Cambodian. Laotian. Vietnamese. I don’t speak any of these languages, thought Elizabeth Dutton of Dallas, Texas. Two weeks after becoming a Beehive, she received a rather unusual assignment for a girl of 12. She was called, along with the rest of her family, to be a stake missionary in a Dallas Asian branch.
Initially, Elizabeth had a few worries. With all the different languages, how would she communicate with people? And as a new Beehive, how could she help new converts adjust to Young Women when she had only been there a couple of weeks herself? She didn’t know the answers. But Elizabeth, determined to face the challenge, agreed to serve.
Her first Sunday in the Asian branch turned out to be, well … incredible. “When we first went, we were welcomed with open arms. Everyone was really friendly,” says Elizabeth.
As it turned out, many of the youth in the branch spoke English, and the adults who didn’t still made efforts to befriend her. Missionaries and ward members translated sacrament meetings into Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and English, so everyone could understand the speakers. At first, one of the biggest adjustments was simply figuring out when to say amen after prayers, which are not always translated.
For her younger sister, Alice, attending a branch where some members wear headphones to hear translated talks and where cultures from around the world come together is seriously fun. “It’s small and friendly and all the people are very close. It’s neat because you get to know a lot about different cultures,” says Alice.
Five years have passed since the Duttons were called as stake missionaries. Now Elizabeth, 16, and Alice, 15, know exactly when to say amen, but they still have much to discover. For example, one of Alice’s favorite cultural learning experiences is the branch’s monthly potluck dinner. The dinners give her a chance to load up on egg rolls and sticky rice and to interact with the 20 or so young people in the branch.
In a branch with many recent converts, the girls have had several opportunities to fellowship new members and to do missionary work. After Elizabeth had been a stake missionary for about a year and a half, one of her Cambodian friends from elementary school began investigating the Church. Missionaries asked Elizabeth to attend the discussions to support her friend, Phally Chhim. Elizabeth happily agreed, and a few months later Phally was baptized.
Elizabeth and Alice say they are just following the example of missionary service set by their older siblings. Their two older sisters, Catherine and Deborah, as well as their brother Daniel, are serving missions. Also, the girls feel a special desire to serve because their own parents were introduced to the gospel by missionaries many years ago. “Missionary work is important in our family, because if our parents hadn’t met the missionaries, none of us would be members,” says Alice.
Spending time together is important for the Dutton girls because they attend different high schools during the week. Alice, who wants to be a pediatrician, is a sophomore at the High School for Health Professions at Townview Center; and Elizabeth, who plans to major in agriculture at Texas A&M, is a junior at Dallas’ Skyline High School. And although they don’t see each other all that much during the week, they do have Sundays. Both sisters agree that their work in the Asian branch has blessed their family.
“I think it has brought us closer together,” says Elizabeth.
And their callings have also brought them closer to Church members they otherwise may never have met. “I just really like the people,” says Alice. “Even though you are listening to a translation from the elders, you can feel the speakers’ testimonies through the Spirit.”
“When they call us back [to our home ward], I’m hoping I don’t have to go,” Elizabeth adds with a laugh.
Whether the girls are tying white yarn around people’s wrists for good luck during the Laotian New Year or smacking their lips in appreciation for a Cambodian dinner, their five-year calling has taught them to appreciate different cultures. They have also learned that the gospel can bring people of different backgrounds together. Although the girls still occasionally struggle to find the right word or right motion to communicate with a member who speaks another language, they say it doesn’t matter. Take it from Alice, who says, “This experience has helped me because you learn that everyone is a daughter or son of our Heavenly Father.”