“They’re only making him a deacon!” I exclaimed. “But why? I thought when men were baptized, they just automatically became priests!”

“It’s never automatic, Sister. It’s between the branch president and …”

“Well, I didn’t exactly mean automatic. But, he’s such a fine man. Can’t the branch president see how good and humble and sincere and …” I was out of adjectives and out of breath when Sister Bullen replied.

“As I was saying,” she cocked her eyebrows for emphasis, “it’s between the branch president and the Lord. I think they can handle it. Don’t you?” She smiled sweetly, almost daring me to disagree.

I looked at my companion, not knowing if I should be angry or if I should laugh with her. I would have gone off to sulk, but our apartment was about as big as a shoe box. It’s hard to go off somewhere when you eat, sleep, and study in one room! It takes all the fun out of pouting.

I sat on my bed and pretended to study. I wished I had the faith Sister Bullen had. She’d been in the mission field for more than a year, and she was so calm about everything.

I remembered when I first came to Foggia, a little town in southern Italy. It was only my second city, and the Manzos were about the first people I met. Even I could tell they were special. Rita and Salverio Manzo and their two children were the kind of family missionaries dream about. A warm, close feeling was present in their home. They didn’t have much money, but that didn’t seem important to them. They were always generous, inviting us to eat more often than they could afford.

It seemed like Satan was aware of how fine the Manzos were too, because right from the beginning, he worked to keep them out of the Church. As they progressed spiritually, their trials became more and more difficult. Their children got sick. When they tried to share their new knowledge with their family and friends, they suddenly quit visiting. When the Manzos went to the homes of people who previously had been close to them, the reception was chilly. Italians are family people, so that hurt them more than they would allow us to see. Each evening we left their home convinced that the worst was over, only to find that something else would happen the next day. They had financial problems. They found themselves arguing about things that never bothered them before. Neighbors told them that the missionaries brought them bad luck and they should stop seeing us.

Brother Manzo had been out of work for some time. He finally found a job, and things seemed to be looking better for them. The day he got his first check was the day we taught him about tithing. For some time he sat looking thoughtfully around his home. You could almost see his thoughts: This little check is all I have. It’s not enough as it is; yet you want me to give part of it away. How can I do it? I must feed my children. Surely the Lord would understand that I can’t pay this tithing. We were afraid that this would be the one trial too big for them. Finally he looked at us and said, “If the Lord requires us to pay this tithing, we will pay it.”

“Sister. Sister Johnson! Hey! You’re sure a long ways away! Are you still worrying about Brother Manzo?” Sister Bullen asked.

“I, well, yes I am. How did you know?”

“Because you’ve been studying that page for about 15 minutes,” she said with a smile. “Why are you so upset?”

“I just don’t think that someone who is as good as Brother Manzo should have to start out as a deacon. It’s like they don’t think he will stay with it, so they don’t trust him with anything else.”

Sister Bullen liked to joke around, and she kidded me a lot, but she was really serious when she asked, “Do you think that Brother Manzo is too proud to be a deacon?”

“No, he’s not too proud. But he’s a grown man, and he’s so dignified and kind of shy. I don’t want him to be embarrassed to be passing the sacrament with all those little boys. After all he has been through, I think he deserves to be a priest.

She smiled at me. “I think he’ll be okay.”

Sitting in the chapel on Sunday, I felt a little nervous again. The deacons were standing around the table, waiting to pick up their trays. Brother Manzo towered over the rest of the deacons. I noticed he was wearing a new white shirt and a tie. He was watching carefully to make sure he did the right things.

As he turned and reverently carried his tray of bread toward us, I could see that his face was shining. He caught my eye and smiled warmly. I looked down at my scriptures. They were open to the 26th chapter of Matthew, and I read verse 26: “And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat …”

I couldn’t see the words through the tears in my eyes. It had been me, not Brother Manzo, who needed to learn about the priesthood! I felt a squeeze on my arm, and Sister Bullen smiled at me and winked.

I guess there’s no such thing as being “only” a deacon.

Photography by Jed Clark