“Ready for the Work,” Ensign, July 1985, 28
Going on a mission had been a great desire of mine since I was a child. But since I married young, I put the dream aside while we raised our children, hoping that my husband, Ben, and I might be called later in our lives.
That lifelong hope was seemingly crushed when Ben suffered a stroke at the age of fifty-four which took away his ability to speak, write, or read and paralyzed his left side. In spite of a miraculous recovery through the power of the priesthood, he was still handicapped in many ways when our bishop called us in twelve years later to interview us for a mission. Ben’s speech was greatly impaired, so that he had difficulty communicating with anyone except family members. Words just did not come out right, and he had not been able to pray vocally or even ask a blessing on our meals. His left arm had been amputated, his right leg was swollen and painful much of the time, and he was susceptible to heart attacks when under tension.
Furthermore, our income was small—about as small and inadequate as we felt. But we had no misgivings about accepting the call. Ben felt that if the Lord needed him or wanted him, that was it.
Our stake president had reservations about submitting the application to Church headquarters. However, the Missionary Department’s advice was, “Send in the papers and we’ll let the Brethren make the decision.” I prayed fervently that there might be a place suited to us where we could help in building up the kingdom. A few weeks later, when our call came to serve in the southeastern United States, my joy was full. I knew without a doubt that my prayers had been answered.
Our farewell address in the ward was a challenge for Ben. I tried to help him with a short speech, but he was unable to memorize. A couple of hours before sacrament meeting, he asked the bishop and stake president to come to our home and give him a special blessing. At the sacrament service he talked for about ten minutes with apparent ease, after which the bishop told the congregation that they had just witnessed a miracle.
We experienced the joy of a second miracle as we knelt in prayer our first night in the mission home. For the first time in twelve years Ben was again able to lead in family prayer.
We were assigned to a small branch of about sixty members, most of whom were inactive. On our first Sunday there, Ben and the branch president were the only two in priesthood meeting. Fourteen attended Sunday School and sacrament meeting. Nevertheless, it was a thrill to see my husband once again able to bless the sacrament and give an opening prayer.
Like most missionaries, I suppose, we went to our new assignment with some apprehension: How would we be received? Would we be able to make a worthwhile contribution? Would the Lord be pleased with our efforts? But once we got there, we found that people are pretty much the same wherever you go. When we realized that our previous experiences in the Church, at work, as parents—everything we had done—gave us much in common with the new folks we were meeting, our anxieties were calmed and we began to fit right in.
We began our labors by seeking out all of the members the branch had records for and trying to rekindle a desire in them to become active. This was not easy. They were scattered in many directions with only unmarked country roads to follow. Some had been out of touch with the Church for many years. Each Sunday morning we watched anxiously for those we had contacted, but we were successful in getting only a few out.
The branch president was discouraged and recommended that the branch be closed. We knew that if this happened, all those who were inactive would be lost and the gospel would cease to be spread in that area. The bishop under whose direction the branch was functioning called a meeting and announced that there were two alternatives: to close the branch, or to sustain Ben as branch president and give it another try. Ben was sustained and set apart.
This was a most humbling experience for us. With all the odds against us, there was only one course to take: to rely completely on our Heavenly Father for help and guidance and work with all the strength we could muster. Night after night, Ben asked the Lord for strength, wisdom, and direction, often in the chapel adjacent to the two rooms where we lived and held classes on Sunday.
One night he came back from the chapel and said, “I think I have the answer. It is through the young people that the branch will grow.”
It was at this point that things began to happen. We taught the gospel to a thirteen-year-old girl whom we baptized. She brought her nonmember friends. I feel sure she was sent to us. We organized the youth programs, and served refreshments at every meeting in a recreation center we set up in the back yard. We used the missionary discussions for lessons.
Then the Lord sent us a family of new converts—an active father and mother with three children—who moved into the area. This gave us another Primary child and two teenagers to add to the MIA. It also gave me a counselor (I was Relief Society president), and Ben now had a counselor to assist him. The sixteen-year-old son was a bit wayward and hadn’t been baptized, but the young elders worked with him and soon he, too, joined the Church. Then we had a priest to bless the sacrament.
When we organized a genealogy class, particularly for a group of nonmembers in town who were doing genealogy as a hobby, we asked Heavenly Father for help in finding a teacher. He sent us another family; the wife was a genealogy expert. She agreed to teach the class every Tuesday night. She was also an excellent pianist and an expert in arts and crafts, which was a big asset to the branch. Her husband became the Sunday School president, and we had another child for Primary.
Through this family we heard of a young couple who had become curious about the Church. They were teaching a Sunday School class in another church and had heard so much negative commentary about the Mormons that they were curious. We drove the young elders to their home to give them the missionary lessons while we worked with another family. Both families became active members of the branch, giving us a Sunday School teacher, a branch clerk, a teacher for the Relief Society, and another child for Primary.
In our search for families, this story is typical. For several months we had been searching and praying to find a Latter-day Saint family we had heard lived somewhere in our town. One morning my husband had a sudden inspiration to ask a man who was reading the water meter if he knew anyone by that name. “Sure, I know him,” the man said, and told us where he worked. Ben found the man and learned that he had joined the Church several years before but had been inactive for the past four years. His wife and three children were attending another church. When we invited him to come to church, he was reluctant because he smoked and liked to drink. But Ben did not give up. He contacted him several times at his work and assured him that we would love him even if he did smoke and drink. We visited his family and got the eight-year-old and the thirteen-year-old to join us at church. Soon this man quit smoking and drinking, and his family attended all our meetings faithfully. His two children were baptized. Several months later he was ordained an elder and became the teacher of the investigator class.
As these experiences continued, the little branch grew. By the end of the year, all the auxiliaries were fully organized and attendance at Sunday School and sacrament meeting averaged about fifty. By the following May, the building was bulging and we were looking for a new place to meet and for land on which to build a chapel.
There were more baptisms, more new families moved into the area, and more members were activated. In June the branch was made an independent branch, and land had been selected for the chapel. The first man the Lord sent to us became the branch president.
We stayed in this area for another two months, and then it was time for us to move on to a new location. This was a heartbreaking day. We had found great joy in our service there, and those brothers and sisters and children had become like family to us. The heartwarming telephone calls and letters we receive from time to time are a constant source of joy.
One of the choice blessings we gained from our mission was the ability to love all kinds of people, no matter who they are or how distressing their situation.
One day we got a call from a woman who was an alcoholic. She had joined the Church in her early married years and had been active as a Sunday School teacher. But when we found her she was lying sick in a tiny two-room trailer home.
After we took her to the hospital, we assumed the task of cleaning up the trailer, where she and her two boys, ages eleven and fifteen, had been living in unbelievable conditions. As I stood washing dishes in the midst of empty whisky bottles, beer cans, and dirty clothes, with the sun beating down on the tin roof and sweat running down my face, with roaches crawling on my legs, and with an almost unbearable stench permeating the air—somehow it didn’t seem to matter that much. One of God’s children needed help. Over and over again, the scripture came to me: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matt. 25:40.)
We worked with this woman for the next ten months, and the boys started coming to their Church meetings. Each time we would visit, she would put her arms around me and tell me how much she loved me.
In our second location, we were again assigned to work with the many inactive families in the branch. In the remaining four months of our mission, we were able to visit about sixty-five of these families, some of them several times. We were only able to activate about ten families, but we made many friends and had many heartwarming experiences. We hope to have sown seeds that will eventually sprout and grow.
Three baptisms the night before we left brought our mission to a beautiful close. These were children of part-member families, and teaching them the gospel was one of the greatest spiritual experiences of our mission. During the lessons the children seemed to hang on every word with wide-eyed wonder, and I felt as though we were surrounded by angels. There was a large crowd at the baptism, and again the Spirit was very strong in our midst. Afterwards there was a time of tears, embracing, and good-byes.
It is remarkable and marvelous how the Lord is able to work through human beings as weak and simple as my husband and I to accomplish his purposes. Ben often said to people, “I don’t do much. My wife has to do most of the talking.” But this was not so. In spite of his handicaps, he had very special talents and qualifications that were needed for our work. It was his patience, long-suffering, and persistence, his selflessness and generosity, his faith, his ability to reach the down-and-out and backsliding, that made it possible for the Lord to work through him and pull us through the difficult parts of our mission.
As we reflected on our mission, we came to an important and surprising realization: that every experience of our lives, even the seemingly ordinary things, seemed to have been part of the preparation for our mission. Ben’s many years of experience in working with the youth in Scouting, MIA, and Sunday School paid off greatly. His experience in organizing and directing men at work helped him. His ability as a handyman was also very useful. Little children loved and idolized him because he loved them dearly and could relate to them.
As it was with Ben, so it was with me. Almost every experience I had had in my life seemed to be a preparation for the work I needed to do on my mission. Bits of wisdom tucked away even in childhood, my experience in music and drama, secretarial work, and nursing, my training in psychology and work in a mental hospital, my homemaking skills, my years through the Depression, my seminary work, my experience with raising a large family, my positions in the Church—all proved to be useful. It was amazing how the Spirit of the Lord opened to my use many of my most hidden resources.
All in all, our eighteen months in the mission field was a glorious experience. The blessings we received and the answers to our prayers—both for help in our personal lives and in the lives of those we sought to reach—are too numerous to relate. The Lord was with us every step of the way and every hour of the day. The love and experiences we shared with those kind and loving people gave us some of the most beautiful moments in our lives. The sweet relationship we had with the young elders is also a treasured memory. Our wonderful zone conferences each month, which gave us such spiritual uplift and inspiration, are unforgettable moments.
To those couples who are timid and feel inadequate or incapable of a mission, I would say this: If we could do it, you can too. Don’t be reluctant or afraid. If you are willing, and if you trust in the Lord, he will give you the needed strength.