I joined the Church in 1967, at age 14, thanks to being introduced by my then-best-friend, Andrew Bos. No one else in my family joined, but they were all supportive of my Church membership and activities. After graduating from high school in 1971, I went to BYU for a year, then came home and submitted my papers to go on a mission (for which my non-LDS parents paid full financial support, btw).
When my mission call came — to the Central America mission — I found out that I’d be reporting to the Mission Home in Salt Lake City in early September. A close friend from my ward, Doug, was due to report on the same day, so we made plans to fly up to Salt Lake City together the day before we had to report, spend the night at his brother Tom’s apartment, then report the next day.
Tom was two years older than Doug and me. Tom had always been the tall, smart-mouthed tough guy among the ward’s teenagers, the one who was always willing to mouth off to the adult leaders; those of us who were younger than him tended to view him with a mixture of fear, admiration, and awe. I think the adults in the ward were both pleased and not a little surprised when Tom filed papers and left on his mission. He had just finished his mission and had headed up to BYU; his roommate was one of his former missionary companions.
That evening in Provo at their apartment, Tom and his roommate showed Doug and me slides from their mission, many of which involved them doing things that they weren’t supposed to be doing — traveling out of their area, going to the beach, hanging out with girls, and so on. All through the slides, they joked about the things they got away with and the few that they didn’t. They made the mission seem like one big lark; they said little if anything about people taught, lives changed, or their own spiritual experiences.
When they finished the slide show, Doug and I left to go our separate ways and each see a few friends before coming back and crashing for the night. Tom followed us outside and stopped us by the side of his apartment building. Without any tee up or explanation, he simply looked at us and said, “If you want to be happy when you come back from your mission, work hard and obey the rules.” He then turned and went back into his apartment.
It was a rather stunning contrast to the joking and boasting that had been going on just a few minutes earlier. It was also clear that Tom had some real regrets about how he had spent his mission. I had spent years hearing adult leaders talk about missionary service and how to prepare for a full-time mission, but Tom’s single sentence carried more impact that anything else I had heard.
It served me in good stead, too. After spending five days at the Mission Home in Salt Lake and eight weeks at the Language Training Mission in Provo, I arrived in Central America in November 1972. The mission covered four countries — Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama — plus the Panama Canal Zone, which was US Territory at that time. There were no stakes or wards in the mission — only half a dozen or so districts (I can mentally count five, but there may have been one more) and two dozen or so branches — so the mission president (Quinten Hunsaker) was the presiding Church authority over all four countries.
With poor communications between countries (phone service was expensive and unreliable), and the main transportation between countries being air travel, Pres. Hunsaker visited each country only once every six weeks. Most zones covered part or all of a given country, and missionary companionships often lived and worked hours or even a full day’s bus ride away from any other missionaries. This led to many of the missionary problems that Pres. Hunsaker found upon arriving in the mission in mid-1971. He found zones where the zone leaders were changing companionships and area assignments; he found areas, such as the San Blas Islands, where missionaries were treating their assignment pretty much as a vacation; he found rather lax adherence to mission rules in almost all corners of the mission. He spent much of his three years as mission president cleaning up these problems.
My fourth or so senior companion, upon receiving me as a junior companion, asked me right off the bat, “So, are you fun or are you pious?” I quickly discovered that meant, “Are you here to have a good time or are you going to insist on doing missionary work?” That summed up the viewpoint of a large chunk of the full-time missionaries (including a few more of my senior companions) when I arrived in Central America. I opted for “pious”, remembering Tom’s words. I caught some grief for it — but for the most part I didn’t care.
And the day I left Costa Rica to fly back to the United States — though I felt that I had just then finally understood how to do missionary work and should actually be starting over — I nevertheless went home happy, with no regrets or misgivings. I had done my best to work hard and obey the rules.
Tom was right. ..bruce..