A Shepherd in Hong Kong


He could barely speak Chinese. I was fluent. So why was this sheepherder teaching so many more people?

A Shepherd in Hong Kong

“Yatchaih gong,” our MTC teacher, Sister Tong, said. “Jyu.”

This was our cue to say the word Jyu—meaning “Lord”—together as a class.

“Jyu,” we repeated in unison.

“Yatchaih gong,” she said again. “Jyu.”

We went through this listen and repeat drill on the word Jyu for several minutes. See, this word is one of the more common errors foreign missionaries in Hong Kong make. In Hong Kong, we speak Cantonese, the second-most common Chinese dialect. And Cantonese has seven tones. That means you can often say the same sound in two different tones, and it will mean completely different things.

Take this word Jyu, for instance. If you say it as a rising tone, it means Lord. But if you say it as a high-falling tone, it means pig. So you can see why this was such a big deal to the MTC teachers.

Now Sister Tong had each of us repeat the word Jyu individually. All 10 of us got it right, except my companion, Elder Heywood.

“Jyu,” he said, with a high-falling tone. We all snickered, but Sister Tong didn’t find it amusing. She was concerned about Elder Heywood. And for good reason. He just couldn’t get those tones down. And if you can’t say the right tones, nobody in Hong Kong will understand you.

I met Elder Heywood my first day at the MTC when we both went to our assigned dorm room to unpack. That’s when I discovered he was going to be my companion for the next two months.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“New Mexico,” Elder Heywood said. “How about you?”

“Philadelphia. Ever been there?”

“Nope. Been to the west coast a few times but not to the East.”

Oh boy, I thought. Here we go. My older brother had warned me about companion problems. He said there would be elders I just wouldn’t get along with because we’d have nothing in common. So this was my first test.

That was the beginning of our relationship.

Later that first day in the MTC, we went to dinner in the cafeteria.

“So, tell me, Elder Heywood,” I said. “What did you do before your mission?”

“Ranched. Sheep, you know. New Mexico has lots of open spaces.”

“How about you?” he asked.

“I played ball. Basketball. Started at power forward for my high school team in Philadelphia. We had four players sign on with Division 1A schools this year. Me? I was offered a scholarship at St. John’s. But I passed it up so I could serve a mission.”

We finished our dinner and went to our first classes. Afterward we walked back to our dorm.

“Sounds like Hong Kong is a pretty cool place,” I said, hoping to make some intelligent conversation with Elder Heywood.

“Yeah,” he said.

“So, how did you feel when you got your call? Were you surprised?”

“Yup.”

“Excited?”

“Nope.”

“Scared?”

“Yup,” he said. “But not as scared as when that coyote was chewin’ on one of the sheep.”

“A coyote? You have coyotes where you live?”

“Oh yeah. Lots of them. I had to fight off that coyote with a stick. Must’ve beat that darn coyote for three, maybe four minutes. It finally ran off.”

It seemed to me that Elder Heywood and I were about as different from each other as two people could be. We stayed together—as missionaries are supposed to—but we didn’t talk much. We just didn’t have much in common to talk about.

We spent most of our time in class, practicing our Cantonese sounds and tones. So a good part of our time was spent each day drilling our sounds and tones over and over and over again. When we weren’t drilling them with our teacher, we were using a cassette tape and headphones.

After four or five weeks, most of us in my MTC group had our tones down pretty well. But not Elder Heywood. He would massacre them. No matter what, it seemed, he just couldn’t say the words right.

After two months in the MTC, we boarded the 747 to fly to Hong Kong. It was the first time Elder Heywood had been on an airplane. In a way, I kind of felt sorry for the guy. There was no way he would be successful in such a far-off, exotic place as Hong Kong. I knew it and the rest of my MTC group knew it. The only problem was, Elder Heywood didn’t know it.

Once we arrived, we were assigned senior companions and went to our new apartments. I quickly forgot all about Elder Heywood and the problems he must have been having.

Months passed, and soon I was made a district leader—the first level of leadership in the mission. Just one month later, I was made a zone leader, a Z.L., as we called them.

When I had six months left on my mission, the president called me into his office. I knew what was about to happen.

“Elder Goodman, I’m releasing you as zone leader,” President Wong said. “I’m calling you to be an assistant to the president.”

I did it. I finally had what I saw as the most important position a young elder could have. I would have a desk. An office. Direct access to President Wong. I couldn’t wait to write home about this.

Well, I’m here to tell you that being A.P. isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

For the next three months, I spent most of my days dealing with problems missionaries were having. Illnesses. Expired leases on apartments. Lost keys. Lost companions. I started to long for the days when I was out among the Chinese people teaching the gospel. But I didn’t dare admit to myself or anyone else that what I really wanted was to be released as A.P. and sent back out as a normal, everyday missionary.

One day, I had a great idea to spice things up. I approached my companion.

“You know, we have some missionaries who are extremely successful, and others who are not,” I said to Elder Johnson, the other A.P. “I think I’m going to put together a profile of a successful missionary. What do you think?”

“Well, that depends,” Elder Johnson said. “What do you mean by the term ‘successful missionary’?”

“Obvious. Somebody with lots of baptisms.” I could tell Elder Johnson didn’t like this idea.

“What’s the matter?” I said, confronting him.

“Uh, as long as you have the time, I don’t mind if you do this. You’re an agent unto yourself,” he said, quoting scripture.

That afternoon, I started listing all the qualities I thought a successful missionary in Hong Kong must have: strong language skills, an understanding of the culture, social skills, a sense of humor, ability to extract referrals from Church members, ability to eat local cuisine, a sound understanding of Chinese history, and a robust doctrinal background. Of course, language skills were at the top of my list.

I showed my list to Elder Johnson.

“Interesting,” he said. “But are you really going to show all this to President Wong?”

“Why not?”

“Well, it just seems, well, like you’re not focusing on godly attributes.”

“What do you mean, godly attributes? Like what?”

“Like faith, charity, and enduring to the end.”

“But you can’t quantify those,” I protested. “Besides, those are things you’re born with. These other things—like social skills, speaking skills, that stuff—you can learn.”

“But what is most important, what really defines a successful missionary, is his faithfulness to the Lord. To the mission rules. To himself. You know that as well as I do.”

He was right. I did know all that. But I continued my argument anyway.

“See,” I said, still trying to make my point and convince my companion, “if we identify what makes a first-class missionary, then we’ll be able to shape, to form, to mold new elders and sisters when they first come to the mission field.”

“Okay, okay. If you really feel this strongly, go ahead with your project,” Elder Johnson said. “But remember, I’m not with you on this one.”

Neither was the Spirit. Not even close. And you know what? I knew it! I didn’t let my heart yield to the promptings of the Spirit.

The next day, after reviewing my list of qualities, I set out an action plan. First, I would go through the mission records and pick out the missionaries who have had the most baptisms since they’ve been a senior companion. I would give extra points to those who baptized adults, because it seemed tougher to baptize them than it was to baptize teenagers. And I would give the most points to those who baptized entire families.

Once I had those figures tabulated, I would then set out to determine retention rates. See, it’s one thing to baptize, but another thing to keep those converts active in the Church.

And when all that was done, I’d present my work to President Wong. I was certain he’d be so proud of me.

Well, it took four days to go through the mission records. I tallied the results like a bomber pilot tallies direct hits. And it got pretty exciting, at certain points, to see which missionaries were taking the lead over other missionaries. In a perverted kind of way, it was actually kind of fun.

But then the fun stopped. I was shocked.

Guess who had the most baptisms as a senior companion during the past year.

Elder Heywood.

This didn’t make any sense. Elder Heywood’s Chinese was horrible. So I reworked the numbers, just to make sure they were correct.

They were.

And not only did Elder Heywood have the most baptisms, but he had the most families baptized and the most adults baptized as well—and he had only been a senior companion for eight months.

I was stumped. I showed the results of my research to my companion, Elder Johnson. He didn’t seem surprised. But he questioned my motives.

“You were trying to prove Elder Heywood isn’t a good missionary, weren’t you?” he asked. “Is it really that difficult for you to admit that, baptisms or not, he’s doing a great job? Elder Heywood’s humble, he works hard, and from everything I can see he’s enduring to the end. So even if he didn’t have any baptisms, I’d still rank him pretty high on the success chart.”

I was embarrassed. Big time. In China, we call it losing face. I lost mine to the point that I thought I would never find it.

“It looks to me like Elder Heywood wouldn’t score too highly on that worldly list of yours. But according to your own research, he’s the best we’ve got. Give that some thought.”

I followed Elder Johnson’s advice: I thought! My thoughts led me to the scriptures and the teachings of the living prophets about missionaries and their work. I discovered that my conclusions about being a successful missionary were just not true, so I fasted and prayed for forgiveness.

After about another week, I knew what I had to do. I went in to see the president.

“I know you’re not supposed to aspire to callings,” I began. “But I believe I know what the Lord wants me to do.”

“Yes, Elder Goodman? What would that be?”

“I need to be released as your assistant,” I said, my voice cracking and my eyes welling with tears. “I have two months left on my mission, President. I want to have a second chance. I want to end my mission the way it began.”

“You want to go back to the MTC?” President Wong asked, half joking.

“Well, in a way. I want to learn how to be a real missionary. I’ve been thinking a lot lately, and, well, I’ve discovered that I really don’t know all that much about how to be a good missionary. And to do that, I’d like to go back to my MTC companion. I’d like to be released and made junior companion to Elder Heywood.”

Two days later I was gone from the air-conditioned mission office and sleeping on the top bunk with Elder Heywood below.

For two weeks I did nothing but observe. I listened. I watched. I followed. And my heart began to soften. Then one morning during companion prayer, the secret to Elder Heywood’s success dawned on me.

It was Elder Heywood’s turn to pray. “And please bless us as we work with

Thy chosen people in Hong Kong,” he prayed. “They are Thy children. They are our brothers and sisters. We love them, and all we want to do is bring these sheep into Thy safe fold.”

He paused. It seemed like he was listening to a prompting from the Holy Ghost. “And please bless Elder Goodman,” he continued. “Help him to know how much I love him. He’s a good man. He wants to do good works. He wants to find the sheep. Please bless him that he’ll have the desires of his heart, that he will be led, that we will be led together to the lost sheep up in the dark mountains that we may bring them to Thy fold. But most of all, please bless Elder Goodman to know I love him.”

Tears flowed from my eyes. What he said touched my heart. His words took away my breath. He was so genuine. So real. I could tell he meant everything he said. This was no canned prayer. It was really from his heart.

Elder Heywood closed the prayer. I cried. I kept my head buried in my hands so he couldn’t see me—although I knew he could hear my weeping. He put his large, rough hand firmly on my shoulder.

“You’re a good missionary,” he whispered. “I’m glad we’re companions again. I always did look up to you.”

He patted my back again, then left the room. He closed the door softly behind him. I prayed for several minutes more, silently and vocally, begging for forgiveness, for humility, for charity, for strength.

I felt the Spirit overcome me in a way that had never happened to me before. I was overwhelmed with emotion, with love for God and man.

I came out of the bedroom to find Elder Heywood sitting at the table, his language book open and his headphones on. Here he was, less than two months away from going home, practicing his sounds and tones. Everyone else in our MTC group must have stopped working on those a year ago. But not him. He loved the Chinese people too much to stop practicing.

Several weeks later we found ourselves at the mission home having our final supper in Hong Kong. President and Sister Wong hosted our MTC group. Following dinner, we had a testimony meeting.

When it was Elder Heywood’s turn to speak, he expressed love for his Heavenly Father, his family, his friends, and most of all, he said, for his companions. Especially his current one, Elder Goodman.

Then it was my turn to speak. I shared my feelings about Hong Kong. I bore testimony of the Savior and His gospel. I testified the Book of Mormon is the word of God. Then I expressed my love for the Chinese people, for President and Sister Wong, and for my companion.

“I just need to tell you that Elder Heywood has taught me a lot about finding lost sheep in the mountains,” I said. “It takes love. And he’s an expert at that, you know.”

To this day, we’re still best friends.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dilleen Marsh