It has been 25 years, today.
July 3, 1991…I was 19 years old and my parents and brothers and I were at the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah, saying our goodbyes. They were going to drive off and leave me there…
I had never lived away from home up to that point since my first year of college was spent at a local college. I don’t think I had been east of Utah in my life. Being the oldest, our family had never sent a missionary off. I was nervous. I’d imagine my parents were nervous. This was new territory. After a short presentation by the staff and leadership of the MTC, I hugged everyone, cried, and walked into a hallway with hundreds of new missionaries while my family walked back to the car with hundreds of families in similar situations.
First thing I learned as a missionary: I loved my family.
Then I hauled my bags to my room. Then I met Elder Evans who I would grow to love like a brother. Then I met the other missionaries going to my mission, and a few others going to other missions. I spent about three weeks in the MTC, learning, studying, playing basketball, eating (and immediately using the restroom), praying, praying…And eventually traveling to Texas where I served as a representative of my family, my church, and my Savior in bringing the restored gospel of Jesus Christ to anyone who would listen.
It has been 25 years since I embarked on that adventure. I served for two years. I’ve had 23 years to think about it. Here are some of the things I learned:
I learned that I could get along with anyone. I didn’t have to just stick with my friends like I thought I needed to do in high school. The mission president could stick me with any missionary companion and it wouldn’t be long before we were laughing and joking and working together. I even had one companion who didn’t speak any english (and I didn’t speak his language). We got along great!
I learned that I could work hard. I didn’t grow up on a farm or as an olympic athlete. It is doubtful that I would be remembered in high school as any other than an average worker. But very quickly I learned that I could go all day, so to speak. We were up at 6:30 AM, out the door by 9:00 AM, and gone all day until 9:00 PM that evening. And I liked it. I really enjoyed it. It was tiring, and could be discouraging, but we found ways to enjoy just working.
I learned that my intestines didn’t like 32-Bean-Soup.
I learned that my Samoan companion punched a lot harder than I did.
I learned that when you sense that a dog is going to try to bite you, it is because it really is going to try to bite you.
I learned that not everyone likes Mormons.
I learned that there was beauty and truth and great people in every religion.
I learned that there were incredible people who weren’t religious at all.
I learned to enjoy the friendship that developed with other religious leaders.
I learned that I enjoyed attended the Jewish Synagogue, Catholic Mass, and Baptist worship meetings.
I learned to let rejection, disappointment, and frustration bounce right off of me.
I learned that I could choose to be happy regardless of my circumstances.
I learned to get off of my bike, get out of my car, and get out of my routine to help strangers with no expectation of repayment. A person didn’t need to listen to our message to receive our help.
I learned to follow those quiet promptings, impressions, and feelings that come from a loving Heavenly Father.
I learned that obedience isn’t limiting or oppressive. Following the council of leaders doesn’t require that I become un-thinking or un-feeling. Just the opposite. And blessings and protection seem to follow.
I learned that Joseph Smith did, in fact, see God the Father and Jesus Christ. And that there was a lot to learn about that experience and from that experience.
I learned of the power of the word of God and the special relationship between the Bible and the Book of Mormon.
I learned that Jesus Christ really did live and die for all of us. He was resurrected and lives today.
I learned that God knew me very personally, and knows me today.
There’s certainly a lot more. Lessons were learned everyday. Over the last 23 years, since returning home and moving on with life, I’ve also learned that those two years as a missionary were not the best two years of my life. They set the stage. The mission ended up teaching me the patterns I would need to understand to make the next 23 years wonderful.
I will forever be grateful for parents and church leaders who encouraged me, but didn’t force me to serve as a missionary. I could have not served in that way and everyone would’ve loved me just fine. I had friends who didn’t go as full time missionaries and they were loved as much as me. So I learned that being a missionary didn’t make me any more special or loved by others or God.
But I’m grateful I went. I would go again. We’re encouraging our children to serve as missionaries because of the blessings and lessons that come. Those two years were critical in becoming who I am today.