Most people were surprised when I said I’d like to serve a mission, I had just graduated from BYU with a degree in nursing and had received some very fine job offers in that field. I was aware of the stereotype of sister missionaries—some people thought going on a mission was, for women, an “end-of-the-line” opportunity. Nevertheless, I had a great desire to serve.
I’ve considered this stereotype for twenty years now from a front-row seat. During the years I taught at the mission home in Salt Lake City, I watched hundreds of sister missionaries enter, and I listened to some amazing stories about overcoming obstacles. Most of the barriers were the opinions of others. “You don’t want to go on a mission,” people would tell them. “That’s for people who have nothing else to do!”
I now watch numbers of sister missionaries entering the Missionary Training Center in Provo each week—and I can’t think of a more beautiful, vibrant, intelligent group anywhere in the world!
Women can and do make significant contributions as missionaries. They have backgrounds as teachers, nurses, home economists, nutritionists, secretaries, poets, students. Many have advanced education or have had work experience which has helped them to mature. They are capable of working effectively with people. They have a sincerity of purpose which helps in the development of needed spirituality; hence, they are sensitive to the Holy Ghost and responsive to his guidance.
Sister missionaries may use their experience and expertise to help establish and strengthen the Church throughout the world. While all missionaries have the responsibility to find and teach interested nonmembers, some sister missionaries (and some couples) receive additional assignments. According to guidelines from the First Presidency, sister missionaries may be involved in leadership and member training, welfare services, visitors’ centers, public relations, mission office staffs, Church education, and genealogy and temple work. (See “New Guidelines for Missionaries with Additional Assignments,” Ensign, Mar. 1981, pp. 76–77.)
We sometimes explain these types of missionary assignments by a little motto: “Proselyting missionaries teach people the rules of the game; missionaries with additional assignments show them how to play the game.” These missionaries are sent to help establish and strengthen the Church. They help the members draw closer to Heavenly Father and to their families; assist them in planting gardens and holding effective family home evenings; work with them in preparing lessons and talks; help them get their children immunized; help them teach their children to read; show them how to budget time and resources wisely; and much more. In all of this, they are working under the direction of priesthood leaders to strengthen the ability of members to meet their own needs and to serve others.
While it is expected that every worthy young man will serve a mission, it is a matter of personal choice for women. Official guidelines say that young women “should not feel obligated nor should they be unduly urged into such service; in addition, they should not be recommended if a mission will interfere with their entering into a proper marriage.” (General Handbook of Instructions, no. 21, p. 69.) Sister missionaries are also older than the average elders. Young men may be called at nineteen; young women aren’t called until they are twenty-one. And there are increasing numbers of older single sisters, many of them widows, who now go on missions. I believe both of these factors—age and choice—combine to make women very committed to their missions. Few go because they were expected or compelled to go; it is their decision.
Many sister missionaries make sacrifices that touch me deeply as I become acquainted with them. I’m amazed at how many are supporting themselves financially. This gives them a great desire to succeed—to live up to their potential and their commitment.
When I ask those who have returned how they feel about the experience, a common response is, “This mission has added something to my life and to me personally that I couldn’t have gained in any other way.” And I agree with them.
Before I served, I had heard that a mission changes you—that once you’ve had the experience you aren’t the same. I now understand what that statement means. The people I’ve come to know and love in Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Indonesia have changed my life. They have given me a new heart.
I cannot identify one single person or experience which most influenced me; my missions are the sum of all the people I’ve met and experiences I’ve had. But I’ll never forget one morning in 1964. My companion, Mary Jane Davidson, and I were anticipating a morning of tracting in our area in Quezon City, the Philippines. We had prayed for guidance in finding someone who was searching for the gospel of Jesus Christ. As we walked up the unpaved street, we came to an orange gate with the number “15” painted on it. We had a good feeling about knocking on that gate.
An older Filipino man with a kind and gentle face answered, and we gave our door approach. He was reluctant. A strong impression came over us that he was meant to receive this message, and we explained how much we would appreciate the opportunity to tell him a wonderful message about God.
He told us that many missionaries had knocked at his gate, but he had not invited them in. He hesitated again, but then finally allowed us in. We felt impressed to share with him the story of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Being aware that his English was not as fluent as most people we had met in the Philippines, we went slowly. As we finished, he was deep in thought. “Sisters,” he asked gently, “could you please tell me this beautiful story again?”
This time we felt it more deeply too. It meant more to us. As we finished he again seemed very deeply touched. “Sisters,” he asked, quite apologetically, “just once more please?” And this time we felt even more strongly and sweetly the witness of the Holy Ghost to all three of us that Joseph Smith was a prophet and had literally seen the Father and the Son.
Our return appointment was a week later. We had trouble getting a bus, and Brother Ocampo was waiting outside his gate. “Oh Sisters, I thought you weren’t coming! I have the most wonderful things to tell you!”
He had word-by-word read the testimony of Joseph Smith from the pamphlet we had left him. This had required frequent use of a dictionary. As we climbed through the little door in the gate and headed for his home, Brother Ocampo began telling us the story of Joseph Smith! Soon afterward, he was baptized.
I’m sure I’ll never forget the branch president in Semarang, Central Java—President Samad. My companion and I were assigned to serve as a resource to him as he gained more ability to lead and teach the people of his branch. Very few missionary or training materials had at that time been translated into the Indonesian language.
We met with President Samad each Sunday for about forty-five minutes. He would ask us to discuss some topic—fast offerings, teacher development, or some other gospel-related subject—and we would prepare the best we could with this still-awkward second language of ours. We always began with prayer, and then he would say, “Sisters, you just do the best you can to tell me what you’ve prepared. Every so often, I’ll have you stop, and then I’ll tell you what the Spirit has taught me.” And that’s exactly what would happen. Those were some of the most spiritual experiences of my life.
A dear sister who lived in very humble circumstances once said to me, “Sister, we’re going to be able to go to the temple!” I couldn’t think of any way to respond, because I couldn’t imagine how they’d be able to accomplish such a goal; the closest temple was being built in Tokyo. Then she said, “If we sell everything in our home we don’t need …” My mind quickly took me through their humble home, which I had visited several times. I wondered what they were going to sell that they didn’t need. “… And if we save every Rupiah we can, we’ll be able to go to the temple in fifty-five years!” I felt a lump in my throat and couldn’t have responded even if I had thought of something to say. Then she added, “Oh, Sister, I hope we’ll still be alive—we’ll be 110 years old.” As I write this, I’m able to look out my office window and see the Provo Temple. …
There was the family with eleven children who wanted to take turns going to church because they shared shoes. As the mother explained to me, “Sister, we do not wish to go to the house of the Lord without shoes.”
There was the Relief Society leader with whom we had been discussing visiting teaching. We talked about contacting those for whom we had responsibility. At one point she began to speak, almost apologetically. “Oh, Sister, you know that none of us in the branch have telephones. So we have to ask Heavenly Father if anyone needs us.” She illustrated with many examples. She would pray in the morning, asking if anyone needed her; frequently she would receive a strong impression that she should visit one of the members; sometimes she would even feel strongly about taking food or something else. And I wondered how many times I had let the telephone interfere with that pure form of communication. …
One time as we talked about good nutrition, a sweet mother from the Philippines spoke to me. “You know, Sister, I don’t have enough money to buy all the things I’d like. So before I go to the market, I kneel and ask Heavenly Father to help me spend my few pesos wisely and buy the things that will be best for my family. As I bring home my food, I again ask him to help me prepare it properly. And then, Sister, when it is time for us to eat, we know we can ask Heavenly Father to bless our food—to help us be strong and healthy with what we have been able to buy and fix.” And I thought of how many times a blessing on the food had been for me but a signal to eat. …
There was the group of Relief Society women in Central Java who would each save a spoonful of rice in the morning before they began cooking for the day. They’d put that spoonful, each day, in a plastic bag; then on Saturday they would bring their bags with them to Relief Society. If anyone was ill or had not been attending church for some time, all the sisters would walk together following the meeting to visit her. And they would take some of the rice to share. I’ve learned much about service and consecration from such examples.
I was serving in Indonesia when the Book of Mormon was first translated and printed in that language. During that time I had an inkling of what it must have been like for Joseph Smith and others when they were finally able to give so many others the privilege of reading the book. One of my local companions, an Indonesian sister from the city of Solo, slept with her copy right beside her.
The chance to share the gospel sometimes came in unexpected ways. This happened once in Taiwan. Without any previous language training, I was struggling daily to learn Mandarin. Tracting provided the thrill of a lifetime—having someone answer the door when it was my turn to talk! How amazing it was to me those first few times that someone could actually understand some of my sounds!
Then one morning an American woman answered—totally unexpected. Her husband was in the Navy. We were caught off guard and were speechless. Finally she said, “Oh, you must be Mormon missionaries! Come on in—I used to be a Mormon.” And thus began a miracle.
Her husband wasn’t a member and she wasn’t active. A teenaged son and daughter had been baptized but weren’t active at the time either. We had the privilege of switching from Mandarin to English and sharing the gospel with this great family. The father was eventually baptized, both children served missions, and now the father and mother are working in a temple. Who would have believed we would meet that wonderful American family in Tainan, Taiwan!
Through these and many other experiences, I have learned one of the great lessons of missionary work: I gained as much from others as they did from me. We all grew spiritually—we were teaching each other. I realized there is a need for all of us to be open to every chance to lift, help, teach, and strengthen one another … no matter where or when.