99947_000_003The best homework assignment I ever completed did not come from a teacher.
Above the classroom noise, I could still hear the whisper from within. I looked up from my desk at Vilate and knew what the voice was telling me. “She’s the one,” it said, and I knew I had received an answer to a humble prayer.
But Vilate was the most assertive, opinionated, and loudest individual in the class. Could hers be the name the missionaries had requested?
A week earlier, I sat facing the elders. They had a challenge for me. I thought I was too busy with homework, student government, sports, and treating my acne problem. The missionaries persisted.
“We want you to give us a name of someone we can teach the gospel to,” one of the elders said. Admittedly, I thought that missionary work was exclusive to those called to full-time service and that bleached-white shirts, nametags, and worn trouser knees were requirements for the duty. Nevertheless, I muttered a soft, “Okay, I’ll think about it.”
Thus commenced an experience that would forever change my perspective on member missionary work and the influence of young people on their peers.
I called the elders, gave them Vilate’s name, and was relieved that I’d finished my assignment. At least that’s what I thought. A phone call a few days later made me wonder what I had gotten myself into.
“Brother Swensen, you need to come with us to the second discussion,” came the voice of a missionary. “You will not believe what has happened.” Dreading the worst, I nervously entered her house and sat down quietly to observe the lesson. The missionaries asked me at various times during the presentation to share my testimony of the principles being taught. Vilate was genuinely interested, and our friendship grew over the next few weeks.
Vilate was a strong-willed individual and had some feelings to resolve before she could commit to baptism. She felt somewhat uncomfortable and isolated around certain Church members.
Socially, she fit in and participated in many activities in school. Her parents had instilled noble values in their daughter, and Vilate impressed the missionaries and me with her knowledge of the scriptures and gospel principles. Still, those negative feelings would surface at times.
She began to soften, however, and committed to baptism. Through phone conversations, I would try to answer her questions and dispel any concerns she had. I prayed for my new friend’s happiness and in the process grew myself.
One day I was standing by my locker with some friends when Vilate approached the group. She entered our circle, looked me in the eye, and asked a question I will not soon forget.
“Would you be willing to baptize me?” A hush fell over our little band, and a sense of heightened excitement filled the air. My friends stared at me in amazement, awaiting a response.
“I … I think I can,” was all I could stammer, not remembering the fact that I was a priest in the Aaronic Priesthood and could perform the ordinance. But I knew I was worthy to do it.
A few days later, I led this young daughter of God down the steps into the baptismal font. Several dozen friends and family members had come to support her.
I looked almost comical in my oversized white shirt and pants, and Vilate felt self-conscious in her gown, with so many friends looking on. I think some people showed up in disbelief that such a personal change had occurred in Vilate. As I lifted my arm to the square, I imagined how Joseph Smith must have felt baptizing Oliver Cowdery in the waters of the Susquehanna River.
I felt a cleansing feeling come over me as I lifted her gently from the water. At that moment, I received a witness of the truth of the gospel for myself, and I experienced the joy of being a missionary.
The confirmation was later performed as I watched from the back of the room. Vilate’s hair was still damp, but her countenance was radiant. As she rose from the chair, a throng of loving arms enveloped her. There was not a dry eye among those in attendance.
I noticed Vilate had been searching for me, and then the crowd parted. She had tears streaming down her cheeks as she came toward me. Tears swelled in my own eyes as she spoke. Choking with emotion, she repeated the words, “Thank you, thank you,” over and over again.
The finest homework assignment I ever completed had nothing to do with extra credit, a report card, or a graduation requirement. It came from the mouth of two young missionaries in my living room many years ago.
I accepted their challenge and helped a friend complete one important step toward a celestial graduation—all because of the pleading words, “Give us a name.”