Parker Strong, a 19-year-old from Centerville, Utah, sat on a tro-tro in West Africa. The Ghanaian public transportation was overcrowded and passengers began to pass their goods back for others to help hold. Strong was handed a goat to keep on his lap. It breathed on his face and he looked out the window at the rain forest he was driving through.
"In that moment it just hit me," Strong said. "'I’m in the middle of West Africa.’"
Strong, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was called to serve in the Ghana Accra Mission in 2013. Although he would eventually get used to the culture and learn several different dialects of the language, upon arriving in Ghana, Strong had some major adjustments.
The first three months Strong viewed as an adventure. Waking up each morning to fetch water, using a bucket to shower and living life without electricity seemed exciting. However, the excitement began to wear off as the reality of his new circumstances settled in. Along with longing for the luxuries he had at home, Strong began to have doubts that Ghana was the place he could share the gospel the best.
"I think it’s natural for most missionaries to feel that way," Strong said. "‘Is this really where I’m supposed to be? Is this what I should be doing with my life?’"
One night in September, such thoughts lingered in Strong's mind as he tried to help teach a lesson with his companion. They sat across from a sewer in a tiny fishing village. The sun was beginning to set when Strong looked up and saw a young boy walking by wearing a Jr. Jazz basketball jersey.
Don't miss this amazing story about how the @OfficialJrJazz reaches all over the world! pic.twitter.com/xn32R9n2Mz— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) April 11, 2017
"I looked at it and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s the Jazz, that’s my hometown team,’" Strong said. "That alone was so exciting because it was something I recognized from home. ... I looked at that and was like, 'Wow, that really speaks to me, that’s so cool. It’s a little piece of home in the middle of West Africa."
Strong asked the boy to come over, and asked if he could look at the jersey. The boy took it off and handed it to Strong. As he held it on his lap, Strong noticed the jersey was a number zero, the same number he had worn many years ago in Jr. Jazz. Strong flipped the jersey inside out to see the reversible side.
"Inside I saw a signature, and there in terrible handwriting, probably the handwriting of a 10-year-old it said, ‘Parker B. Strong,'" Strong said. "That’s my name. It was an out-of-body experience, it was like, ‘Is this real? Is this really happening? Am I dreaming? Is this really in my hands right in front of me?'"
Overcome by emotion, Strong immediately felt love and awareness from God.
"Literally all my fears, all of my doubts, everything was laid to rest," Strong said. "The odds of that happening are extremely astronomical. That just doesn’t happen, that’s not a coincidence. I looked at it and got pretty teary thinking of that and looking at it. Here in my hands was evidence that God loved me and that he was telling me that I was where I was supposed to be. It was in the form of a Jr. Jazz jersey that I’m sure I had signed at the time because I thought I was going to be some big star and it was going to sell for millions of dollars. But no, sitting in Ghana, West Africa, was my jersey and it was more priceless to me than it ever could have been."
Somehow, when Strong had given his jersey to his mother years before, and after donations to the DI, this Jr. Jazz jersey had found its way back to Strong.
"It was really just there to tell me that I was loved and cared for and that my Heavenly Father was watching over me," Strong said. "He knew me and he knew my prayers, he knew everything I had said to him and this really was where I was supposed to be, where I was supposed to grow."
Strong handed the jersey back to the confused boy and tried to control his emotions to continue on with the lesson he was teaching. However, that experience impacted Strong throughout his mission and continues to impact him in his life today.
"My life is going to be directed how God wants it to be as long as I’m willing to pay attention," Strong said. "God really does hear you. He honestly cares and loves you. You may not always feel it at times, but he’s there. I’ve loved having that knowledge, it’s a happy way to live."