My mission president changed my life and other obvious musings

I was called to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the Germany Hamburg mission. I can already tell that I am most likely going to overwhelm my readership with Mormon-esque lingo, but I’m going to do my darnedest to explain myself. Young men and women members of the Church can serve as missionaries shortly after they graduate high school– to, you know, fill Christ’s commandment to preach the gospel to all the world. If you’ve seen The Book of Mormon musical, you know some of the basics, even if I laughed at the small details that were slightly off. Missionaries serve in pairs of two called companionships, and have the potential to switch companions or cities in which they are serving every six weeks. The mission is administered by a mission president, a usually well-off Church member who can take three years out of his life to volunteer for the position. Hopefully that’s enough ground-work to make sense of some of the following.

Depending on timing, missionaries usually will end up having 1-2 mission presidents during the course of their mission. Due to some administrative mumbo jumbo that resulted in my mission being dissolved, I had three. I first served under President Thompson for about three months. He was a loving enough guy, but I didn’t have very many interactions with him. I still felt very much like the new kid on the block, and I was just getting the ropes. For some of my adventures in my first city Munster, check out this post here.

The area that was the Hamburg mission was split between the pre-existing Berlin and Frankfurt missions. Only our zone– a regional administrative area– was sent to the Frankfurt mission. We had already heard rumors (those horrid things that go round missions, and aren’t always accurate. Who even has the information to start them?) that the mission president (MP) there was a bit of a stickler for the rules. I didn’t want to judge, and maybe it would be good for me. I already knew from observation that our mission lived “by the spirit of the law” perhaps a little too often. I didn’t meet President Ninow right away, but I did get a new companion from the Frankfurt mission to introduce me to the new mission.

I got a bit of a bad taste in my mouth when the very first week, I had a confrontation that resulted in a call to the mission president. Missionaries are encouraged to find a service project that they can perform on a weekly basis. In Munster, missionaries had been grocery shopping for a home-bound lady by the name of Frau Frerichs. Technically, this was against mission rules as spelled out in the infamous white handbook: missionaries should not be alone with a member of the opposite sex, and need another adult of the same gender to teach or visit. I had always assumed that our service project must have been approved sometime in the past, so I never questioned its appropriateness. My new companion insisted that we find some way to modify our routine such that a brother from the ward could attend, or we scrap the project.*

There weren’t many likely candidates in the ward who would be able to do that on a weekly basis, and I felt a deepening sense of gloom– and perhaps a rising sense of righteous indignation– at this injustice. I decided to call President Ninow, the new MP, to explain the situation and to see if I could get an exception for our service project. But President Ninow told me the same thing; in fact, he would prefer we scrap the project, because missionaries shouldn’t get involved in projects where someone develops a dependency on them. I was feeling a little desperate on behalf of Frau Frerichs; I didn’t know what she’d do without us. I insisted: “But she could die without us!” Perhaps I was a little dramatic there, eh? That only made President Ninow more insistent that we should cut it off. I was transferred before I could see the resolution, but I’m pretty sure missionaries don’t go grocery shopping for Frau Frerichs anymore.

A few transfers later, I had the nightmarish situation of hearing my own story told in a zone conference. President Ninow must have forgotten that I was the desperate missionary on the other end of the phone, insisting that the little old lady would die without the help of the missionaries. He was illustrating the point that service projects should be easily exchangeable without any strings attached or dependencies developed. I shamefacedly raised my hand and admitted that I was the guilty party.

Anyhow, I seemed to have a tense relationship with President Ninow with my time serving with him. Every encounter seemed to involve a power struggle of some sort. I didn’t try to be disobedient, but somehow I always ended up being “the problem child.” In another case of mission culture conflict, I felt it unfair at the unwritten rule in the Frankfurt mission that missionaries don’t take a lunch break. The mission handbook clearly says that missionaries can take an hour off to eat, and I didn’t want to starve all day until dinner time. In a zone conference, I stood up and read the white handbook to the MP for clarification on the matter, and it resulted in another humiliating experience. He responded, “I would prefer you didn’t take a lunch break, elder.” I sat down dejectedly. President Ninow saw that I was feeling ashamed, and he got back up to try to fix the situation: “I didn’t mean that. I don’t prefer it, but it’s up to you and what you feel is right.” That got rid of a guilty conscience, right? It just made me feel more like an outsider and a troublemaker.

This is all leading up to a grand conclusion when we got a new mission president, President Lehi Schwartz. President Schwartz was a native German, and he was and is on of the most enthusiastic people I have known. When he talked, you felt like he had so many ideas to say, he couldn’t get them out fast enough. And he loved us missionaries. Not just in a “I need to say this because it’s my job.” But you really felt that he meant it. He would call you up out of the blue to tell you that he was thinking about you– me, a missionary of little importance some 100-200 kilometers away. His English was pretty good, but he was constantly switching back and forth between English and German. And he had a deep resonant voice. I can remember him saying multiple times in a meeting: “Wir lieben euch. Wir denken an euch. Wir beten fuer euch.

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President Schwartz’s first zone conference with us was a sweeping vision of what our mission could become. He quoted prophecy from Church leaders about how temples would dot the Rhine. And he wanted our ideas. He wanted to help us out of the rut of knocking on doors and getting rejected on the streets. I don’t know where he got this statistic, but he said that after five negative encounters in a day, you can get so worn down that you don’t want to keep going. Well, missionaries definitely get more than that, and he wanted us to help find ways to build positive encounters with others. We need meaningful service projects. We need choirs and street displays. Some ideas sounded a little wilder than others– he thought that “every German youth would be so excited to meet an actual, live Eagle scout.” Pretty sure that idea didn’t yield a lot of fruit!

President Schwartz made me feel loved. He got rid of a developing habit of thought that Church leaders are a little out of touch, and their tendency towards administrative orthodoxy makes them seem heartless. I had been feeling like my mission was a bit Kafka-esque: without hearing my story or my experiences, someone had already found me guilty of not being dedicated enough, and I felt alienated from my leaders. President Schwartz purposefully went out of his way to make sure each missionary felt loved. I’m sure my experience is not unique. Here’s a few of the most memorable encounters I had with President Schwartz.

President Schwartz was attending our stake conference, a regional meeting in our area with Church members from multiple congregations. That morning, I absentmindedly somehow made it out the door and all the way to the Church building without a tie. Once a fellow missionary finally pointed it out, I was feeling extremely self-conscious. President Schwartz showed up, and I explained my plight. As he had been travelling, he happened to have a second tie in his suitcase, which he let me borrow. I was so grateful to President Schwartz. I was able to hang on to his tie for a few weeks until I saw him again so I could return it. Even then, seeing that tie was a physical reminder of my gratitude for the care President Schwartz showed.

Another time, I was down at the mission home for a meeting, and President Schwartz had invited us all to attend the temple. I was so excited, because this was likely the only time I would be able to attend the temple on my mission. When we all got to the temple, my temple recommend was rejected. I again immediately started to panic. The date was fine. It wasn’t expired. Had someone higher up somehow found something out about me, and thought I wasn’t worthy? Could people even do that? I wasn’t going to be able to go in! But President Schwartz, without another question, ushered me in past the front desk saying “He is worthy; I can interview him later.” Simultaneously, I felt such relief in a stressful situation and a feeling of utmost trust from my mission president.

On the last day of my mission, President Schwartz gave me a copy of emeritus general authority F. Enzio Busche’s memoir Yearning for the Living God. It recounted his childhood in the aftermath of World War II, his conversion to the gospel, and many spiritual experiences throughout his life. I read the whole thing on the flight back home to Utah. President Schwartz probably gave every missionary a copy of the book, but it felt so personal to me. President Schwartz is an example of Christlike love, and one that I hope I can someday live up to. People need love like that.

 

*P.S. I wanted to note that my companion from Frankfurt was also one of the best things that ever happened to me. Elder Kutterer had a Nephi level of faith; he didn’t question why any mission rule was given, and believed that “the Lord giveth no commandment unto the children of men save he shall prepare a way for them.” He was also one of the greatest missionaries I know, and saved me from an equally difficult time on my mission. When I left Munster, Elder Kutterer did everything he could to make sure Frau Frerichs was taken care of. Missionaries don’t have a lot of resources, and the branch was extremely small, but he didn’t let the commitments of previous missionaries go unfulfilled. In fact, when others were upset that “she’s not even a member, why are we doing this?” Elder Kutterer stood up for Frau Frerichs, and kept it going. I didn’t intend to blame anyone with this post, but wanted to illustrate that the Lord sends us the kind of people we need most when we need them.

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