One Sunday while I was serving as mission president in Vladivostok, Russia, a rather amazing thing happened. I had gone to my office to gather some materials when a 13-year-old young man, Vladimir, whose friends call him Vova, knocked on the door. Vova is a deacon in the Vladivostok First Branch. He asked to visit with me in my office. He was accompanied by Sister Olga Vyachyeslavna Dryagunova. This sister speaks wonderful English, and the boy had asked her if she would act as his interpreter. Vova speaks no English, and I speak only a little Russian.
Vova had been an orphan, abandoned at birth because he was born with a cleft palate. The birth defect has since been partially repaired, leaving a scar. He was adopted by a wonderful woman who has treated him as her son. The boy is always happy. He has a smile on his face and a wonderful countenance when he passes the sacrament. He wears the mantle of a deacon as well as any boy I have ever known. He regularly bears a sweet and brief testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel. He is everything that a deacon ought to be.
At our meeting Vova spoke Russian and Sister Olga interpreted. She told me that Vova had come to fill out his application to serve as a full-time missionary. I asked, without a hint of a smile, “How old is he?”
She asked and he answered, “Nearly 14.”
Retaining my composure, I said, “Does he understand that he needs to be 19 before he can serve a mission?”
She responded, “He does, but he does not want to be tardy in getting his application in.”
I assured them that there was still time before we needed to send his missionary application to Moscow and then on to Salt Lake City. Neither the branch president nor I would forget when it was time for him to fill out his forms. I walked to the wall displaying pictures of the 44 missionaries then serving in the Russia Vladivostok Mission. I told Vova I was worried that the missionary papers might be returned if it appeared that I was recommending a 13-year-old boy for a mission.
Then I explained that since he was in my office where I conducted interviews with the missionaries, I thought it appropriate to ask him the questions that will be asked of him when he is 19, just to make sure that he was currently worthy to serve a mission. I then went through all the worthiness questions as though Vova were one of my full-time missionaries but tactfully passed over the boy-girl questions, thinking them premature. Besides, I didn’t want to embarrass Sister Olga.
Vova answered all my questions with the appropriate responses and with the wisdom of a boy twice his age. Upon further reflection, I guessed that he may have even asked one of the elders what interview questions he might anticipate from the mission president. I then told Vova that he could come back every six months, and we would repeat the interview process.
He then asked with some concern what he should say to let me know he was ready for another interview six months from now. I said to him, through Sister Olga, that it was now time for him to have his first English lesson. I then said slowly, “This is what you should say to me, ‘President, I am ready for my missionary interview.’”
He repeated the important words he needed to know three times.
As I was ready to end the interview, Vova asked Sister Olga to ask me one last question. “President,” he said, “what advice do you have for me to prepare for my mission?”
I was a bit taken aback. Few of my mature elders would have the wisdom to ask such a timely question. I pondered for a moment and then told him to do three things: First, I told him to read the scriptures each day. Second, I suggested that he pray to his Heavenly Father each morning and evening. Third, I told him to practice his English.
I confess that the last suggestion was a little selfish on my part, as I was thinking how I would enjoy speaking with him in English and asking him questions about the things of his heart. I suggested he attend the free English classes taught by the missionaries, but he said his mother would not allow him to be out after dark. We agreed that he would work harder each day in his English class at school.
Later, when I saw the deacons in the hall after church, I asked Vova if he would like to repeat the phrase he needed to use to ask for his next interview. This he did in a fine manner. Then to my great surprise, I learned that each of the other deacons in the branch had also learned the magic words. Each one repeated while looking right at me, “President, I am ready for my missionary interview!”
Oh, the power of example! The joy of one willing to open his mouth and share the things he had learned with another was something I was trying to get all of my missionaries to experience! These Russian deacons were on the road to perfection.
As I sat at my desk, I wondered what could be done in advancing the missionary work in this vast land of Russia if, in five years’ time when Vova is 19 years old and ready to serve his mission, there were another 2,000 young Russian deacons preparing just like Vova. The answer, of course, is found in Alma 57. There a prophet named Helaman had 2,000 young men, and he was able to perform miracles with boys of great faith and devotion who had been taught by their mothers (see Alma 57:21).
Think how blessed the mission president will be who gets Vova as one of his stripling missionaries.