Did I do any good in the world in those days?

Did I do any good in the world in those days? June 24, 2024

 

Whitney store Kirtland OH
From the earliest days of the Church (as illustrated by the temple-like schoolroom that Joseph Smith added to Newel Whitney’s store in Kirtland, Ohio, in the early 1830s) Church leaders have relied upon both secular learning and divine revelation to carry out their assignments.
(Public domain mage from Wikimedia Commons)

A twelve-minute piece that we recorded in Kirtland, Ohio, during the same May 2024 trip on which we filmed much of “Who Actually Saw the Gold Plates? | A Marvelous Work Episode 5” has now gone up online as an “extended cut”:  See “School of the Prophets – Dan Peterson”

I loved Innertkirchen that night
A view of Innertkirchen and the Aare River (from the beginning of the spectacular Aareschlucht, in the Berner Oberland area of Switzerland) on a summer day. My strongest memory of it, though, is of a moonlit winter night near Christmas 1973, with a perfectly clear, star-studded sky above and fresh white snow all around. It was perfectly serene, and it remains, still to this day, one of my memories of a virtually ideal Christmas.  (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)

I returned home from my service in the Switzerland Zürich Mission roughly a century and a half ago, perhaps somewhat less, but my brief recent stay there has led me to reflect just a bit on that time and on what effect, if any, my work there might have had.

I was, I suppose, a halfway decent missionary — neither the best nor the worst.  I obeyed the rules; I did the work.  I’ll freely admit that I didn’t wake up every morning brimming with confidence that I would bring somebody into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as I probably should have done.  It simply didn’t happen very often in those days (although a former companion and longtime friend and faculty colleague of mine is currently in Switzerland with his wife, where they’ve spent time with a convert of his who has remained very active over the intervening decades, something that I can only envy).  I came, perhaps to my shame, to see my mission on most days as simply knocking on doors from morning until evening, and then doing the same thing the next day, with little prospect of success.  It was an endurance contest, a test of faith.

I recall the time when a new missionary handbook arrived and we were all asked to read it through and to study it.  It was a little, pocket-sized, white booklet, and one of the things that it said was that we should “strive to find a golden family each week and to baptize a family each month,” or something to that effect.  I’m sorry, but at least several of us in Switzerland found that funny.  Friends of ours on missions in Latin America were baptizing almost every week; rumors of a Swiss baptism or two wafted by us every month or so.  Once, while I was serving in the mission home, my mission president shared the news with me that his stake mission back home had baptized more people during the preceding year than had the entire Switzerland Zürich Mission.

Four obvious gifts given to me by my mission have been the German language, a host of experiences (both good and bad) on which I continue to draw, a lasting and powerful affection for Switzerland, and life-long missionary friends with whom I still regularly interact.  (They were and are a remarkable bunch, many of them.  The year after I returned, the fifteen winners of BYU’s most prestigious one-year academic scholarship were announced; as I recall, seven of the fifteen were contemporaries of mine from the tiny Switzerland Zürich Mission.  I wasn’t among them.)

Every time I’ve traveled to Switzerland since then, though, I’ve wondered whether my having been there had made any lasting difference at all, other than on me.  The country is going on nicely, and very much as if I had never ever been there.  I disappeared, as it were, without a trace.

But I wouldn’t say that my mission was useless even as an effort toward building the Kingdom.  There were, in fact, converts.

I recall, for instance, a young American woman who was working there for the summer college break in a tourist gift shop, hoping to improve her German.  She was so golden that I actually wondered, for just a little while, whether she represented some sort of prank.  She gave the answers to our questions that “Brother Brown” gave in the missionary manual that I had studied in the old Language Training Mission.  It wasn’t my area and I didn’t make the initial contact with her, but I helped to teach and fellowship her, and I was there for her baptism.  She returned to the States, transferred to BYU, and eventually married in the temple.

On one occasion, a woman answered the door while my companion and I were tracting — which I otherwise found, in my experience, to be an extraordinarily inefficient method of finding interested people — and the thought immediately crossed my mind, before either she or I had said a word, “This woman is going to join the Church.”  That was something that had never happened to me before.  And, in fact, we taught her two or three missionary discussions . . .  and then she informed us that she was no longer interested.  I was puzzled and a bit dismayed by that.  Had what had seemed to be inspiration simply been wrong?  That area, a major tourist destination, was shut down for the summer shortly thereafter and my companion and I were transferred to different areas.  Several months later, though, a new set of elders returned to the area, saw her name in our records, renewed contact with her . . .  and eventually baptized her.  The inspiration had apparently been valid, but my assumption about the timing of its fulfillment had obviously been wrong.

Once, I drove with another elder from the mission home to deliver something — I don’t recall what it was — to another pair of missionaries in the area of the Jura Mountains in northwestern Switzerland.  While we were there, they introduced us to a longtime investigator of theirs.  In fact, she was something that we missionaries had dubbed, perhaps a little bit cynically, a profi, a “professional investigator.”  It was not an uncommon type in Switzerland; she had received her first missionary discussion fully seven years before.

She and I spoke briefly.  Not for more than five minutes, I think.  She was baptized the following week, and she said that it was our conversation that had made the difference.  I would love to be able to take credit for her baptism but, for the life of me, I could never recall anything remarkable about our little talk.  At least part of it was –seriously — about the weather.  I would love to be able to repeat whatever it was that so affected her with other investigators but, first of all, I don’t know what it was and it probably wouldn’t have worked with anybody else anyway.  I’ve used that story many times since, in sending missionaries off and, at least once, in a talk.  I’ve emphasized that it’s the Spirit that converts, not the missionary — but that the missionary has to do the work, has to be there, if the Spirit is to accompany him or her.  I’ve contrasted it to the several times when I was teaching investigators and wondered how they could possibly resist my logical and persuasive eloquence.  But they always did resist it.  And then there was this lady, whom something — definitely not I — converted.

I appeared on Swiss television once, too.  They wanted to do a segment on Latter-day Saint missionaries, so I and one other elder were chosen to represent us.  (I think that I did all the talking.)  Humorously, they wanted to show us in one brief scene on our trademark bicycles.  But no missionaries in the Switzerland Zürich Mission in my day used a bicycle.  We used mopeds, so we were obliged to borrow bicycles from a relatively new member who owned a bicycle shop.

I'm sorry to see him go.
Thomas F. Rogers

I received notice, just a few minutes ago, of the death of our long-time friend Thomas F. Rogers, a retired professor of Russian literature at BYU, a former president of the Russia St. Petersburg Mission, a significant Latter-day Saint playwright, and friend of ours for most of our lives.  I’ll have more to say about Tom tomorrow.  We’re deeply saddened by this news.

 

 

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