In one of my favorite general conference talks ever, Elder Vern P. Stanfill said, “To ignore and discount past spiritual experiences will distance us from God.” How true that is. But gratefully, we have a loving God who finds ways to send us gentle reminders of past spiritual experiences. And today my reminder was an unremarkable photo of a small apartment wall on the other side of the country.
Just seeing the words “Virginia Richmond Mission” still makes my heart race. I think of the day I opened my call and through tears that made it hard to talk read aloud, “You are assigned to labor in the Virginia Richmond Mission.” Virginia had never even crossed my mind during the weeks I’d almost constantly made mental lists of all the places I might be called to.
But as my family’s cheers subsided, the hugs ended, and my tears slowed, a feeling of “rightness” settled in. I remember looking at my mom and saying, “Of course it was Virginia. Why didn’t we think of that before?”
Richmond, Virginia, did turn out to be exactly the right place for me, but not for the reasons I might have thought.
I didn’t participate in any convert baptisms that I felt were especially grandiose or obviously the reason I’d been called there. I didn’t discover a passion for American history, either, despite the many rich historical sites in Virginia. In fact, I took a class on the Civil War after my mission and was too embarrassed to admit to my professor that I’d lived in Fredericksburg because I’d never taken the time to visit the battlefields.
No, in large part I came to believe Virginia was exactly the right place for me because of the other missionaries I came to love there. I didn’t realize how tightly a shared spiritual experience can bind you to someone. So tightly that when I saw a photo of a wall inside a missionary apartment shared by Church News yesterday, all the tender feelings of Virginia came right back to me as if I’d stepped off the plane yesterday and not more than three years ago.
Church News published what they call a “photo essay” of missionaries serving in the Virginia Richmond mission. At first none of the photos stood out to me. I no longer know any of the missionaries serving there, and all the photos were taken in Charlottesville, Virginia—an area I visited for zone conferences and exchanges but never served in myself.
But then I got to a photo of a wall inside the apartment where the sister missionaries serving in Charlottesville have lived for years, and my heart started beating fast.
Suddenly I remembered looking over that very same wall before going to bed on a not-so-comfortable air mattress while on exchanges years ago. Every transfer, the sisters would take a photo and add it to the wall along with a card saying when they’d served and sometimes a line or two about their time together.
And looking at that same wall today brought up memories I didn’t know I needed to remember.
Second row down, four in from the left is Sister Gerber. We served around each other several times in Virginia, but my strongest memory of her takes place at a gas station. I was her sister training leader, and we were just finishing an exchange. It was dark, but we stopped for gas before meeting back up with our companions.
Sister Gerber was brand new at the time and feeling all the excited and fearful emotions that come at the beginning of a mission. I stood outside the car while she sat in the passenger seat with the door open. While we waited for the tank to fill, I leaned against the car door and asked Sister Gerber to tell me a “high” and a “low” of her time as a missionary so far. I don’t remember now what she said, but I do remember feeling an overwhelming sense love for her. I knew so clearly in that moment God knows and cares deeply about all our “highs” and “lows.”
In the bottom middle is Hermana Whetten. I was her sister training leader during a difficult transfer for her. She was desperately trying to train a companion who was struggling with a myriad of complex issues that eventually required her to return home. But despite how hard that situation must have been, Hermana Whetten only spoke with compassion about her companion during our exchange. There was no gossip or whining, just love—much the way I imagine Christ would have loved and respected a struggling friend. Hermana Whetten just recently announced that she has been accepted into law school, and I know the lessons of compassion and long-suffering she learned as a missionary are going to influence the lives of all those she works with. I believed so deeply as a missionary that all of our trials happen for a reason and that God doesn’t leave us alone during them.
I could go on. Hermana Clark and Hermana LaMaro are on that wall. Hermana Cannon. Hermana Fishbeck. Some of them I’ve kept up with, others I occasionally see on social media, and a few of them I have no idea where they are now.
It’s possible some of the missionaries on that wall aren’t active in the Church anymore. I have plenty of other friends who served missions the same time I did who have since left their faith. And while I respect their choices to distance themselves from the gospel, these photos remind me why I don’t want to. These memories remind me why I, independent of what anyone else feels or thinks, want to stay. God’s love and guidance is real. Truth is unchanging. What I testified of with these girls on the streets of Virginia is still true now.
See more photos of missionaries serving in the Virginia Richmond Mission at Church News.