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With missions — and life — we learn as we go

The LDS Spanish language Bible was released in 2009.
The LDS Spanish language Bible was released in 2009.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News archive

David Kraus, a friend of mine, will soon be off to Torreon, Mexico, to serve an LDS mission.

David is one those “new breed” elders. He’s just 18.

And I envy him.

I envy him not just because he’s 18, but because he’s heading off on a Spanish-speaking mission that will be awash in church resources and materials.

And he already has a better sense of what’s expected of him out there than I ever did.

When I went to Bolivia in 1969, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was just getting up to speed in Spanish.

That meant we had to scramble.

The hymn books had songs in them celebrating American patriotism and Thanksgiving Day. Research materials were scarce. And all of us were experimenting with newfangled flannel boards.

In Bolivia, ours were made of Velcro.

I was constantly tearing Moroni in half when I’d pull him from the display. And when I’d pull the foundation of apostles and prophets out from under a picture of a church to show the early church falling, half the time the church wouldn’t fall at all, but miraculously float in the air.

The Velcro idea didn’t last.

The church was also working feverishly to get us filmstrips with Latino characters in them. Most of our slide shows had white Americans speaking translated Spanish.

One strip about family home evening was photographed in the home of a well-to-do LDS family. They had a grand piano and furniture fit for King Louis.

After showing the filmstrip we’d ask, “Any questions?”

Without fail someone would ask, “Do all Mormons live like that?”

And we elders didn’t make things easier. We were all just trying to figure it out as we went along. We’d shake hands with the members and force them to grip our hands tightly, the way people do in America, not knowing that squeezing a person’s hand was an insult.

We’d use our Fancy-Dan Spanish vocabulary words on humble farmers who had no idea what we were talking about.

In short, we never met a social convention we didn’t violate.

It’s amazing we weren’t ridden out of town on a rail.

Such were the frontier years in Latin America. The whole church was on a steep learning curve.

Today, looking back at those times, I find comfort in a comment by President Boyd K. Packer. He said years ago we used to think the order in the higher priesthood was elder, then seventy, then high priest. But now we know it’s elder, high priest and seventy. He said all of us in the church learn things a little at a time.

When David Kraus gets to be my age, I’m sure he’ll look back at his mission and wonder how he could be so clueless, just as I do now — just as Joseph Smith seemed to do when he looked back at the frivolous way he sometimes behaved after the First Vision.

But we all learn things a little at a time.

Good luck to you, David.

Enjoy your mission.

And don’t be too hard on yourself when, 50 years from now, you look at 18-year-old David and wonder, “What was I thinking?”

That’s not the important question.

The important question is, little by little, “What was I learning?”