1999 was an eventful year for me. I graduated from high school, I had my first girlfriend, I travelled across Europe with a choir, I received my mission call, I received my endowment in the temple, and I entered the MTC and began my full-time missionary service. In fact, it was 10 years ago this week (before the turn of the new year) that my family made that 45-minute trek to Provo in our old blue Suburban to drop me off.
I received my call on October 13, 1999. I knew the day my papers had been submitted to headquarters and had calculated the probable arrival date of the call. Justin and I were both awaiting our calls, though he had sent his papers in a week previous. Somehow we had it figured out that the calls would likely come on a Wednesday. I had been anxiously awaiting this moment for a very long time. I had wanted to be a missionary from the time I was a little boy. I don't know exactly from where the feeling came but it was strong enough that beginning on December 29, 1998, one day after my 18th birthday, I began a countdown in my journal to the date I could turn in my papers.
Perhaps it came from an encounter I had as a very young child with President Ezra Taft Benson. I can't remember how old I was but I couldn't have been more than 5 or 6. President Benson was to be attending my aunt's ward's sacrament meeting. I imagine my parents decided to attend to allow us an experience of being in the presence of the prophet. I remember very few details of the meeting. I do remember, however, the opportunity to file by the prophet at the close of the meeting to shake his hand. When my turn arrived the president shook my hand and said, "My boy, some day you will be a great missionary." I do not recall particular emotional reactions associated with this special event, but clearly it was an encounter that has stayed with me all these years. The words meant something to me. I don't know if the president made similar comments to all of the little boys that day as they filed by, but I felt that he was speaking directly to me.
I waited at the front door behind the glass screen as the mail woman pulled up to our rickety mailbox on that autumn day. My brother Shayne and my mom stood there with me. I stared in anticipation toward the box, awaiting the visual that would be the dead give-away the call had come - a large, thick, white envelope. The woman filed through the mail in her truck, reached out, opened the box, and extended her hand full of mail...holding the long-awaited package! I rushed to the mailbox and immediately looked for the confirmation I needed, a return address from 50 E. South Temple St. I jumped in excitement and I may have even picked up my little brother and twirled him around, which is rather humorous to think of now, especially since he is quite a bit bigger than me these days. What can I say? I'm slightly given to cheesiness. I ran around the corner to Justin's house. We had walked through the anticipation and the application process together over the previous year. He ran out of his house as I turned the corner. We met at his mailbox where he also found the blessed white envelope with the same return address.
That night we opened the calls together in my living room, with our families watching. We had waited for my dad to get home from work, so it would have been at least 9:30 or so. We sang Called to Serve and after the customary who-can-guess-where-they're-going game, I went first. Many destinations had crossed my mind in considering where the Lord might send me, but not once did I consider Rome, Italy. Yet, it was perfect. It just clicked in my heart as naturally as seeing a sunset in the evening. Of course it was Rome. I seem to remember that I could barely get through reading the letter. I was prone to tears back then too, especially in a state of such excitement, anxiety, and spiritual influence. I knew the call was of God. I laid in bed that night and was overcome with a feeling of love for the Italian people, and those souls who were spoken of in my patriarchal blessing yet unfamiliar to me.
The next two-and-a-half months flew by. Finally, the day arrived. I was set apart on my birthday. The same day I had been baptized 11 years before. I stayed up well into the morning finishing packing and writing a personalized letter to each member of my family. With very little sleep and a brave face, so as not reveal my trepidation, we piled into that old Suburban. The ride was not quiet, that doesn't happen in my family. It was loud, all of us pretending that we didn't have to say goodbye within a couple of hours. I remember we stopped at Hire's for lunch and then made our way to the MTC. You all know how it goes from there. The meeting room, the movies, the short talks, and then a few moments to say goodbye. Needless to say, a lot of tears were shed. I still have a picture of the back of my head, my brother hugging me and facing the camera with red, puffy eyes. Then the cue was given.
And just like that I walked through a door, a few short steps away from the life I had always known and into the life of a missionary. I put on a tag as a symbol and a stamp of what had been done the day before and began the journey from boy to man. It would become the most significant experience of my life. It was a refining journey, an adventure filled with fear and faith, discouragement and miracles, inadequacy and confidence, buffeting and great spiritual power. It was a period of fun, sensitivity, love, and growth. It is there that I began to learn what discipleship is really about.
It is hard to believe that ten years have passed since that eventful day in Provo, Utah. A day that set me on a path of preparation for all that has transpired since then. Unfortunately, the memories of that day and the next two years are fading. I no longer lie in bed at night and go through names and places or trace city streets. It takes me awhile to remember words and faces. I no longer feel the discouragement and inadequacy that I sometimes felt in my service, but I still feel the love and the joy. That, I believe, is a merciful gift from our Heavenly Father. I am as thankful now as I ever was, that ten years ago a knowing Father called a scared little boy to be one of His emissaries in a vast and complex world. My life has ever been shaped and influenced because of everything that was brought about by a big white envelope and a few short steps. God be thanked that He saw fit to call me when He did, where He did, and how He did. That is a reason for me to reflect and commemorate!