going to be fine.

Photography by Steve Bunderson; shirts by Shauna Mooney Kawasaki; posed by models