Recently, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tweaked the missionary program. Mission presidents can now adjust missionary schedules to fit local customs and needs.
LDS missions are constantly making adjustments. They have to. And each time a fresh approach is announced, geezers like me trot out our threadbare stories of life on the gospel frontier.
That’s what I plan to do today.
I suppose 50 years ago a lot of us were you'd call “low bar missionaries" (since there was a "raising the bar" for missionaries in 2002). Bolivia was an outpost then. Concerns were different. We didn’t have television or telephones. Letters took a week to arrive. I was still testifying that President David O. McKay was a "living prophet" a good three days after he died.
They were heady years.
The leaders in Salt Lake City and the missionaries in the field were still figuring out what worked and what didn’t.
We’d show film strips of Mormons having family home evening, but the family in the slides lived on Salt Lake’s upper east side. So when we’d ask for questions afterward, 4 in 5 Bolivians would ask us if all Mormons were rich. We’d counter by showing them the holes in our shoes and jacket lining.
We eventually scrapped the film strip.
We also scrapped a memorized section about Joseph Smith’s First Vision (see Joseph Smith-History 1:15-17). We used to say, “Two personages appeared in the air above Joseph. One pointed to the other and said ‘This is my beloved son.’ Who do you think they were?”
Nine out of 10 Bolivians we asked would respond, “Jesus and the Virgin Mary.”
The brethren changed it.
They also changed D-Day (Diversion Day) and replaced it with P-Day (Preparation Day). The thinking behind Diversion Day was missionaries needed time to decompress. Movies weren’t off limits on D-Day. We’d catch two or three. Some elders got better at diverting than converting. I had one companion tell me, “If you break your leg on Sunday, be prepared to drag it around on Monday. We’re not missing D-Day.”
And yet … and yet … there was another side to it all. We believed. We worked. We strapped ourselves into the harness and pulled the gospel plow. We were spiritual sodbusters, The Little Church on the Prairie. We were gospel gunslingers out to ready the Earth for its paradisiacal glory.
It was another time. We listened to too much to pop music and spent too much time going to the post office looking for letters from girlfriends. But we all had hair and we taught like it was on fire. We baptized in swimming pools, lakes and in fonts so shallow new converts had to lie down.
We lived and learned and shared. We were naïve but committed. And for good or ill, hundreds of people flocked to us.
And though I haven’t taken a poll, I’m convinced most of us wouldn’t trade a minute of teaching one poor, wayfaring Bolivian farmer for a week in a seaside resort.
Yes, the bar did need to be raised. Too many coyotes were limboing under it
But I wouldn’t trade my time on the gospel frontier. And it makes me wonder, would all those early LDS missionaries who traveled without purse or scrip feel the same about their missions? Would they trade a mission in 1916 for one in 2016?
I don't think they would.