“Hey, mister. What yuh doin’?”
My companion and I turned to find the source of the southern drawl. A 12- or 13-year-old boy, wearing patched overalls, smiled up at us from a freckled face. He had been weeding the huge garden.
“Uh, we’re looking for people to share the gospel with,” I answered, impatient to get to the door of the imposing house.
“You can share it with me,” he offered, standing up.
We don’t have time to spend on young boys, I thought. We have to find someone who can save this branch.
“I’m sorry,” I replied, “but we’re pretty busy today. We have to visit all these houses.”
He looked down sadly and tugged at the soil with his toes.
“Well, that’s okay,” he said softly, “I understand.”
“Look,” my companion suggested, “we meet in the back room of Johnson’s store at nine on Sunday morning. Come to church with us if you want.”
The boy brightened immediately.
“Great! I’ll be there,” he exclaimed. “You can count on it!”
He turned happily back to his weed pulling, and we continued to the door. The woman who opened it turned us away politely. It was the first house of the day, and it set the tone for all the others.
“I just don’t understand it, elder,” my companion said as we ate lunch in our dingy apartment. “I was sure we’d do better on that street.
“After yesterday’s fast, I felt better than I’ve felt for a long time.”
We finished eating and began studying the scriptures. The humid, summer air dragged at my eyelids. Suddenly my head fell forward, jerking me awake. Elder Wilkins laughed. I leaned back and studied the calendar on the wall. July 10, 1963, was circled in red.
“Five weeks tomorrow,” I sighed, “and no one to teach.”
“Don’t give up yet. There’s still time.”
“Not for me. You’ve still got 18 months to go, and you’ve already had two baptisms. I haven’t even taught anyone who was baptized.”
“I was just lucky.” My companion tried to play down his success. “I was in the right place at the right time.”
“But I’ve been working hard. I’ve prayed and fasted, studied the scriptures, tracted all my companions into the ground. I’ve talked to everyone I’ve met, and still I’ve had no success.”
“Success isn’t always visible, you know.” He was still trying to cheer me up.
“I know.” I was doubtful about that. I had grown up with the idea that the Lord blessed the righteous with prosperity and in other visible ways.
“But it’s not just success,” I went on. “There’s more than that. When he set me apart, the stake president started out normally, and then he paused. When he continued, his voice was different, and he said, ‘Elder Nielsen, the Lord has an important work for you. Through you, the gospel will be brought to many people.’ It was like an electric shock went through me.”
“Oh, yeah … wow!” I said bitterly. “But look where I am now. I must have done something really bad, so the Lord can’t honor the blessing.”
“You’re too hard on yourself, elder.”
“But it has to be my fault the blessing isn’t fulfilled. If we don’t achieve something soon, the mission president’s going to pull the missionaries out of Salcomb.”
“I know, and then the branch will probably collapse.”
I sat in silence, brooding over the type of convert I wanted. It had to be someone important like a civic leader or a prominent businessman. A school teacher or a lawyer like my father would also do.
Although we worked harder than ever, we taught no lessons that week, and Sunday found me listlessly greeting the members under the magnolia tree behind the store. A hand tugged at my sleeve, and a voice said, “Hey, mister, I’m here.”
I turned, and after a brief struggle with my memory, recognized the boy from the garden. His overalls had been washed, and he now wore a frayed, but clean, shirt. His bare feet were dusty from the walk, though his eager face was freshly scrubbed.
“Oh, hello,” I responded awkwardly, unsure how to continue. My companion rescued me.
“Hi,” he said, “I’m Elder Wilkins, and this is Elder Nielsen. What’s your name?”
“Alexander Lincoln, but don’t confuse me with that president. My friends call me Alec.”
We laughed at his explanation. Then we had to explain why we both had the same first name. He sat with us when the meeting started. I was the concluding speaker that week. I had prepared a wonderful talk, one that would stir an educated ward, but as I looked out at the handful of poverty-stricken members, I realized I had made a mistake. Impulsively, I did something I had never done before. I pushed my papers aside.
“Help me, Lord,” I breathed, and then began talking from my heart.
My subject was the Atonement. In simple words, I described Jesus’ life and ministry and then talked about the meaning of His suffering in the garden and on the cross.
I could tell the talk was a success. Usually most of the congregation slept through my talks, but that day all their eyes were riveted on me. I finished by bearing my testimony and took my seat.
Through the closing hymn and benediction, Alec fidgeted beside me. I imagined he was anxious to leave, but as the last amen was still hanging in the air, he grabbed my arm and asked, “Is it true?”
“What you said about Jesus loving me?”
“Why, yes. He loves all of us.”
“But does He love me, Alec Lincoln?”
I hadn’t thought about it like that, but the scriptures were clear. “Yes, Alec, He knows you, and He loves you.”
He was quiet for a while, and then he whispered, more to himself than to us, “But I’m nobody.”
When he looked up, there were tears in his eyes. “Please tell me about Him,” he asked.
Elder Wilkins rested his huge hand on the skinny shoulder and said tenderly, “Okay, Alec, we will.”
The boy brightened and asked us to come back home with him. We learned that his mother had died when he was only a baby. He had no brothers or sisters and lived alone with his elderly father. He scampered next to us as we pushed our bikes along the dirt road leading out of town. His home was a tiny, ancient cabin near the river. His father sat in a rocking chair with an equally old hound dog at his feet.
“Pa, Pa,” Alec called as we approached. “I’ve brought some friends for lunch.”
The old man turned and greeted us. “You’re mighty young lookin’ elders,” he chuckled when we introduced ourselves, “but if you’re friends of Alec, you’re right welcome.”
Alec proudly showed us the only room in the cabin while he removed his shirt and carefully hung it in a rickety wardrobe. There were two beds, the wardrobe, a table, and not much else. A shotgun hung over the fireplace. Alec climbed up on the table and lifted some smoked meat from a hook. “Possum!” he declared proudly. “Shot it myself.” I smiled at the look on my companion’s face. He had not tasted that delicacy before.
Alec sent me out to talk to his father while he and Elder Wilkins prepared lunch. I asked and received permission to teach his son, and he asked me about life in Salt Lake City.
We talked over the meal and began the first discussion. Mr. Lincoln sat quietly listening, but Alec was full of questions. His mind was sharp, though his reading was poor. We gave him a Book of Mormon anyway and were rewarded by one of his huge smiles.
We visited a lot with Alec and his father during my last month. We listened to the old man’s stories and helped around the little farm. I was excited to be teaching someone at last, but at the same time, I was discouraged. We had not found a suitable leader to save the branch, and Alec would probably fall away soon after the missionaries left.
We baptized him in my last week, and he asked me to do it. We waded out into the river on a beautiful evening, and I finally said the words I had practiced for two years: “Alexander Lincoln, having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you …” (see D&C 20:73).
I easily pushed his slight body under the water and then lifted him up. As we shared their dinner that evening, I looked at him and thought, So that’s the end! Two years of hard work and all I have to show for it is one small, barefoot boy.
Soon after I returned home, I heard that the missionaries had been taken out of Salcomb and that the branch had been closed. In 1967, I met a returned missionary from the Southern States Mission and was overjoyed to learn that he had been sent to reopen the town. He told me there was a thriving branch there when he left.
“Did you ever meet a kid called Alexander Lincoln?” I asked.
He thought for a while. “Lincoln? Lincoln? Oh yeah, skinny boy, freckles, no shoes, big smile?”
“That’s him! How’s he doing?”
“He’s not active. We tried to get him out to church, but he didn’t want to come.”
I felt like I had been slugged in the stomach. I had hoped for a miracle, that Alec would have turned out to be a great leader, and that somehow my blessing would be fulfilled. But what I feared had come to pass.
I joined my father’s law firm, married, and had five children. Outwardly, I appeared successful, but inside I knew I had failed the Lord. When people talked about their missions, I remained silent. When my sons and one of my daughters went on missions, I enjoyed hearing of their successes. I don’t think they ever realized how useless and inferior I felt inside.
“What did I do wrong?” I blurted out to my wife one night. “Why didn’t I baptize anyone?”
“What about the boy?”
“Alec? He was nobody.”
“Well, he was. He was so poor you wouldn’t believe it. He really didn’t stand a chance after they closed the branch.”
My life went along. I was happy as long as the subject of missionary work didn’t come up. Then I had a phone call from the president of the Missionary Training Center. He was very mysterious. He only told me that there was a missionary who really wanted to meet me.
I met the president in his office, and we visited for a while before he left to teach a class, saying he would send the missionary along. I was studying the family photos on the desk when a voice behind me said, “I guess you must be Brother Nielsen?” It carried a strong Mississippi accent, and I turned to see a gangly missionary. He quickly gripped my hand and pumped it up and down.
“Ah’m so glad to meet you at last,” he said. “It sure is a pleasure!”
“Umm, I … ah … are you sure you’ve got the right Brother Nielsen?” I asked, searching my memory for some clue to this young man.
“You did serve in Salcomb in 1963, didn’t you?” he asked anxiously.
“Yes, I did.”
“Well, then, you’re the right one.”
His face was vaguely familiar. I looked at his missionary badge. Elder Lincoln, it proclaimed.
“You aren’t Alec’s son, are you?”
At a loss for words, I dropped into a chair.
“It’s so good to meet you,” Elder Lincoln said. “My family owes you so much.”
“Me? What did I do?”
“Why, it’s because of you that we’re members of the Church and that my brothers and I went on missions. Because of you my folks are sealed in the temple. Here, I’ve got a photo of them.”
He pulled out his wallet and flipped it open. The first picture showed a fair-haired man and a women with a kindly face. “That’s Ma and Pa,” he told me. “He must’ve changed a bit since you knew him.”
I studied the face. “Not much. He’s still got the same smile.”
There were some more photos of children playing around the old cabin, which appeared to have been extended.
“But I heard your dad had fallen away. What happened?”
“Well, I suppose you heard they closed the branch soon after you left? It was hard for Pa. Grandpa wasn’t well, and so Pa had to work harder, even on Sundays. He just sort of drifted away. When the missionaries returned, he was out of the habit. Then he got drafted, and next thing he knew, he was in Vietnam. His platoon got ambushed one evening, and they were pinned down all night.
“He was younger than I am now, and he was real scared. It was a long night, lying in the mud, trying not to breathe too loud. He got to thinking about life, wondering if he’d ever see the sun again, wondering what it would be like to die. That was when he remembered you and the talk you gave the first time he came to church.
“You told him that Jesus knew him personally and loved him, even though he was just a poor boy. He couldn’t kneel, of course, but he began to pray, talking to God like he talked to his father. He began to remember things, how he felt when you taught him and when you baptized him. He said he was sorry for not going to church and asked God to forgive him. He began to feel better, and when the sun rose, the enemy pulled back.
“Well, he found an LDS chaplain and went back to church. He stayed in the army for five years, and he met Ma in Oklahoma. When they moved back to the farm, Grandpa was baptized a year before he died. Before I left, Pa asked me to try to find you and thank you. You helped a lot of people by baptizing that one little boy. We tried to count them, but it was impossible. Pa taught a lot of his friends in the army, and a few of Ma’s brothers and sisters joined. Pa never had what people call a high position in the Church. Mostly he taught in Sunday School and Young Men, but everywhere you go in town, you meet men who say he kept them in the Church and inspired them to go on missions.
“All nine of us kids are strong in the gospel. Two of my sisters, and all of my older brothers served missions. They taught hundreds of people and baptized quite a few. Before I left, Pa said to me, ‘Just teach them what Elder Nielsen taught me. Jesus lives and He loves each one of them.’”
We talked until he had to return to class, and then I went and sat in my car, humbled by his story. I bowed my head and tearfully told Heavenly Father how sorry I was for doubting Him and for saying one of His children was a nobody.
As I drove down the hill, I began to laugh. Elder Greg Lincoln had told me where he was going to serve. I wonder what Chinese sounds like spoken with a Mississippi accent?