“Five Small Experiences,” Ensign, Feb. 2004, 60–64
I want to tell you about five small experiences and then tie them together at the end.
In 1999 my wife and I toured the Arkansas Little Rock Mission. After a zone conference, President Don Lee Christensen, the mission president, turned on his answering machine at the mission home. This is what we heard:
“I’d just like to pass something along to the two gentlemen or ladies of your faith who were out the day before Thanksgiving in Russellville. That was the day of my wife’s funeral. I didn’t see it, but my sister said she saw two people on bikes who were well dressed. When the funeral procession went by, they stopped their bikes and took off their helmets and placed them over their hearts. I’d just like to relate to all of your people, and especially to those two, if you happen to know who they are, how special that is to me and how much I appreciate it. It was very touching, and I will always remember and appreciate it. Thank you very much.”
A second small but profound experience took place when my wife and I visited the Alaska Anchorage Mission in 2002. After a day of zone conferences, President KearLee Wright, the president of the Soldotna Alaska Stake, shared with me the following letter:
“Over 15 years ago, two young men came to my door and wanted to discuss the gospel of Jesus Christ with me. Unfortunately, I was extremely rude to them, rejected their offer out of hand, and closed the door in their face. I have no way of contacting those specific two young men, but if I could, I would apologize and thank them. I thought about their visit long after I so rudely dismissed them from my doorstep. Their visit triggered a series of events in my life that have brought me much closer to God and my family.
“They have no way of knowing what an impact they had on me. I certainly gave them no indication that I was at all receptive to God at that time; I wasn’t. Perhaps they prayed for me as they left my driveway. If they did, their prayers were answered. That night, I prayed for the first time in years. Shortly after that, I quit drinking. I had battled alcohol for many years previous. I have not had a drink for 14 years now. I entered church for the first time in many years, and after a great deal of searching, my family and I have found a place to worship in an Episcopal church.
“The point of my letter is that one never knows what the ultimate impact of his or her efforts may be. The two young men who contacted me never got any indication that they had made any impact on me, but their impact was profound, and they played a critical role in my journey back to God. Perhaps sharing this story with some of the young men and women who are about to go out into missionary work may help them deal with some of the inevitable rejection they are bound to encounter. Even cases of apparent rejection may actually be victories.
“Thank you for … the work you and your ministers do in spreading the word of God.”
A third experience occurred while we were touring the Jamaica Kingston Mission in 2000. As we drove through a slum in Kingston, I saw graffiti written in large white brush strokes on a brick wall of a decrepit building. The message read, “Blessed are those who can give without remembering and those who can receive without forgetting.”
A fourth experience happened in 1957 in Portland, Oregon, where I served as a young missionary in the Northwestern States Mission. Several of us were walking from the mission home to the mission office a few blocks away. As we walked, a car stopped abruptly, and a man jumped out and ran toward us asking, “Are you preaching the gospel of Brigham?” We started to reply, “We are missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” when he handed us $9.00 and a box of saltwater taffy. Before we could give him back the money, he ran back to his car and drove away. We thought the experience was very unusual.
Some months later in a multizone conference, a missionary told about an experience he and his companion had while waiting at a bus stop. A man stopped his car, jumped out, and gave them $7.00 and a box of peanut brittle, then drove off. Another missionary related a similar experience while tracting in a suburb of Portland, this time with $14.00 and a box of chocolate mints. The pattern continued as one missionary after another told similar stories, each involving various amounts of money and different types of candy; in all instances, the man left before much discussion could ensue.
Finally, a missionary stood and told how he and his companion happened to know this man. As the elders were preparing to enter a bus station, a man, seeing they were missionaries for the Church, asked where they were going and if they needed a ride. Those being simpler and safer days, the missionaries accepted the offer and rode with him south through Oregon. During the course of that ride, their newfound friend gave them some money and candy, then told them this story:
In 1932 he had been young and unemployed because of the Depression. While crossing the United States as a vagrant looking for work, he ventured to a town in the northern part of the Great Plains. Since it was Christmas Eve and he had no place to stay, he decided to crawl under a bridge to spend the night out of the snow. He found there were two people already there—two young men in coats and ties and white shirts with some packages on their laps. They were LDS missionaries who had just been to the post office to pick up Christmas packages sent to them by their families. Being too excited to wait until they arrived home, they had decided to get out of the snow and see what their families had sent.
The missionaries invited the vagrant to join them under the bridge as they opened their packages. One of the missionaries received cookies and hand-knit gloves. The other received brownies, homemade candy, and a hand-knit scarf. As they sat under the bridge, they shared their treats with this man and then sang Christmas carols together. When the elders were ready to leave, they asked the man if he had a place to sleep. He told them he was used to staying outdoors and would be all right. They then said, “If you are going to stay here, you should take our cookies and brownies to eat as well as the scarf and gloves to keep you warm.” He protested, but they persisted, so he happily accepted the cookies, brownies, scarf, and gloves. The missionaries then left to go to their lodgings.
The man told the two missionaries he was giving a ride to in 1957 that he had never forgotten that experience and had resolved to never pass LDS missionaries without giving them whatever cash he had in his pocket. And inasmuch as he was at that time a wholesale candy salesman, he could also share samples of his wares. He told the missionaries he had been doing this for years and years. When they asked if he was a member of the Church, he said he was not because his wife objected to it. But he added that if she ever consented, he would be most interested in joining. For 25 years, he had been sharing with our missionaries. Who knows how long thereafter he continued to do the same.
A fifth and final experience is one that took place in Salt Lake City in the winter of 2000. One evening at dusk as I left the Church Administration Building, a man approached me and, with alcohol on his breath, asked if I was a General Authority. When I said yes, he immediately fell to his knees and requested a blessing.
I hesitated as several thoughts went through my mind. First, I thought of the words in Matthew 6:5, which says, “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray … in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men.”
I also thought of how I could avoid the situation, and Luke 10:31–32 came to mind: “And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.”
I thought, “Should I pass by ‘on the other side’? It wouldn’t be appropriate to give him a blessing on the street with all these people nearby. Also, as soon as I give him the blessing, he will probably ask for a contribution.” At that moment, I remembered the words of Mosiah 4:16–19:
“Ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.
“Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him … of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—
“But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent.”
Then I gave him a blessing. When I finished, he stood up, hugged me, pushed himself away leaving his hands on both my shoulders, and looking me in the eye said, “Thank you, brother. I really needed that.” Then he turned and walked away.
Those seven words summarize the significance of the five experiences I have related: “Thank you, brother. I really needed that.” I think that is what the widower in Arkansas was trying to convey to the missionaries. That is what the man in Anchorage was trying to express to the two missionaries he rejected on his doorstep but whose spirit and demeanor changed his life. That is what the man, once a vagrant and then a candy salesman, was saying to the missionaries who helped him on Christmas Eve and to all the missionaries he encountered thereafter.
You may now think that I am going to say this is also what the man requesting the blessing was saying to me. Not so! The point I really want to make concerns what I wish I could now say to the man I met on the streets of Salt Lake. At the time, I had doubted his sincerity. I had worried about appearances. I had thought about walking on the other side. I assumed he would ask for a handout. But his faith in asking for a blessing and his expression of gratitude when he said, “Thank you, brother. I really needed that,” touched me in ways that have brought about needed changes in my thinking and behavior.
Let us remember the phrase from the wall in Kingston, Jamaica: “Blessed are those who can give without remembering and those who can receive without forgetting.” Each of the experiences I have related is about someone who received without forgetting. I pray that in my own case that may also be the result, that I received a man’s thanks without forgetting the lesson he taught me.
Invite family members to look for what Elder West’s five experiences have in common as they take turns reading them. Discuss ways family members can show sincere gratitude.
Choose together a favorite sentence from this article and make it into a poster. Put it someplace where everyone in the family can see it often.
In Elder West’s experiences, who was thankful and why, and who gave service and why? Invite family members to share experiences when they have received service from or offered service to others. Bear testimony of the value of selfless love and service.