~by Tracey Austin

My friend and I caught up on family news over lunch a few months ago. “How‘s your son doing at college?” she asked as we reviewed our children’s activities.

“Did I tell you he’s on a two-year leave of absence so that he can complete a mission for our church?”

“No,” she replied.

“He’s been gone about six months. I’m looking forward to Mother’s Day because I get to talk to him on the phone. The only other time I can do that is on Christmas Day,” I explained.

“You’re kidding.” She shrugged. “That must be hard.”

I knew Sarah was putting her response mildly. Many non-LDS people can’t believe that a mother could send her child to a location anywhere in the world that is not her choosing for two years (18 months for women). “I’d never do that to my son,” an acquaintance once told me when we were discussing LDS missions.

Do I miss my son? Is it difficult to be apart for two years with only letters and emails to keep us connected? Do I worry about his health and how other people are treating him? You bet! Would I want it any other way? Absolutely not. My son is a bright, friendly young man who completed his freshman year at a Baltimore college before leaving on his mission. His college friends are supportive, but incredulous. Two months into his mission I received a letter that warmed my heart:

“I am grateful to be here and wish so much you could be here with me experiencing such miracles. What we get to do as missionaries . . . is so humbling. It is hard to describe . . . I want you to know that I love you more than you know and that I love our Savior and that I am glad you and certain others [helped] get me here.”

From Self-Centered to Self-Less

As parents, we want our children to have the best in life–the best opportunities, good friends, success in school, and health. From the time they are born, our children claim the center of our attention. If they cry as babies, our immediate goal is to eliminate any discomfort. We nurture and encourage, feed, clothe and provide shelter. Not surprisingly, our children respond by believing that their needs are more important than anything or anyone else.

We can counteract self-centered behavior when we teach our children to share their toys, when we ask for their help preparing dinner for a sick neighbor or when we assign our children chores, like taking out the garbage, to help our homes run smoothly.

Imagine what can happen when we focus entirely on helping others for an extended period of time. A mission is an incredible opportunity to do just that. My son spends six days a week dressed in a suit and tie, riding a bicycle, meeting and talking to anyone with an interest. He reserves one day a week [called preparation day, or P-day] for laundry, grocery shopping, and writing home. He has helped people move, clean, and do yard work. He assisted a single woman to stop smoking, encouraged an alcoholic father to give up drinking, introduced a single mother of two to a new “church family”–one that supports her by providing activities for her children and a place to socialize and discuss values that build families. He spends hours studying in order to effectively share his understanding of how to find joy with others. His letters include phrases like, “I have come to love him.” They describe tender experiences with people like the 93 year-old woman he met at a bus stop:

“She told us some moving stories about how she migrated here from Lithuania during World War II and how she went through all these hard times, but through it all gained a testimony of God. She didn’t really want to talk about our religion but it was just amazing to sit and listen to her.”

Developing Skills & Talents

Mormon missionaries work as pairs. They are assigned a companion to live and work with. Learning to get along with companions from a variety of different backgrounds teaches tolerance and patience—valuable skills for any friend or future spouse. My brother-in-law recalled that his mission was where he had learned to be a “better father and husband.”

Missionaries serve without compensation, many earning the $400 a month required for service before leaving for the “mission field” or assigned area. Missionaries receive a modest monthly amount to pay for food, expenses like bike repairs or a haircut. My son is developing budgeting skills and learning how to be frugal. He proudly sent me a photograph of one of his “budget dinners”—a bowl full of noodles sprinkled with something resembling shrimp.

Before he left, my Stake President (congregational leader) advised my son to utilize his talents on his mission. My son is serving an English-speaking mission, but many missionaries learn foreign languages as they serve in countries around the world. “I’ve played the piano just about every week in church,” my son reported a few weeks into his first mission area (missionaries can be transferred to a new area as frequently as every six weeks). At college, my son was a music minor who taught piano and played the saxophone in a jazz ensemble. He describes a memorable event in another letter:

“This Saturday night will be our musical fireside. I am pretty much organizing and playing every song. It’s gonna be sweet. We have choral numbers, quartets, guitar and piano medleys. I have a couple of solos, and even one of our investigators and I are playing some gospel versions and hymns. My favorite is our arrangement with the whole zone singing Come Thou Fount as well as a medley of Praise to the Man and We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet where I get to go wild! I’m excited.”

Blossoming Leadership

Six months into his mission my son was assigned to be a “trainer”—a senior companion who tutors new missionaries on how to accomplish their duties. A trainer sets an example of leadership by demonstrating hard work, spiritual strength, and a willingness to meet and teach others even when it is difficult or uncomfortable.

During his ninth month of service, he became a “district leader” with responsibility for six missionaries in his area. In addition to tracking their physical well-being, my son prepares weekly training sessions. “[I] . . . planned a meeting about unity since the district is pretty new and we don’t know each other,” he wrote home. He noted that during a role play activity the sister (female) missionaries, “just went at it, tearing into each other . . . loud enough that everyone else in the room could hear—very uncomfortable.” One of the sisters called later that night to say that the role play was just what she and her companion needed to work out their differences.

Developing Spiritual Maturity

It is easy to put our finger on the tangible elements of success–a college degree, a thriving career, a comfortable home or opportunities for interesting travel. These elements are important, but they are only part of what I believe is a complete life, one that includes helping others and feeding our spiritual hunger–the search for answers about the meaning of our existence, what it means to have peace, and where we can find the ultimate source of our desire to be “good.”

I believe we learn truth through the heart as well as through the mind. Knowing and understanding spiritual truths is what I (and most Mormons) call a testimony. It begins with a feeling in the heart–a warm sense when we do something good or learn something that rings true. Consider a time when you did something that made you feel good. At work, I have had several opportunities to volunteer in my community serving lunch at a homeless shelter, planting trees at a local zoo, and setting up tables for a fundraising dinner for a non-profit foundation. I came away from these activities feeling happy that I was able to do something worthwhile. These warm feelings are the same “messages of the heart” sent from God that can come when we learn spiritual truths or truths that bring us pure joy.

On his mission, my son has been able to cultivate and refine his quest for spiritual truth in order to share it with others. Excerpts from several letters describe his growing spiritual maturity:

“We see miracles all the times, what a privilege.”

“The Lord truly blesses us when we always do what we are supposed to do.”

“This week I am focusing on faith, always believing anything can happen. Such a simple principle but hard to actually do. . .”

“This week I want to just bear my testimony. I know the church is true, without a shadow of a doubt.”

I Would Do It All Over Again

The brief conversation I had with my friend over lunch is something I hope to repeat many times in the upcoming months. I enjoy explaining what my son is doing as an LDS missionary and how I feel about it as his mother.

When my son returns from his mission, he will be two years older and no further along in school –but he will have developed a number of priceless character traits. He will return a sensitive, giving, talented, and spiritual mature leader who will have lifted the lives of the many people he will have met, served, and taught.

Would I do it all over again? Of course.
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