As I sat by my open window listening to the wind rustling the fronds of palm trees and to the chorus of birds reveling in the constant warmth of French Guiana, one line kept running through my mind: You can’t get to heaven in a rocking chair.
It was a season for retirement. My husband and I had turned over our business affairs to our eldest son and made sure that the chair in front of the television was comfortable. But time and time again we found ourselves thinking of missionary work. To the rich young man, Jesus had said, “Take up the cross, and follow me” (Mark 10:21).
We knew that following Christ meant giving love and service to our neighbors, living a life of purity, sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with others, and doing the work for our kindred dead. At different times in our lives we had approached our responsibilities in various ways. Now we found ourselves contemplating active, full-time missionary service.
We were apprehensive and excited at the same time. When we talked to our bishop about a mission, we didn’t even know that French Guiana, the country of our eventual destination, existed. Soon we were in the mission field encountering a different climate, a different language, different races and cultures, different living circumstances, and different types of activities. We were proselyting missionaries.
Many challenges and decisions were made on our journey to becoming a missionary couple. I took a leave from my job at Brigham Young University. We had to find someone to stay in our home. We began missing all our friends and our home—with its comfortable chair in front of the television—even before we left. But this was something we wanted to do.
Perhaps the most difficult thing of all was being away from our beloved children and grandchildren. But we took seriously the challenge given by the Savior to his disciples:
“He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
“And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37–38).
Taking up our cross meant accepting the hardships that would come, serving others as Jesus has served, and leaving the comforts of home and hearth.
Now with our mission completed, we can look back at those months and feel the peace that Christ promised to those who serve him. All the phantoms that frightened us before we left were unmasked and dismissed. Our work was varied. As we have corresponded with other missionary couples whom we met in the Missionary Training Center, we have found that each couple’s work is a little different—combinations of proselyting, member activation, branch support and leadership, plus a multitude of activities such as playing or teaching the piano, leading a choir, teaching Sunday School, helping with service projects, working with the illiterate or disabled, working with American servicemen abroad, or hunting down “lost” members of record. But all of our missionary friends write that they developed a great love for the people they served, as did we. We were given the knowledge through the power of the Holy Ghost that we were in the right place at the right time of our lives, doing what we should be doing.
So what is life like as a missionary couple? Let me open my journal and have you peek inside. On Mondays and Fridays, we removed our shoes and entered the Baksh home to give a Relief Society literacy lesson. The Bakshes have been members for more than a year. Their ancestors came from Calcutta, India, to work on the sugar plantations when slavery was abolished in the Caribbean.
In recent years Brother Shameer Baksh emigrated from Guyana (formerly British Guiana) to work in the shrimp industry. The oldest son from a large family, Brother Baksh went to work at an early age to help support his brothers and sister, so he doesn’t have much schooling. He and his fourteen-year-old son, Zaheed, are learning to read and write in their native tongue, English. Zaheed beams as we enter, his whole face alight. The scriptures he has been marking lie open on the table. He and his father laugh easily as we play games using the words they have learned.
Tuesday afternoon we stop to visit see Jean-Pierre Laba, a native of Lebanon, who runs a clothing and mattress store. He has been taking the discussions and attending church, but he didn’t come last week. We want to let him know we missed him. He invites us to his apartment above the store and sings hymns in Arabic as we sip a cold drink on his balcony.
Wednesday afternoon we meet with the Kanoyes, four recently baptized teenagers, to help them learn to read the scriptures through the Relief Society literacy course. After our lesson on long and short vowels, they take turns reading a page each from a book. The girls exchange kisses with me, as is the French custom. They all promise to do their homework. For quite a while, I had a special class with the oldest daughter, Ranika, until she was able to get into a French school.
On Thursday evening Pascale Sussenbach is sitting at the patio table with her English books open when we arrive. Her half sister, Christina, greets us at the gate. With Pascale we work on pronunciation and English conversation. Christina needs help with grammar for her school class. My husband dictates English sentences to her. As we finish, Brother Johann Sussenbach brings out a delicious home-smoked chicken for our dinner.
Sunday morning I play the piano for Primary. The children are busy preparing for the sacrament meeting program, and the teachers patiently help them read their parts.
After Primary, I carry the portable keyboard to the living room of the villa that we use as the chapel. As I play the prelude music, members and investigators fill the room and the outside patio. After our meetings Elder Taylor, who serves as the branch financial clerk, meets with President François Pratique, a dynamic leader from France. I chat with the members who linger. Anne-Marie Bienvenu, who was called as Relief Society president just a few weeks after she was baptized, lingers to kiss all of the women good-bye and to make sure that they each receive a kind word of encouragement.
Jeannie Mirta is one of the last to leave. As branch librarian, she stays in the small library to check out videotapes and books. She is also the Young Women president. Outside, children of all colors and sizes pretend that they are birds, using the long slender leaves of a bush for wings as they run around the hibiscus bushes and the papaya, palm, and lime trees.
On Sunday afternoon we teach the third missionary discussion to Mademoiselle Ada, an investigator from Brazil, and her friend, Cathleen. The two attended church last week and a branch activity Saturday evening. This past week Cathleen offered the prayer for the first time. We all laugh as we leave because we had to bring our own chairs, which are the same style as theirs. They tease us that we are running off with their furniture.
Rudy and Ruth Narine invite us for dinner that night. Their curry chicken and deep-fried shrimp are delicious, and Sister Narine makes roti, a pancake-like bread that is dipped in curry sauce. All the missionaries love it.
Another day we visit one of the young elders in the hospital who has just had surgery. On the way home, we pick up another three elders who have an hour’s walk home. We regularly have elders over for dinner; it’s a touch of home for all of us.
Now that we’re really home, we understand many things about the gospel that we hadn’t understood before. We know what it’s like to consecrate all of our financial resources, our time, and talents to the work of the Lord. We know what it’s like to witness the Holy Ghost touch the hearts and lives of a person seeking the truth. We’ve seen the light in their eyes and felt of the joy that fills their hearts. We know how making the commitment of baptism can turn a life around. People are visibly changed. We know how deeply new members appreciate the time and attention we give to them. These new members have so much to learn about the Church and are eager to talk about the principles of the gospel.
Our own testimonies have deepened. We know with increased conviction that this is the Lord’s work and that he is at its helm. We see the stone cut out of the mountain without hands rolling forth to fill the whole earth (see Dan. 2:34–36, 45; D&C 65:2). We were in a nation that has had the gospel only a few years, but every week we saw new faces and met new people.
We know more surely of God’s love for his children, no matter where they are, what they look like, or what circumstances they are in. We searched them out in old shacks with rusted, corrugated tin roofs or in villas with swimming pools. We saw with our own eyes how the gospel of Jesus Christ brought hope and joy to people’s lives.
Of course, it wasn’t easy. Seeing investigators lose the Spirit because they wouldn’t keep their commitments, having a crisis at home that we couldn’t help with, seeing members drift away, feeling the buffetings of Satan in a very real way, and always being just a little bit homesick—these things made life challenging for us. But life is not easy wherever you are or whatever we’re doing. That rocking chair won’t save us from challenges.
We learned that when we are actively serving, we are comforted when we need comfort, we are buoyed up when we are down, and we are given a peace that “passeth all understanding” (Philip. 4:7). We are touching lives with the Light of Christ, not only the lives of those we meet in the mission field but also those loved ones at home.