Because I Did My Duty
Summer in Brisbane, Australia can be brutal. Temperature and humidity ride up the scale together. Three-digit heat banded with nearly three-digit humidity is not uncommon. Add to this, or rather subtract from it, the complete lack of air conditioning anywhere in Manly, a Brisbane suburb, back in 1960 where I served the first part of my mission, and you have a formula for misery.
One day, my senior companion and I received the rarest of all gifts from the mission home—a referral. I could count on maybe two or three fingers the number of referrals I received my entire mission, so they were pure gold. But for us to get to this person required a lengthy train ride, then a bus ride, then a several miles walk. And there was no phone number for us to arrange an appointment. We had two alternatives: Chuck it; or, spend a whole day in a hot, smoky train car, a sweltering bus, and a blistering walk in the sun, without a guarantee we'd even catch him at home.
My companion and I had a brief discussion about the choices, but we knew we would go. We set a day aside and embarked on our journey. All the way there, and particularly as we trudged the miserable dirt road out into the countryside where this man lived, I kept thinking about the missionary stories I had heard and read about. Missionaries slogging through abominable conditions to find one who was waiting for the gospel. I was confidant we were going to add our story to that collection.
Finally, we arrived at the house. We walked up the steps and knocked on the door. Within a few seconds it opened, and a very old man stood glaring at us. We introduced ourselves as missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (missionaries didn’t have badges back then) and explained that we had been asked to stop by to see him.
His eyes went saucer-wide. “You Brigham-ites!” he screamed. “You apostates!” He was shaking. “Get off my porch!”
As the door slammed in our face, another voice called out. “Dad, let them come in.” A younger man appeared. He apologized for his father, who he said belonged to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (now called Community of Christ), and had “strong feelings” against Utah Mormons. He brought us into their kitchen where he gave us some ice water and let us rest for a few minutes. After a couple of refills, we were on our way.
Apparently, there were other kinds of stories about what some missionaries find when they go the extra mile that I hadn’t read. Ours would be on that list.
Some months later, I was sent to the town of Goulburn, 700 miles to the south. It was winter, and I was now in the coldest town in all of Australia. With no central heating, below freezing weather, high humidity, and wind that never stopped blowing, the cold slid through your clothes and wrapped around your bones no matter how many layers you were wearing. My luck--serving in one of the hottest places in the mission in the summer, and now the coldest in the winter.
After I was there a month or so, we received a transfer telegram. My companion was to catch the next train for points north, and I was to check at the train station every day until my new companion arrived. He was coming from over 1000 miles away, and I wasn't given a time when he would get here. I would be on my own until then and was instructed to stay at our apartment. Of course, missionaries are never left by themselves now. As I often tell young missionaries today, “You have all your rules, because in my day, we didn’t.”
As it turned out, I was grateful for the reprieve. My feet hurt so bad I could hardly walk and sitting by the warm fireplace in the house where I lived was more than comfortable. Each day, though, I would layer-up, get on my bike, and ride to the train station . . . then return home without a companion. Sunday came, and it was fast Sunday. There were only two member families in town; an old couple, and a young family with two small children. We met in a hall downtown on the second floor of a run-down building. The hall was always littered with cigarette butts and beer bottles, and there was no heat. Since we missionaries had the key and oversaw the meetings, we went early, cleaned the place up a bit, and prepared the sacrament.
I sat by the compelling fire thinking of the reasons why I shouldn’t go out in the cold to clean up that messy place and hold the meeting—like my aching feet and no companion. But neither of the members had a telephone, and if they showed up they would find the building locked. My internal debate didn’t last long. I put on my long-johns, shirt, sweater, suit, overcoat, scarf, and gloves, then got on my bike and rode to town.
I completed all the preparations at the hall, then waited in the cold. The hour for the meeting came and went. No one showed. For 15 or 20 minutes, I sat there indulging in a pity-party. I was probably thinking of our wasted day in Brisbane months before. Deja vu all over again. I started to put the sacrament away when I heard someone coming up the stairs. It was the elderly sister. She was out of breath, and her face was apple-red from exertion and the cold. She and her husband lived about five miles out of town. They had a car, but only he could drive, and he was sick. She wasn't going to miss partaking of the sacrament, so she rode her bike all the way in.
Should just the two of us hold a fast and testimony meeting? A glance at her sweet face gave me the answer. She sat down at the old, out-of-tune piano and began playing the opening hymn. Immediately, we both knew this was going to be an experience we would never forget. The music that came out could have accompanied an angels’ choir. We sang, then I gave the opening prayer. We sang the sacrament hymn, and I blessed the sacrament with a depth of humility and desire I had never before felt. Our eyes were wet as we partook of the emblems representing our Savior and our covenants. Then with tears streaming, each of us stood and bore powerful witness of our love and gratitude for Jesus Christ. Throughout that entire meeting, an extraordinary understanding of what He had done for us flooded our souls. It was as though we were on fire. We finished our service with a hymn and a prayer, then fell into each other’s arms and wept.
A young missionary and a daughter of God in the winter of her life had, for a moment, shared a glimpse of eternity. Truly, one of the singular experiences of my life.
And one I would have missed, had I not done my duty.