I had always planned to be a missionary, but I’d figured on waiting till I was older so I could get sent to Mexico, Africa, Russia, or some other far-off place. Turning me into a nine-year-old missionary was Sister Munn’s fault. She started talking in Primary opening exercises about the sons of Mosiah, the Apostle Paul, and Heber C. Kimball. Then, after church, we bumped into each other in the hall and she said, “You look like you’re eager to be a missionary, Benjamin. Are you?”
Well, my oldest brother, Matt, was a missionary in Spain, and I planned to be like him, so I grinned and nodded. “I wouldn’t mind going to Spain in about ten years. Matt thinks it’s pretty nice there.”
Sister Munns smiled. “Benjamin,” she said, getting real serious, “you don’t have to wait ten years. You can be a missionary now. You have some new neighbors moving in next door, and I don’t believe they’re members of the Church. Would you be willing to share the gospel with your new neighbors, just as your brother is sharing it in Spain?”
“I’m a little young,” I mumbled. “I don’t know what to say or how to say it.”
“The Lord says we’re a peculiar people,” Sister Munns explained. “That means that we’re different. People want to know why we’re different. Part of being a missionary is telling people why we’re different. Will you do that, Benjamin?”
“Sure,” I said. “I can do that.”
“Who are our new neighbors, and when do they move in?” I asked Mom as I ate Sunday dinner.
“They’re a young couple,” Mom answered. “His name is Conrad, and his wife’s name is Tricia. He just finished law school.”
“I told Sister Munns that I’d be a missionary and share the gospel with them,” I said. My whole family stopped eating. “How can I do it?” I asked.
My big brother James smiled. “Well, if you were like Ammon in the Book of Mormon, you could be their servant.”
“Huh?” I grunted. “Sister Munns didn’t say anything about being a servant. Isn’t that kind of like being a slave?”
Mom laughed. “James means that you can make friends with them by helping them. After they know that you care about them, you’ll be able to share the gospel with them.”
When the moving van showed up, I was a little afraid to make my first move as a missionary, but since I’d promised Sister Munns, I had to try. “Hello,” I said a little shakily, holding out my hand to Tricia, who was trying to decide which box to haul into the house next. “My name is Benjamin Tripp. I live next door.”
Tricia smiled and shook my hand. “Conrad,” she called, “come meet our next-door neighbor, Benjamin Tripp.”
“Well, Benjamin Tripp, it’s great to know you,” Conrad said, shaking my hand. He was a big, tall man with lots of thick brown hair and a huge, friendly smile. I liked him right away.
“Most people just call me Ben,” I mumbled. “I came over to … well, you know, to be your … servant.”
Conrad and Tricia grinned. “That sounds great,” Conrad said. “I could use a good servant right about now. Why don’t you start hauling some of these boxes into the house?”
I grabbed a big box off the lawn and started for the house. The box was heavy, and I couldn’t exactly see where I was going. I was thinking that there were four steps up to the front door, but there were five. I hit that fifth step and fell flat on my face, dropping the box and hearing a crash.
“We won’t worry about a few dishes,” Tricia said, smiling and patting me on the back. “Conrad breaks them all the time.”
“I do?” Conrad asked, giving her a funny look.
I tried to be more careful after that, and I did pretty well until I carried a chair to the dining room. I had to squeeze between stacks of boxes. One of the chair legs bumped a box, and it fell with a thud and a bunch of books fell out of it. I had them all put back by the time Conrad and Tricia came charging into the dining room.
Conrad took a deep breath. “I tell you what, Ben,” he said slowly, putting his hand on my shoulder. “I appreciate your being our servant and all, but maybe you could serve someplace else this afternoon.” He smiled. “Like over at your house.”
I thought a minute and then asked, “Are you hungry? If you’re hungry, I can bake some really good chocolate chip oatmeal cookies.”
“Have you ever made cookies?” Conrad asked suspiciously.
“I don’t have to make them. Mom already made the dough. All I have to do is put the blobs of dough on the pan and bake them.”
“I could use a cookie,” Conrad said. “You will bake them at your house, won’t you?”
It didn’t take me long to plop gobs of dough onto a cookie sheet and put them into the oven. They were supposed to bake twelve minutes, so I went into the family room and played on the computer.
“What’s burning?” I heard Mom exclaim.
I charged into the kitchen. The tops of the cookies were fine. I discovered that if I put the cookies on a plate just right, you hardly noticed that they were black on the bottom.
“Those are fine looking cookies,” Tricia said happily as I handed her the plate.
Conrad grabbed a cookie and bit down on it. Nothing happened. At least nothing happened to the cookie. It might have hurt Conrad’s teeth a little, though. He studied the cookie, turning it over.
“They got a little burnt,” I explained, fidgeting. “But if you just chew the tops off, they’re pretty good. Do you want me to make you a different batch? Mom has dough for sugar cookies.”
Conrad held up the cookie in his hand and pointed to the plate of cookies with the other hand. “No, Ben, I think this will keep us for a while. Thanks for thinking about us, though.”
I was about to leave when I spotted Conrad’s truck all covered with mud. “Your truck’s dirty.”
Conrad nodded, gnawing on the top of a cookie. “I’ll have to spray it off one of these days.”
Right then I got an idea. If I was going to be Conrad’s servant, I’d serve even when he didn’t ask.
Early the next morning I sprayed the mud and dirt off the truck. I was hiding in the bushes when Conrad hurried out the front door, dressed in his suit and carrying a briefcase. He stopped in front of the truck and smiled. “Well, I’ll bet Ben’s been here. It comes in right handy having a servant.”
Conrad opened the truck door, tossed his briefcase inside and sat down. Immediately he let out a yelp and shot out of the truck, banging his head on the door. “The seat’s soaked!”
I caught my breath. The windows had been rolled up last night … ! I hunkered down in the bushes. Tricia came out of the house with a towel and helped dry Conrad off. He was fuming and sputtering, but Tricia calmed him down. “Everything will dry out fine,” she assured him. “Ben was just trying to help.”
“Maybe he shouldn’t try so hard.”
It was late that evening before I dared go over to apologize. “I’m sorry about the truck seat,” I said when Conrad answered the door. “I was sure the windows were all up when I went home last night.”
“They were,” Conrad replied, smiling slightly. “I guess I left mine open after we went out for ice cream. It’s OK—I think everything dried out.”
For a little while I stayed and talked to him and Tricia. I decided to ask my first missionary question. “Do you know what makes me different?” I asked slowly.
Conrad and Tricia looked at each other and smiled. “I have some ideas,” Conrad answered.
“I’m a Latter-day Saint. Some people call us Mormons,” I said excitedly. “And Mormons are different. Do you know any Mormons?”
“I had a friend in college who was a Mormon.”
“Was he like me?”
“He didn’t go around knocking over boxes, burning cookies, and flooding my truck.” Conrad winked at me and grinned. “Maybe he just wasn’t a very good Mormon.”
“That isn’t what I meant,” I said, feeling my cheeks and neck burn with embarrassment. “That’s just me. Mom says I’m growing faster than my brain can operate.” I swallowed. “If you want to know more about Mormons, you just let me know.”
Tricia smiled and took Conrad’s hand. “We’ll do that, Ben.”
The rest of the week I was pretty careful about not being a disaster around Tricia and Conrad. I mainly just talked to them without touching anything. I talked about our family, about Matt serving his mission in Spain, about family home evening and reading the scriptures, and other things.
Saturday afternoon as Conrad was fixing his lawn mower, I asked, “Do you and Tricia go to church much?”
Conrad thought a moment, then shook his head. “I get pretty busy on Sunday.” He grinned. “That’s when the fish bite.”
“I like going to church,” I said. “We sing and tell stories.”
“I’m afraid the singing and storytelling would scare the fish away.” Conrad laughed, slapping me on the back. “Right now I need to get some big fat night crawlers so that I’ll be ready for tomorrow.”
I didn’t want Conrad going fishing on Sunday, but if he needed night crawlers, I knew where to get him some. I went out in our garden and pretty soon I had a dozen of the biggest, fattest worms a guy could find. “Here are your night crawlers,” I said as he put his lawn mower away. “Dad says our night crawlers are the best around.”
He took my tin can filled with dirt and worms. “Well, thanks, Ben. You’re a real pal.” He winked at me. “And you didn’t even burn them.”
I missed having Conrad and Tricia in church Sunday. I thought about him out on the lake, fishing with my worms. We got home from church just as he pulled up in his truck.
“You were right, Ben. Those were great night crawlers. I pulled in half a dozen of the best fish I’ve seen in a long time.”
I kept visiting Conrad and Tricia, but not because I was a missionary—Conrad finally had told me that he didn’t think he’d ever have time for church. I kept visiting them because I was their friend.
I helped them out when I could, and I was getting better about not being a disaster as soon as I walked through their door. I still had a few accidents—like the time I knocked Conrad’s grape juice all over his white shirt. There were good times, though, like when I helped Tricia plant her flowers, and when I helped Conrad dig postholes for a back fence.
The Saturday afternoon before our Primary put on the sacrament meeting presentation, I took Conrad his can of worms. He and Tricia were in the backyard, sipping lemonade. “I guess you’re going fishing tomorrow, aren’t you?” I asked as I set the can down.
Conrad peered into my can. “If you have some of your famous night crawlers, I should come home with a real trophy tomorrow. Do you want to come with me?” He grinned.
“We’re putting on a special presentation tomorrow in sacrament meeting,” I said softly, ducking my head. “I’m going to be Joseph Smith. That’s kind of like the main part. You could give the fish a rest,” I said hopefully. “They’d have a week to grow even bigger.” I looked up at him and then over at Tricia. She was looking at Conrad, too. “Then you could come to church with me.”
Conrad took my can of worms and turned it around in his hand, thinking but not saying anything for a while. “Ben, what difference does it make if I go to church with you?”
I thought about that. “You’re my friend,” I finally said. “I care about you. And going to church is better than going fishing on Sunday.”
“I’m not much of a church man, Ben. I’ve just never done it.”
“But you need it. Lots more than you need those fish. After a while, the fish will be gone. But if you have Jesus and His church, you’ll have them forever.”
“It means a lot to you, doesn’t it, Ben?”
I nodded and looked down at the ground. For a long time we were all really quiet. Then he handed me the can of worms. “Just one Sunday,” he said, trying to sound real stern. “And I’ll go just because you’re going to be Joseph Smith.” He smiled. “Now, if you put those back in your garden, do you think you can find them again for next Sunday?”
I hesitated and looked at Tricia. She winked at me and then said to Conrad, “Maybe after you go to church with Ben tomorrow, you won’t want those worms next Sunday.”
“That’s what I’m hoping,” I said with a huge smile. “Who knows, maybe the fish bite even better on Saturday. That way I could go with you.”
Conrad laughed as Tricia reached over and took his hand. “I think everybody needs a servant like our Benjamin Tripp.”