In a very memorable sacrament meeting, I felt the truly universal nature of the gospel. The sacrament was administered in French and German. Talks were given in Italian, English, and Portuguese. A verse of “I Am a Child of God,” was sung in ten languages—Japanese, Korean, German, Spanish, Italian, French, Tongan, Samoan, Dutch, and English. The whole congregation was touched through the spiritual language of the soul.
Unusual as it seemed to me at the time, this kind of sacrament meeting would become more familiar to me for I had recently been called to serve as branch president at the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah. I realized that this would be a unique experience.
The missionaries in my branch came from many nations. On one occasion, we had missionaries from eighteen different countries brought together by the common cause of testimony and love for the Savior.
The excitement of seeing missionaries from many countries, interviewing them, and trying to help them, lasted throughout the time I served at the MTC. Most of all, I enjoyed getting to know the missionaries. Learning from their experiences and watching them grow in the gospel was a blessing that overwhelms my feelings and occasionally still brings me to tears when I think or speak about them.
As I interviewed missionaries and heard them speak, I learned something about their spiritual maturity, their degree of preparation, and their dedication to service. I found great variety among them. Some missionaries were well prepared, while others were not. Some were spiritually mature, and others were not spiritually minded at all. Some were very dedicated in their service, and others were not so dedicated. As I listened to them, I heard them use the words sacrifice and privilege.
I noticed that every missionary used at least one of these words and sometimes both to describe his or her feelings about serving a mission. Some said they were happy to sacrifice two years of their lives, possessions, and girlfriends in order to serve the Lord. Others said they felt it to be a privilege to serve him. I heard these two words so often that I began to watch how the missionaries matched their words to their actions.
An elder from Germany told me how he had “always known” that he did “not know the truth.” He described how he sometimes “prayed to God” to find it. After leaving the military service, he was employed in Switzerland. One day, living alone and feeling lonely, he prayed again, “Please God, send me the truth.” A few days later when he was walking down the street, a stranger approached him and said, “Young man, I am supposed to talk with you, but I don’t know why.” In this missionary’s words, “I looked into his face and knew he had the Spirit of God. His face was beautiful.” The stranger was a Church member who had been walking down the same busy street and felt inspired to speak to a young man he didn’t know. This new elder spoke of his mission as a privilege.
A sister from Spain had already completed one full-time mission and immediately went to work as a nurse in order to earn money for another. At first the local Church leaders would not let her go, but she persisted in her attempts until they finally consented. She was called to serve in Chile.
An elder from Mexico happily showed me a picture of his family. “Look,” he said, “my father saved for two months to buy me these shoes. My branch contributed money so I could have this suit.” They both described their missions as a privilege. One elder arrived from Samoa. When he introduced himself for the first time he walked to the front of the congregation holding up a copy of the Book of Mormon. He said, “I am here because this book is true.” He was one of fifteen children. He had been told by his father before leaving home that other men, Church leaders, would be his father for the next few years. He was to obey them. He thought his mission was a great privilege.
Another missionary told of hearing about the gospel in France. The missionaries were not fluent in his language, but he knew that what they were telling him was important, so he studied English in order to better understand them. After hearing the discussions, he had difficulty breaking some of his bad habits. The missionaries told him to ask the Lord for help. One night he was having extreme difficulty and, remembering their advice, went to his bedroom to pray for help. An hour or two later he heard a knock at his door. The missionaries were standing there, drenched from having walked five kilometers in a heavy rainstorm. “Why are you here?” he asked them. “We were asleep,” they said, “and woke up feeling you needed us.” He paused at this point in his talk and looked out over the audience as if looking for someone. Then he said, in a voice trembling with love and gratitude, “I want you to meet my missionaries.” They both lived near the MTC, and he had invited them to hear him speak at our meeting. He spoke of his mission as a privilege.
An elder told of traveling from Vietnam and arriving at a refugee camp near Seattle, Washington. While trying to learn English so he could live in the United States, someone gave him a small card with a picture and an address on it. He kept it for some reason. Later, when he was asked where he wanted to live he showed this card to the customs official. “I can’t send you there,” he was told “but I can send you to a place nearby.” He was sent to live with a Latter-day Saint family in Salt Lake City where he learned about the Church. As he finished telling me this story, he showed the card he had been given in the refugee camp. It was a picture of the MTC. “I am here, President,” he said. Like the others, he thought it was a privilege to go on a mission.
The privilege of serving the Lord on a mission is felt and demonstrated in many ways. One missionary had struggled with family problems since he was a boy. While still young, he was expelled from his home and went to live with another family who introduced him to the Church. The gospel gave him direction in life where his natural parents had not. A few years later, after becoming one of the best players on a college football team, he decided to serve a mission. Before leaving on his mission, he gave copies of the Book of Mormon to his friends at school. This included his team coaches, fellow players, and teachers. He distributed more than 200 copies before entering the Missionary Training Center.
The missionaries who looked upon a mission only as a sacrifice were often honestly dedicated to the Lord’s service. However, I found they had not experienced personal revelation and inspiration. They were usually less informed about the Savior. But as they studied their scriptures and came to know Him better, their hearts seemed to soften and enlarge. They began to more deeply feel His love and know of the importance of missionary work as a continuation of this love extended to others. Many of those who began by telling of their sacrifices left the Missionary Training Center talking about privilege.
During my last sacrament meeting at the MTC, an elder stood who was older than most missionaries. He apologized for his poorly-spoken English, but hoped that he would be understood. His voice was deep and strong. He told of growing up in Cracow, Poland. He felt uncomfortable attending his family’s church and said that he “instinctively” knew some of its practices were not correct. He stopped going to his church and instead began to study the Bible. As he grew he became increasingly unhappy with the government, and at age eighteen he asked for political asylum in Austria. It was granted, and he left his home to start a new life. He spent nine very difficult months in the refugee camp near Vienna before seeking permission to migrate to the United States. Once he arrived he was contacted by missionaries from many churches. “They were nice,” he said, “but I could tell they did not have the answers I was looking for.” One day he saw a television program on the Mormons. He felt good about what he saw, and he decided to learn more of the Church. He met the missionaries, heard and accepted the gospel, and at age twenty-five was serving a mission. “It is a privilege to be here,” he said softly in his deep Polish accent. “I have been looking for a long time.”
It is a wonderful privilege for anyone to serve the Savior. It is a privilege to have any part in the great missionary work of the Church. I have thought about young men who have an easy life, or who do not know of the Lord, or who are afraid, or who are uncaring. I wish they would come to understand that it is a privilege to study the words of eternal life, to learn about their Redeemer, and seek opportunities to serve him by serving their fellowmen.