Though I have never been on a formal mission, my first five years in the Church were closely tied to missionaries. I was their age, I worked intensely with them. Later on I was a counselor in subsequent mission presidencies for 27 years, both in the Netherlands and Belgium. Living now in Utah, I get invited to various Mission reunions – from presidents I was a counselor to.
My topic concerns a related aspect of the post-mission period: what about the convert a missionary brings into the Church and their subsequent relation? Even in the most barren mission field, a missionary will be instrumental in the conversion of perhaps one or two persons. Afterwards he may not even think highly of that performance: the convert was kind of odd and turned inactive shortly afterwards.
Now to my story.
In 1967 Elder Coleman Scheuller, a missionary from Utah in the Netherlands-Belgium mission, baptized a 23-year old man, J.L. For a year or two J.L. was a devoted church member, but personal circumstances and his marriage to a Catholic woman made him “inactive” in the Church.
Coleman Scheuller kept contact with J.L.: every year a few letters and phone calls. Year after year. For ten years, twenty years, thirty years. Just friendship and warmth. Whenever he had the rare occasion to go to Europe, Coleman would make a detour and look J.L. and his family up, slowly winning the trust of J.L.’s wife. The family was raising three children who got to know “Coleman” as a gracious American friend of their dad. Mormon membership and Church activity were never the topic of his visits.
Then, after 30 years, end of the 90s, Coleman invited J.L. and his wife to come and visit him and his family in Utah. They toured the country. J.L.’s wife got a favorable impression of the Mormons, getting along very well with Coleman’s wife. Friendship was deepened. A year later, a return visit by the Scheullers to Belgium followed.
In 2002, Coleman arranged to have the youngest of J.L.’s daughters, age 22 at that time, spend some time in Utah as an exchange student. She stayed with the family of Coleman’s sister and attended Church with them. She loved it immensely. After her return to Belgium, she decided to attend the local Mormon ward and be taught by the missionaries.
She was baptized two months ago, on August 29th, 2004, by Coleman Scheuller, now 58, who flew to Belgium for that occasion. J.L., now 60, and his wife attended the baptism, he extremely happy to see one of his offspring pick up the religious thread of his younger years, she with mixed feelings but aware of what the Church represents. Latest news: the oldest daughter, age 30 and a school teacher, started accompanying her sister to Church.
Coleman allowed me to tell this story here. I myself witnessed it over all those years.
Moral? Is bringing someone in the Church not a terrifying responsibility? As a missionary you have been instrumental in having someone make sacred covenants. Often you have turned your convert’s life upside down, severing or greatly disturbing his/her ties with family, friends and deep-rooted traditions. Having a convert baptized is like making an orphan and adopting him/her into your family. Should a missionary not always remain deeply concerned about that child and, next to local leaders and home teachers who are often overburden, also continue to see after his/her wellbeing?
Should not parents of the young missionary, who are so eager to send their boy on a mission, often “for his own good”, also share in the responsibility to make sure he continues to care for his converts – for their good? And if the returned missionary doesn’t care, maybe the parents should, even if only through a yearly Christmas message.
The topic brings me back to Mission reunions. Is there, in this perspective, not an ongoing responsibility for the former mission president and the way his reunions are set up? Perhaps reunions could also be used to foster this care for converts the missionaries made, especially those who have become less active. To what extent should reunions also serve a higher purpose in the spirit of what the Gospel wants us to achieve?
I’m sorry if the above sounds more preachy than I intended to. But I have seen far too many active and inactive converts who never heard anything anymore from the missionary who brought them into the Church, while it could mean so much to them. Conversely, will not a lifelong concern for his converts regularly remind the returned missionary of Gospel essentials and help him mature during his own arduous journey through life?