In 1960, I was a young man living in Australia, serving a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (The Mormons). My mission was not at all what I thought it would be. But how could I anticipate extreme highs and lows that I had never before experienced? How could I conceive of conditions and circumstances, let alone a culture, I had barely read about? And how could I foresee the lifetime effect that my experiences would have on me and on some of those I worked with, when I was just a wet-behind-the-ears kid?
I fictionalized those experiences, along with their effect on me, in a book published some 30 years ago, called The Mission (available now as a Kindle eBook). Written with a quarter-century of hindsight, it quite accurately portrayed my own struggles and metamorphosis. And the memories of my mission have been, to this day, an ever-present part of my life, so great was its effect on me.
A few weeks ago, I returned to my Australia mission stomping grounds with my wife, Joyce, and one of our sons and his family—my first time back. Things have changed! There has been a bumper-crop of skyscrapers in Sydney, Sydney’s public transportation is the envy of the world, and, to paraphrase a verse in the musical, Oklahoma, “everything’s up-to-date in Sydney City!” What hasn’t changed, thank goodness, is the friendliness and openness of the people. For nearly two weeks we had a ball!
We visited places where I served and houses I lived in. Surprisingly, almost all are still there. Importantly, not only was I able to reminisce, often emotionally, but Joyce and my family put a physical face on the stories I’d told them a zillion times. And I saw, first-hand, what had taken place in the lives of some of those I had worked so closely with those many years ago.
Albury, New South Wales, the southern-most town in our mission, was my crucible. I had been out less than a year and my companion and I were a hundred miles from the nearest missionaries. The members, just six, including two women and four children, met in a rented hall. The “mission field” indeed! And for a while, things really looked up. We found and were teaching two responsive families, the Walkerdon’s with five children, and Mr. and Mrs. Metz with a baby. But my weeks-long euphoria gave way to “reality.”
A brother we had re-activated stopped coming to Church. Both the Walkerdon’s and Metz’ chucked us. An eye problem I struggled with since I was a small boy acted up. Then, as if I needed a little something extra to encourage humility, I received a Dear John from my girlfriend! My companion and I stood on a hill looking down on the town, and I remember the thought that flooded my mind, as if it were yesterday: “The Lord sure knew what he was doing sending me all the way to Australia. If I were in the States, I’d be on the next bus home!”
Albury was a stop on our current trip, and it was a Sunday. There is now a large branch of the Church meeting in a beautiful building. The branch president kindly asked me to speak in sacrament meeting. I did, and expressed my gratitude for what I had learned from my challenges serving there so many years ago. I mentioned the names of the Walkerdon’s and the Metz’, along with the handful who were members back then. When the meeting was over, some of the old timers updated me. Both families that had chucked us those decades ago had been baptized, and Brother and Sister Metz now worked in the temple in Melbourne. At least some of the Walkerdon children were active in the Church, including one who was currently serving a full time mission with his wife.
Then we visited Ann and Peter Boehme. Ann was another young divorced mother when my companion and I taught her just after I arrived on my mission in 1960. Her four-year-old daughter, Jayne, would sometimes say, “Here come them snoopy ol Mormon’s,” when we visited. I baptized Ann, and as I saw the change in her life, my own life changed. The gospel became real to me. It transformed lives! It brought joy! Subsequently, Ann married a counselor in the bishopric of her ward, and bore three more children. Ann and Peter now are surrounded by a marvelous posterity, all raised in the Church. Her “snoopy-ol-Mormon’s” Jayne, is a grandmother herself, with all her children endowed.
Fifty-seven years later! And I see and feel what I never could have perceived when I was called by President David O. McKay to serve a full time mission. Scores and scores of my Father’s children are in His fold, because I said (and not without significant challenge then), “Yes,” to that call. My blessing? I now know the reality of the Lord’s joy-promise to those who seek to bring His children back to Him.