“How could you not tell me how horrible it is?” I wrote to Elder Newman, one of my instructors at the Missionary Training Center. When I arrived in the mission field 20 years ago, it was hard, and I was hating it. I would stick it out because I wasn’t a quitter, but I would never tell anyone it was the best 18 months of my life.
Elder Newman wrote back: “I’m sorry you feel that way, Sister Betz. Actually, Elder Bradford and I tried to tell you. All of you. We always do, but no one ever wants to believe it. Don’t worry. It will get better. And by the time you get home, you’ll be glad you went.”
I decided to make the best of it. After all, I was sure Heavenly Father wanted me to come, and I couldn’t deny the Spirit I had felt when I had approached Him with my decision to serve a mission. Many of my friends had served missions or were serving, and they seemed to have insights into the gospel that I felt I was missing. Every one of my missionary friends told glowing stories of people whose lives were touched by the gospel and of miracles they witnessed on a daily basis. They all said that serving a mission was the greatest thing they had ever done, and their experiences had helped me choose to serve.
Yet there I was in northern Germany with jet lag, a senior companion who was almost as green as I was, and cool weather in June. We were soaked to the skin at least twice a day and generally looked like we had been dragged through large puddles. Riding bikes didn’t make matters any better. We lived at the top of one of the few high hills in northern Germany, and our investigators, it seemed, all lived at the top of another. Most discouraging, however, was my awareness that I had not yet learned to recognize the subtle influence of the Spirit. I worried that I was doomed to failure as a missionary. And I hadn’t even been in Germany two months yet.
Incredibly, however, I came to find out that Elder Newman was right. It did get better. None of the hard stuff went away, but I learned to see and savor the good times.
There was, for example, the return trip from my second zone conference. We had transferred trains and were busy talking to a woman about the new temple in Freiberg when I noticed that the train had stopped in a city we shouldn’t have been in. We realized we had gotten on the wrong train and quickly jumped off. Unfortunately, the next train headed in the right direction would not pass through for another two hours, and our connection after that would be even later. Waiting in that train station, we had the chance to do some reading. “The Inconvenient Messiah,” an article by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, then president of Brigham Young University, appeared in the Ensign we had just received, and his thoughts seemed directed straight to me:
“And so I ask you to be patient in things of the Spirit. Perhaps your life has been different from mine, but I doubt it. … My mission was not easy. …
“… All but a prophetic few must go about God’s work in very quiet, very unspectacular ways. And as you labor to know him, and to know that he knows you; as you invest your time—and inconvenience—in quiet, unassuming service, you will indeed find that ‘his angels [have] charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up’ (Matt. 4:6). It may not come quickly. It probably won’t come quickly, but there is purpose in the time it takes. Cherish your spiritual burdens because God will converse with you through them and will use you to do his work if you will carry them well” (Tambuli, Mar. 1989, 23; Ensign, Feb. 1984, 70).
My experience in the mission field helped me understand those words, and the Spirit bore strong, penetrating, comforting witness to me of those truths in that lonely train station.
It was getting late one evening when Sister Gubler and I were tracting in a large apartment building. We were a little surprised when an elderly woman invited us into her apartment, but we both sensed that this woman was hurting inside. While we sat in her darkened room, she told us the story of her husband’s death and her stepchildren’s rejection, and we knew that she needed desperately to feel her Heavenly Father’s love for her. Asking for her Bible, I read to her these beautiful words: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; … and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:29–30). The Spirit entered that room. As tears streamed down three faces, my companion and I bore testimony to her that her Father in Heaven knew of her sorrow and loved her. At least one conversion took place in those brief, precious moments—mine.
Gradually I realized that my perceptions were changing. We still got yelled at, barked at, rained on, stood up, and ignored; my shoulder bag grew heavier; my clothes wore out more every day; and the responsibility of reaching those thousands of people sometimes seemed overwhelming. But the barbs stung less and less, the aches and pains got duller and duller, and life got brighter and brighter as my testimony grew stronger and stronger. I felt changes take place within me, and I saw them take place in those to whom we taught the gospel.
There was Uwe, the young, idealistic environmentalist, who heard about the plan of salvation and knew the message was true. He bicycled 5 miles (8 km) to church on Sunday morning in answer to our invitation, even though his long, leather-clad legs wouldn’t fit into the chapel’s pews. When he prayed on his knees for the first time, we felt the peace that entered his heart, and we watched his countenance change.
A doctor and his wife wanted to fight everything we taught them, but somehow they knew they couldn’t. Even though they didn’t accept the restored gospel of Jesus Christ at that time, they were happy to let their children visit the branch in Glückstadt for Sunday meetings and branch activities.
One day while my new companion, Sister Neumann, and I were teaching a sweet young woman, her boyfriend, Tom, came to see her. She had warned us that he did not want her to continue meeting with us. Tom saw our bicycles in front of the house and knew we were there that morning, so he decided to wait outside until we left. As he waited his curiosity grew stronger and stronger, and he thought of more and more questions to ask us. Eventually his interest overcame his reservations, and he came inside to put us to the test. After briefly explaining the basic principles of the gospel and outlining the Apostasy and the Restoration, we made an appointment to begin teaching him the next evening. He was baptized 10 weeks later. I was so full of joy I would have reenlisted for 10 years if I could have.
Astrid and Jennifer, sisters, found the Church before the missionaries could find them. Jennifer was interested when she heard about the Church in a religion class at school and did some research. In the local library she found German translations of the Book of Mormon and William E. Berrett’s The Restored Church. She and Astrid read them together. Skeptically, they looked in the Bremen phone book to see if they could find a reference to this “American” church. They were pleasantly surprised to find a meetinghouse in their very own hometown. They wrote to the meetinghouse, asking how to go about joining this restored Church of Jesus Christ. Of course, we were glad to help.
The Oehlers, the Kaldeweys, Frau Sirisko, Herr Lange, Herr Todt, and thousands of others stopped to talk or listen for just a moment—and sometimes longer—so that we could bear testimony and plant a gospel seed. In this life I’ll never see the fruit that most of those seeds will bear, but the Claassens were baptized after I was transferred from their city, and Frau Mahnke gained a testimony and joined the Church long after I was released from my mission.
Elder Newman was right. By the time I left Germany, my heart had expanded to include an entirely new world full of people, ideas, traditions, and customs—not to mention spiritual impressions—that will remain inscribed on my heart forever. I learned to love, to give, and to suffer for people I had once thought of as strangers.
After returning home, while working with missionaries at the MTC, I tried to help them see that although great blessings were in store, their missions would be difficult at times. They never quite understood. But then I didn’t expect them to—yet.