In a most memorable sacrament meeting, the truly universal nature of the gospel was impressed clearly upon my mind. The sacrament was administered in French and German. Talks were given in Italian, English, and Portuguese. The musical number, a verse of “I Am a Child of God,” was sung in ten languages—Japanese, Korean, German, Spanish, Italian, French, Tongan, Samoan, Dutch, and English. The whole congregation was touched through the spiritual language of the soul.
Unusual as it seemed at the time, this kind of sacrament meeting would not be atypical, for I had recently been called to serve as branch president at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. I recognized early that this would be a rare and unique experience.
The missionaries in my branch came from many different countries. On one occasion, we had missionaries from 18 different countries bonded by the common cause of testimony and love for the Savior.
The excitement of seeing these missionaries, interviewing them, and trying to help them, lasted throughout my stay at the MTC. The most profound part of that experience, however, was found in getting to know the missionaries. Learning from them and watching them grow in the gospel was a blessing that overwhelms my feelings.
As I interviewed missionaries and heard them speak, I learned a good deal more about them than their thoughts on a certain topic. I could observe something about their current level of spiritual maturity, the degree of their preparation, and their dedication to service. I saw great variety among them. Missionaries came who were well prepared and poorly prepared, spiritually mature and not spiritually minded at all, very dedicated and not so dedicated to serve. As I listened to them, I began to hear them use the words sacrifice and privilege.
I noticed that every missionary used at least one of these words and sometimes both to describe his or her feelings about serving a mission. Some said they were happy to sacrifice one and a half to two years of their lives, cars, and dating in order to serve the Lord. Others said they felt it a privilege to serve him. I heard these two words so often that I began to take note and tried to understand what they meant as exemplified by how the missionaries acted.
An elder from Germany told how he had always known that he did not know the truth. He described how he sometimes prayed to God to find it. After leaving the military service, he was employed in Switzerland. One day, living alone and feeling lonely, he prayed again, “Please God, send me the truth.” A few days later when he was walking down the street, a stranger approached him and said, “Young man, I am supposed to talk with you, but I don’t know why.” In this missionary’s words, “I looked into his face and knew he had the Spirit of God. His face was beautiful.” The stranger was a Church member who had been walking down the same street and felt inspired to speak to an unknown young man on a busy street in Switzerland. This elder spoke of his mission as a privilege.
A sister from Spain had already completed one mission and immediately went to work as a nurse in order to earn money for another. At first the local Church leaders would not let her go, but she persisted in her attempts until they finally consented. She was on her way to Chile. An elder from Mexico happily showed me a picture of his family. “Look,” he said, “my father saved for two months to buy me these shoes. My branch contributed money so I could have this suit.” They described their missions as a privilege.
An elder arrived from Samoa. When he introduced himself for the first time he walked to the front of the congregation holding up a copy of the Book of Mormon. He said, “I am here because this book is true.” He was one of 15 children. He owned a pair of pants, one shirt, and one tie. He had been told by his father before leaving home that other men, Church leaders, would be his father for the next few years. He was to obey them, and after his mission he was to finish college at BYU before returning home. He thought his mission was a great privilege.
A missionary told of hearing the gospel in France. The missionaries were not fluent in his language, but he knew that what they were telling him was important, so he studied English in order to understand them. After hearing the discussions, he had difficulty breaking some habits. The missionaries told him to ask the Lord for help. One night he was having extreme difficulty and, remembering their advice, went to his bedroom to pray for help. An hour or two went by and he heard a knock at his door. The missionaries were standing there, drenched from walking three miles in a vigorous rainstorm. “Why are you here?” he asked them. “We were asleep,” they said, “and woke up feeling you needed us.” He paused at this point in his talk and looked out over the audience as if looking for someone. Then he said, in a voice trembling with love and gratitude, “I want you to meet my missionaries.” They both lived near the Provo area, and he had asked them to come hear him speak at our meeting. He spoke of his mission as a privilege.
An elder told of traveling from Vietnam and arriving at a Seattle, Washington, refugee camp. While he was trying to learn English so he could enter the United States, someone gave him a small card with a picture and address on it. He kept it for some reason, and when he was later asked where he wanted to live, he showed this card to the customs official. “I can’t send you there,” he was told “but I can send you to a place nearby.” He was sent to an LDS family in Salt Lake City. He learned about the Church. As he finished telling me this story, he reached into his wallet and showed the card. It was a picture of the MTC. “I am here, President,” he said. Like the others, he thought it was a privilege to go on a mission.
The privilege of serving the Lord on a mission is felt and demonstrated in many ways. A tall basketball player who played for a major college in Ohio, was not a member of the Church until he graduated from college. He said that while working in Chicago he was “touched on the shoulder” by a presence, turned around, and met someone who introduced him to the gospel. His memory of this experience was still vivid, and his words became less clear as he wept while telling about it. But they were very clear when he spoke of how great a privilege it was to serve the Savior even though he had left an excellent job and promising career.
The missionaries who only thought a mission to be a sacrifice were often honestly dedicated to the service of the Lord. However, I found they had less experience with the gospel in a practical way. They had yet to know firsthand of revelation and inspiration. They were usually less informed about the Savior. As they studied their scriptures and came to better know him, their hearts seemed to soften and enlarge. They began to more deeply feel his love and know of the importance of missionary work as a continuation of this love extended to others. Many of these who began by telling of their sacrifices left the Missionary Training Center talking about privileges.
During my last sacrament meeting at the MTC, an elder stood who was older than most missionaries. He apologized for his poor English, but hoped that he would be understood. His voice was deep and strong. He told of growing up in Cracow, Poland. He felt uncomfortable attending his family’s church and said that he “instinctively” knew some of its practices were not correct. He stopped going to his church and instead began to study the Bible. As he grew he became increasingly unhappy, and at age 18 asked permission to live in Austria. It was granted, and he left his home to find a life elsewhere. He spent nine very difficult months in a refugee camp near Vienna before going to the American Embassy to seek permission to come to the United States. He arrived and, while living in Massachusetts, was contacted by missionaries from many churches. “They were nice,” he said, “but I could tell they did not know everything I was looking for.” One day, he saw something about the Mormons on TV. Warmed by what he saw, he thought he should learn about them. He arrived at an LDS church and introduced himself. He met the missionaries, heard and accepted the gospel, and at age 25 was serving a mission. “It is a privilege to be here,” he said softly in his deep Polish accent. “I have been looking for a long time.”
It is a wonderful privilege for anyone to serve the Savior. It is a privilege to have any part in the great missionary work of the Church. I have thought about young people who have an easy life, or who do not know of the Lord, or who are afraid, or who are uncaring. I wish they would think it a privilege to study the words of eternal life, to learn about their Redeemer, and seek opportunities to serve him by serving their fellow men. Then the numbers of missionaries would increase, and more would be privileged to come to the missionary training centers of the Church.