Becoming


Secretly I worried about this quiet, private young man going on a mission.

I met Jim when he was an extremely shy 14-year-old who was halfway through an explosive growth spurt. He came as a silent companion to his father, a devoted home teacher who faithfully visited our family each month. During each visit, he would sit in a corner chair and thumb through magazines. When we tried to include him in the conversation, he would answer our questions with a shrug or a simple yes or no. He declined all invitations to pray.

It took an earthquake to jar him from silence. We lived in San Diego at the time and would occasionally feel tremors from the San Andreas fault. One evening when Jim and his dad were in our home for their monthly visit, everything in the house started to shake as the earth beneath our home shuddered. It was the most powerful tremor any of us had ever felt, and we were startled. But I was equally startled when Jim began to talk excitedly about what he had felt. I remember exchanging an acknowledging look with my husband, “What do you know: he speaks!”

Two years later, at 16, Jim joined my seminary class. He soon started dropping by my home after school, along with several other of my students. They would come for a swim, a haircut, advice, conversation, and, of course, food. I tried to serve up what each of them needed. In group dynamics, Jim was still the quiet one. He had graduated to making short statements, but they were usually succinct one-liners. He wasted no words. He was, however, a comfortable, undemanding kid to have around; and he was well liked by everyone. I came to know him better by observation than by communication.

San Diego is a Navy city, and many of the families in our ward were in the Navy. Jim’s dad was transferred to Okinawa later that year. Jim struggled with the idea of a move so far away but decided to move overseas with his family.

Jim didn’t write very much, though I wrote to him. One day, however, the mail brought a beautiful cloisonne bracelet for me. There was no card, just a return address: Jim’s. His parents also wrote to us occasionally, so I knew what Jim was up to. I twice received job recommendation requests, so I knew he was working as a lifeguard at the base pool.

During the next year, I was surprised one day to find Jim standing on my doorstep. He had flown military standby, along with his sister, to visit friends on the mainland. Most of his friends were in school or were working so he spent quite a bit of time at my house—usually by playing quietly with my boys, building Lego structures. He seemed to feel comfortable in my home.

We talked about Okinawa and his experiences there. Again, he would simply answer my questions. I asked of future plans, and he said he wasn’t sure what he was going to do after high school graduation. After a few days, he flew back to Okinawa.

Jim popped up again after he graduated, on his way to Brigham Young University. He showed up a few times more as he traveled from Utah to California, and sometimes to the Far East. I came to expect his unannounced visits. However, I was surprised by the physical changes as he grew and matured into a handsome young man.

He grew up, coming and going through my door. After Jim’s 19th birthday and a year in Provo, he announced his intention to serve a mission. I was thrilled but a little surprised. He had never spoken of a testimony. His group of friends were split—some were going in the military, a few were planning on missions, and a few others struggled with worthiness problems.

Jim went back to Okinawa again, this time to receive a mission call. In a few month’s time he was on my doorstep again, on his way to the Missionary Training Center. We acknowledged how ironic it was for him to leave the Far East to come to the United States for a mission. During this visit, Jim began to talk. We talked about Japan, about his two dates, about his friends and their plans, and we discussed his recent trip to the Tokyo Temple to be endowed. We laughed, reminisced, and speculated about our future lives when he returned as an “R.M.”

Secretly, I worried about him. How was this quiet, private young man, who was just now conversing openly with me after a five-year friendship, going to survive on a mission? I couldn’t imagine him tracting, speaking in church, or teaching a discussion. Would he be an ever-silent companion? I hoped for understanding, sensitive, and gregarious companions for him. When the departure day arrived, I hugged and waved him off to the MTC with a prayer in my heart—for his growth and for his survival.

Jim’s letters were few and far between, but they were treasures. I finally got to know some of his thoughts. He began to share some of his feelings and his testimony with me. Missionary work was hard. He hoped he could “do the job.” He liked some companions and struggled with others. He was always full of faith. His letters proved the adage, “Still waters run deep.”

Fate and time brought a move for us and a relocation for Jim’s parents. We both moved to the state of Washington. His mother, when we communicated, helped fill in the gaps between Jim’s infrequent letters. She gave me news of transfers, of companions, of a new assignment: zone leader. I tried not to be surprised. I matched the depth of the well-written letters with the emergence of this “new” personality who trained elders and taught successful discussions.

When Jim returned from his mission, I was privileged to join his family at the airport to welcome him. As I drove to the airport, I reviewed our friendship and Jim’s growth and maturation. I speculated about his appearance and his demeanor.

He was the last person to emerge from the jetway, which caused extra anxiety for his waiting family. Finally, he appeared—taller than I remembered, and thinner. His naturally curly hair was darker and was cut so short that there was no curl. He wore the missionary uniform: dark suit, white shirt, dark tie, black “mailman” shoes. The suit was very worn and looked like it could stand on its own and still hold the shape of Jim’s body. He was bent a little from the weight of his carry-on luggage.

When he saw us, he smiled a little, then dropped his head as he walked the last few feet of the walkway. When he raised his head again, his eyes were red and he was weeping. He dropped his bags and embraced his mother in a tight hug and cried openly as he kissed her, then held her in his arms for a full minute more. He released her to repeat this exchange with his brother, sister, and his father.

It is a rare privilege to observe such an exchange of pure love among people. I thought, this is how it must be to return to our heavenly parents after completing our earthly missions. What a sweet experience to return, knowing you’ve served faithfully.

Jim then turned to me, and without hesitation, embraced me in a bear hug. As we parted, we both wiped tears from our eyes. And he said, “Thanks for being here.”

I spent another two hours with Jim that morning before we had to head in different directions. During that time, I watched him start a conversation with the man next to him while waiting for his luggage. Within 15 minutes, he had given the man a Book of Mormon and a pamphlet and had parted as a friend. I saw him spend a few private tender moments with his younger brother and sister as he sensed their need and focused on them individually. He gave half of his lunch to his little brother, when the ten-year-old complained of being hungry still.

Jim related a few mission experiences: of singing a duet in church with his companion, of a Sunday when he had 17 investigators at church on the same day, and of the mission farewell the night before. He had been amazed that so many of the missionaries had wanted to gather to say good-bye to him. Jim wept again as he expressed his concern for a companion who had recently lost his dad to a sudden, unexpected death. Here was compassion, love, humility, confidence, and power. Sitting before me, in his grayed shirt, wrinkled tie, and well-worn coat, was someone who had been seemingly magically transformed. His smile was the only trace of the shy, quiet boy who hesitated to pray in front of someone.

We send our young men and women out to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. We ask them to study, to work hard, to endure, and to serve. And in the end, these children return to us whole, ready to teach and inspire by their loving and humble example. And, having been touched by divine light, we are, none of us, the same again.

[photo] Photography by Welden Andersen