My wife and I have been serving in various branch presidencies in the Provo Missionary Training Center for the last two years, and prior to that, we spent three years as mission leaders in the Korea Seoul Mission. Both of these callings have been inspirational experiences. Over these five years, one of our responsibilities has been to interview new missionaries as they get started. By now we have conducted well over a thousand such interviews (and counting!). We ask several questions, but one that we always ask is: “Why did you choose to serve?”
The biggest surprise for us has been that most missionaries reply that a mission was not in their plans. Their answers frequently include phrases like:
“I never thought I would serve a mission. I didn’t think I could be capable of serving.”
“I didn’t want to serve.”
“I never had it as a goal, I had very different education and career goals that didn’t include a mission.”
“My family didn’t want me to serve.”
“My family wasn’t active (or aren’t members) so it never even occurred to me.”
“I just felt that serving wasn’t right for me.”
“I didn’t feel worthy to serve.”
“Because of various challenges in my life, a leader said that it wasn’t something I should plan on.”
And yet, despite all the above, here they are, in the MTC with name tags on their chests and big smiles on their faces.
The second half of their answers as to why they chose to serve are almost always miraculous. Examples include the following:
“I received my patriarchal blessing and that changed everything.”
“For the first time, I sincerely asked God what I should do, and the answer came.”
“A really close friend or older sibling talked to me about their mission, and encouraged me/instilled confidence in me that I could do it.”
“I listened to living prophets at general conference, and when they pleaded with young people to serve a mission, I knew they were talking to me.”
“After hitting rock bottom in my life, I experienced the joy of repentance and the miracle of forgiveness. I now want to share this joy with others.”
“I attended church with a friend ‘for the first time in forever,’ and I heard someone bear testimony that touched my heart.”
“My Bishop (or youth leader) reached out and we had an open, loving conversation about it. They dispelled misconceptions and instilled confidence.”
“I had an older sibling complete their first week of MTC training online from our home. The spirit in our home changed. I was touched and it made me think seriously about doing the same.”
Every week we relearn several critically important lessons:
- No youth should ever be viewed as “off the list” or “too far gone” to serve a mission.
- The number of ways that a young person’s life can be changed by a mission is innumerable.
- It’s impossible to predict exactly which experience will be “the one,” so exposing our youth to as many positive experiences and influences as possible is important.
- Lifesaving changes happen in a youth’s life because of other people caring enough to take interest and show encouragement. As Elder Uchtdorf has said, “We are His hands.”
- The “mighty change” moment always happens when a young person humbles themselves and is open to receiving promptings or personal revelation (see Ether 12:27).
Here are just a few specific stories of the young men and women who have inspired us. As the scriptures say, we can’t share “an hundredth part” of what we’ve seen.
“I grew up in an inactive family. We were baptized members, but we never went to church. My mom had been an alcoholic most of her adult life. Through a lack of good influences, my life became increasingly dark and unhappy, and I made seemingly every wrong choice a teenager can make.
“But despite all that, I wanted light back in my life. One day at about age 17, my grandmother invited me to go to church with her. I did, and it felt so good, so I continued to attend with her. Finally, I gained the courage and confidence to work with a caring bishop who helped me properly repent. The joy was indescribable.
“The Lord continued to lead me toward a mission even though I was (at this point) a little older than the normal sister missionary. As I’ve grown stronger in the gospel, my family has started returning to church too. They are now headed to the temple all together in the next few weeks! I wish I could be there with them, but as I serve, I’ve never been happier!”
“I became a successful football player for my high school team, but with that success and popularity, I became increasingly drawn away from the gospel, and I started making a lot of wrong choices. Despite that, my football success continued as I became a starting defensive end and team captain playing in the NCAA for my university.
“It turned out that there was one other player on my team who was a strong active member of the Church. He became a good friend and started to invite me to read scriptures with him. It felt so good to reconnect with the gospel after so many years away from that light. One weekend my friend invited me to attend church with him; my first time in years.
“That Sunday the stake president taught an incredibly powerful priesthood lesson that touched my heart deeply. His lesson, the recent scripture study, and this friend’s example combined to leave me feeling an overwhelming desire to change course in my life, go to the temple, and serve a mission. This choice came with some big sacrifices: My girlfriend of 6 years left me, my other football friends abandoned me, and I had to walk away from a dream post-university career offer in real estate. But I’m here in the MTC now (at age 23) and have never been happier. That faithful friend helped to completely change my life.”
“I was born as a result of a sexual assault on my mother. Given the context of my birth, I grew up with the feeling that I was a mistake or an accident. But my steadfast and faithful mother patiently loved me, helped me to understand that God loves all of His children, and reassured me that God doesn’t make mistakes. After years of struggles with low self-esteem and lack of self-worth, my mom finally convinced me to take my concerns to my Heavenly Father. I mustered the courage to go to Him in prayer. In response, I felt overwhelming love, a feeling of unmistakable light and warmth, and an undeniable prompting to serve a mission. My mission has become an extraordinary turning point in my life. My faithful mom and a humble prayer changed my life forever.”
“I was born with a couple of significant physical challenges. First, I’m very small in stature (just under 5 ft tall). Second, I was born with a speech impediment that makes it hard for people to clearly understand what I’m saying. Both challenges put together has made me a target for mocking and bullying my whole life.
“When parents and leaders talked with me about serving a mission, I thought, ‘How can I ever go out to do something that’s all about connecting with people, starting conversations, building relationships and teaching? I’ve never been able to do any of these in my entire life.’ But an experience with a recently returned missionary at an FSY conference lit a spark in my heart. He assured me that God needs me and that no matter what my challenges are and that He can provide a way for me to be successful (see Alma 26:12).
“Despite lots of fear in my heart, this older friend inspired me to try. At first it was very hard, and I faced the same types of challenges I had always faced. But early in my mission, I received an extraordinary transfer assignment to serve in the local Deaf branch. It was an unusual assignment because typically only missionaries who already know sign language are sent there. But I found out that I had a special gift for learning Korean Sign Language quickly and fluently. I became part of a community that loved me and needed me. Gone were the days of being scorned for my size or speech. I found my self-worth and I felt the love of God in my life. A friend at FSY changed my life.”
A friend, a parent, a grandparent, a verse of scripture, a prayer, or a Church leader can make all the difference in the lives of these young adults. Seeing these stories of miracles every week in the MTC is a testament to what Paul said to the Romans: “I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38–39).