The Story of Hans
August 1981

“The Story of Hans,” New Era, Aug. 1981, 49

The Story of Hans

Second-Place Article

No doubt about it, I was a bit cocky and thought I was the best missionary to ever hit Switzerland. The Missionary Training Center had humbled me somewhat (the hardest two months of my mission), and in Switzerland my greenie trainer had done a good job of keeping me from rising over the Alps. I realized that I had a language to perfect and discussions to learn, but I was still living on past achievements, sports victories, and pre-mission status. This is probably why a few flames of refiners’ fire were thrown in my path.

After two months in the field, I received a new companion, only one month more experienced than I. We were both excited about the work and full of anticipation and energy. We learned how to teach with each other, practiced the language together, and enjoyed being new as a team. He had also been active in sports and other activities at home. I would relate to him all my hero stories, and if they weren’t too courageous in truth, I would make them sound fine and noble by adding a little spice. He must have thought I was the next one to be translated by the way I carried on about myself.

Both of us could settle for nothing but the best. This soon led to a feeling of pride and superiority. Everything we set out to do became a major competition. I would not be outdone. Whatever the occasion, I was determined to be the best.

It became a question of who would remember more of the discussions, who would get more mail, who could pray longer, who knew the gender to a particular German word, or who could ride his bike faster (that is, longer without something going wrong).

I suppose many companions (or marriage partners) get those negative feelings and think everything they do is better than what the other does. This was at a maximum with my companion and me. It got so bad, at times I would find myself hoping he wouldn’t get in the doors while tracting so I could prove to be better at the next house. I don’t mean to say that our interaction was total strife or anger, but it was not how we should have been acting as a missionary pair.

It was at this time that the Lord chose to send us his way of solving our problems. He placed before us a challenge capable of humbling us: Hans.

We met Hans at a street display. My companion saw him standing back timidly, hoping only to get a glimpse of what some silly Americans were doing. I suppose he must have been a bit surprised when my companion approached him and asked if he could explain what the pictures meant. Hans came and listened intently, and Elder Perkinson secured his address. We didn’t think about Hans until later when we were in that area again.

We made our way to his house on a cool September evening. I was amazed at the size and location of the place; it was a nice, well-to-do area. The condition of the house was another story: weeds, tires, oil spots, rubble, and piles of rotting trash were strewn about the front yard where a garden should have been. I thought that perhaps someone was moving or cleaning, but then again, what I viewed inside changed that opinion all together.

I pounded on the thin and knobless door as my companion tried to connect two wires together where a doorbell had once been. The house appeared to be vacant until a light from the top of the hallway came through a small window and a thin shadow made its way down the stairs. We heard a screech of wood on cement as our new investigator ripped the weakened door back from its frame. There in the bright porchlight stood our man, grinning with excitement at his first visitors in ages. As he opened the door, we were struck by an unsettling smell. This was certainly a challenge I had never expected to find on my mission.

I looked at Elder Perkinson, and he met me with the same puzzled face. We had no choice, so we walked into the front hallway.

The house must have been at one time stately and well-built, but the remains now disguised all appearance of quality. Boxes, trash, dirt, groceries (old and new), shoes, and assorted pieces of junk were scattered in piles along the corridor. The walls, which were once white, now had a coating of grime.

He led us to his room on the top floor, like a kid would show his friends his snake collection. He clearly had no awareness of the disorganized surroundings in which he was living. All of the rooms were filled with old items; however, his room was among the worst in the house. I gulped and tried to act nonchalant, but my eyes couldn’t avoid sweeping back and forth. If my mother had seen this, she would have thought my room back home was a king’s chamber.

There were no chairs, so we sat on the bed. Hans sat on a vacuum cleaner lying in the middle of the room. Undoubtedly it had been there for years without being used.

For the first time, I looked at this young man before me, and it all became clear. He sat there alone, scared, thin, and insecure. He was 33 years old, the age of many aspiring and influential men. I could see in his face the pain and suffering he had endured and the times he had been ignored and turned from. I couldn’t help thinking of the story “Cipher in the Snow.” Right before my eyes I saw that little bright-eyed, white-faced boy who fell in the snow on the way to school.

He related to us some of, the events of his life: his parents had died seven years ago, and he was left the house and all the bills to be paid. From other sources and from looking through some of his old school papers, we gained further insight into his earlier life. The marks and comments on his schoolwork didn’t seem too poor, but his writing and drawing ability didn’t increase from about the eighth grade.

We began the missionary discussion, and I had to concentrate to keep my eyes from wandering. My companion began with the Joseph Smith story, and I finished up with the second half of the discussion. I really felt proud of my companion, and I don’t think I could have done it without him. We felt good; we realized later that it wasn’t what we said, but rather the fact that we were interested in him that made us feel good. He hardly spoke but looked at us bright-eyed and was interested.

It was our practice to pray at the end of each discussion, but as I looked at the soiled carpet below me, I wasn’t sure what to do. I could see myself being stuck to the floor after the prayer, not being able to rise, but I couldn’t think of any valid excuse, so I closed my eyes and dropped. I believe my companion said the prayer, and something told me inside that this lonely man across from me was going to be baptized. It seemed to me then that it would take a miracle for Hans to become a Latter-day Saint and live as an example to others, but the thought remained.

The following Sunday he showed up for church. The meeting had just started, and I walked to the front door to check for late-coming members. There Hans stood in a thin, soiled, turtleneck shirt, shivering from cold and fright. His hands were in his pockets, and he looked as if he were turning to go away again. I called to him, and a big smile made its way across his lips.

We sat in the corner. As the service ended, I stood with our visitor in the foyer. The members were forming in groups all around us, as the Saints do in every ward in the world, but we weren’t getting too much attention. Then my companion and I thought up a good plan. All we had to do was to bring the members to him. We took turns bringing warm and talkative persons to meet him. As one of us introduced, the other looked for someone to talk to our investigator. The members didn’t talk long, but they were open and friendly. For Hans, it was paradise. He had never received so much attention and such feelings of love in his life. He asked us later that week if he could come every Sunday.

In the next two weeks, we taught him most of the discussions. After each evening, he would show us his entire collection of model airplanes, his 500 stacks of airplane magazines, and his photos of airplanes and everything with wings. That was one of his hobbies or fantasies. He had lived his whole life in a fantasy, because he never had enough faith in himself to actually do anything. We knew that the gospel could change him and would give him a good chance to improve his life. The members would accept and love him, and he recognized it.

We challenged him for baptism, and he accepted everything without question. Besides the regular commandments, we felt there should be a few other things to help him. For this reason we prepared the “B” or “Bath Discussion.” This included his house, his yard, and everything else that needed cleaning up. This didn’t appear easy, and we tried to think of the best and most tactful way to say it. I remember rehearsing a dialogue all day, but we ended up just giving it to him straight. He took it surprisingly well.

The week before the baptism was a trial and tribulation for both Hans and us. I don’t know who’s to blame, but someone didn’t want us to baptize Hans. Both my companion and I got terribly sick; his wheel got stuck on my fender while we were riding and all his spokes flew out; I got hit by a train, and came within inches of being killed; and finally we had to look for a new apartment and didn’t know where we were going to stay until the last day. We baptized Hans, however, just three and a half weeks after our first visit. He came to the church showered and shaved and even wore a new pair of socks. I hardly recognized him. We could already see a part of our vision coming true. I had the great opportunity of baptizing him. He had never worn a tie, so we told him he could go without. Having him stand there in those pure white clothes was fancy enough for us.

As with all baptisms, the real work begins afterwards. We began that Saturday with the cleaning of his house. We worked like dogs, digging out the dirt, junk, and refuse. A sister in the ward, who lived just a few blocks away, came to help. I’ve always admired the courage of pioneer women, but I’ll never forget this act of kindness and fortitude. She started washing dishes and then cleaned out the cupboards. She kept scrubbing and washing till all was spotless.

“This is brotherly love,” I told myself. “This is how the Lord expects his children to help one another.”

Hans continued to improve and came to church every week. A year later I saw a picture of him in a suit. He looked fantastic.

I learned a lot of things from Hans and this whole sequence of my mission. I realized how important each one of our Father in Heaven’s children is, and how the gospel can help anyone in any situation. As my mother once wrote in a letter, “The gospel is a hospital for the sick and not a museum for the whole.” It was certainly true in this case. I know our Heavenly Father helped us in the changing of this man’s life.

The vision of Hans didn’t end there, however. He became, in his own little way, an example to his fellowmen. One month later we visited a lady across the street from Hans. She had seen the change in the house and in Hans himself and knew it had to be the Mormons. She called the same member who had helped us with the cleaning and told her to send the missionaries. Five minutes from the time we entered the home of this great family, we had challenged them to be baptized. What a thrill it was to know that Hans was the one whom the Lord chose to show them the fruits of the gospel.

It all started with Hans. We helped him to find a new life and he helped us as companions. From this time on, it was no longer a question of outdoing each other or being the best, but rather how we could help Hans or the other investigators. He was an example for us of true humility and how the Lord blesses his children.

I know now that the Lord loves us and wants us all to be happy, even the meek and the poor in spirit.

Illustrated by Dilleen Marsh