Wearing the Badge

My family is in the middle of a job-related move from one city to another, so while we wait for the house to sell, I’m living in a small apartment in the new city during the work week.  A few nights ago, there was a knock on my door.  I wasn’t expecting anyone, so I checked out the window to see who it was.  Two young men in white shirts, ties, and name tags were standing on my steps.  As I crossed the room to the door, I briefly considered having some fun, hiding my identity, and pretending to be a golden investigator, but when I opened the door, I was just so happy to see them, I couldn’t do it.  I smiled and said “Hello, Elders!”

They didn’t quite know what to think, but when I showed them my scriptures on the table, they realized that I was already playing for the same team.   Neither they nor I had had our dinners, and some twofer coupons from Subway had arrived in the mail, so we walked around the corner and ate meatball subs.  We talked about President Hinckley, and about their investigators.  When I asked about how the work was going, they both enthusiastically said it was great, but a few more questions brought out the fact that their teaching pool was pretty small.  We chatted for while until it was time for them to go, and I was surprised at how much I had enjoyed their company. 

We really do expect a lot of the young men and women we send out to proselyte.  We joke that the church must be true, otherwise the missionaries would have wrecked it long ago.  And I know there are problems – phony baptisms, numbers games, bad companions, abusive leadership, and all the rest – but as I walked back to my apartment that night, I was so intensely proud of those two young men.  They were working hard at a task that is truly difficult and where results might never appear, yet they had managed to maintain that balance of realism and hope that many adults never achieve.

I thought back over the years to my own mission, and how ineffective I was.  My clumsy, futile attempts at sharing my testimony are still a source of embarrassment.  I was miserable at least half the time, and I’m afraid that sometimes I wasn’t a very good companion.  It is very possible that the mission would not have missed me at all, had I not served.  And yet those two years had a profound effect upon me, and I am grateful for my missionary experience.  My dinner guests at Subway reminded me again why I love the church, and how much it has helped me in my life.  As difficult as my mission was, I would wear the badge again with those two men any day. 

Comments

  1. Proud Daughterr of Eve says:

    I never went on a mission; sometimes I wonder if I should have. Would it have ameliorated my introvert habits? Or would it have exacerbated them? I think I’d’ve hated it, but I could have grown from it too. I suspect it would have been much like you describe yours; I’m glad you count yours worth it.

  2. Would it have ameliorated my introvert habits?

    Hard to tell, but I suspect it would have. I did very little ‘free dating’ in high school, mostly because it was so hard for me to actually call a girl and ask her out. (I did have some girlfriends, though in three cases it was because of being asked out to the annual ‘Dogpatch Drag’ [girls ask boys] dance. After my mission, it was still hard to ask a girl out, but I had two years of approaching total strangers on the street and asking them about their religion, so calling a girl was easy compared to that.

    I thought back over the years to my own mission, and how ineffective I was.

    One of my most distinct and powerful memories from my mission is from the morning I left Costa Rica to fly back to the United States. I remember driving myself out to the airport in the early morning in the office van and thinking, “I shouldn’t be leaving. I should just be starting. I’ve just finally figured out how to do all this.” But I think that’s true of a lot of callings — we get released just about the time we figure out what we should be doing. ..bruce..

  3. Mark,
    I’ve often had similar thoughts about my mission to Spain. I’ve wondered if I really made any difference at all. I like to think that the time, effort, and money wasn’t all in vain. Like you said, if nothing else, the mission often has a tremendous and perhaps the biggest impact on the missionary him/herself.

    I also hope and believe that missionaries are better prepared now (in general) than when I served. With all of the talk about raising the bar, hopefully we as parents are also raising the bar for ourselves and are trying harder to teach our children and to help them gain testimonies of their own.

    Whether in missionary work or other interactions, I think we often fail to recognize the influence that we have on others. For example, my younger sister sometimes says things like, “I remember when you said….” Invariably it was something that I had long since forgotten, but it seemed to make an impression on her.

    About a week or so ago, a returning missionary from Argentina contacted my brother in Texas. He told my brother that a man he taught (and I assume that he had baptized) was now serving as bishop there. What a thrill that would be!

  4. Mark, this is a wonderful story. I feel the same way about those young people out serving.

    I’ve tried to have some fun before too, with missionaries who didn’t know who we were- but the same thing happened- I was so happy to see them, I gave it up!

  5. This really just made my day to read….with a younger brother of mine just returning home from a mission and another one preparing to leave in a few months [and me being a worry wart and a mother to 6 young kids…} I worry so much more about my brothers now than I used to back when I was younger. I know the work is hard, I know it often seems unfruitful and often there are more obstacles than blessings {or so it seems} and sometimes missionaries get beat up, chased by dogs, they don’t always have enough money or food {which is a sore subject I admit}, and they often return home feeling like they made no difference at all. But I know that just by knowing my brothers… seeing how they have changed and remembering that they have matured, grown spiritually themselves…then it made those two years of self-sacrifice worth it. In our days of instant gratification I think a mission is a wonderful thing in spite of all the disappointments along the way.

  6. A couple of years ago I had a hearing in St. Thomas, USVI. The night after the hearing I was driving to the hotel with one of my expert witnesses when I saw two elders using a pay phone. I quickly pulled the car over and told my witness, “we just picked up two more dinner companions.” Unfortunately the elders had an important appointment and missed out on a free dinner at a nice restaurant. (I missed out on much more pleasant dinner company than I ended up with.)

    More recently, I ran into a couple of Elders in the Atlanta airport who were on their way home. As we talked, another very tall guy approached us and identified himself as an RM. As it turned out he was a basketball player for Colorado or Colorado State-I forget which-and he offered to spend his NCAA sanctioned meal money on lunch for the Elders. (IIRC, they had just been beat by Ga Tech and the team was traveling home.) I thought that was a nice gesture. The missionaries did not think they had enough time before their departure to go eat and passed on the offer. We all just sat there and swapped missionary stories for about 20 minutes before we all headed in our separate directions.

    Maybe one day while I’m traveling I will run across missionaries whom I can take out for a meal.

  7. Thanks for posting this. It’s good to know I’m not alone for looking back on my missionary experience with mixed feelings of both fondness and inadequacy. It’s hard work in many ways, and I have a great deal of respect for anyone who tries to do it the best they can, even if that is far worse than they think they should be doing.

    Yesterday I attended the wedding reception for an RM who started his mission in our area. He struggled a bit as a lot of new missionaries do (but some are very good at hiding it), but we made a decision that we would treat him like a real person, not just another suit and tie, and I think that helped him. He kept in touch with us the rest of his mission and invited us to his wedding reception, so I like to think we had some positive effect on the him.

  8. Latter-day Guy says:

    Would it have ameliorated my introvert habits?

    It didn’t really for me. I learned different ways of coping, but I always, always hated contacting and tracting, mostly because we never had any success through those methods. I did learn to love teaching though, and that has stuck with me.

    In a similar vein, I worry when soon-to-be missionaries are told that missions are the “best two years.” I work in the MTC, so sometimes I am asked about that saying. I usually asked them what was the most important week in the history of the world, and they usually come up with (after a little prodding) the week in which the atonement took place. Then I ask them, “Do you think it would be accurate to characterize that week as the best week in Jesus’ life?” It was certainly the most important, but “best” makes it sound like a trip to Disneyland, which cheapens the whole thing. So too with missions.

  9. I sort of had the same experience a few weeks ago when a couple of Elders knocked on my door not realizing that I was a member. It was a miserable evening, very cold, but here were these 2 young men striving to do the Lord’s work and doing so in an upbeat, hopeful manner. I felt so proud of them and of our wonderful church.

  10. Larry the cable guy says:

    As a society, the church is often seen (not unjustly) as being too insulating and overprotective of it’s young members. The dances, cookie-cutter activities, church schools, and standards that seem meant for the “weak and weakest.” But outside of the military, I know of no other organization that will grab a nineteen year-old and put their feet in the fire like the LDS church. And when seen as a package deal, I guess some overprogramming in the years prior to a mission isn’t such a waste.

    Mark, there isn’t a rational, honest RM that wouldn’t put their signature on your last paragraph. The Lord “needs” a young missionary in the same way that you “need” help from your three year-old putting the utensils away: so that in a few years they’ll be ready for the whole load. And maybe even a real job someday.

    Besides the homegrown Elders Brown that you raised, I’m sure there were certainly hundreds, if not thousands of future missionaries that you’ve taught or led in the decades since your service. What a blessing.

  11. What a great blog post! I just sent a copy of it to my son on a mission. I think he’ll appreciate it.

  12. My Dad told me a saying about missionary experiences.

    “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, but I would recommend it to my best friend”

  13. Great story.

    My happiest post mission elders story is when I lived in the UK. In a small ward our elders ate meals about once a month with members.

    As fellow travellers, my wife often said Wales was her mission, we got close to all the elders having them over to visit and eat every week. Most often twice a week.

    They were all wonderful young men, most were British, most were easy to get along with. They offered us a great opportunity to have the gospel in our home and I never regretted having them around.

    They were in a lot of ways a surrogate family for us in a strange land. I have never had that experience in Canada because ALberta is much more Mormonony so missionaries do not depend on us as much. As well in Wales we were the only family that would give them stuff they missed, Tacos, Thanksgiving Turkey, Root Beer.

    In my own missionary days I was not great baptiser and I could not tell you anything of the lives of those who I did work with now, many years later.

    Yet that mission was a huge influence on my life and one I will never forget. Hopefully as mentioned earlier I can use my experience to help my boys continue to have the zeal to go on missions of their own. They are hard, but unforgettable.

  14. I hope they are the best two years *up to that point*. I wouldn’t trade those experiences and that growth for anything.

    I hope they are NOT the best two years for very long.

    When I was traveling exptensively with a former job, I used to run across missionaries quite often. They were like UPS trucks; the days when I saw them outnumbered the days that I didn’t. My favorite missionary meals during that time were spent at a cheap eatery – munching on something (anything) and talking about the work and the people. Sending 19-year-olds out to convert the world has its obvious drawbacks, but I believe it is inspired nonetheless.

  15. #8 LDG, I always took it to mean the best 2 years for your life instead.

    I don’t think I put in 100% every day on my mission, but I tried the best I could in most of the days. I made plenty of mistakes, but regardless, if I had a chance to go back in time and make the decision again, I would do so without hesitation. I had no idea what I was getting into beforehand, but during and after I came to realize that it was the best decision I had made to date. Missions alter you in so many ways, perhaps the most important being that it brings you closer to the Gospel, as you spend all your time studying and teaching it.

    About making a difference, I served Spanish-speaking in Fresno, CA. I think I was involved in circa 24-28 baptisms, which is a big comparison to some places like Europe on the downside, or Brazil on the upside. However, a lot of the people I baptized became inactive for various reasons. I had to wonder if I made a difference from an eternal perspective. At least one family got baptized and one guy got married in the temple to an RM, so I made a difference for them. Baptisms have never been a good yardstick for success, but it seems to be the one that a lot of missionaries/members focus on.

  16. A comment for those that feel like you may not have accomplished much on their mission. In 1955 Elder Able and McLaws tracted out my family in Seattle. They taught my parents and older siblings the discussions and after a number of months, when I was 1 year and 27 days old the Kingdom of God admitted my family into membership by baptism.

    At that point Elder McLaws had gone home and Elder Rutherford had replaced him.

    There have been more children born into our family, and grandchildren and great grandchildren, born and raised under the covenant. There are currently 4 full time missionaries serving, and 11 that have already served full time missions as a result of my family having been tracted out and taught the gospel.

    There have been over 400 people taught the gospel and baptized by members of my family or direct descendants (grandchildren, great grandchildren) of our family.

    However Elder McLaws (the senior companion) went home before our family got baptized. He did not have one single baptism on his mission. We were never able to ascertain if he knew our family joined the Church. Recently I tried to contact him to give him the thanks that he deserved and he had passed away some 2 years previously.

    Can I express to all of you missionaries who felt like you may not have accomplished much, that I love and respect you as a compatriot of Elder McLaws and as an emissary of the Lord. How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!

  17. The closest that I get to breaking the 10th commandment is when I sign a young missionary’s application papers. And I tell them so. I would almost give anything to be back out there doing what these wonderful kids do. I would hope that I would do a better job than I did once long ago. I would follow the rules more closely. I would look around a little more. I would enjoy where I was and who I had the privledge of meeting and teaching I would love everyone more and let them know it. I would simply feast on the experience because I would know that it doesn’t last and is over sooner than I realize. I would write positive things in my journal–not “woe is me–make me want to puke” things.

    Most of all, I can’t wait to do it again. This time I will get to choose my own companion and I will be able to keep her while everyone around us is getting transferred.

  18. That was fun to read. Thanks for sharing it.

    One amazing thing about the work the missionaries do is that they’re actually out and about and on task all day everyday. Sure, they work very ineffectively at times and are underinformed about most things in the world but they are 19 to 21 year olds who, on their own initiative pretty much, go out and actually knock on doors and attend their appointments and find ways to teach people, all relatively autonomously. One could almost argue that it’s difficult to get that kind of autonomous productivity out of seasoned professionals in their fields. (Of course, the missionaries’ work ethic is prodded along by cheesy self-help type pep-talks at zone and mission conferences, but even that is somewhat remarkable given the nature of this volunteer effort — that these volunteers are committed to trying to reinforce the will to work in each other so that the days are spent on the Lord’s business, as they understand it.)

  19. Amen, Darrell.

  20. :) Lovely

  21. nice thoughts Darrell. I’ve considered a mission later in life (I’m 32 now) and would do any type. I don’t think that the wife would like a proselyting one if we had to go tracting though.

  22. I saw two missionaries on the way home from work tonight. I let them be as I figured they have better things to do than preach to the choir. They told me once they couldn’t come over for dinner in the evening since that’s “Prime Time,” so I know they’re already above and beyond any level of missionary zeal I ever demonstrated.

  23. Pete,
    As you and I know, Wien will soon beat such zeal out of them. (I hope they get moved to Sankt Poelten or Steyr. Wait, do we still have mishies in Steyr?) Plus, you have a gentile wife. They should be camped at your house, pestering her night and day…

  24. Great story, Mark. We had the missionaries over last night to our house, fed them some homemade chocolate cake, and talked about “chruch tours” that they are using as a proselytizing tool here, and how we can help.

    But it was a different conversation with an elder in one of the other wards in our stake that I was speaking with yesterday that had the most impact. I did not go on a mission as a young man, mostly due to fear and a sense of inadequacy, and got married in the temple while I was 20, so missed out on the opportunity. More and more, I see how I have missed it. But this Elder yesterday, as we talked about member missionary work, said something profound. He said that he finally realized, after more than a year on his mission, that what he’s doing now is just a launching pad for the rest of his life. To him, it doesn’t matter how many folks he baptizes now, as much as how effective he is as a member missionary the rest of his life. After that, I realized there was even more I had missed out on by not going on a mission.

    My wife and I are counting down the years to when we can go on a mission together, which is at 10 years now. Seriously, the waiting is killing me. I’d love to be out there with her right now.

  25. ArielW – There are *so* many missionary opportunities that aren’t proselyting ones. They have missionaries working fulltime as welfare and employment counselors — imagine helping people rewrite resumes and practice interviewing skills all day! Or serving in the temple! Even the so-called proselyting missions for adults are really just excuses now to go to a foreign country and go help small branches with retention or paperwork (teach them how to be home teachers and clerks).