We have been counseled to avoid using the term “mission field” when referring to places where the Latter-day Saint population is in a nascent stage and missionary opportunities abound since, technically, there is no place where members of the church are excused from sharing the gospel.
Yet the experience of living in an area where the Latter-day Saint population is scant in comparison to a place where members are plentiful is vastly different. It helps communication to differentiate between the two.
Rather than use the term “mission field,” we could call such areas “Places With Fewer Members of the Church” and use the anacronym PWFMC. However, that’s a lot of letters to remember, and impossible to turn into a word. So please forgive me if I use the term “mission field” while remembering that there are still missionary opportunities in areas heavily populated by Latter-day Saints.
The relevant question is, what are the pros and cons to living in the “PWFMC” or the mission field?
Light on a Hill
One blessing of living in the mission field is you are very conspicuous. (I guess you could consider this a disadvantage if you didn’t want to be a member-missionary.)
When I was in a graduate program for counseling we were required to participate in an exercise where we told a partner (a stranger) exactly what we thought of them. My stranger asked, “Why do you always dress so modestly. We live in Florida. It’s hot here.” I had not realized my attire was such a beacon but was satisfied to hear that it was.
Our three sons played football at a high school where, besides them, there were only three other members of the church. Their football coach had a habit of using terrible language to motivate his players. One of the players on the football team confronted the coach. “You shouldn’t talk like that. Tanner is a Mormon and he doesn’t like swearing.” The coach changed his motivation tactics and stopped swearing at the players.
Standing for Something
Another son’s football team was scheduled to play in a championship game that was to be held on a Sunday. When he told his coach he wouldn’t play on the Sabbath, he received harsh criticism. “How can you let your team down? Don’t you care about your teammates?” His decision cost his team the championship but forced our son to decide who he wanted to be. Never again would the decision to live the gospel be as difficult as it was the first time his beliefs were challenged.
Once our boys became known as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the temptations to deviate from their beliefs subsided. They weren’t invited to go drinking. The most wholesome girls in the school sought their attention. Keeping their standards became a given as their friends expected them to behave in accordance with their beliefs.
Opportunities to Serve
In the past 41 years, neither my husband nor I have been without at least one calling. I have had the privilege of teaching seminary for four years, gospel doctrine twice, serving as a primary president twice and for the past three years I have been the only pianist in our ward. My husband has served as a bishop or branch president three times in the same stake where he was in the stake presidency. While serving in these various callings we also team-taught institute, stake mission prep and recently served as mission leaders.
We relish opportunities to serve. These callings give us purpose. It is immensely satisfying to help people grow their testimonies. We figure the Lord has blessed us with talents and we have covenanted to use them in His service. It’s nice to have the chance to do so. The “mission field” has also given our children endless opportunities to develop their talents through service.
The Decision to Sacrifice
Four months after we moved away from Utah, I gave birth to our first son, who was six weeks premature. He had a heart murmur and jaundice, his lungs were under-developed and only time would tell if he would thrive.
In a shared hospital room, my husband and I and wept as we embraced one another. On the other side of the curtain relatives gathered around the bed of another new mother. Her relatives all ooohed and ahhhed at her beautiful newborn. Our shared room became so crowded her visitors leaned back against the thin curtain, brushing against the hospital bed where I lay. My husband and I longed to be surrounded by our own families–his parents, my parents, his siblings, my siblings, his aunts and uncles, my aunts and uncles–all thousands of miles away in Utah. We wondered if moving away had been the right decision.
The Right Place at the Right Time
Living far away from family is a sacrifice. We miss loved ones, and it isn’t always easy to cope without them close by. However, in our case The Lord has made certain we were back in Utah when we were needed most. We “just happened” to be in town when my grandmother and my aunt were murdered in the Oakley mountains. I “just happened” to be the one that was available to drive to the police station to collect my cousins who had been kidnapped and recovered. The Lord wanted us to be available to our family when they were mourning, and “coincidentally,” we were there.
I was visiting my sister in Utah when she learned that her lost child had been found. For months my nephew had been missing and my sister had been waiting in agony to discover his whereabouts. Upon receiving the phone call that her son had been found, she bought a plane ticket to go collect him. Worried sick about his condition (literally—she had pneumonia) she welcomed the company of her big sister, who was available to jump on a plane and accompany her on a very emotional journey.
My airplane had just landed in Salt Lake City when we received a call that our BYU student was in the hospital. We were able to drive directly to the emergency room where we could comfort him as doctors stitched up a split-open scalp.
Leaving our children to go serve as mission leaders for three years also required faith that we would be there for them in their time of need. On the way to the airport to pick us from our mission our 26-year-old daughter learned she would give birth to a baby with Down Syndrome. We were with her and her husband just as they were processing this surprising news.
None of these “just happened to be there” or “coincidentally, we were available,” are truly happenstance. The Lord wants families to support one another and He makes that possible, despite the thousands of miles that may separate us.
On a lighter note, when we visit one another–when our families come to the East Coast, or when we return to Utah–we stay in comfort. No Air B&B could top the conditions we enjoy when staying with family. We get to serve one another with meals, and rides, and sightseeing trips. Because it does not happen often, we deeply value the time we spend together with our families-of-origin. We stay up late at night talking or playing games and the goodbye hugs accompanied by an “I love you” and “I will miss you,” are truly sincere.
When our children were little, they overheard us discussing our holiday plans with friends. “What are you doing for Christmas Vacation?” our friends asked.
“We’re going home,” my husband replied.
“But Dad,” our 5-year-old cried in disappointment, “I thought we were going to Grandma and Grandpa’s.”
Bret and I realized then that “home” for our children was different than what we had long considered “home.”
For our family-of-progeny, Utah was where we went on vacation. Home was the refuge we had created together.