Saturday, November 20, 2010

missionary stories


The first part of my mission was a time of purification.  Most of my life I believed in God, Jesus Christ and in the church.  I believed Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.
            But I wanted something more.  I wanted an experience akin to Joseph Smith’s vision.  Not to see God and Jesus; but to have an impressive, deep fire experience with the Holy Ghost.
            It is only after the trial of our faith that one has that kind of an experience.  This is the story of my trial. 
The day I entered the Language Training Mission (now the Missionary Training Center) I and all the other new hundreds of missionaries, with our families, were shown a new video the church had produced: “The First Vision.”  Afterwards there was a spontaneous testimony meeting as the question was put to the crowd, what did you think of the movie, and how did it make you feel?
            As I listened to the other testimonies, I was convinced that I was lacking.  My testimony was inferior to those of the people around me.  People were standing and telling of the burning experience they had as they watched the video.  Although I believed it was a true story, I had no such experience.  I had a testimony, but a small one.   Combining that with my shyness, I didn’t say a word at the orientation.
That day we were put into companionships, and into a district.  We were placed at Knight Mangum Hall.  (I think we were probably the last group of elders to go to Knight Mangum Hall as the LTM was expanding.  We would move to the regular LTM about two weeks before finishing our two-month course.)  I was placed with a group of very strong elders, who all seemed to have very strong testimonies.
Among them was Elder Tsuneishi.  He was an older Elder, of Japanese descent.  He had converted to the church a couple years before his mission.  He was headed to Ecuador with his companion.  He was a very serious Elder, with a very deep love for Jesus.  This love showed in the things that he did, and the way in which he did things. 
I was teamed with Elder Sedgewick.  He and I were both headed to Argentina; the only two Elders in our district going to Argentina.  However there was another district in which everyone but two were going to Argentina. 
Elder Sedgewick was called to be our district leader.  I guess that made me, by default, the assistant district leader.  (I don’t think it was an actual call, but those rare instances when Elder Sedgewick was away to a meeting, I would call on somebody to say prayers.)  Elder Sedgewick and I had a good time.  We both liked to sing, and he taught me a few songs.  He also was a whistler.  I had never been able to learn the secret for whistling, but during that two months I mastered this, and can whistle just about anything.  (I especially like to whistle bird-like sounds.)
I remember a song we made up when we were moved from Knight Mangum to the LTM.  We sang it to the tune of ”Oh Babylon.”  “Oh Knight Mangum, Oh Knight Mangum we bid thee farewell.  We’re going to the prison on the hill to dwell.”
Not a very positive song, but it did express somewhat the way we felt in making the move.  The LTM was new, and stark, and had no character.  It was an institution in every sense of the word.  Knight Mangum had a different feel to it.  The Young Ambassadors rehearsed there.  It had a smaller cafeteria.  At the LTM there were thousands of missionaries.  At Knight Mangum there were only a few hundred of us.
Getting back to my original theme, I had a testimony, just not a very strong one.  I wrote home that I knew Joseph Smith was a prophet.  But as I said, I always wanted something more, some kind of a sure testimony, like a burning bush, or a light, or a vision like Joseph had.  However visions aren’t for everybody.
President George Pace was our branch president.  He was a religion instructor at BYU.  Every week he welcomed a new group of missionaries to his branch.  He then had eight weeks to share a series of firesides with them.  Sometimes he would combine the districts, but not usually.
The inspiration he provided was incredible.  It made me want to do everything I could to purify myself to be worthy to be a missionary.  Before going on a mission, I had gone through a repentance process for misdeeds I had done.  But with the increased motivation, my internal search went deeper.
A few months before my mission, during bad weather, I had been driving our old pickup.  I slid on the ice and ran into the fence of an elderly gentleman in our ward.  I left that day with a promise that I would come back and help repair the fence.  One thing had flowed into another, and I never did get back to that fence.  I wrote to him asking for forgiveness.  He wrote back and said he was disappointed in me, but should consider myself forgiven and go about the Lord’s work. 
There were numerous other sins, I confessed to in letters; and sought forgiveness for in prayer.  I was becoming a new person.  This process would extend into the time I was actually in the mission field, when I would remember some sin I had overlooked and would go through a repentance process.  I hope I got them all.
President Pace was a great teacher.  One time he shared a parable with us, which let us know of our dependence on Jesus, and the atonement:

   A college student was offered $1,000,000 if he could walk and run a certain distance during the course of a day, leaving at sunrise and arriving before sunset.  This man wanted the money, and knew that he was physically fit enough to make it.  He had a mountain to go over, and then had to go through a swamp to get to the place where he would earn the money.
   In the early going he climbed the mountain and thought to himself that it would be easy to make it as he was extremely fit and strong.  He was also very intelligent and a good problem solver.  However he noticed that by the time he got to the top of the mountain, the sun was lower than he would have liked it to be.  He knew he would still make it, however he would have to quicken his pace.  So he ran down the other side of the mountain, knowing he would make it in time.
   But the sun still seemed to be ahead of him.  He began to run faster.  He knew he could make it.  He was strong and in good shape. 
   After running down the mountain he came to the lowland and swampy area.  He had to hurry, but he could make it.  He felt very strong.
   In his hurry, he was not really watching where he was going.  He stepped onto some mushy ground, and the minute he did he realized he had stepped into some quicksand.  But it was too late.  He quickly sunk to his waste.
   He was no longer focused on getting a million dollars.  That was an ancient goal.  Now he was focused on extracting himself from the filth he was in, and saving his own life.  After reviewing his situation, he figured he could quickly get out of the mucky quicksand with the use of his exceeding strength.  So he started to churn his legs, faster and faster.  But as he tried he only sunk deeper and deeper. 
   He finally stopped, and realized that this was the first time his physical strength had failed him.  He would have to rely on his intelligence.
   He looked around, and noticed a limb from a tree that extended over the pond of quicksand.  The limb was connected to a trunk, which was firmly planted on solid ground.  He realized all he had to do was grab the limb, climb up on top of it, and then shimmy down to the trunk and from there to solid ground.
   He was able to grab a hold of the limb, and began to pull himself out of the quicksand.  He was making it, getting higher and higher.  But the limb began to crack from his weight, and his heart fell as the limb broke, and he found himself again in the quicksand, deeper than before because of the momentum of his fall.
   He was totally broken, and saw no way to cling to life.  He continued to sink into the quicksand, up to his chest, his chin, his mouth, and then about ready to cover his nose.  He didn’t want to die.  He tilted his head back clinging to every last breath.
   He watched a hand extend out of heaven, reaching down to him.   He didn’t stop to think of how illogical     that hand being there was.  He simply grabbed the hand and held on as best he could. 
   He started to climb out, getting higher and higher, but the hand was unfamiliar, and his hand was slippery with muck.  He began to slip.  He clang on for dear life, but couldn’t, and fell back into the quicksand. 
   He quickly looked up for the hand again and it was still there.  He grabbed again, and again he failed.  He tried again, and again until finally he was able to hold fast and reach the safe ground.
(From a talk by President George Pace 12/19/1976.) 

            This story was given in response to the words of King Benjamin:

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man, and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord…  (Mosiah 3:19)

The message of the story, struck home to me.  I had always been one who would use, not so much my physical prowess, but my intellectual capacity, to figure things out.  I was not one who often put his trust in the arm of the Lord.  President Pace also said, “Man can stand as a man, but if he wants to stand as a God there must be a redemption.”
The man in the story represents the natural, proud man of the world.  I had been full of self-admiration, or at least the pride that I was sufficient unto myself.  I had the capacity to figure things out.  And like the man in the story, I had fallen into my own personal muck of quicksand.  The first instinct is to rely on our own resources.  But this, like Paul discovered, is just kicking against the pricks. (Acts 26:14)
My next instinct, much like the young man in the story, was to rely on the learning of the world.  However, the learning of the world will not sustain us, as the limb did not sustain the central character in the story.  As the learning of men fails, fortunately there is another rescuer, another who can save us. 
God’s arm of mercy is always extended towards us.  (Jacob 6:5)  It may be difficult for us to accept in faith, or to grab hold.  But even if we slip, His arm is still extended towards us.  Oh, that we can hold on to His arm, until we are on solid ground, where we are encircled in the arms of His love. (2 Nephi 1:15)
Nephi summarizes this lesson:

O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever.  I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh.  Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm. (2 Nephi 4:34)

You can imagine the force with which President Pace’s message effected me.  He was a terrific teacher.  I wanted to do everything in my power to trust in God, and not man; to have the conviction of Nephi.  I continued my process of seeking purification, holding unto the Lord, as I repented and sought to become a better person.  I still slipped at times, turning to my own resources.
The thought of missionary work can be daunting.  It is the Lord’s work.  But without the ability to rely on the Lord’s help, it can be an overwhelming task.  It was while attending a temple session at the Provo Temple, that I realized that I must petition God for his help.  I also realized, thousands of people across the globe were doing the same thing.  Every day in the temple, people prayed for missionary work.  And hundreds more prayed in their own homes.  I petitioned my family, in letters to also pray for my missionary efforts.
After eight weeks of training in spirituality and Spanish, I with a group of Elders was on my way to Argentina.  The flight was very long.  I remember sitting in the back of the plane, thinking about my testimony, and the task I was taking on.  I reflected on my life and experiences in the church.  My thoughts followed this course:  I had such positive experiences I would gladly tell people of the positives that come with association with the church--the experiences in Primary, and scouting, the many people who were willing to devote time for my betterment.  If I couldn’t bear fiery testimony of the Gospel, certainly I could tell people of  these positives and I would be fine with this. 
This strategy worked for the first couple weeks I was in Argentina.  I was assigned to Elder Brad Larsen, who was the district leader for Barrio 1, the first ward in Argentina with a history of over 50 years.  The family of the bishop of the ward, Obispo Hoffman, had been one of the first families to join the church in Argentina.  He now worked as a barber.
Elder Larsen and I worked in the Mataderos area; Mataderos meaning meat packing plant.  There was a large Mataderos in the Northern part of our area.  Sometimes the smell was very bad.  Once we saw a dead horse through the door.
There was a language shock.  I could speak a little, from my learning at the LTM and in high school.  But I couldn’t understand a thing.  The people in Argentina didn’t talk like the instructors in the LTM.
But it was an enjoyable time as I became accustomed to Argentine culture: street vendors selling sweetened peanuts or riding bicycles selling ice cream, a highway encircling the Districto Federal (federal district,) traveling by bus and train, mosquitoes, watching old men play bocci, an Italian game of lawn bowling (there was a field just off the highway we would often walk pass on our way to the church,) rain, and Argentine foot baths.  (The sidewalks were often tiled and if a tile would get loss, water would seep under it when it rained.  When you stepped on such a tile it would squirt water that would get your legs wet.)
The people were also incredible.  Argentina has a mixture of many European cultures—Spanish, Italian and German mostly.  There are very few people of Native American descent, like other places in Latin America.
We lived with the Gallardo family.  They had a couple of rooms built on top of their house.  Roofs were usually flat.  The rooms were heated with gas heaters.  Outside the rooms was a lattice roof covered with grape vines.  The grapes were very large and juicy.  
Hermana Gallardo, the owner of the house, made our meals.  We usually had milk and cookies for breakfast, pasta, meat or soup for dinner. One time she served snails in barbeque sauce, which was very good.  She also fixed a tortilla, which was eggs and potatoes cooked together which was very good.  She made a poor man’s stew, which had everything in it, including field corn.
A couple weeks into my mission, Elder Larsen and I were teaching the Graciano family.  I didn’t say much as I had difficulty following what was going on.  However I could tell things were not going well.  We were hoping to challenge them to baptism.  I felt the distinct impression that it was my turn to speak.  Being very shy, I initially resisted this impression, but finally gave in.  I bore a very brief testimony.  The church is true and blesses families. I wrote about this in my journal:

   Yesterday while we were there, I felt something tell me I should explain something to them.  I first tried to put it off but the drive was so great that I did tell them.  I know I said the words the Spirit wanted me to say.  One time I didn’t understand what they said, and didn’t know what to say.  But I prayed inside and said I had to know.  I finally ran out [of stuff to say] and became totally blank.  Then it was my companions turn again.
   Later he [my companion] explained how he didn’t know what to say when we started, and the reason was I was suppose to talk… I know Hermano Graciano has received the words of the Spirit and if he listens with the spirit we’ll get him in the water.

That short testimony, with the teaching of Elder Larsen, was enough that they accepted the challenge to baptism.  Hermano Graciano was the first person I ever baptized.  He was a very large man.  I almost couldn’t get him back up after he was under the water.  Fortunately the baptismal font was small and I was able to steady myself against the wall and help him up. 
My companion baptized his wife.  They also had a three-year-old daughter with curly Shirley Temple hair.  I remember teasing her because she would pronounce her s’s like t’s.  She would say asi, meaning that’s the way it is, but it would sound like a ti, meaning to you.  When she said this I would say “A mi?,” (to me?) and we would have fun going back and forth, “Asi,” “A mi?,” “Asi,” “A mi?.”  It was fun.
We also rode in their 1939 De Soto one time.  We had a party at their home and stayed much longer than we should have.  It was after when the buses ran so they gave us a ride home in their car.
I was with Elder Larsen a couple of months.  Then I was moved to La Tablada, still in Barrio 1, with Elder Ellsworth as my companion.  We found a new place to live, with a member family, but still ate lunch with Hermana Graciano.  This place was different.  We had a room at the back of the house.  There was a bathroom behind the residence, which was our restroom, stand alone like and outhouse, but with plumbing.  It did not have any hot water.  The first few times showering it was very cold.  We purchased a personal shower heater, which basically was a bucket with a spigot and a heater.  You would fill the bucket with water, plug in the heater and let it warm up, and then you would have a bucket of water for your shower.  You had to use your water wisely.
Missionary work now became more difficult, as we were basically working in a new area.  Of course there were a few members in this area, but no missionaries had worked this area for sometime.  We had no progressing investigators, and basically were starting from scratch.
We began contacting people as quickly as we could.  We had haircuts, and taught the barber in the area about Joseph Smith with no result.  We organized a street meeting which lead to us teaching a group of young people at a community center who had a street band.  We finally settled into teaching a very nice family.  We thought they were golden and would make great members of the church.  However the father decided the church wasn’t for him, and would not let us continue the discussions with his wife and children.  It was very frustrating, as we knew they had felt the Spirit.
There were also several other frustrating experiences, which lead to discouragement on the part of two missionaries, who were working hard, but not having any results--doors not opened when we felt they should have been, a hard time getting anyone to listen to our message.  It was in this environment, as we were drifting off to bed one night, that my companion asked me if I would bear my testimony.
I took my time before answering.  I knelt by my bed and said a prayer, that God would give me his words.  I then climbed back into bed.  The testimony I bore was simple:  “God lives, Jesus is the Christ, Joseph Smith is a true prophet.”
The spirit that permeated the room was so thick and strong it felt like you could cut it with a knife.  It removed any room for doubt about the truthfulness of those statements.  God lives.  There is a God who is concerned about us, and we are his children.  We can grow and develop and become more and more like Him.
Jesus is the Christ.  We have an older spiritual brother, who offered Himself as a willing sacrifice to atone for our sins; consequently we can be at one again with God.  
Joseph Smith is a true prophet.  The things Joseph said are true.  The church has been restored, and we have living prophets on the earth today.  When I read the Book of Mormon, even today, the peaceful spirit of that book re-manifests this testimony to me.

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