Those first new green shoots popping up through powdery brown soil fill the gardener’s soul with joy—his love and care have paid off! There’s growth! And even if the gardener is not there to continue to watch the growth of the plants, his work lives on.
Such a gardener was Bruce Drennan, a young missionary whose love for the Lord and the gospel was no secret. He planted the seeds of testimony among friends, family, and the people of the small Aymara Indian village of Suriquina, Bolivia, where he and his companion Kevin Bons died after being overcome by carbon monoxide fumes from a faulty heater in their living quarters on December 22, 1981.
Many of those seeds he planted have been sprouting these past few years.
Everyone in his high school knew Bruce for his leadership as senior class president and his commitment to the Church. He had a way of injecting a big dose of fun and life into just about everything he touched. It might have been getting a bunch of friends together to take the local missionaries out to breakfast. Or planning the first senior class trip to Disneyland. Or yelling “Let’s be the nerd bus!” and herding kids onto the bus when arguments arose over who should go on which bus for a school trip. Or staying up all night to put together the program for a youth conference.
On top of all his activities, he still managed to keep a 4.0 grade point average and win a four-year scholarship to BYU. As one of his teachers wrote when Bruce was applying for a scholarship, “A room full of Bruce Drennans would put any teacher in seventh heaven.”
He was committed to going on a mission and influenced his friends to do the same. “He really encouraged me to go on a mission when I needed the encouragement at a certain time in my life,” said his friend Ed Belliston. “He was always a good example and brought out abilities in me that I didn’t know I had. After I left on my mission and I heard of his death, the memory of Bruce would get me fired up again. He made me work harder.” Dean Teach, another friend, told his friend Lisa Anderson that if it hadn’t been for Bruce, he wouldn’t have gone on his mission.
While in the Missionary Training Center, Bruce Drennan wrote a letter bearing his testimony to one of his good friends, Lisa King, who is not a member of the Church. That same day he wrote in his journal, “I wrote Lisa King today. In the letter I bore my testimony and told her why I’m going on a mission. I don’t know what she’s going to think, but I guess that it doesn’t matter too much if she thinks I’m a jerk.”
Though Bruce didn’t know it, that testimony he wrote to Lisa would be sent to hundreds of people after his death, attached to the flyleaf of copies of the Book of Mormon sent by relatives and friends in his stake. And his testimony that had touched so many people in Suriquina, Bolivia, would continue to touch lives.
When the news of Bruce’s death reached his hometown of Ukiah, California, it struck a nerve in the community. Bruce was well known and loved. Grace Jones, whose Church assignment is to work with the media in Ukiah, received many of the questions about what had happened. She decided to let people really know what Bruce was doing in Bolivia—preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“We had so many inquiries from newspapers and radio stations about Bruce, that we decided it would be a good idea to let others know what he had been teaching,” said Sister Jones. “Why not give out copies of the Book of Mormon in his memory during the remaining 18 months he would have been serving as a missionary? I discussed the idea with the stake presidency, and they approved it. And Bruce’s family accepted the idea wholeheartedly.”
So under Sister Jones’s direction and with Lisa King’s permission, Bruce’s picture and testimony were put in hundreds of copies of the Book of Mormon. His testimony continued to influence many people.
Wrote Bruce, “A missionary’s sole purpose in the Mormon church is to teach the gospel of Christ to all those who are willing and ready to receive it. I know that Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father appeared to a man named Joseph Smith and restored the gospel to the earth. I know that Christ and Heavenly Father live today and have a tremendous love for us. I know that we lived before this earth and that we came down here for a purpose. The Book of Mormon is an additional witness of Christ to the Bible. Both are the word of God. These things are so true; they are so very important. It is because of these things that I am going on a mission. I hope you can understand and will receive these things with an open mind and heart.”
Also included in the copies of the Book of Mormon were two excerpts from his journal. The first one was about a mission experience. “I had been praying about this meeting quite a bit, that we would have the Spirit with us and that the people would feel it. Upon teaching, I felt like I was helped out with the language. Some words just came to me without having to think. By the time we finished, it was dark and the room was full. There were probably 100 people there.”
The second journal excerpt was about the blessings. “I’m so grateful for the world we have. If I ever want to put myself in a spiritual mood, all I have to do is look for the beauty in the world. I feel so small and insignificant compared to the grandeur of the world. It is like God has to love us to have given us all that He has.”
Many wards in the Ukiah Stake asked if they could participate in the Book of Mormon project. Posters were made and put in the foyers of participating wards. When a referral card was filled out and returned to the stake or full-time missionaries, the name of the requesting person was embossed in gold on the hardback cover of a Book of Mormon for that person, with Bruce’s testimony and photo included. Over 500 copies of Bruce’s testimony were printed the first time, and more were later printed.
“It was overwhelming! We were printing names on books like you couldn’t believe!” said Bruce Bates, Ukiah stake mission president. The books were either given to the recipient by the person making the referral or by the missionaries.
Bishop Drennan, Bruce’s father, probably gave out more books than anyone else. Manager of a department store in Ukiah, he posted a copy of a newspaper article telling about the Book of Mormon project on the bulletin board at his store. Many of his employees asked for copies.
“A Catholic friend of Bruce’s was extremely cooperative in sending his friends copies,” added Bishop Drennan. “She looked up addresses and made sure people got the books. At first we decided to continue giving the books for the period of time Bruce would have been on his mission, but it’s carried on past that time. I think the whole situation has helped my wife and me decide to go on a full-time mission when we retire.”
Sister Drennan, Bruce’s mother, also shared the books with people. “Because of the circumstances, it was easier for us to do what we should be doing anyway, sharing the Book of Mormon with our friends and neighbors,” she said.
Bruce’s brother David, formerly student body president at Ukiah High School, now serving a mission in Spain, gave out several books, and one friend took the missionary discussions because of the gift. “There was a blessing that came along with the trauma of Bruce’s death,” said David. “It made me open up more about the Church. It became easier to talk to people about it.”
Twelve-year-old Matt McKell gave one of the books to his junior high school social studies teacher. “It scared me a little, but he said he knew the Drennan boys and that he would read it,” said Matt.
Lynn Budrow, then eleven, gave one to her fifth-grade teacher. “I told her it was from Bruce, and she said she really wanted it,” said Lynn.
Ken Morgan, custodian at Ukiah High School, gave five books to teachers and personnel at the high school. The librarian asked for two copies, one for herself and one to put in the school library. Ken’s wife works at an elementary school, where she gave ten books to teachers and parents.
“The Book of Mormon I received I’ll keep forever, even though I’m not Mormon,” said Mary Beth Morris, one of Bruce’s friends. “Bruce would write and tell me how many baptisms he was doing. I thought his mission was neat, because I knew he would do a good job at whatever he did. He was an example for a lot of people.”
Georgia Portlock in the Drennan’s ward gave out many books. “I love to talk about the Church, and it made me feel great to give the books to people,” she said. “At least they’ll have a copy of the Book of Mormon, and I don’t care if it sits on their shelf for a while. One day something will come up and they’ll read it and understand it. That’s what happened to me. My son gave me a Book of Mormon, and it sat on the shelf for ten years until I read it. When I did, it. was like I was burning up, and in three weeks I asked to be baptized.”
Sister Portlock sent a copy of the book with Bruce’s testimony to her granddaughter Sherry Siekert in Wisconsin. And a little while later, Sister Portlock got a call from Sherry asking Brother Portlock to come out and baptize her.
“I had been brought up hearing about the Mormons but not knowing anything about them,” said Sherry. “When I got the book, I started to read it—I’ve no idea what made me open the book. I just did. Two elders had come by before and left a pamphlet in the house, and I read it. Maybe that’s one reason I started to read the book.
“After I talked to the missionaries a while, I called my father in Chicago and said, ‘It all sounds so good to me. It’s like everything I’ve always wanted to know all my life.’ My father’s interested in the Church now, too.”
The gospel has had a great impact in Sherry’s life. “I don’t feel like I have to go out and do a lot of wild things to have fun. Fun is being with good friends and family now. I appreciate them more, and I’m not afraid of death anymore. I work in a nursing home, and when I see people dying, I feel like they’re going to something better. I’ve also found that if you stand by your standards and don’t let your peers pressure you into things you know are wrong, they’ll respect you more than if you’d just gone along. This last year since I’ve been baptized has been great.”
So Bruce Drennan’s missionary work continues on as his example inspires others to plant, nurture, and harvest. The impact of his testimony may never be fully measured.
Two flowering nectarine trees, the first of the kind in Ukiah, have been dedicated to Bruce at his high school, along with a plaque in his memory. “The trees here will grow and be strong, just as Bruce was strong,” said his friend Mary Morris.
Eugene F. Olsen, acting mission president of the Bolivia La Paz Mission at the time of Bruce’s death, wrote to Bruce’s parents: “Elder Bons and Elder Drennan were among the best missionaries in the entire mission. The fact that they were assigned to the Aymara program at all is in itself a high recommendation as only the very most dedicated and committed missionaries are called to that program because of the fact that the minimal supervision possible in these remote areas makes self-supervision and total dependability an absolute necessity.”
In a letter to Bishop and Sister Drennan shortly after Bruce’s death, Elder Mike Hanley of Bruce’s mission summed up the impact Elder Bruce Drennan had in the lives of a few—and continues to have: “I wanted you to know about the work in Suriquina, where Elder Drennan was working. In January, the elders in Suriquina had 25 baptisms. That was excellent for them. However, they did even better in February—they had 37. They were the highest baptizing companionship in all Bolivia. Suriquina is booming, and Brother and Sister Drennan, I know Elder Drennan planted some of those seeds. He made a big sacrifice, but these people will be grateful to him throughout eternity. He helped them receive the greatest gift they’ll ever have—the gift that’ll carry them to eternal life. I’m sure Elder Drennan is happy. We should be, too.”
“But if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life” (Alma 32:41).