A friend and his wife were recently called to serve as senior missionaries in France; they’ll be leaving in the Spring. He had some questions about what it is like to serve such a mission, and in response Lou Midgley in a series of messages described his senior mission. I loved the detail and thought it was fascinating, so I asked him for permission to post them, which he granted. I know a lot of you ponder the possibility of serving such a mission in the future, so I thought you might enjoy and appreciate these missives as much as I did. (The last of them is a kind of disclaimer in connection with his permission to post these.):
1. My wife and I were anxious to serve a mission in New Zealand. I had been a missionary there in 1950-52. And in some important ways I never got over that mission. In several essays I have made reference to that experience. The lore in my extended family is that I was the 51st member of my family to serve a mission in New Zealand. From the moment I knew there was such a thing as a mission, I expected to be called to New Zealand. And I was. And so I very much wanted to serve another mission there with my wife. We had visited New Zealand five or six times before our CES mission.
After my wife and I had retired, I started working on getting a call for us to New Zealand. Eventually Matt Chote, who was the Auckland Branch President in 1950, and his wife Anita, informed us that there would be an opening at one of the two Institutes in Hamilton coming up. Eventually we picked Auckland rather than Hamilton. The reason was–don’t laugh–there are four thousand restaurants in Auckland. One might as well eat well on a mission. Why not? I love the food in New Zealand.
Be that as it may, I started reading what is (or was) called The Urgent Needs Bulletin that the Church sends to every Ward in the US and Canada every month. This describes all the various needs for senior missionararies and invites couples to apply for a call to fill those needs. Then I got in contact with the CES people in Salt Lake. I was not going to leave this to chance. CES use a senior missionary couple to look for potential auxiliary missionaries to help all over the world with both Seminary and/or Institute. So when we sent in our papers, we knew exactly what to put down on the form. I got to know the top brass at CES rather well.
Quite often the Apostles who make the calls–there are two of them at any given time–will oblige the couple by calling them to the task and place they have requested. Someone from CES, however, provides a check on those who request to be CES auxiliary missionaries. Why? Well it is obvious that not every couple could direct an Institute or teach Seminary. But it is not uncommon that the Apostle who makes the call will change the assignment.
When my wife and I went to New Zealand, the preparation took place in Salt Lake in the Church Office Building. But the Missionary Committee now requires CES auxiliary missionaries to spend a week in Provo at the MTC. The instruction is still essentially the same. When my wife and I, along with three other couples each heading to New Zealand, underwent that instruction, we were with something like thirty other couples headed all over the world. Much of the instruction involved health and safety advice. In every case they would say that none of that applied to those of us headed to New Zealand. Most of those missionaries were, for example, warned not ever take the sacrament without providing water that had been treated. Or they would have a serious problem. And they were never to go from their apartment to any destination the same way twice or at the same time each day and so forth. They were sending couples to every imaginable place.
Since the Institute and Seminary programs operated in New Zealand only during the school terms, we were urged to find missionary work to do during the four months when there was no school. Some of the CES couples in New Zealand did genealogy or Temple work. My wife and I found lots of other things to do. But we were not assigned any of these tasks. This explains my having forced Dan Peterson to come to New Zealand twice. The first time we had Dan speak in large Stake Centers to members and non-members. The second time Church Public Affairs took over. Dan addressed 5,700 people on his first trip to New
Among other things, my wife and I were invited to Australia for a big CES event in Sydney. As I recall, Dan turned up at that one, since he was there on a speaking tour. Dan has been in New Zealand and Australia three times for the Church. But my wife and I hosted four or five other visitors to New Zealand who were doing Public Affairs work. When the Primary and Relief Society people from Utah turned up in Auckland to have a look at how things were going, we had meet with Stake Presidents and others at the Lorne Street Institute. I was stunned at how blunt and honest those conversations were. That experience and others convinced me that those in Salt Lake want a realistic and honest understanding of exactly how it is with the Church out there. It was a pleasure to be part of that process.
We were able to get deeply involved in the final stage of the filming of that movie about Elder Groberg’s first mission to Tonga. Mitch Davis, a former student of mine, who did the film showed up at the Auckland 2nd Ward and we then got invited to a huge gathering at a large Stake Center of Tongan Saints with Elder Groberg. We arrived more than an hour early to that Sunday night meeting and we could not get in the door. But one of our Tongan students–a really impressive gal–was there waiting for us–she guessed that we would show up–and she escorted up to the front of the chapel. And she sat between us so that she could translate. That was a simply stunning meeting. After the very long meeting–think of Tongan music–there was a kind of reception for Elder Groberg. We stayed to the bitter end. We got back to our flat after 1:00am the next morning.
Much of our mission was just one wonderful experience like this after another. We had no one ordering us to do anything. We did what we thought we ought to do and the Auckland New Zealand mission president and CES were, I believe, pleased with what we managed to do.
I talked what was then called FARMS into packing up copies of every book they had in their bookstore, some two hundred books for each set, and sending me these sets of books to be donated to four university libraries in New Zealand. This was a modest success, given the enormous hostility to religion in general in New Zealand and to our faith in particular. And also, it turned out, to Maori and Pacific Islanders. Oh do I have the stories to tell. My wife suddenly announced one day that she now had some idea of how it must be to be a Black in the United States. We constantly met bigotry directed at Maori and Pacific Islanders.
The Samoan Bishop in the Auckland First Ward, which met in the same chapel as our own Auckland Second Ward, along with a Maori fellow in that other Ward, just insisted that my wife and I would visit a big prison north of Auckland. I fought hard to avoid this by telling them that they should ask our CES boss to give permission. But they just ignored my efforts to avoid prison duty. So my wife and I very soon spent half a day each week meeting with both members and non-members at a prison. That was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I will not go into the detail about this prison experience. We had to get another missionary couple to come to the Institute to take our place each time we went to the prison. The couple that did this was involved in providing health care for the missionaries and members in the Pacific area and the fellow could use our phone as well as a phone at the big Pacific Area Offices in Auckland. And his wife was a teacher and very good with those kids who turned up at Lorne Street.
We were also allowed, even encouraged, to have our families come visit us. This was a distinct blessing. I became a first class tour director. We had a broad definition of family members. I got to show my children and their families exactly where my own earlier missionary experiences had taken place and they got to meet some of the children and grandchildren I had known in 1950-52. And to hear my stories about the Church in New Zealand and so forth.
And we also often met people–individuals and couples–who turned up in our Ward or who we heard about who were in New Zealand for some reason. We had them stay in our flat, fed them dinner, helped them in various ways, and I got to introduce them to the wonders of the Church in New Zealand. Our flat became a kind of Hotel de Midgley for those LDS visiting New Zealand for Church or other business.
My wife and I had very many speaking assignments all over Auckland. There was once Branch in Auckland in 1950. There are now ten Stakes and 75 Wards. Almost everything we did both in and outside the Lorne Street Institute was something we were either forced by the members into doing–for example, visiting that prison–or it was our own invention. My wife directed the Lorne Street Institute; I just talked up a storm with the kids who turned up. Oh I loved doing that.
When we got to Auckland, nine out of the ten Stake Presidents in Auckland had been through the Lorne Street Institute. Many of them had, when they were young, taught classes there. So we had to select each year nine mostly young people to help teach classes in the Institute. Oh they were great teachers. The truth is that I was the worst of the lot. We could see before us the next generation of Stake Presidents and Stake Relief Society Presidents.
My wife and I also had much involvement in making improvements on building in which we held that Institute. It is a three story building next to the Auckland University of Technology and a short block from Auckland University. It is a block and a half from the main intersection in Auckland. We went to the Institute at 9:00am and most often we closed the building about 6:00pm or when we could get the kids to leave or my wife could shut me down. One night each week we were there until way after 10:00pm. The first year we were just dead by the end of the day. All that talking was hard work. I would drop my wife at the Institute building and then park our vehicle at what is called the Scotia Place chapel on upper Queen Street (the main street of the city). This meant that each day I had to walk about a mile both back and forth, rain or shine. The first year I always got into at least one major conversation over Mormon things with someone every single day while I walked both directions. This did not happen as quite
as much the second year.
My wife and I visited Latvia (and Lithuania and Estonia) earlier this year. There was a CES couple there dealing with the four different languages in seven or eight Branches. They did not have an automobile, but went everywhere by bus. They obviously had just wonderful experiences with the young people in the Baltic Mission. Most of the members are young people. Since they did not know that CES provided automobiles for senior missionaries in other places, they just did what had to be done by bus. They loved it and were obviously doing a great job. They were also making up on their own what they did just like we did. The Baltic Mission President was just glad to have them do whatever they did. He stayed out of their way.
2. Ok, what I called the Urgent Needs Bulletin is now on line and seems to have a different name. This is the thing that one should examine for months before putting in one’s papers in an effort to determine what poison you want to take. You will notice that there is a section dealing with CES needs. Right now I notice that they need someone in the Baltic Mission–that is, stationed in Riga, Latvia. And I believe that CES now provide an automobile for the one called to Riga. It is possible and desirable–the Brethren want it done–for those contemplating a mission to try to match their interests and skills to the needs that the Church currently has.
Old, worn out, retired university professors can do missions teaching at BYU-H. Oh now that is really hard duty. My good friend, but now unfortunately departed, Davis Bitton, with his wife, spent some time teaching religion classes at BYU-H. The Bittons just loved that stint. They had to suffer having a house just above the ocean on that point at Laie that sticks out into the Pacific. My friend Jerry Ottley, who was, as you all know, for many years the director of the Tabernacle Choir, either is or has been teaching at BYU-H on a missionary calling. (Jerry ended up in New Zealand as a 17 year old kid back in 1951. His father was my mission president back then. Jerry was sent to the Auckland Boys Grammar School. He lasted on day with the school uniforms and all that. When he told his father that he did not want to go to high school, his father called him on a mission. He was a very fine missionary. I don’t think he ever graduated from high school. But now he is in the very lap of luxury serving with his wife on what is obviously a really dreadfully difficult mission.
3. There is one thing I must mention about Senior Missionary calls. It is, I strongly believe, a serious mistake for older couples to postpone missionary calls. The reason is primarily one of health. As one gets older, things that you had counted on working start to fail. And, despite my description of my experience as a CES auxiliary mission as a grand holiday, it was also taxing. Especially during the first year, all four couples who went to New Zealand together were worn out by the end of each day. It was intense. I know of several who went to New Zealand for CES who simply could not handle the rigors of the calling. Or who ended up with serious health problems. So my advice is not to delay. Retire as soon as possible and serve while you still have the energy and before you wear out.
My wife and I are frequently asked if we plan of serving another mission. The answer is no. I have several reasons. I love doing what I am doing. I see it as a contribution to building and defending the Kingdom. And I am too old to take on another adventure.
Some couples face another kind of problem. It is not uncommon for a wife (and occasionally a husband) to be filled with fear about a mission. They just cannot see themselves pounding on doors or giving lessons or whatever. We have several fellows in our Ward who have wives who simply cannot face a mission, at least as they understand such things. Some of this fear is silly. But I can also appreciate just how it works with some people. But they can still find ways of serving. The Temple is one place or family history is another. Oh there are hundreds of opportunities. Even the most timid soul might be able to find something that takes away their fear, even if that service is right in their own community and allows them to live in their home.
I think that the next generation and those that follow will come to anticipate serving as senior missionaries in some sort of way just a kids tend to do now. And I expect that some of the fear that I hear about will be much reduced in the future.
4. Sure your can post those items. Why not? Please let me know if there is any response.
My wife and I had to pick someone up at the Salt Lake Airport today and I mentioned that I had been opining about Senior Missions. My wife guessed correctly that I had said a few things about our own missionary experience in New Zealand. She scolded me for not describing more of the hundreds of instances where we were invited to be part of events involving young members of the Church outside of the Lorne Street Institute, and all the other things that we did. I tried to defend myself by explaining that my intention was not to describe all the things we did or even the full range of things we found to do that we considered missionary work. She agreed with me that we were not, for the most part, told what to do, but were encouraged to do whatever the Spirit moved us to do. Or what others (Bishops, Stake Presidents and so forth) invited us to do or talked us into doing. I trust that you will recall once getting me to post up a storm on Maori lore and our missionary experience on some blog. This morning I had no intention of going back over all of that.
The problem that I see with what I wrote this morning is that it may sound like boasting. We have known quite a few older missionaries who have served in New Zealand and each of them could tell their own stories. But we have also discovered that this is true for many of those who have served missions in their declining years. My guess is that Mission Presidents are commonly busy with the young missionaries and more or less let the older ones go at their own pace and find their own way. This was certainly our experience.
But the fact is that I had very little supervision from my two Mission Presidents back in 1950-52. Back then we tended to do what we wanted. When John Sorensen, who started his mission in New Zealand and after a month or so was sent (with three other young fellows) to the Cook Islands to start the Church there, handed me a copy of Elder Groberg’s In the Eye of the Storm, I immediately could identify with his experiences, as could John. Back then we were essentially on our own and, if anything got done, it was because we were moved to do it. I really enjoyed that kind of mission–both times.
It was also a blessing to have kids turn up at the Lorne Street Institute and elsewhere whose grandparents I had known back in 1950-52 and who had even heard stories about my sometimes embarrassing antics when I was a kid. My idea of going back to New Zealand involved a powerful urge to pay something back to the Saints who had been so kind to me almost fifty years earlier. I doubt that I did much good back then, but those Saints certainly did much for me. I am quite a different person in Aotearoa. I like myself better there. I suffer, as you can see, from an advanced case of nostalgia.