I served a mission for the LDS Church in Vladivostok, Russia. If I were “re-called to serve” this mission, there’s one thing I’d do differently:
This time, I would try to not hate it.
A Surface-Level Missionary
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-missionary work—far from it. But there’s a fundamental reason why I once hated missionary work and why I’ve since learned to love it.
In order for you to understand why I hated my mission, you must first know something about my personality.
In the past, I haven’t been much of a “people person.” In fact, I frequently go out of my way to avoid people. My three biggest pet peeves are: people standing/walking behind me, making small talk with strangers, and having people waiting on me. Most of my personal pictures (prior to getting married) show me at a cornucopia of locations with—you guessed it—no one. And for years, that’s the way I preferred it.
So the missionary lifestyle of befriending complete strangers and having missionary companions follow you around 24/7 for two years didn’t exactly harmonize with my lifelong goal of becoming an Alaskan hermit.
Be that as it may, in 2005 I was called to serve a mission and entered the MTC (Missionary Training Center) with as much—if not more—naiveté about missionary work as any teenage Mormon boy. All I really understood about “serving” a mission was that you knocked on doors, miraculously found converts, had some cool spiritual experiences, and—if you were super lucky—got to take lots of sweet pictures in a foreign country.
That was not my mission.
The MTC was brutal. My habit to withdraw from people didn’t bode well with my district. As a result, I didn’t make any friends with the elders that were going to my mission. This meant that, in a mission of approximately 40 missionaries, I had already managed to lose favor with 10% of them.
As soon as I got to the field, I realized that my introverted personality was in for a world of hurt. I contributed very little to lessons, didn’t socialize at church events, and instead of soaking in the beauty and splendor of Russia and her people, I spent most of my time looking at the ground. I clammed up in conversations, scorned street-contacting, and dreaded going door-to-door. Faith is a deeply personal experience, I thought to myself. Why can’t we just respect other people and leave them alone?
Learn to Love the People
One day, I was paired up with another elder in the mission. This elder was an assistant to the Mission President, and considered by many to be “a successful missionary.”
So, while going through the motions of missionary work, I finally got the nerve to ask him, “Elder Weidmann, how have you been so successful on your mission?”
To this day, I can still remember his exact words (maybe it was because he was from Switzerland, so he had a cool accent). He said:
“Well, Elder Smith, I don’t know if I’m ‘successful.’ But I do know that the only thing that matters is that you learn to love the people. If you learn to love the people you are serving, then everything will just fall into place.”
As he said it, I remember thinking, "Yeah, right! I’ve heard that trite stuff before. I’m sure there’s something else!" To my everlasting regret, I did not take his advice to heart. Five months later, I gave into deep depression, and decided to come home a year early.
In the years that have followed, every time I have thought about my mission I am filled with deep regret; regret that I didn’t take Elder Weidmann’s advice to heart, regret that I didn’t take advantage of the time I had, and regret that I didn’t learn to love the Russian people I was supposed to serve.
I’ve since learned that a mission isn’t about converting people, it’s about learning to serve and love people.
Aaron, Ammon, & the Two Types of Missionary Service
In the Book of Mormon, we are told of two types of missionaries. The first type of missionary is the surface-level one—a missionary that believes that his/her mission is only to preach to and convert others. The second type of missionary is the immersed one—a missionary that believes that his/her mission is to love and serve others.
Aaron and Ammon, along with their brothers, went into Lamanite territory to serve their missions among the Lamanites. These particular Lamanites were described as “a wild and a hardened and a ferocious people; a people who delighted in murdering…and robbing and plundering” (Alma 17:14). Aaron, Ammon, and their brothers “separated themselves one from another, and went forth among [the Lamanites]” (Alma 17:17) “that perhaps they might bring them unto repentance; that perhaps they might bring them to know of the plan of redemption” (Alma 17:16).
Aaron took the surface-level approach to missionary service. He was only out to preach to and convert others. Because of this, he immediately hit resistance: “And it came to pass as he began to expound these things unto them they were angry with him, and began to mock him; and they would not hear the words which he spake” (Alma 21:10), and “they contended with many about the word” (Alma 21:11). Eventually, things got so bad that “Aaron and a certain number of his brethren were taken and cast into prison” (Alma 21:13).
Ammon, on the other hand, took the immersed approach to missionary service. His approach was to love those to whom he had been called to serve. In fact, he believed the Lamanites “to be his brethren” (Alma 17:30), and treated them as such. Captured and bound by the Lamanites, he was taken to the feet of a Lamanite king named Lamoni. When King Lamoni asked why he had come into Lamanite territory, Ammon responded “I desire to dwell among this people for a time; yea, and perhaps until the day I die” (Ama 17:24). He also promptly told the king, “I will be thy servant” (Alma 17:25). From that time forward, a deep bond of love and friendship began to grow between Ammon and Lamoni. Even Lamoni’s father later noticed “the great love [Ammon] had for his son, Lamoni” (Alma 20:26).
Ammon and Lamoni went on to release Aaron and his brethren from prison. Apparently, while in prison, Aaron had learned the value of service and love over surface-level missionary work, telling Lamoni’s father “we will be thy servants” (Alma 22:3). This missionary work, founded upon service, eventually evolved into one of the greatest conversion stories in The Book of Mormon—perhaps in all scripture.
And all of it was predicated upon learning to love the people.
With more than 85,000 Mormon missionaries currently serving, my hope is that each of them could take Elder Weidmann’s words to heart.
Please learn to love the people you serve. Take it from a man who never finished his mission. If you learn to love those whom you are serving, everything else will fall into place.
Now, that doesn’t mean that the work will be easy. But it does mean that your joy in the work will increase—because learning to love and serve people is God’s work, and it is the only thing that truly changes hearts.
Because Christ loves us, He left the comfort and power of his heavenly throne to labor among a fallen and a broken people. Despite our fractures and frailties, He not only acknowledges that we are family, but movingly calls us His friends (John 15:15). He descended below all things to serve us and lift us up—all because of love.
In like manner, Ammon and his brother Aaron—who could have been kings in their own land—gave up the comforts of their kingdoms to labor among the Lamanites. And despite the fact that the Lamanites were infamously known as “a wild and a hardened and a ferocious people,” Ammon and Aaron came to view these people as their brethren. The love that Ammon and Aaron had for the Lamanites helped transformed them into a God-like people—a people so filled with love and service that their own deaths converted their murderers.
And now we—a people that are profoundly blessed with an abundance of knowledge, wealth, and opportunity—are asked to give it all up, (for at least two years) and to love and serve those who are, perhaps, less fortunate than we are. We are called to partake in the work and glory of God. And in that process, we are meant to learn how to love His children and to see them as our family.
Re-Called to Serve
So, if I were re-called to serve a mission, I would learn to love the people I would serve. This time, I would try not to worry about my own selfish needs but about their needs. In trying to forget myself, perhaps I would forget about whatever fears and insecurities were holding me back from loving others. If I had done that in the first place, I would never have wanted to come home from my mission—the people would have been too dear to me. Oh, how I wish I could go back and see the faces of those Russian people! Oh, how I wish I had loved them as I love them now. Oh, how I wish I could serve once more…But here’s the great thing: In Mormonism, there’s a divine clause to the call of missionary service: “if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work” (D&C 4:3).
In other words, if you want to serve God (and serve your fellow man), you are automatically called to serve.
And if you’ve already served but still desire to help others, you’ve just been "re-called to serve."