Missionary Metamorphosis

Are you somewhere between the ages of thirteen and eighteen and preparing for a mission? I was once. I used to wonder, as you probably do, what happens to a fellow out there.

You’ve seen prospective missionaries speaking in sacrament meeting before they go out. The missionary-to-be, slightly pale, maybe even a bit ill, is faced with the responsibility of the last twenty minutes of sacrament meeting to “use as he sees fit.” Church adjourns fifteen minutes early.

You’ve also been in sacrament meetings when missionaries return to report. The name and face (though matured) belong to a young man who left two years ago. The confidence and bearing do not. Nor does the sincere, calm voice declaring, “I know God lives. I know Jesus is the Christ. I know Joseph Smith is a prophet.” You’ve thrilled at the faith-promoting experiences and wondered what the elders really mean when they say, “Those were the happiest two years of my life.”

And you wonder, what happens to these guys? How can they change so much in two years? Can it happen to me?

I don’t know all the answers, nor do any other former missionaries, but all of us know a few of them. Just for a moment, suppose that it’s your turn; you’ve received the large white envelope from 47 East South Temple Street with the title “Elder” before your name. It’s signed by President Harold B. Lee and you are “hereby called to be a missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to labor in the Samoa Mission.” (It could be any mission in the world, but since Samoa is the only one with which I am intimately familiar, let’s use it.) “Samoa!” You look it up and find that it’s about 2700 miles south of Hawaii and 13 degrees below the equator in the South Pacific. “Wow, the South Pacific! How lucky can a guy get!”

The Language Training Mission for the South Pacific and the Orient is at the Church College of Hawaii. Your assignment there is to get a good grasp of the foreign language and memorize most or all of the missionary discussions in that language. This is to be done in eight weeks, studying a minimum of ten hours a day. Meanwhile you are being weaned from family, girl friend, and dragging Main Street.

It’s a terrific challenge, a task that seems too tremendous for you to handle by yourself. In fact, you try your hardest to learn the sounds, structure, and sequences—and fail. It’s discouraging; you wonder if perhaps a mistake has been made, if you have been sent to the wrong mission. Then part of the magic starts to unfold as you become humble and teachable and go to the Lord for help. He’s ready to help you, and you are now prepared to receive his help. A few things begin to fall into place. Once in a while you recognize a verb. A few of the nouns become familiar, and the sounds begin to have meaning, and progress is being made.

Finally the day comes when you arrive in your field of labor. It is a land of beautiful beaches, breathtaking sunsets, pinnacled volcanic mountains, crystal clear rivers, swaying palms, and green, perpetual green, everywhere. All is there in majestic splendor, but for many months you hardly notice because you are preoccupied.

The food takes some getting used to. You had visions of exotic dishes, fresh fruits, South Sea delicacies. Instead your main diet consists of breadfruit, baked taro, boiled green bananas, canned mackerel, and a dozen other things whose names you can’t even pronounce.

You thought your language was pretty good, but now you find that the people talk too fast, and you can hardly understand a word they are saying. When they laugh, you think they are laughing at you because you said a word wrong. You probably did and they probably are.

You thought it would be fun to sleep on a mat in a fale (native house)—until you find that there is nothing under that mat but rocks, and your mosquito net does a better job of keeping the varmints in than out.

The heat and humidity are stifling. It’s so humid that rain or shine you’re soaked at the end of the day.

You discover that your legs weren’t designed for sitting crosslegged on the floor for hours on end. But your companion tells you that it’s improper in the Samoan custom for you to stretch your legs out while sitting. And don’t stand while drinking. Don’t ever whistle, don’t sing while walking, and never, never run in a village. And a thousand other don’ts, just because “it looks bad for a missionary,” and “it’s not proper custom.”

Then there’s your companion. He’s a little different (so are you, but that realization hasn’t sunk in yet). Besides, any odd little habits he may have are magnified out of proportion because of your closeness. He might visit a family two or three times before presenting a discussion. Anyone knows that these are the last days, and we don’t have time to waste on people. We’ve got to get in there, give our message, call them to repentance, give them their chance, and then move on to the next house.

Occasionally you wish you were home. Home—Mom’s cooking, security, hot water, electricity, mattresses and box springs, four seasons, an occasional drought, and indoor showers.

Again you are faced with a challenge. It’s a challenge of a different nature, but the solution is much the same. Humble yourself; become teachable; turn to the Lord; commit to do your part. The scriptures take on new meaning to you as you read of great missionaries: the apostle Paul, Alma the Younger, the Sons of Mosiah, and many others. You think to yourself, “Wow, they really had it rough. Come on, Elder, toughen up!”

Once again you begin to make real progress. Not overnight, mind you, but step by step, day by day, one obstacle at a time. One day you give your first discussion to a contact. You get nervous halfway through and your companion has to bail you out. The next time you make it all the way, and you feel great.

After several months of improvement, the moment you’ve been striving for arrives. The mission assistants pull up to your fale one morning and say, “Pack your box, Elder, you’re transferred.” You are now in a new area, and your new companion has been in the mission field for three days. That means you’re in the driver’s seat, the senior companion, charged with directing the work of the Lord in your area.

This is your big opportunity to do things your way. A wave of fear sweeps over you as you realize that you really are in charge, and your new companion looks at you like, “Well, what do we do now?” You fight off your fear, “gird up your loins,” and go out to preach repentance to the people.

A month passes, maybe two. You’re putting in the hours, working the area, giving discussions, making out the reports. All the physical essentials of proselyting are there, but something is missing. People are polite. They let you into their homes and let you give a lesson if you wish. But they seldom ask you back, and you can tell that they aren’t really interested. Their custom prescribes that they receive you cordially, and they honor their custom.

You begin to do some real soul-searching and pray earnestly to understand how to get through to the people. And then the words of counsel that your father gave you before you left focus sharply in your memory: “Son, unless you really love those people, nothing else you do matters.” The words ring true. You ask yourself: “Do I? Do I really love these people?” And your own conscience gives you the answer.

The next time you go out to proselyte, your methods are changed. Instead of just preaching, you begin to listen—not only to what people are saying, but you fine-tune your spirit to the feelings behind the words. It’s a revelation to you as you begin to understand that these people have real problems, joys, hopes, and fears just like everyone else.

One Sunday one of the sisters in the branch approaches you and asks you and your companion to bless her baby who is critically ill. Your faith wavers, but hers doesn’t. The blessing is given, and a life is saved by a mother’s faith. You are left with a deep respect for the faith of a people who, when one of theirs is sick, go to the elders even before they seek medical help.

You visit a nonmember family. As is often the case, they prepare a meal for you before you leave. This is common, and you had not taken much note of it before. This time you pay particular attention. The little red rooster that had been crowing when you arrived is now boiling in the pot. The last bunch of bananas is plucked. Enough money is found to buy a can of corned beef. You look around. The house is small, the roof needs patching, there are many children in the family, and they have little clothing. Yet they give you the best they have, and the only reward they hope for from you is your blessing, as a servant of the Lord, upon their family. As you leave there is a lump in your throat and mist in your eyes. You are humbled with the realization that you are charged with teaching the perfect gospel to a people who know and live the principles of true Christianity. You find there is much to be learned from them as you teach them the restored gospel.

A change in your sources of motivation now begins to take place. Language and language study become tools to better communicate the feelings of the Spirit, not just to impress your fellow missionaries or to send tapes home in a foreign language to impress Mom and Dad. Your fasting and prayers change from an emphasis upon your own needs to those of your contacts. Gospel study changes from a mere accumulation of theological facts to a sincere application of those truths in your own life. A whole new realm opens up to you now. Experiences that seem natural in themselves become revelations of truth.

You find that the Spirit of the Lord can be as powerfully present in a grass hut as in the nicest chapel; that the greatest gift with which a missionary can be blessed is to teach effectively and with the Spirit, to be sensitive and perceptive of the feelings of others, to discern their needs and wants; that the most productive and rewarding hours of your proselyting day are the “overtime” or “extra-mile” hours given in service when the body says, “I’m tired; let’s go home,” but the greater desire within you says, “One more house—maybe, just maybe, we’ll find a receptive spirit”; that the true fruits of your labors consist not in how many but in what kind of baptisms result—be it one or one hundred—and the feeling of grateful joy you receive when the Lord permits you to be a partner in the miracle of conversion.

The end of your mission nears. You are now an old timer among your fellow missionaries. On one of those last days, 9:00 A.M. finds you and your companion, as usual, walking to your first appointment of the day. Buried in your own thoughts you think of how the sun made a golden highway across a glassy sea as it rose that morning; how the storm of the day before made the rivers and waterfalls swell and the green foliage seem so much deeper and brighter after the clouds receded a little and the sun broke through; how the sunset over the tops of the mountains was reflected from one cloud to another until the whole sky was filled with shades of purple, yellow, pink, and blue; of the night breeze that cleared away the clouds and caused the palm leaves to clatter and the roar of the breakers to be carried clearly across the beach and village green long seconds after appearing as silver crests of reflected moonlight, tumbling one on the other against the coral reef hundreds of yards from the shore, to become mere lappings upon reaching the sand. All of this is but a fitting stage on which some of God’s choicest children have been placed.

As you continue up the trail, the now familiar lump again rises in your throat and the mist comes to your eyes, accompanied by a prayer in your heart that in some way you have given as much as you have received.

So, future missionary, be it the South Pacific, the Orient, South or Central America, Europe, Scandinavia, or the USA, the conditions and challenges may differ, but the key to success is love, the love you feel for your Father in heaven and the love you have for his children.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn