Prior to entering the MTC (Missionary Training Center) in Provo for a week before flying to Africa, I had never given much thought to the fact that Carole and I would be wearing missionary name tags for the next 18 months. Carole’s tag says “Sister Beal” and mine says “Elder Beal,” in caps, followed by the name of the Church—"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
You can see that the name of Jesus Christ is prominently displayed, so that people can see right away that we are representatives of a Christian church and believe in Jesus Christ. Those not familiar with the Church may think my first name is “Elder,” when in fact it is a title indicating the capacity in which I will serve when on my mission. All young men on missions, as well as the older ones, such as Elder Reynolds and myself, are called “Elders.” We refer to Carole as “Sister” Beal, in the same way we refer to any woman in the Church as “Sister so and so." This designation grows out of our belief that all people, of whatever racial or ethnic background, are sons and daughters of God and hence brothers and sisters of one another. From a distance name tags are hard to read, so often I will see people squinting to see what they say.
As you can see, even from a fairly short distance, it is hard to make out the text on the name tags. Throughout the day, people slightly shift their heads, from side to side, to decipher what's on the name tags.
Name tags are conspicuous and no doubt attract casual attention.
During our stay in the MTC, we were reminded that we would, in part, be conspicuous because of our dress and name tags and encouraged to be good examples, wherever we were and whatever we were doing. Others would carefully watch us (even when we were not aware of their attention), knowing that we claim to be representatives of Jesus Christ. I suppose I knew this, but we have been surprised by how literally this has proven to be true.
On the first leg of our trip to Africa (the flight from Salt Lake City to Chicago), a couple in the row behind us, midway through the flight, asked if we were going out or returning from a mission. Later upon departing the plane, a gentleman, with whom we had not spoken, offered best wishes, saying that one of his sons was currently serving as a missionary. Nothing is unusual about those exchanges--one would expect a flight out of Salt Lake City to have a number of Church members.
Less expected, at least by me, were the brief encounters we had with several passengers in the flight out of London to Johannesburg, South Africa. While standing in line in Heathrow, waiting to board the South African flight, Carole and I found ourselves standing next to two young African men—one a government official from Namibia, returning from official business in Canada, the other a lawyer from Namibia. I could tell they were eyeing our name tags and trying to decipher the text. Finally one of them said: "I know that Church. It’s the Mormon Church and comes from somewhere in New York. Its founder was Joseph Smith. I have visited with some of your missionaries in my hometown of Windhoek (which is the capital of Namibia). I talked to the missionaries three times and then “kicked them” out of my house." Laughingly I responded, saying that he might try being nicer to them next time, bearing mind that they were young men, far away from home and family.
During to the flight, I was seated next to a middle-aged engineer from South Africa, returning home to Pretoria after a three-month assignment in England. Though we chatted casually off and on, I never mentioned to him the Church, or explained anything about our Church assignment--where we were going or why we were headed there. I was not aware that he had seen or paid any attention to my missionary tag. Yet during the flight he talked to me about his interest in genealogy, his family having immigrated to South Africa several generations ago from Denmark. It also turned out that one of his three sons was currently enrolled in a divinity school. He shared that information without prompting from me and later talked about how active the Mormon Church was in genealogy. So the advice given in the MTC was prescient—one should always assume that others are observing your conduct.