I was a missionary for two days last week. My mother and step-father are serving for a year as Church Educational System missionaries in San Francisco, and, taking advantage of the liberties afforded senior missionaries to have visitors, I stepped away from my own responsibilities for two days to join them in theirs. Not having served a mission myself, sharing theirs may be the closest I come to walking in the mission shoes at least until my husband and I serve a senior mission ourselves.
Considering that I did not go on a mission myself, missions and missionary work have an outsized impact on my relationship to the Church. For starters, my husband’s mission in Spain has shaped our family culture in a broad range of ways, from our efforts to raise bi-lingual children to our food choices. The fact that I wanted to serve a mission and did not because I met my husband before turning 21 meant that I, like many women of my generation, put marriage ahead of that particular spiritual crucible. I live in Salt Lake City, and many of my ward’s Sunday meetings are dominated by the sending out or receiving back of missionaries. Most significantly, though, I work for the communications agency that produces some of the media material used by the Church’s Missionary Department.
The irony is of course that some of my work requires being in the mindset of a missionary or an investigator, while I have never actually been either myself. Missionary work, for me, has been an almost exclusively academic or theoretical pursuit: although I am the best “member missionary” I can be, I’ve never had the opportunity to participate in someone’s conversion and thus my efforts to support missionaries and provide useful materials for missionaries is somewhat removed from the actual practice of the work. Although my parents are not proselytizing missionaries, my brief “in the field” experience helped move me from an academic understanding of missionaries’ work to a practical and, surprising to me for such a short exposure, a profoundly spiritual understanding.
My parents are overseeing the Pathways program in their area, an online continuing education program sponsored by BYU-Idaho to enable those who haven’t attended college to get their bachelor’s degrees. One of the requirements of the program is that students attend a weekly “gathering” where they participate in a student-led academic class and a missionary-led Institute lesson at a local stake center with other Pathway students in their area. I attended this weekly gathering with my parents during my time with them. Like missionary work, education at a church-owned school is also something I can only relate to in theory, since I didn’t attend a church-owned school, and I was skeptical that this weekly gathering was really going to effectively differentiate Pathways from any one of the many other online degree programs.
My parents had told me about their Pathway students and their love for them, but as the students arrived and sat at tables in the Primary room, it was hard for me to see how my parents – accomplished professors and professionals – could have already developed such a profound love for these students when they seemed so distant from my parents’ students and colleagues back home. As part of the Pathways introductory life skills course, the class subject was financial management. The main text reviewed by the student teacher was a talk by Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, in which readers were primarily encouraged to pay their tithing and spend less than they earned. It hardly seemed a demanding text for an academic class, especially when compared to the university classes my step-father teaches in deep philosophy and critical theory. The student teacher stumbled at times, apologizing profusely although she had pages and pages of notes highlighted in orange. To crown her lesson, she proudly handed out $8 gift cards to In-N-Out, where she’s worked for six years. One of my parents’ main points of feedback was to advise her not to say “you guys” quite so much.
How skeptical I could have been, my Ivy League-educated self, of the Church’s effort to educate those for whom traditional classrooms are simply not a practical option because of financial, physical, or emotional needs. How I could have scoffed at my highly skilled parents’ missionary service being used to correct grammar. But, to cite a story many of us are reading or remembering this time of year, my grinchish heart grew three sizes that night. After only a few hours together, I too loved these students. I hugged one, a blind Mexican girl who kept us in stitches with jokes about Mexican culture, after she bore her testimony about paying her tithing and being honest in paying for a chocolate donut. My heart ached for a boy, nervously unraveling a knitted mitten the entire class, when he spoke of how he had been wasteful with his earnings from his previous cashier job, and hoped the Lord would give him another chance by helping him find a new job. One girl, who my mother stopped before her every comment to remind her to speak with confidence, shyly brought my mother a box of her favorite cookies after class. I was touched by the way they supported each other, so different and each so kind, participating heartily in the lessons and cheering each other on despite widely varying life circumstances.
The Spirit was powerful in that classroom. I could feel my heart softening and warming, like it was being held beneath a heat lamp. Only the Spirit can do that, and it worked on me that night. It was unlike any academic class I’ve attended or that my parents have taught before, but there was powerful learning occurring. There was camaraderie in Christ among the students and a palpable striving to be their best selves. I left convinced that these particular students would succeed because of the specific combination of spiritual support, academic flexibility and missionary guidance.
Most important for me personally, I came away with a deeper appreciation for the Church institution as a powerful instrument of service. Through this education program, the Church institution is bettering lives in a very real way and in a way that could not be accomplished outside of the particular church context. As one who works with the Church professionally and who is privy to critiques of the church institution, this was an important reminder for me. This filled a craving I carry to see the very best in the church I love, to see the work of the Savior first hand, and to understand more personally the impact of missionary work.