When I was three, my Uncle Jim was serving a mission. His father, my grandfather, died while he was gone, but he was allowed to come home for the funeral. Uncle Jim was impressive to me—tall (6′6″/2 m) and good; I wanted to be just like him.
I decided I would serve a mission so that I could be like Uncle Jim. There was never a question in my mind about serving a mission after that. And that single decision had a great impact on my life. Once I knew the direction I was headed in, I took advantage of opportunities that came along that helped me prepare myself. With a future mission in mind, I had a greater desire to learn the gospel throughout my Primary years and my youth, and I enjoyed many experiences that helped me prepare for it.
My grandfathers served missions at a time in Church history when not all young men were urged to do so. That has always impressed me and made me proud of my heritage. My whole family was interested in missionary work. When I was very young, my parents helped instill in me a desire to serve a mission, and other people helped me toward that goal as I grew up.
However, as a young teenager, I began to question whether I would be allowed to serve a mission. World War II had kept my father from serving as a missionary, which he badly wanted to do. In my case, the Vietnam War was raging; only two young men from each ward in the United States were given exemptions from military duty to serve missions. The rest had to rely on high lottery numbers to allow them to serve missions. Though my lottery was a few years away, I still worried about this, wondering if I would actually be able to fulfill my childhood dream.
About this time, I attended a stake conference in which Elder Thomas S. Monson was the visiting General Authority. After one session, my mother and I went to meet him. I shook his hand and we talked. I don’t remember any of the conversation except for one sentence. He looked right into my eyes and said, “You will be going on a mission.” I never worried after that; all my doubts were removed.
Throughout my teenage years, I prepared for my mission. When a loving priests quorum advisor, David Poulsen, offered to teach any of us priests the missionary discussions, a few of us took him up on his offer. We faithfully attended 7:00 A.M. classes each Sunday.
We studied the missionary discussions, and I had most of them memorized before I ever entered the mission home. We even went out a few times and taught ward members who pretended to be investigators. Most of them were a lot tougher than any real investigators with whom I worked! In 1971, I was thrilled to accept a call to serve in the Argentina North Mission.
A mission brands the gospel on your heart. I like the way President Kimball described a mission as the “university of the Lord,” as an opportunity to serve our fellowmen and to learn many valuable principles that the Lord wants His disciples to learn. These are principles that will help us in everything we do from then on, whether in building His kingdom or in improving our personal lives.
After I returned from Argentina, missionary service remained very important to me. As I earned both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, I looked for chances to share the gospel. I married Jan Nielson, and we have taught our seven children the importance of missionary work.
My whole family had an opportunity to put those teachings into practice in 1994, when my wife and I received a call to preside over the Uruguay Montevideo Mission. At the time, our son Jason was serving in the Portland Oregon Mission and our son Andy in the Brazil Recife Mission. The rest of the family enjoyed our missionary work in the Uruguay Montevideo Mission.
We are definitely a missionary family. We have learned that there is no greater work, no greater joy, than sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Even now as a member of the Seventy, one of my favorite things to do is meet with missionaries and experience the joy that comes from serving the Lord and working with others who are also serving Him.
This interest in missionary work, this commitment to share the gospel, began when I was Primary age. That’s the age at which all boys should decide to serve a mission. That most important decision will then be a guiding influence on all that they do through-out their growing-up years.