It was an uncommonly warm spring evening in Port Alberni, the small mill town on Vancouver Island where I lived. I was looking forward to attending Mutual and spending some time with Latter-day Saint kids. I was friendly by nature but was nevertheless struggling socially both at school and at church. It was nights like this that I welcomed the interaction with them.
As was our habit, we were standing in the foyer of our new chapel chatting with each other. I spent little time on center stage in these conversations, and from my outside vantage point I spotted two sister missionaries coming in the front doors with a boy beside them. I recognized him from my neighborhood.
While her companion stood off to the side speaking to the boy, Sister Eaton, the senior of the two missionaries, approached us and said, “Look, you guys. We’re really excited about this. We’ve been working with him and his family for months, and this is the first time he’s agreed to come. Would you make him feel welcome?”
We nodded half-heartedly, said our hellos, and made a small opening for him to stand with us. He stood there looking awkward and uncomfortable, mostly staring at the floor. In comparison to most of us, he was poorly dressed and unkempt. We continued conversing for a few more minutes until the adult traffic became too cumbersome. We then slipped away to the rest room for more privacy.
All of us, that is, except this new boy. We were so caught up in our discussions that we didn’t notice him turn and walk out the door alone. Nor did we miss him in the rest room.
A few minutes later the bell rang for the start of opening exercises. We filed out of the bathroom, joking among ourselves. Just outside the door, however, Sister Eaton was waiting for us, tears pouring down her face.
“What’s the matter with you?” she cried out, more in disbelief than anger. “All you had to do was be friendly to him, to include him. Was that too much to ask?”
“Where’d he go?” I stupidly asked.
“What do you care?” she snapped back. “You won’t have to worry about him again. He won’t be back.” With that, she turned, gathered her companion, and left the building to look for the boy. It was a three-mile walk back to our neighborhood.
Stung by her chastisement, we filed quietly and sheepishly into the chapel. Even when the others began to revive their spirits, my conscience burned. I was deeply disturbed by what we had done. Later that evening after I returned home, I talked to my older brother about it. Having recently returned from college, he was soon to go on his mission. I respected his advice on spiritual matters.
“What do you think you should do about it?” Laurence asked me after I had blurted out to him the whole story.
“I don’t know,” I answered glumly. “What can I do now? Sister Eaton says it’s too late.”
By now Laurence sensed how upset I was.
“Maybe not,” he said with a tinge of hope in his voice. “The sisters should be home by now. I’ll call over there.”
Within five minutes Laurence had the boy’s address, and we began walking there together. Although it wasn’t far, it was getting dark as we crossed Third Avenue into the poorly lit part of town where the boy lived. I was glad my brother was with me. I didn’t know what kind of reception awaited us, and I was nervous.
We approached an old house that needed a coat of paint. Laurence checked the number under a street light and pointed toward it.
“That’s it,” he announced. Taking a deep breath, I headed toward the front door with Laurence at my side. I knocked quickly before my courage failed. My heart was pounding. A few moments later, a lady I assumed to be his mother answered the door. She looked older than I had expected and seemed tired.
“Hi, is your son here?” I asked.
“What do you want with him?” she asked suspiciously.
“He came to our church tonight and we kind of ignored him,” I stammered. “I wanted to apologize and to invite him back.”
She folded her arms and looked directly at us. I saw in her eyes the look of disgust with the way we had just treated her son.
Ignoring me, she looked over at Laurence and said, “Thank you for coming by, but I don’t think he’ll want to come back.”
As she began to close the door, Laurence made a last attempt to reassure her of our repentance. “The boys made a mistake, and I know they’re sorry. I know them. It won’t happen again.”
But the door had closed before he could finish. For the second time that night, I felt stung by my actions.
“Do you think he’ll ever come back?” I asked apprehensively.
“I doubt it,” Laurence replied bluntly.
We said very little the rest of the way home. I had done wrong and I knew it. I had felt deep remorse, and I even tried to make restitution. But I had failed. I wondered why, after I had followed all the steps I had been taught, the Lord hadn’t recognized my repentance and lifted the burden of guilt from me. I felt awful.
The answer finally came from my heart. Inside I knew I hadn’t done enough. But I was too afraid to go back and try again. So I never did.
For me, this was a complete failure, one that I’m still deeply ashamed of. Yet in a curious way I learned an important lesson from it—one that still humbles me and reminds me of what it takes to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ.
“I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep” (John 10:11–13).
Whether I cared to admit it or not, I was no shepherd. I had fled like the hireling. I didn’t seek after what was lost until I found it. After only one try, I left the boy in the wilderness to the wolves. In my heart I wasn’t willing to pay the price of being a true shepherd.
Since that incident, I still see that boy in my mind’s eye and I wonder what happened to him. I still feel the responsibility for what I did and what I didn’t do.
I need to be a shepherd and not a hireling and to find joy in serving and including my brothers and sisters, whoever they may be.