Time dulls some memories. Others never die. As a missionary in Kentucky and Tennessee, I had experiences that will live brightly in my mind for many years to come. During the summer of 1972 I had the opportunity of working in the small southern town of McMinnville, Tennessee. Though my stay was relatively short, it was one of the most profoundly significant times of my life.
I vividly recall the night of my arrival in McMinnville. It was early evening, and the early summer heat was stifling. I was excited. I was humble. And I was soon to come to grips with the reality of the harsh world of proselyting. This was a world where great idealism and great hope had to be translated into great faith and hard work. It was a world where baptisms were earned with blood, sweat, toil, and tears, if even then. But the Church was true, and I was excited.
Missionary work in McMinnville was hard, and the first weeks presented us with some real difficulties. The town had been tracted out on a regular basis every six months for at least the past ten years, and we only had two contacts. Fortunately, I was too green and idealistic to be discouraged, and so we went forth. And as time went on, tracting seemed increasingly fruitless. The people for whom we had the most hope seemed to be the first to lose interest. Yet in my heart I had a burning desire to succeed. The funny thing was that I really didn’t know what it meant to succeed. I didn’t know exactly what I was expecting to find, but I did know whatever real success was, that’s what I wanted.
It was early June when we called back at the first house on the right side of Van Buren Street. We had left a Book of Mormon there earlier. The husband answered the door and invited us in. The TV was on, and he returned to his easy chair where an ash tray and a beer can sat on opposite arms of the chair. After he had readjusted himself, he turned slightly and said, “Well, boys, what can I do for you?” (Boys was the common term for a couple of Mormon missionaries in the South.) I remember as I answered him that I had to speak loudly because I was running close competition with the local broadcast of Hee Haw. I explained, as best I could, why we had come: we had left a copy of the Book of Mormon with his wife, and we would like to tell them more about it as it contained a message of beauty and great importance for himself and his family. He told us he and his wife were going out for the evening but that they would be glad to have us back next week. The next week we went back. After a few preliminary introductions we were ready to go. Unfortunately Uncle Fred and his family had decided to pay an unexpected visit and showed up in the middle of the opening prayer, so we were on the road again. The next week we returned and were able to give them the first discussion. It was a rough evening. I didn’t know too much about burning hell, and the fine points of polygamy still weren’t too clear; but we explained the gospel the best we could, promised to find some more scriptural references, and bore our testimonies. Afterwards I asked Mr. Hale how he felt about the things we had discussed. I think his answer was a classic. He said, “Boys, I don’t know whether what you’ve told me tonight is true or not, but I feel like Joseph Smith did when he went to the woods to pray. I want to know the truth. I want to know the truth.” And he meant it.
The next week as we walked in the door to give the second discussion, I noticed that a curious change had taken place. The room was spotless. There were no beer cans or cigarettes this time, and the Hales were waiting for us. And to add to our rejoicing, as we pulled out our lists of scriptures on hell, polygamy, and other subjects he’d asked about, he said, “Oh, let’s go on to something else. I already believe the Church’s teachings on all that now that I’ve had a chance to think about it.” As the discussion progressed, he began asking questions he’d wondered about all his life. What a thrill it was for us to be able to give him the answers he’d been waiting so long to hear. At the end of the discussion, he confided in us that when his fellow workers found out he was listening to the Mormon missionaries they had started giving him a bad time. I asked him if this bothered him. His answer was choice: “There’s always another neighborhood to move to. There’s always another town. But if this is the truth, then that’s all that really counts.” And it was.
We knew these people were special, and more than anything we wanted them to come into the Church. I believe I learned more during that month as I searched out answers to their questions than during any other month in my life. I remember calling my district leader several times to ask for help on some tough questions. This was a particularly desperate move considering those were long-distance calls.
The third discussion was the turning point. That night I bore my testimony with all the fervor of my heart. More than anything else I wanted to touch their lives. Then an amazing thing happened. After we bore our testimonies to them, they bore their testimonies to us. They told us that they knew the Book of Mormon was true because God wouldn’t leave us with just the Bible. They told us they knew we were servants of our Heavenly Father and that the things we told them were true. And the rest—the rest is history. On July 7, 1972, Arthur and Nancy Hale were baptized members of the true church of Jesus Christ.
During their conversion I learned to love those people. In fact I would have given anything I had to see them accept the truth. For one moment I was loving and serving as Christ would love and serve. This was my joy, and my heart was full. As President Harold B. Lee once said, “If you want to love God, you’ve got to learn to love and serve the people.” This was success—to be able to love and serve others with all your heart. To love and to care, to share and to bear, to reach out and experience rebirth—this was true success. This was the answer.
I cried when I left McMinnville. Maybe I’ll go back there someday. But whether I do or not, the lesson in love I learned there will be with me the rest of my life.