Letters? Clippings? Candy? What to Send to a Missionary

“As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.” (Prov. 25:25.)

Dogs barked at him. Doors were slammed in his face. He’d slipped on an icy porch and torn a hole in the knee of his suit pants. Yet somewhere the proverbial sun must be shining. Somewhere there must be a friendly word. Perhaps back at the apartment on the hall table? He almost prayed, “Just one letter, please, from anybody. Just one …”

Do they really mean that much, letters from home? From Mom, from the bishop, from good old Brother Schulz, from Nancy and her Primary class? Ask any missionary!

As a matter of fact, we did. We asked 200 missionaries how they felt about letters and if they would give some advice to the folks back home.

Almost unanimously they said, simply, “Write!” Don’t wait until you have something world-shaking to report. The minor tremors are just as good, sometimes even better.

For some prospective letter writers this may be enough to know—words flow easily onto paper and the mail service takes it from there. But if you are one of the sometimes-blank, waiting-for-inspiration rest of us, the following ideas may be helpful.

First, our survey asked missionaries what general kinds of letters they enjoyed most. Here are some of their comments:

  • Short, informative, humorous, ego-building …

  • Ones that would lift me spiritually. Happy, newsy comments about home.

  • Letters about the gospel or genuine spiritual experiences. Don’t be phony, though. Remember, we knew you before we left. No put-ons, please.

  • Experiences that have helped your testimonies to grow.

  • Anything from anybody. Just write!

But what do we write about? What topics are most interesting and welcome to missionaries in the field?

  • Word about the family. (98% put this high on their list. Some suggested that it is nice to hear also from friends about accomplishments of family members and how they are getting along.)

  • News of what is happening to other boys I knew who are on missions. (90%. But avoid making comparisons like “Dave has had seven baptisms already. Why haven’t you?”)

  • Church, ward, or branch activities. (81%)

  • Serious questions or comments about the gospel and spiritual matters. (79%)

  • Questions about my work, contacts, living conditions, etc. (74%)

  • School activities, achievements of friends, etc. (70%)

  • Changes in the community—old landmarks torn down, new recreation facilities, elections, etc. (67%)

  • Marriages, engagements of friends. (50%. Mixed feelings were expressed on this subject. Missionaries liked to be kept informed but often found news of this sort distracting.)

As much as they appreciated letters from home, they admitted that a few had been depressing or unwelcome. The following are some things they suggest avoiding:

  • Negative comments, especially about the gospel.

  • Griping about home, about how the country is falling apart, how boring school is. Feeling sorry for themselves.

  • Gossip—like who wears long hair and a beard.

  • Letters written when someone was depressed usually made me feel that way too.

  • Arguments in the family or between friends.

  • Telling me all I’m missing out on back home—knocking my decision to come on a mission.

  • Letters counting how many months before the mission will be over.

Letters on the unpleasant side from girls, in particular, included the following:

  • Dear Johns.

  • Talking about dates with other boys. If she went to a game or to hear a good musical group, great. Tell me about the game or the music, but not about the guy she was with.

  • Trying to become more than a casual friend. This isn’t the time to try and turn on a big romance. It will turn a missionary off, fast.

  • Mush! Mush! Those words may sound all right to you when you write them by moonlight, but when he reads them at 10 A.M. in the laundromat, they will sound pretty weird!

  • Any letter that pulls me away from the spirit of the work. Just remember that your letter might arrive right when we need the Spirit of the Lord the most.

Asked how often they expected or liked to receive letters, some said, “Any time. All the time. Constantly!” Others qualified this a bit by suggesting that notes from ward members and casual friends were especially welcome at Christmas and on birthdays. In addition, perhaps every few months another letter would be appreciated.

They expected family and close friends to write oftener, of course. Mothers, in particular, were to be depended upon for one letter a week. But it must be clearly understood that an elder or lady missionary cannot reply nearly as often as you or they might wish. “If we don’t take time to write back,” one said, “it’s not because we didn’t appreciate the letter. It’s because of a very tight schedule. Please don’t stop writing.”

What things other than letters did missionaries enjoy receiving? “Anything that shows someone remembers us and cares—especially if it’s chocolate,” was one reply. Others mentioned:

  • Cookies and candy. “The trouble is,” one elder lamented, “girls won’t send cookies unless they are in love or something. Please send food anytime!”

  • Clippings of interest from the local paper—even an appropriate cartoon.

  • Articles on the gospel.

  • Photos of hometown and friends.

  • Inexpensive practical gifts. (Most missionaries objected to expensive gifts, however, because this made them feel obligated, and they had no time and little inclination for shopping.)

Last, we touched on a rather difficult subject. Should we write of problems at home? A missionary has enough on his mind without being burdened by every ingrown toenail, flunked test, and slip-covering-the-sofa trauma being faced back home. Soap-opera letters were nobody’s favorites.

Nevertheless, most missionaries felt they had a right to be informed of serious situations where their advice and prayers might be of real help and comfort, especially when the immediate family is concerned. Whether or not to shield the missionary can, on occasion, be a difficult decision requiring fasting and prayer and perhaps counsel from local Church authorities. Many times such information can best be relayed through the mission president. But even in the most critical situations, complete honesty has often proved most beneficial to all.

As a matter of fact, attempts to keep illness or other problems secret can sometimes backfire. One elder heard by accident that his mother had undergone heart surgery. A frantic, long-distance phone call from England partially reassured him that she was progressing satisfactorily. But the remaining year of his mission was edged with anxiety. As he put it, “If they had leveled with me, I could have relaxed when the crisis was past, but this way, I was never sure how things really were at home.”

Bishops and ward members can perform a special service to the missionary by writing to reassure him or her about the situation at home. And, even more important, we can put forth some real effort toward making sure things are going well. One lady missionary whose father was a rather antagonistic nonmember will always remember a neighbor who wrote:

“I’ve been talking to your dad quite a bit about the gospel lately. He doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, he asks some mighty good questions. And he’s awfully proud of the work you’re doing.”

And a widow’s son received this comforting information:

“The deacons feel that by keeping your mother’s grass mowed they can relieve your mind just a bit so you can concentrate that much better on the Lord’s work. The Laurels feel the same when they can pick up the groceries she needs. It gives us a chance to be a small part of your mission.”

And of course this is what it’s all about—the letters, the prayers, the homemade candy. We should be trying, with the inspiration of the Lord, to help our missionaries fulfill their callings. “Come to the mission field in your letters,” one elder advised, “rather than trying to bring us home to you.”

So whatever way you choose to keep in touch, light-hearted or serious, be encouraging. Tell them how proud you are of the tremendous work they are trying to accomplish. And then don’t forget to mail the letters!

[illustration] Illustrated by Cheryl Zurcher