The couples’ conference was to be held in Aberdeen, South Dakota. I had been invited to participate and could hardly wait to see my friends again. Many couples would be there whom I had met at the Missionary Training Center.
They had traveled from near and far, from the communities and reservations where they were working, and there were joyful reunions. One of my first thoughts was, “Wow, they look good!” It was a great thrill to see their enthusiasm, to learn of their sacrifices, to hear of their joys and struggles, to see pictures of people with whom they were working, and to hear them say, “We’ll never be the same!”
I knew that one husband-and-wife team had both had surgery before coming on a mission—and there they were, excited and happy, working in a place called Bull Head. One couple reported they were living in a fourteen-foot trailer. The husband said, “It’s just big enough for the two of us—not enough room for an argument.”
That evening there was a great “family home evening” at the chapel in Aberdeen, and I began doing some serious thinking as I watched these great souls visiting, laughing, and rejoicing together as they shared experiences, photos, handiwork, and some of the harvest from their gardens. As one of the elders moved energetically around the room visiting with friends, I couldn’t believe that he had recently celebrated his eightieth birthday.
The question I kept asking myself was, “How is it that they look and seem so much younger than when they were in the Missionary Training Center? Is it possible that the years go backward in South Dakota?” They were vigorous and enthusiastic throughout the whole conference.
Based on my experience over several years of working with senior missionaries—the couples and the wonderful older single sisters—I have come to the conclusion that missionary work can actually add years to your life and life to your years. And I think the secret lies in service and sacrifice.
The Spanish philosopher Unamo, who died in 1936, told this story of an ancient Roman aqueduct in Spain:
“For 1800 years this aqueduct has carried the cool waters of the Rio Frio down from the high mountains to the thirsty city. Nearly 60 generations of men drank from it! Then came another generation which said, ‘This aqueduct is so great a marvel that it should be preserved for our children. We will relieve it of its centuries-old labors.’ So they laid modern pipelines to give it a reverent rest. Then it began to fall apart. Built originally of rough-hewn granite blocks, without lime or cement, the sediment of centuries had formed a natural mortar. Now the sun dried it out and it began to crumble and fall apart. What centuries of service could not destroy, idleness disintegrated.”
I think there must be some “natural mortar” supporting these great senior missionaries—a “mortar” which is the result of the service and sacrifice involved in missionary work. There are many reasons to believe this. Here are a few quotes from senior missionaries while they have been in the Missionary Training Center:
• “If we had only known what it would be like, we would have come years ago.”
• “I wish every couple in the Church would come here—they would never be the same again!”
• “As we meet and talk to other senior missionaries, and realize that they could be at home in much more relaxed and comfortable conditions with less demand on their time, strength, and money, and surrounded by family and friends, we marvel—because none would go back home even if they had the opportunity.”
• “This, so far, has been one of the most spiritual experiences that I have had in my life.”
• “My relationship with my wife and companion is growing more glorious each day. We have learned how to be true missionary companions, and we love each other more as each day passes.”
Every missionary experience is unique, but the story of one missionary couple may give you an idea of what hundreds of others experience all over the world.
I first met this couple at the Missionary Training Center in February 1982. Their name tags weren’t ready when they first arrived, so they would introduce themselves as “the Generic couple.” But I’ll always remember the Eatons.
After much thought and prayer, and the overcoming of some fears, they had decided to accept a mission call to Kentucky. Their particular mission was to last only six months, and someone asked them, “What do you think you can accomplish in such a short time? Won’t that be more like a vacation than a mission?” Elder and Sister Eaton went to the Lord and asked for his help. They told him they had decided to be totally obedient, and then asked if he would strengthen them and help them accomplish everything he wanted them to do in those few short months.
When their mission was over, their mission president told them they had done more in a few months than many missionaries could do in two years! They had worked seventy to eighty hours a week. They were never sick—not even a cold. They did not miss a single day of work. Sister Eaton had often become “quite ill” with motion sickness when she rode in a car. But on their mission they put 12,000 miles on their car over roads she described as “definitely not straight,” and she never experienced any sign of motion sickness. She baked at least seventy-five loaves of bread to share with members and nonmembers as a way to say, “We love you very much.” Elder Eaton helped fix cars belonging to members so that they could come to church. (“Attendance really picked up after that!” he said.) He also used his experience in real estate to help the branch find a place to build their own meetinghouse.
When they first arrived in the community where they were assigned to work, they went to visit every store, introducing themselves and explaining why they were there. Soon, everyone in the area seemed to know who they were, and they were greeted wherever they went. They always held hands, and often they heard people say, “We love to see you expressing your love for each other that way. I wish we had more of that around here.”
Within their first week they were teaching ten families. They baptized all but two of the families they worked with, and Elder Eaton ordained thirteen brethren to the priesthood. All but a few of their baptisms were held at a beautiful little stream called Sinking Creek, because the nearest font was more than sixty miles away.
They also helped many good people come back into activity in the Church, including twenty men who were able to advance in the priesthood.
I asked if they felt younger, because they looked younger than they did when they first arrived at the MTC. “We are younger!” they said. They had participated with adult members and nonmembers in everything from fishing to gardening. One of the local horseshoe-pitching champions taught Elder Eaton how to pitch. After that he was often called the “horseshoe preacher.” As they talked about “growing younger,” they said that although their days were long and they worked hard, they had never felt tired.
One of the things they mentioned again and again was the sweet relationship they had with their mission president and his wife. “We really loved each other. Whenever we met, it wasn’t just a handshake.” They pointed out that the president gave them tasks based on their experience and their skills, which in some cases were different than the strengths and abilities of the younger missionaries.
Shortly after they returned from Kentucky, they left for Thailand to meet their youngest son who was finishing his own mission. Then they were looking forward to preparing for another mission themselves. They hoped it would be longer than six months, but stressed again how much they had been able to do just in that short time. “Wouldn’t it be fantastic,” they told me, “if couples who usually ‘go south for the winter’ could go on a mission instead?” I agreed.
How grateful I feel for the extraordinary, unselfish service being given all over the world by senior missionaries. I am deeply touched by those who go more than once—Elder and Sister Harris, who went to Alabama and then Argentina; the Christensens, who went to Australia and then to Alaska; the Matagis, who have sent twelve of their sixteen children on missions and have served several missions themselves in Samoa; the Paynes, who had been home just a short time from Chile when they were asked to return; and so many other great souls who are truly making a difference in the world.
This letter came from a couple working in Texas:
“We have been through the recent hurricane and have experienced a great deal of stress. At our recent open house we emphasized the need of having water and food stored in case of an emergency. Many members in the valley, where they are still without water and electricity, are very thankful for their diligence in heeding that counsel.”
Another couple sent a letter from South Africa:
“We’ve been doing a lot of work to help establish branches. One couple working with the Xhosa people in Queenstown and Steynburg had the privilege of baptizing nine of them with more than 200 onlookers. The elevation is over 10,000 feet and it’s winter there; you can imagine how chilly it was.
“The mission president had us fly to Zimbabwe to teach welfare services principles to the leaders there. We had a very interesting and busy week. Along with all our work, we went with the elders to teach two Shawna families. Then the branch president took us to the National Archives and handed us the journal of Dr. Stanley Livingston! It was in good condition, and his writing was beautiful.
“The spirit is great here and we know that the Church is true. We bear humble testimony to that fact and pray that we can fulfill our assignments properly and in a way that is pleasing to the Lord.”
From a couple in Mexico:
“We have a nice casita to live in. The door of the refrigerator won’t stay closed—we lost some milk before we discovered that problem. But now it stays tightly closed—by virtue of three meters of electric cord and a belt. My companion will never need the belt again—it’s longer than it was, and his circumference is shorter!
“Our work is in the not-so-well organized branches in the farming villages. There are three new branch presidents. We have met with them to practice interviews for calling people to positions. We’ve been visiting Relief Societies three days a week—helping teachers prepare next week’s lesson or practice being visiting teachers.
“The gospel is true, and the Lord uses people to teach it. This is a great mission—great people, real brothers and sisters, and I’m so glad we’re here.”
“We are doing much in genealogy here. There are a lot who want to help. We are working hard to do our part.”
“We are blessed now, after twenty-seven years of married life, to spend our reclining years with health and this opportunity. The Lord has filled a void that almost all older couples seem to form through the years. When we haven’t anything to say, we can always draw from this wonderful missionary experience—and believe me, we’ve plenty!”
“We recognize our need for help and inspiration. We’ve really increased our own understanding and perception by being here and having so many prayers offered on our behalf. We have done things completely beyond our ability or knowledge. Progress seems slow—but ideas do catch on. We sprouted some tomatoes and peppers in egg cartons, then transplanted them to paper cups. Now we use them as ‘door openers’ when we go to talk to people. It makes friends, emphasizes home gardens, and acts as a talking point.”
“Our specific job is to see that home teaching and visiting teaching are done effectively in the eight branches in this district. We have had our most rewarding success in fellowshipping inactive members, newly baptized members, and people who are being taught by the young proselyting missionaries. We worked with one family of thirteen, and they have become active again and are very happy. This good brother told us that he was so glad we came to his place. He said that being close to the Church again is just like coming from darkness into light.
“We are happy in the work. The heat is almost unbearable at times, but we adjust to it. The Filipinos are great people. We’ve found some of the most beautiful people we’ve ever known among the members.”
The value of the work these missionaries do is beyond calculation. A few years ago President Gordon B. Hinckley shared some of his feelings about senior missionaries:
“They sold their car; they left friends and relatives for a distant, less comfortable place. But as they cast their bread upon the waters, the Lord opened opportunities for them to teach and lift and help. No one can foretell the consequences of their pioneering.
“As I have thought of this man and woman who left the comforts of home and society and friends at an age when most people want to slow down and take it easy, I have thought of the words of the Lord, ‘And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.’ (Matt. 19:29.) I have thought the same whenever I meet or hear of other elderly brothers and sisters, single or married, who either volunteer or accept calls to serve the Lord in the missions of the Church.
“We need them. The Lord needs them. The people of the earth need them. And those wonderful brothers and sisters also need that blessed experience. For, generally speaking, the most miserable people I know are those who are obsessed with themselves; the happiest people I know are those who lose themselves in the service of others.” (Ensign, Aug. 1982, pp. 4–5.)
Elder David B. Haight, in an April 1979 general conference address, commented:
“Some stakes are crowded with mature couples fully prepared to accept a mission call, who could not only enthusiastically help in spreading the gospel but strengthen new members in areas of the world where we are growing so rapidly. … If we could only transplant hundreds of our faithful, well-prepared couples out into one of the greatest chapters of their lives! …
“Couples who have a desire to serve the Lord need not wait for the bishop, but should knock on his door and say, ‘We feel we are ready to go.’ …
“May many of us who are fully prepared and needing the blessings put aside the things of the world and become shepherds to the flock and lose ourselves in his service.” (Ensign, May 1979, pp. 62–64.)
I praise the senior missionaries who have been willing to “forsake houses” and grandchildren and in some cases much, much more to serve the Lord. Based on my work with hundreds of these senior missionaries, I share my feeling that it is worth the sacrifice of homes, gardens, vacations, material possessions, and the months away from family and friends. Indeed, it is worth any sacrifice, “for behold the field is white already to harvest, and lo, he that thrusteth in his sickle with his might, the same layeth up in store that he perisheth not, but bringeth salvation to his soul.” (D&C 4:4.)