I enjoy conference because I always feel the Spirit during some talk or another, and usually during several. This time, in the Saturday morning session, Elder Todd Christopherson struck a note that I heard several more times in other sessions when he spoke of grace and of our lives as a gift to give the Savior in response to his grace. And I was touched by President Hinckley’s very personal talk, as well as by what seemed a farewell from Elder Maxwell. But for me the most important part of conference this time was something outside of conference: my missionary reunion.
I returned from my mission in the Fall of 1969, and we began having reunions shortly after that. We had one or two of the kind most people think of, including a program in the chapel, but early on many of our reunions were fund-raisers for Korean members who wanted to go to the temple in Hawaii but couldn’t afford to do so. We cooked Korean food for hundreds and raised enough money to send quite a few people. As the Korean economy improved, that need disappeared, but we continued to meet and to eat. Our reunions became dinners for us, time for us to eat Korean food and visit each Fall. I look forward to our reunions and unless I’m out of the country, I go every time, taking turns preparing the chap chae (a noodle and vegetable dish). A number of years back one of us, Rick Farnsworth, organized a second reunion at April conference, but it too has been an informal affair.
This year someone decided to have a more traditional reunion in April, for all of the missionaries to Korea up through the mid-70s. Given its formality, I wasn’t keen on going, but my second mission president, Robert Slover, and his wife, Rosemarie, called needing a ride, so Janice and I went. About 300 people came, visiting Koreans, Koreans who live in the States, and returned missionaries, including a couple of 70s in area presidencies, a good handful of returned mission presidents, and one couple on their way to preside over the Korea Taejon mission. In spite of the fact that it wasn’t “my kind” of reunion, I enjoyed it very much.
A large part of the appeal of this reunion was, I’m sure, nostalgia, but nostalgia ought not to be under-rated as an important emotion. I saw people I’d not seen since I was in high school. (I lived in Korea for three years prior to my mission, went to BYU for 18 months, and then returned on a 30-month mission, so I lived there for most of seven years.) We reminded each other of stories of our missions. We exaggerated what dedicated and spiritual missionaries we had been, as well as the pranks we played and the difficulties we had. Shirley Palmer, widow of Spencer Palmer, the second mission president, had put together a very nice, hard-cover, 500-page book with some Korean and mission history as well as pictures and stories from as many former missionaries as she could contact.
But I think there was also something more than nostalgia, though I have a hard time putting my finger on what more there was. Part of it was remembering a time when we were doing important, godly work. Part of it was being reminded of how difficult it was. Serious illness was common. (I had hepatitis and typhoid fever at the same time, and dysentery was the normal condition.) Though we had someone to cook our food for us, living conditions were usually primitive. Suffering seems either to push people apart or to bring them together, and it brought most of us together. Of course a large part of the reunion’s appeal was remembering the friendships with Saints and other missionaries and seeing some of those people again. And a large part of it was knowing that our mission experience had a great deal to do with who were now are.
At one point in the presentation, the speaker mentioned his hope that North Korea would be open for missionary work in the near future and said something like “If it is, some of you will probably go back to Korea as missionaries again.” At that moment, I found myself longing to go back to Korea—and surprised at my longing.
For lots of reasons, I hated proselyting. We spent a lot of time looking for stable families and baptized mostly high school students. I was often lonely as a missionary. I had a couple of companions whom I still admire. I had one that I thought was insane; living with him was very difficult. But most of my companions were people I could live with, though we were not close. Like me, they were trying to figure out how to do the work and then go home. In sum, I wasn’t sure what I was doing, I wasn’t very good at doing it, and it seemed that it would never end. When I’m honest with myself, I recognize that though I served “honorably and faithfully,” I wasn’t a particularly good missionary. I also know about the horrible poverty and starvation in North Korea and, so, I know that being a missionary in North Korea would be no picnic. There are lots of reasons for me to resist the idea of going on a second mission and, especially, of going to North Korea.
But when I left from Kimpo Airport, in Seoul, returning home, I felt a sense of deep loss. In 2001, when I returned to Korea again for the first time to give some lectures, I felt like I was returning home, and when I left after a week, I repeated the experience of loss. There is something in my soul that is tied to Korea and the Church in Korea, and the speaker’s speculation reminded me of that tie. Because of my work I’ve learned to love Italy, Germany, France, Belgium, and, the Netherlands, but Korea remains my ko-hyang, my “home town.” So, as much as, at one level, I don’t want to go back to Korea on another mission, I wouldn’t hesitate a moment if I were asked to do so.