Ten years ago this weekend (March 9, 2003) was the beginning of a major turning point in my life.
A big one.
You see, 10 years ago I made the decision to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And I can say that bar none, that was the best decision I have ever made in my entire life.
I think it’s safe to say that most people who knew me as I grew up – especially my family – always figured that I would serve a mission. No one ever said anything about it, no one ever pressured me to serve one. But because my religion was such a big part of my life, I embraced it voluntarily and whole-heartedly – and I was in the habit of working with the missionaries in my hometown and often gave Books of Mormons to my friends and elementary and high school teachers – I think people naturally assumed that I’d follow in my father’s and both of my sisters’ footsteps and serve a mission. So you can imagine people’s shock when I announced sometime during my first two years of college that I wasn’t going to serve one. I had decided to focus on my studies and finish up the art program quickly so I could graduate and move on with my life. And I was ok with that – females aren’t required to serve missions, and I figured that I’d be able to contribute to missionary work by serving in my church and continuing the good habits I’d already developed.
So you can imagine how completely blindsided I was when I received the impression that I needed to serve as a missionary. I mean it literally came out of nowhere and at a time when I least expected it. The experience was so unique, so powerful, and as I said above, so life-changing that I remember the exact date it happened, where it happened, who I was with, and if I were to return to the room where it happened, I can tell you exactly where I was sitting.
March 9, 2003 was stake conference (a church meeting comprised of about 1500-2000 college-aged students who lived in the same geographical area), and the meetings were held in the Wilkinson Center ballroom on the BYU campus. I was in the middle of fighting a cold, so I wasn’t in the best spirits – my throat hurt, my nose was runny, my eyes were really itchy, and I had a pounding headache. To put it frankly, I was not too thrilled about being at the meeting – in fact I had absolutely no desire to be there. I would have much preferred to be home in my nice warm bed sleeping. I sat grumpily in my chair and promptly tuned out what the speakers were saying. From time to time I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, wishing that my head would stop hurting and that I could just go back to bed.
Elder Butler, an area authority, and his wife were there presiding over the meeting. Evidently the Butlers had just finished a 3-year assignment as mission presidents of the Massachusetts Boston Mission (at least that’s the mission I think they presided over), and two of their former missionaries were in our congregation. Elder Butler asked those individuals – a male and a female – to come to the rostrum and bear their testimonies. The young man went first. I have no recollection of what he said. My headache prevented me from really focusing on what he was saying, and even if I could have, remember dear reader, I was being a total brat and I had categorically refused to enjoy the meeting.
Then the woman stood up. She was one of those individuals who have the energy of three people and are so cheery and bubbly that they make you sick. You know the type, the ones you’d love to punch in the face because really, it’s just not healthy to have an attitude like that. I rolled my eyes, rested my elbows on my knees, plopped my head into my hands, and watched her from the corner of my eye. My roommate, DeAnn, was sitting next to me and she started to rub on my back. The girl at the podium was going on and on and on, and in my head I was willing her to be quiet. Near the end of her address she said something to the effect of, “I encourage all of you women to serve a mission. It’s the best thing in the world.” At that I rolled my eyes again and dug the base of my hands into my eyes trying to get the pain in my head to go away. I thought to myself, “Man, chica! Shut up! And no thanks, I don’t want to serve a mission.” And I promptly tuned out the rest of her remarks. Finally she stopped speaking and backed away from the microphone. I was still bent over my knees with my head in my hands and I muttered to myself, “At least that’s over!!” In the 10 seconds that lapsed from the time that the girl left the podium to the time that Elder Butler stood up to speak, the quiet words You need to serve a mission popped into my head. I quipped, “Nope. No way. Don’t want to.”
I don’t really have the words to describe what happened next. The closest thing to even begin to portray what happened is to say that an invisible force hit me like a ton of bricks, almost like it had grabbed me by the shoulders and shoved me upright. It was practically tangible, and I sat straight up in my chair. I sat up so fast that I scared DeAnn – she even jumped, poor thing! My other two roommates were sitting on the opposite side of me, and they turned and looked at me, too, trying to figure out what was wrong. Needless to say, that snapped me out of the negativity I was wallowing in. All of my attention was directed at the words that accompanied that “shove.” They weren’t louder, but they pressed upon my mind with a lot more force. You need to serve a mission.
I replied, “But I don’t want to serve a mission. If I serve a mission I’ll end up going to France, and I hate speaking French.”
The quiet, piercing words responded, That doesn’t matter. You need to serve a mission. Then a calming warmth enveloped me, and it felt as if my heart was on fire.
Tears came to my eyes and I said, “But I don’t want to speak French.”
I immediately felt those same words. You need to serve a mission.
I quickly enumerated the reasons why I “couldn’t” go on a mission – i.e.: I was making significant headway in the illustration program, I was almost done with school and it didn’t make sense to take a break from my studies, there was a young man that I was interested in and was willing to see where our relationship went and plus, I really didn’t want to go to France.
None of those things really matter. You need to serve a mission.
Needless to say, I didn’t pay attention to the rest of the meeting (par for the day). I vaguely remember seeing Elder Butler deliver his address, but I have no idea what he said. I sat in that chair arguing back and forth with that voice (and for the record, no I am not schizophrenic). I presented all of the things I thought were valid reasons to why I couldn’t or shouldn’t serve a mission, and each time I did, that burning feeling increased to the point that my whole body shook and tears streamed down my face.
Finally the meeting ended, and I made a bee-line home. I don’t even remember the walk back, nor do I remember if my roommates returned with me. The next thing I knew I was locked in my bedroom, kneeling at the side of my bed and trying to gather my thoughts before I prayed to God. Finally I said, “Heavenly Father today I have had many impressions that I should serve a mission. I know that they came from Thee. But Father, do I–” I was about to ask if I had to serve a mission. But this thought came: God doesn’t force anyone to do anything… no one has to do anything. So I began praying again and rephrased the question. “Father, is it really in my best interests to serve a mission?” Immediately that burning feeling intensified, and I felt – rather than heard – the word Yes.
That was it. That’s all I had to know.
I took a deep breath and said, “Ok. I’ll do it. But I need Thy help with three things. Please take care of my schooling. I’m in a competitive program and I cannot afford to regress in my artistic abilities. Please help me with my relationship with P so I can feel more at ease with putting that on hold. And finally Father, I hate speaking French. I had terrible experiences my senior year of high school with my French teacher. I only took French 202 here at BYU so I wouldn’t have to take math classes because I hate math even more than I hate French. I know if I serve a mission that I’ll get sent to France… so please help me to learn to love French again.”
I got up from my knees and crawled on top of my bed. I laid down and cried. I really wasn’t too thrilled at the prospect of serving a mission. I was almost devastated. For those readers who aren’t familiar with how members of the LDS Church are assigned to missions, the applicant doesn’t decide where s/he serves. Rather, members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles review his/her application and recommends a mission to the President of the Church – a man who we believe to be a prophet, a man with a calling similar to Moses – and he essentially makes the final decision. He then issues the applicant’s mission call by letter. I had absolutely no control over where I would go.
Yet I knew that I would be sent to France.
So I called my sister Amber and asked – or rather demanded – that she come to Provo and pick me up so I could talk with her. I didn’t say why, but she’d figured out why by the time she arrived at my apartment. According to her, she said that she knew I’d gotten “thumped.” Seriously, that’s what she said – with a smile and laugh pulling at her lips. She took me out to Village Inn and bought me pie, and we talked about her mission and how it had blessed her. She was beaming the whole time because she was so happy that I was going, and I was hiccuping over my sobs because I didn’t want to go to France and I knew I would. I was heartsick.
But I was true to the promise that I made with God in that prayer – I would prepare myself, and then serve. And He was true to what I asked Him to do. Within one week all three of the things that I asked for help with were taken care of. I spoke with my art professors and learned what I had to do to reserve my place in the program, events happened enabled my heart to be at ease in regards to P, and I went out and bought a French translation of The Book of Mormon and began reading it from the beginning.
Many other things that I consider miracles happened between that day and the time when I was eligible to turn in my mission papers. (I was 3 weeks shy of my 20th birthday, and back then the age at which females could first serve a mission was 21. Applicants could send in their papers 3 months before their birthday). One of those miracles occurred during the October 2003 sessions of General Conference. The general leadership of the LDS Church address the church membership, and the broadcasts of the conference are sent via satellite to chapels all over the world and are simultaneously translated in over 80 languages. My roommate Ginger and I were able to go up to Salt Lake and attend the conference in person. When one of the Apostles, Elder Richard G. Scott, stood to speak, one of the most amazing things happened. He began talking about the blessings one receives for serving a faithful mission. Despite sitting in an auditorium that seats 21,000 people, it seemed as if he and I were the only ones there. It was like he was talking directly to me, just for me. He addressed concerns that I had. Overall his talk acted as a confirmation that the decision I had made in regards to serving a mission was correct.
Fast forward to Thursday February 19, 2004, 11 months after that stake conference with Elder Butler and his cheerful sister missionary. My papers had been at Church Headquarters for approximately 2 weeks, and on that day I was sitting in the relaxing quiet of my figure drawing class drawing the live model. Out of the blue I felt these words come to mind: Your mission call has just been decided by Elder Scott. My eyes filled with tears and I had to stop drawing because I couldn’t see what I was doing. Fortunately our professor called a 10 minute break, so I ran up the stairs and went to the computer lab to email my sister, Autumn. Since I knew that Elder Scott’s recommendation would be sent on to President Gordon B. Hinckley within the next couple of business days, I wrote to tell her what had just happened and that I would receive my mission call and packet the next Wednesday, February 25th. Later I spoke with some of my closest friends and said that I’d have my call the next week. They asked how I knew and I said, “I just know it.” One of them said, “You know, Lark, my brother’s mission call took 4 weeks to get to him, and he was here at BYU. Your papers have only been in two weeks – there’s no way you could possibly know when it will arrive.” I shrugged my shoulders and changed the subject.
On the morning of the 25th I woke up and was as excited as could be. I knew that my letter would be in the mail when I got home that day. It was all I could do to focus on my classes. Finally I finished up on campus and rushed home. Sure enough, there it was on the table. Some of my closest friends came over to watch me open it (thanks, Nielson family!!), and I called my parents and opened my letter with them on the phone. I read
Dear Sister Porter: You are hereby called to serve as a missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You are assigned to labor in the France Toulouse Mission… [and signed by President Hinckley at the end]
France. Big surprise.
But I was so excited and so happy! By then I’d read The Book of Mormon all the way through in French – I’d already done so numerous times in English – and true to what I’d asked for in that prayer, I’d regained my enthusiasm for French.
My mission was by far the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I had to overcome lots of challenges. I met people who were really rude and antagonistic towards my church and the message that I had to share. But I served the full 18 months, and I was blessed beyond measure. I made several lasting friendships, both with the persons I served and those who I served with. My love for the Savior grew a thousand-fold, and I came home with a deep and abiding love for France, the French culture, and the French-speaking people I met and taught.
Today, ten years later, as I reflect back on what happened on March 9, 2003 and on what I prayed for that afternoon, I am humbled and grateful that God hears and answers prayers. My prayer was quite simple, and in many ways, it was kind of selfish. Remember that I didn’t pray for the people that I’d eventually meet and teach… They didn’t even enter my mind – I prayed that I would learn to love French again.
Well, I got a lot more than what I bargained for.
Little did I know that that one request would launch me on a path that has allowed me to use my French in some way every single day since I entered the Missionary Training Center on June 2, 2004. Little did I know that that path would lead me to earn a bachelors degree in French Studies, a masters degree in French literature, and – in the near future – a PhD in French and Francophone African literatures. Little did I know that I would teach French at BYU and at UW-Madison, little did I know that I’d return to my mission area in France and teach in a French high school. Little did I know that ten years from that day I’d be living in Dakar, Senegal conducting doctoral research and gaining a love for the Senegalese and their culture.
Lots of people ask me why I served a mission for my church. I served a mission because I wanted to be obedient to what I felt that day. I knew where those impressions came from, and I knew that God knew it. I also served a mission because I know how much happiness the teachings of this Church can bring to people. I served a mission because I knew that God loves His children, and I wanted to help people feel that love.
Who knew how far reaching the simple words of you need to serve a mission could be?