Alex Balinski gets comfortable on the couch.
He’s sitting in front a camera and stage lights, the same ones he’s accustomed to being behind. He wears glasses, but he takes them off for his interview. He looks even younger without them on, something hard to do – he’s only 25 – and could pass for even younger.
Youthfulness isn’t necessarily associated with focus, but Alex isn’t necessarily normal either. He graduated high school at 16 and started college that same summer. The story of everything that happened after is the story he’s telling today. Seated behind a heavy layer of production equipment, camera lights shining straight at him, he begins his story.
It’s a story of the “What am I ever going to do with my life?” variety, one that proves God’s hand was there guiding all along and ending with Prepare to Serve, a website he created for the masses of future missionaries with a call in hand and without a clue.
Back on the couch, the first interview question gets right to the point, “How did this all get started anyway?” Alex thinks backwards, retracing the life steps that led up to Prepare to Serve, the emotions of that past eight years showing on his face. The past eight years in Alex’s life have been full: a mission, a college degree, a marriage, a baby and about 4,500 YouTube videos.
4,500 YouTube videos is a lot. They’re Alex’s life’s work (thus far) and the heart of this project. The videos tell stories of what it’s like to serve God as a missionary, but how those videos came to be is a great story, too.
Divinely Guided, Down to the Footsteps
He’s told the story of Prepare to Serve before. It’s clear. He remembers all the details and impressions, the steps made in faith that got him here.
He started college young, but mostly unsure of what to study. Knowing that his efforts would eventually lead him to a specific career, taking the first step was a foreboding one. “I didn’t want to spend time doing something unless I felt like it was absolutely what the Lord wanted me to do. I knew the Lord knew me better than I knew myself,” Alex recounts.
He pictured a future as a seminary teacher, studying the Gospel and dispelling it’s mysteries to youth. He also thought of choir and P.E. and figured his future lay within the things he already knew he loved.
“Heavenly Father knew my potential, I didn’t…it was more of a big decision for me because I wasn’t willing to settle for anything less than a clear answer as to what I needed to do.”
That determination was key. Alex’s prayers were answered. But not with the final answer.
Alex began his first semester of college in Music 101, an unsurprising direction considering Alex’s love for choir. But it wasn’t until one of the last days of class, divine inspiration unknowingly began to take a turn.
“I felt this bizarre feeling, really strongly, that I needed to talk with a certain person across the room. It was one of the last days of the semester. After the closing prayer I jumped up, ran over to him and said, “Uh…hi, my name’s Alex, good to meet you.'”
They talked for twenty minutes. Alex learned this classmate was a senior fulfilling a long overdue GE credit in Music 101, but actually majoring in broadcast journalism.
The conversation ended, but another unshakable impression remained. Alex went directly to a computer lab, logged in and looked up President Hinckley’s biography, just as he felt inspired to do. The first thing that jumped out from the biography was that he majored in broadcast journalism.
“I thought that was bizarre–two impressions–with the only thing in common between them being broadcast journalism.”
Alex felt an answer, the clear, definitive one that he so earnestly sought. That summer day launched Alex into broadcast journalism.
He took the prerequisites and applied to the program. He began taking classes, and with them, ideas began to form. He learned how to use equipment and craft stories. He had ideas, all sorts of them.
“I saw I was at the beginning of my life and that I had a whole life’s work to do ahead of me. More than anything I wanted to do whatever was right to build up the kingdom with my talents,” said Alex.
He pauses. Finishing the first chapter of how Prepare to Serve came to be, it’s obvious how poignant these moments were in his life. They left impressions–the kind you don’t forget, even years later.
Alex was later called to the Argentina Neuquen mission from 2008-2010. He completed his mission and returned to BYU, more interested in missionary work than ever.
Being back in his broadcast journalism element reminded him of that divine guidance he had received and the necessity that he do something with it.
“I was trying very hard to keep the commandments and do everything right. One day I was walking across campus and I felt a distinct emptiness: a feeling that I wasn’t doing something that I needed to be doing,” Alex said.
“It felt like the reason for that emptiness was that Heavenly Father had guided me in a direction, telling me that I needed to do something with video production, but that I wasn’t actively trying to build my skills or learn about it.”
Where much divine guidance is given, much active pursuit is required. With his own mission experience in hand, he set out in pursuit of an idea from years earlier: a video-based resource for future missionaries.
This was the birth of Prepare to Serve, an online service that has continued to wax stronger in stature every passing day, all due to Alex’s effort.
Faith requires action, often stepping into the ocean and only praying that the sea will part for us. That’s exactly what Alex had to do to get Prepare to Serve to where it is today.
“I was still in school and coming close to graduation, I had a part-time job, but I was trying to decide what to do with my life. I felt strongly that I needed to quit my job and focus solely on this project.”
Alex felt confident in quitting his job, thought he admits his wife had more hesitation. A rough outline of a website with no revenue and no following was a gamble, but every risk requires a little faith.
My wife and I prayed and we felt good about me quitting. We figured, “Worse comes to worst in six months we’ll run out of savings, and I’ll get another part-time job.” Once we made that decision to commit to the project, giving it our all to make it happen, things started falling into place, things that I don’t think would have happened had we not made an absolute commitment to pursue those feelings.
“Absolute commitment.” The phrase echoed in the room after he said it. It’s a matter of trusting in the Lord, he explains. So many of us have ideas and impressions, but they got lost in our responsibilities of the every day. Alex explains it best from first-hand experience,
“If we consecrate our desire and our lives to try to serve God, Heavenly Father will always provide the way.”
And he knows what he’s talking about. Prepare to Serve, a growing, but free, resource is hardly lucrative, and yet, Alex claims blessings of all kinds have showered their small family.
Opportunities and connections have fallen perfectly into place, building up Prepare to Serve and constantly expanding upon Alex’s original vision. This decision to pursue the project came in the season of fall 2012, mere weeks before the announcement of the official age changes for missionary service.
Overnight, missionary service within the church exploded, with young men and women preparing to serve all over the world. There couldn’t have been a more perfect moment for Alex’s project to prove successful, but mostly to prove useful.
Prepare to Serve is (one of) Alex’s babies, and it’s one that has been inspired through every step. As work continues on the project, the sacredness of it’s purpose is reaffirmed in Alex’s heart everyday.
Prepare to Serve: A User’s Guide
Prepare to Serve is for missionaries at that stage with a call in hand, but not much else.
It features a missionary blog index organized by mission and thousands of video interviews with return missionaries and the telling of their experiences. It’s a resource, meant to be helpful in practical and spiritual ways.
Alex was a nineteen year old boy like any other with a glittering mission call to Argentina. He was excited, to the point of being terrified, as he realized he didn’t know anything about the place he would spend the next two years.
Every missionary knows the feeling, even when your call is sending you just a state over.
“If I had had Prepare to Serve resources before my mission I think it would have been very helpful,” says Alex.
“I think before the mission you don’t understand quite what you’re getting into, you don’t understand all the ways it could be helpful to learn about your mission, prior to your mission.”
The way it works is easy. Upon receiving a mission call to any corner of the globe, you can easily find any personal blogs of missionaries serving in that mission. This index alone clues you into the experiences of others, giving insight into the nature of the people, the climate, the language and the general experience.
There are articles published daily, offering helps to learn a new language, prepare emotionally for a mission, even how to pack your carry-on.
However, the real gem of Prepare to Serve is the thousands of videos. Again, organized by mission, a prospective missionary can immediately find a plethora of videos featuring return missionaries from that place, explaining everything you need to know.
This is the moment Alex’s study of broadcast journalism proved inspired. Alex conducts these interviews himself. It takes him only minutes to set up the equipment, because he’s done it so many times.
He interviews return missionaries from around the world about the practical things and also the spiritual experiences they’ve acquired as well. The final videos are edited and published online.
At this point, Alex has conducted about 240 interviews and produced nearly 5,000 videos. It’s the kind of insight any almost missionary craves, giving useful, realistic “survival strategies” and inspiration.
The experience of interviewing an RM about their mission never stops being special to Alex, it’s the highlight of the whole ordeal.
“Sometimes during an interview I’ll feel the Spirit very strongly. I’ll feel the power behind someone’s testimony or hear a certain message and know it will reach someone and be helpful.”
For Alex, those moments are the sacred ones. The ones that reaffirm in his heart why he was guided to this project and why he’s been compelled to finish it.
“I feel overwhelmed with gratitude to be able to work on this. It’s a sacred opportunity to sit through hundreds of testimonies and hear hundreds of miracles where the Lord answers prayers for people throughout the world. It’s a privilege and the often Spirit reaffirms, I’m where I need to be and doing what I need to do.”
The blessings of the project have continued, proving every time how important this project is.
Alex mentions on his website a more recent blessing in project development. He needed greater technological infrastructure that could sustain the site and its content and prayed, seeking help. Soon after, Google Fiber made it’s home in Provo, an answer to a sincere prayer.
Videos that take Alex nine hours to upload will soon take closer to an hour.
It’s a miracle added to the list of them that have made Prepare to Serve what it is.
An hour has passed and Alex is still on the couch. Talking through all the details of Prepare to Serve has seemed to rev him up, in a reverent way. It’s obviously a beloved topic for him, his smile makes it clear.
Preparing to serve a mission is an ordeal, but a sacred one. A mission is a milestone that becomes a catalyst in a missionary’s life before and after. The effects of a mission will echo through eternity and preparation is more important than we think. Prepare to Serve is a means to help.
As it continuously expands, it becomes more and more tailored to any missionary, headed anywhere. It offers the kind of help that’s hard to find, except from someone who’s gone exactly where you’re going.
It’s as helpful in a practical sense as it is reaffirming: reaffirming that you’re headed somewhere special with people who will change your life, and that it was God who sent you there.
It has all come together. Alex told his story, and the interview has been conducted, no more questions, just answers. Alex put his glasses back on, eager to see the foreign camera equipment up close. He examines it, tinkering around excitedly. It’s more professional than his own, he says. His eagerness carries over from the interview, completely. It’s clear, his heart belongs to Prepare to Serve.