“Letter to a Returned Missionary,” Ensign, Nov. 1977, 66
My dear brothers and sisters, I would like to dedicate the following words to a certain category of men and women in the Church. We do not talk too much about them, maybe because they don’t say too much, maybe because there is a bridge too far. You can and will meet some of them today, tomorrow, and every day of your life. They live among us. Just now we have about 50,000 parents, 100,000 grandparents, and many thousands of brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends who will be concerned with them soon. In fact, we are all concerned with this group. We call them returned missionaries.
I have a letter here with me that I was going to mail to one of them. May I share it with you as a tribute to missionary work but especially as a reminder of our responsibilities towards our returned missionaries. Before I read it, you should know that the personages of this letter, as well as their characters, are not imaginary, and that after all their resemblance with anyone real, living or dead—with many other returned missionaries—could well be a coincidence.
Dear Elder Brown,
You will certainly not mind if I still call you elder, will you? This is the name under which I started to know you, and it will be associated that way in my mind forever. Do you remember? It was that hot summer afternoon. You and your companion were pushing your bicycles towards the hill where we lived. We admired how you could put up with the heat with your white shirts and your ties. For two or three days we had noticed how you literally flew down the hill, and when you rang the bell of our home, all of us, the four children, rushed to the door to know who those young foreigners were and what they were doing in the neighborhood. You came in, and when we offered you some ice-cold tea, you refused politely by saying that you were not thirsty. What a pious excuse for missionaries, as I learned later who you were and the purpose of your visit. It took us some time to realize what you were talking about. First the strong American accent and then what you showed us to start with: pictures of Indians, pictures of ruins in South America, and even some handmade copper plates bound with three rings. We felt quite like Christopher Columbus when he discovered the New World, a strange but exciting discovery.
We rapidly became good friends as your visits became more frequent. You were preaching the message of the restoration of the gospel, and we were learning English in school. We both had our personal motivations to see each other! It was not difficult to also teach us some English and especially how to say “I love you.” You were a living example with your companion. We loved you.
One day we learned that you were leaving the city. This you called a transfer. It was the right word; we had to transfer our love to a new companion. Soon we followed his teachings and example, but you were the first, and you remained so in our minds. We also learned that your mission was for two years, and of course, you promised when you left that you would send us news. Indeed, we received one short letter two months later. There was also a picture with it. All was well, but it took us a little time to recognize you. Oh, not because of the horse that you were riding instead of your bicycle in the mission fields, not because of the clothes, but rather because of the sideburns and the length of your hair. We smiled about this as we thought that perhaps you were trying to re-create the legend of Buffalo Bill. We did not know that leaving the mission field also meant that you abandoned some of the characteristics that made you so special to us and were some of the reasons why we invited you into our home. You were so different from the world. Why was it so difficult to remain different?
We were anxious to receive the next letter. We grew in the Church, were baptized one after the other, and learned very soon of the importance of temple marriage. Some wedding cards arrived in the meantime from some of your companions. We rejoiced every time just looking at their pictures, and we could feel their happiness. Yours never came. We did not dare ask you why.
Some time passed; I had my first opportunity to come to Salt Lake. I was finally going to see all the things you had been talking about, or should I say, bragging about. That’s another word of vocabulary that I learned from you. Would you believe me if I told you that I was not surprised when I saw the city? You revealed so much and with such an enthusiasm about the valley, the Tabernacle, the temple, and the members that I already had a vision in my mind of what to expect. I had envisaged even Brigham Young entering the valley and saying, “This is the place.” Now the vision became reality in the same way that you explained the first vision of Joseph Smith and what it meant for the world and for myself.
Of course, we wanted to visit with you. We still had a vision of you, Elder, smiling and testifying with tears in your eyes: “I know what I say is true because I asked my Heavenly Father and I received a personal answer. There are no doubts any more. I have peace in my mind. I know that Jesus is the Christ, that Joseph Smith is a Prophet, and that this Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth.”
I could not resist or deny your testimony because of the Book of Mormon. You spoke to my heart by the power of the Holy Ghost. I did not tell you how I felt that day. These are things we sometimes do not like to talk about because of the sacredness of our feelings, but it was the beginning of a new life for me, with new objectives, and a sure knowledge of the Church and of the truth.
Yes, that day we arrived in Salt Lake we wanted to tell you, the same way you told us, that we also knew. We wanted to say: “Thank you, Elder. Thank you for what has happened in our lives because of your testimony. You prepared the way of the Lord. You made his paths straight. Now, listen, the gospel rolls forth into the cities of your old mission. Zions are established in Europe. Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Let us share this joy together.”
We first met one of your former companions; we asked after you. There was a kind of hesitation in his voice, and he seemed embarrassed but finally he admitted that you were working in a gas station and that you would probably not be coming to general conference or even listening to it. You were not, as we say in the Church, “very active,” meaning that you were no longer living the principles that you preached to us some years ago. We decided immediately to see you. We drove in front of the gas station and stopped.
We were looking for you, and as you saw us and realized who we were, there was a kind of hesitation. I could detect panic on your face, and I smiled as you were trying desperately to hide a cigarette that started to burn your fingers. We shook hands, asked about your wife, your children, your life, your future. Something was missing. You knew it and we knew it. We left. A last look through the window, a last wave of the hand.
Today I am in Salt Lake again, and I am writing this letter with the hope of reaching you. I do not know where you are. I drove in front of the gas station, but you were not there anymore. Where are you, my brother?
I hope that you will not mind if I have recalled some of the souvenirs of what you always referred to as the best time of your life. Why can’t it be the same way today? Why should the “best time” always refer to yesterday instead of tomorrow? The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a gospel made of souvenirs. It is a gospel presented to us so that we may live it today in order to know where we will be tomorrow. Alma bore his testimony of it in these words:
“For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors.
“And now, as I said unto you before, as ye have had so many witnesses, therefore, I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.” (Alma 34:32–33.)
Dear Elder, you said one day in a conference that mothers can give birth to children, but missionaries can give eternal life to people. I recorded this as well as your testimony that day. The words of our Savior Jesus Christ are also recorded that we may not forget, that because of his sacrifice, we may repent of our errors. Didn’t he declare to the Nephites: “Behold, I am the law, and the light. Look unto me, and endure to the end, and ye shall live; for unto him that endureth to the end will I give eternal life.
“Behold, I have given unto you the commandments; therefore keep my commandments. And this is the law and the prophets, for they truly testified of me.” (3 Ne. 15:9–10.)
You have opened the gate to many. Why, why do you close it for yourself? May I put my foot in the door, as you once did in mine? Reach out your hand while there is still time, and let us tell you that we love you. Your bishop is waiting for you; your home teachers are caring for you; your missionary companions do not forget you; but more than that, we, we need you. Come as you are—our arms are open. We’re waiting for you.
Now the time has come to leave, but you should know that what you once were you can be again. May my testimony help you as yours did me some years ago. I know by the power of the Holy Ghost, the spirit of revelation. I know in my mind and in my heart that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, our Redeemer, and that we have a living prophet today, Spencer W. Kimball, and that by following his directions and advice we can come closer to our Heavenly Father and repent of our sins. My prayer is that you may realize this again in your own life and make a new decision to be one of His disciples, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.