I didn’t want to go on a mission. Down deep, I knew that I ought to go. I also knew that I ought to want to go. But I didn’t. Although I felt a little guilty, I also felt like it wasn’t my fault that I didn’t want to go. I mean, the Church believes in free agency, right? Just because my dad and brothers and cousins had done the “mission thing” didn’t mean I had to.
To tell the truth, a mission didn’t sound like much fun. I was afraid they might send me someplace where they didn’t have pizza, or where hot dogs were made out of real dogs.
Besides, I was basically happy with my life the way it was. I had a cute girlfriend and a nice car. I was doing okay in college and played for the baseball team. The coach said I would be a starter the next season. Plus we lived only two blocks from the beach and I could go surfing whenever I wanted. Why would I want to leave all that?
No one ever said I had to go on a mission, of course. It was just that everyone simply assumed I would. It was kind of like a tradition in our family. After high school, you went to college for a year, then you went on a mission for two years, then back to school. Also, my dad was kind of a missionary freak. In addition to serving a full-time mission and a couple of stake missions, he had been the ward mission leader three or four times. I think he holds the stake record for attendance and participation at convert baptisms.
As the school year drew to a close, several of my LDS friends were making mission plans and a few had already received their calls. I had a job lined up with a construction company for the summer, and I tried to put missionary work out of my mind. In our house, that wasn’t easy to do. Even Karen, my nine-year-old sister, had a “mission fund.”
Karen kept herself busy with a map of the world, trying to decide the best place for me to go. She started with scenic areas like Switzerland and Hawaii; then she moved to more remote regions of the globe like Madagascar and Sri Lanka. One day, Karen discovered Mongolia in an old copy of National Geographic.
“Do they have missionaries in Mongolia?” Karen asked.
“I certainly hope not.”
“That would be a great place for you to go, Scott!” my sister chirped.
“It’s way up in the mountains between Russia and China. Part of it is a big desert, the Gobi Desert. People there ride camels and live in tents because they move a lot. But up in the mountains they ride little long-haired horses. And in the winter it gets so cold that you have to wear a lot of fur, or you freeze to death.”
“Sounds like my kind of place,” I said.
“Would you have to wear a white shirt and tie under the fur?” she wondered aloud.
I shook my head and left the room.
As the summer progressed, it seemed my family talked about missionary work more and more, and I talked about it less and less. Soon, my silence on the subject was deafening.
One night while I was reading, my dad came in the room and shut the door behind him. “We need to talk, Scott,” he said, shutting off the CD player and sitting on the edge of my bed.
It was showdown time, and I knew it. I had to tell Dad that I wasn’t going on a mission. Turning in my chair to face him, I mentally ran through the little speech I had prepared. My heart was pounding and I was just about to speak when my dad interrupted my thoughts.
“Son, I don’t think you should plan on leaving for your mission this summer.”
“Morally, you’re worthy, and I’m grateful for that.” He took a deep breath and continued, “But spiritually and emotionally, I just don’t think you’re ready.”
“Well, I don’t think …”
“It’s hard work to be a missionary. It takes long hours of study and prayer, planning and diligence. You need a lot of self-discipline.”
Now I was speechless.
“A mission is a privilege, Scott. It wouldn’t be fair to send you out with the attitude you have right now.”
“That’s right. Not fair to you, or your mission president, or your companions, or the Lord. It would be a wasted two years.”
“Oh,” was the only response I could muster.
Dad stood up and put his hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry, son,” he said. Then he left the room. Somehow, it wasn’t the way I’d planned for the meeting to go.
That was the beginning of a difficult summer.
First of all, my girlfriend decided to spend ten weeks touring Europe with her cousin. Then Arnold, my best friend, broke his ankle in a motorcycle accident. Finally, my friend Luz—my number one surfing buddy—got a job working nights in a factory.
At least I still had my car.
I often wonder if my life would have been different if I hadn’t come home early that night and turned on the news. With cookies in one hand, and a glass of milk in the other, I watched the usual evening newscast.
Things started out pretty much the same that night as they usually do: people starving in countries I’d never heard of, riots against oppressive governments, AIDS, drugs, political corruption. My mind was wandering when suddenly my attention was jerked back to the television by a familiar name. The latest gang violence in south Los Angeles was being reported, and I heard the name Alfred Jefferson. Alfred Jefferson! I knew an Al Jefferson. As the report droned on, I came to the stunned realization that it was the same person. Al was a teammate of mine at college. He had just graduated and was going on to graduate school in Colorado.
He was dead. Victim of a senseless act of violence. There was an interview with his grieving grandmother and then one with my badly shaken baseball coach talking about Al as a person and a player.
I turned off the television and stared at the blank screen. It isn’t possible, I thought. Al hadn’t really been a close friend. He was a senior and our best player. I was just a freshman trying to make the team. But the fact that I knew him made the tragedy very personal.
What kind of a person would do such a thing? Al had just been standing on the porch talking to his grandmother. He didn’t do anything to anyone. I began thinking about all the horrible things in the world and wondering how people could be so evil. Don’t these people realize that we’re all brothers and sisters? We’re all children of God. Someone really ought to tell people …
My thoughts were leading to a dangerous place, so I got up and wandered around the house. The walls were covered with paintings and photos, needlepoint and school awards. There was the wagon wheel lamp I had made in wood shop, sitting on the end table Douglas made. The cutting board that Steve made when he had shop was hanging in the kitchen near the sink. On the side of the refrigerator was a family “portrait” that Karen had painted during a recent creative burst. Among the decorations on the kitchen wall was a crudely made wooden heart with “Happy Mother’s Day! Love, Scott,” printed in pencil and shellacked over. As I wandered from room to room, I began to realize how much I loved the people that lived here, how lucky I was to have a family that loved me, and how selfish I was for not sharing my happiness with others.
I walked out to the front porch and sat on the swing, surveying the neighborhood. I looked out to the driveway and noticed my car. It was a ’68 Mustang. I loved that car. It wasn’t much to look at when Dad brought it home, but we restored it from the tires up until it was better than new.
If you sold the car, you could help pay for your mission.
Selling the car I had spent two summers working to restore? Selling my car so I could go to a faraway place and teach the gospel? I think my friend Arnold liked the car even more than I did. He was always trying to buy it.
I walked in the house and picked up the phone.
“Hi, Arn. This is Scott.”
Suddenly, I forgot what I was going to say.
“Uh, well,” I stammered.
“You okay, Scott?”
I knew what I had to do. I gulped and took a deep breath.
“Hey, Arn, you interested in buying a car?”