A. Sow Where You Don’t Reap; Reap Where You Don’t Sow—Long Line of Senior Missionaries
On occasion, when I fall prey to being discouraged, Carole reminds me that we are only one in a long chain of Mormon senior missionaries who will labor in Malawi. Mormon senior missionaries served before us, and they will come after we leave. The efforts of all them, taken together, are intended to help establish the Mormon Church in Malawi, to relieve suffering, and to bring joy to the poor and those in need of comfort. The names of other senior couples crop up from time to time. To name but a few—the Reynolds, Merrills, Bullocks, Pretes, Fisks, Stones, Birrells, Binghams, Bodilys and Ericksons. When compared to senior missionaries, mission presidents tend, as one might expect, to leave more of a mark on the faithfulness of the local members, owing to their spiritual maturity and platform. Yet small reminders of the service given by those senior missionaries can be found littered in the office files in the Mormon Church’s long-time residence on One Kufa Road in Blantyre--their spiral binders, temporary employment permits, random photos, an album of missionary pictures, letters to the Malawi Department of Immigration. From time to time, when we visit with members, they will share with us stories about something an earlier missionary couple may have done or said. But these fragmentary records are bad history, no more reflective of the rich and active lives they led in Malawi, or the impact they had upon members, than official government records of births, marriages and deaths are of capturing the largely undocumented lives of our ancestors.
Most significantly the contributions of these earlier Mormon missionaries are reflected in part in the lives of Malawi’s existing members—their testimonies, commitment to the gospel, payment of tithes and offerings, becoming and staying self-reliant, and service as full-time missionaries--going to Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, Ghana--the thousands of sacrifices they make to be members of the Mormon Church. This is not new, but instead is the history of the Christian Church from the time of the Savior and his earliest disciplines, including the great missionary Paul. “Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you? Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” 2 Cor. 3:1-3. Paul understood that the greatest legacy he could leave was to pass along to new members a fervent testimony of the gospel—something engraven in their hearts.
Yet, in the end, missionaries’ contributions pass largely unseen and remain anonymous. Senior couples hope they have an impact, but are never quite sure if they have done much good. Rarely do they see the fruits of their labors. They may work to reactivate a family, but are never sure whether their efforts will meet with much long-term success. The less active family may start back to church, but will the gospel stick and will they have the resilience to come on their own without constant encouragement from the missionaries. Senior missionaries may teach primary or lead music during sharing time and never know what is going on in the minds of the young boys and girls. All they see is young ones listening to primary stories and starting to get excited about singing primary songs and joining in the sharing time games. While they hope to have spoken to the spirits of the youth, they are uncertain whether the primary kids will go on missions, marry in the church, and raise righteous family, creating multigenerational families steeped in the gospel and rooted in faithfulness. What gives the senior missionaries hope are the examples of those more seasoned in the Mormon Church—the leaders and faithful adult members who have gone on missions, returned home to establish families in the gospel, and have seasoned testimonies. Somehow and someway they were able, with the help of earlier missionaries and faithful members, to get testimonies and move through the conversion process. If it was done successful before, surely it can be done successfully again.
But senior missionaries, despite their hopes, find it impossible to see through the years and to know how they may have touched the life of a young man or woman, or how that influence may be distinguished for the influence of others. If they do influence someone for good, the fruits of that influence may not come for months and years after they leave to go back home.
For the most part, our influence upon others is reflected in small and seemingly insignificant acts. It merges seamlessly with the influences of others and, together with the influence of others, forms cycles of support, comfort, and leadership that slowly helps local members stay connected to the Mormon Church. “Say not ye, There are yet four months, and then cometh harvest? Behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest. And he that reapeth receiveth wages, and gathereth fruit unto life eternal: that both he that soweth and he that reapeth may rejoice together. And herein is that saying true, One soweth, and another reapeth. I sent you to reap that whereon ye bestowed no labour: other men labored, and ye are entered into their labours.” John 4:35-38. Moreover, each senior couple knows that its efforts get unevenly spread—a few individuals and families are known well, but most of one’s efforts are spread pretty thin. One must be content with occasional visits, greetings in church, small acts of kindness—nothing akin to the intense training or spiritual guidance one envisions as being necessary to change lives. The younger elders and sisters are close to that experience as they proselyte and teach the basic lesson of the restoration.
In saying this, we need to be careful not to underestimate the impact we may have upon others—even in routine settings--and of the occasional bursts of the spirit to which senior missionaries are entitled. By way of example, most of the senior couples we have met in Malawi would be surprised by the impact they have had upon Carole and me. We have had very little contact with them, each of us being busy with our own assignments. And yet, despite this, each has touched our hearts in little but significant ways and, if that has happened, it is not unreasonable to imagine that we in turn have had more influence on others than we might otherwise suspect. We will likely have influenced them for better or worse, despite the limited nature of our contacts and even though we have largely been oblivious to the potential impacts. Carole and I were astounded by the Reynolds’ good nature and unflappability. Elder Reynolds was willing to tackle any task to improve the quality of the local missionaries’ life, even at the expense of his own comfort. Late nights, early morning hours were par for the course, and never a harsh word and complaint. The Merrills, then serving their seventh mission in the last 12 years, we considered to be legends on their own right—setting an unparalleled standard of commitment and steadiness. We were in awe of their faithfulness, knowing we could never come close to matching their peerless self-sacrifice. The Fisks were steady, committed, and direct—early on they provided invaluable advice to us on what it meant to be “MLS” missionaries. We found them, as well as the Stones (both working in Lilongwe) to be far more strategic in their service than we have ever been. It is one thing to do missionary work, and quite another to do missionary work in a smart way. The Fisks and Stones each worked on a broader canvass than Carole and I. They focused their efforts on district-wide training, getting new missionaries ready to go, and helping returned missionaries get back integrated into normal life. Each of those initiatives were more focused, strategic, and had a greater potential for good than anything we have tackled. In contrast, Carole and I have worked at a micro level—spending virtually all of our member time making home visits, getting to know our members, being friends, and, if we provided training, the training was mainly incidental. (The primary exception is Carole’s tireless efforts to help jump start the primary programs in Zingwangwa and Blantyre Second.) The Birrells have picked up the office couple functions in Lilongwe, and Elder Birrell is anxious to put to use his medical training by volunteering twice a week at a local hospital. Even those couples who come in and out of Malawi, having assignments both here and elsewhere—the Skidmores, Binghams, Bodilys—have left a mark of faithful service and dedication. President and Sister Erickson are wonderful with the younger full-time missionaries, good examples, sensitive to their needs, resourceful, wise leaders, and inspirational speakers.
As I think of our service, I know we need to be content with our lot in life—it should be enough knowing that we build upon the foundation that others have laid, and that others will come after us who may reap what we have partially sown. Doing good, whatever the results, should be rewarding enough. Worrying about more than that borders on unrighteous vanity.