One Thursday evening at branch meeting at the Provo Missionary Training Center, a large group of Primary children filed into the chapel. The children gathered on the stand, facing the missionaries, and sang about being in the army of Helaman and hoping to be called on missions.
When the children finished singing, they remained standing. The elders and sisters arose, hearing the piano introduction to “Called to Serve,” the hymn which has become a missionary anthem. The missionaries had been so moved by the children’s songs that many were on the brink of tears. Starting their own song was not easy. As they sang I noticed the children. They were not looking at the floor or at each other. They were gazing intently into the faces of the missionaries whose song bore testimony of faith. The children believed the words they heard, and they knew the missionaries believed them too.
Both missionaries and children were witnesses to a demonstration of faith that borders on the miraculous, and both accepted it matter-of-factly as they would a more routine event. Yet, in that group of missionaries were individuals who had saved for years to serve a mission. All of them were willing to go where and when they were asked. Most had received a letter from someone they had never met which informed them they were going to a place they had never been, to meet people they had never seen and learn languages and discussions they did not know. Most were going at their own expense or were helped by other equally faithful people who made contributions.
As a branch president at the MTC, I was able to watch several hundred young men and women begin their missions. The power in their devotion and faith impressed me greatly. I never found an end to what seemed a tremendous willingness to give, learn, teach, and serve. If tired or less productive on one day, they arose the next filled with more resolve. Some had minor complaints. Collectively they had their immaturities and weaknesses. Some worked faster, some slower. Some were more prepared than others. Some worked hard to learn; others gave less effort. A few were unprepared. Overall, however, it was evident that a strong sense of purpose was driving them.
There is one part of missionary life, however, I am certain that all have in common. When faced with the work involved, possible hardship, new and strange places, the missionaries all spent time thinking, talking, and probably praying about their reasons for serving a mission.
I noticed many group discussions on the subject. I learned that companions often discussed with each other their reasons for serving missions. The search for reasons to serve a mission was also a major part of talks given in church meetings. Many speakers related conversion stories about how they had been prepared through spiritual means at a very young age. Some told of vivid dreams that were confirmed when they later heard about the gospel.
One missionary, for example, told of a dream she had at the age of nine or ten about the idea that God was an individual person, not three in one, and of a Heavenly Father whose son was Jesus Christ. Her views, which she held to faithfully, caused her and her family much discomfort during the time she went to private religious schools. Anyone she spoke to about religion was asked to satisfy her question, “Do you believe God is a person who has a son?” She often asked her friends at school, which was why she was troublesome to them and to her teachers. After a while, getting no satisfaction, she tired of asking.
Years later at work. when she was in her early twenties, she started talking with a co-worker about religion. These talks continued until the woman asked her to attend church with her. “I must ask you a question first,” she said. She asked the woman, and for the first time in her life received an answer that satisfied her. The woman answered, “Yes, my church teaches that God is the father of us all and has a son who is Jesus Christ.”
Missionaries were found, the young woman was taught the gospel, and as soon as possible she began serving on her own mission. On her first day of class when her MTC teacher walked in, she recognized her as the missionary who had taught her the gospel months earlier in a place far away from the Missionary Training Center.
There were many ideas presented as reasons for serving missions. Some missionaries wondered if they were going just to please their parents, to satisfy a girlfriend or boyfriend, or because their family and ward expected them to go. Others considered the possibility that they were part of a cultural tradition where the importance of missionary work had been taught through song and lesson from the time they were young. Many had other more individual reasons such as gratitude for miraculously surviving accidents, or seeking forgiveness for something they were ashamed of.
Faced with being away from home and family and the difficult parts of missionary life, they searched for “real” reasons. They did not want to undergo the challenges and hardship confronting them unless they had good, inspiring reasons for doing so. Straining to learn a difficult language, for example, might not seem worth doing if a missionary were only trying to please his or her parents.
I was interested in their conversations. I wanted to learn what they concluded. As I watched them from the day they arrived, I could tell they were progressing and beginning to sense and understand some things they could not verbalize. It appeared in their faces, in the diminishing number of pranks, in the gospel focus of their language, and in what they did in their private moments. Most quickened their scripture study and increased their attention to learning language and discussions. Watching all this, I finally recognized it for what it was—the real reason missionaries serve.
They were like salmon. They had originated in one place but had gone to live in another. After spending time away from their origins there was a pull, unyielding, subtle, but very dramatic in its persistence. It beckoned them to return or find a way to commune with what they had once known. I remembered the scripture:
“For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, except he has the Spirit of God.
“Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God” (JST, 1 Cor. 2:11–12).
I noticed that most of the missionaries were unaware of what was truly taking place. As they received this Spirit they were separated from the world and educated in the communication of spiritual things. They comprehended it at a level of understanding beyond words. It was clear they could feel it, were fed by it, and wanted more.
I learned then that a mission is a joining between a mortal soul who prepares and embraces the things of God, and God’s Spirit. When this happens, every missionary learns he or she is part of something greater and more important than self. Missionaries have an important part to play for themselves and for others. It is not the same as a ball game or a date. It involves being entrusted with the most essential ideas and ordinances of all. As they feel the Spirit and share his work, they come to know and love his Son—and to understand why they serve.