Trent Lai, Toa Payoh Ward
Have you ever seen two young men dressed in pressed white shirts, wearing conservative ties, dark trousers and with black name tags proudly emblazoned on their shirt pockets? If so, they are probably missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (also known as the Mormon Church).
I too was one such missionary, having served a full-time Christian mission in San Francisco, California, USA for the past two years.
When I had made the decision in 2011 to trade in my long4s (military attire) for a new uniform as described above, many of my friends were surprised. Wasn’t 2 years already enough of a time to postpone my University education? Indeed, serving as a full-time missionary would set my higher education back by an additional couple of years.
However, this was a deliberate choice that I had made independently. As I held on firmly to the decision that I had made, even in the face of well-meaning questions of those around me, I found it encouraging to notice how my conviction to serve a Christian mission eventually earned me the full support of family, friends and acquaintances alike. For them and their love, letters of encouragement and cheer, I would like to give thanks; the experience would not have been the same without them.
My principal responsibility as a missionary was to share the teachings of Jesus Christ with others. I would then invite people to experiment on the teachings of Jesus by making changes in their lives as based on His doctrine, and to experience for themselves the positive outcomes (both tangible and intangible) that would arise as result of following Christ’s example. As a missionary, I would always have a fellow-missionary companion and we would be directed by our Mission leader (a full-time volunteer as well), as to the geographical boundaries that we were to focus our teaching efforts on. I ended up spending the most part of my mission in the San Francisco Bay area, arguably the liberal capital of America.
During my mission, my companion and I would set daily goals to find opportunities to talk to as many people as would give us a listening ear. As a result of our determination to find people who were seeking for a greater understanding of God and of Life’s purpose, we would talk to everyone, everywhere we went be it on the streets, at the bus stop or even in the elevators!
And because San Francisco was such a liberal place, I was probably exposed to a more diverse group of people than the average missionary. The people whom I met and spoke with ranged from the homeless drunk lying on the street to the typical well-heeled white-collared worker. I was also able to meet with a number of passionate, dedicated individuals who were fighting for various social rights causes. I loved having the opportunity to meet so many interesting people from all walks of life. However, many, if not most of the people whom I would speak to never took up my invitation to come to church with us, or to read the Book of Mormon. In spite of the multiple rejections that I received, I came to recognise a set of universal human desires from these conversations that I would have with others – that everyone of us is sincerely seeking for something more in our individual lives. This something more could be lasting peace, happiness or security. No matter our background or circumstance, all men have an innate desire to achieve a “consciousness of victory over self and communion with the infinite”. This quote by David O’ Mckay, a respected religious leader, has helped me to define the true meaning of spirituality.
One of the most powerful examples of how a desire to draw closer to God can enable Man to overcome his weakness, is a man whom I had met on my mission and whose name, for the purposes of this article, will be Anthony. Anthony was a struggling drug addict. He had a supportive family who hoped that he would be willing to correct his self-destructive habits. He was fairly uninterested in learning more about God. He had been raised as a Christian but had distanced himself from religion with time. He thought that simply relying on the support network at Narcotics Anonymous and his willpower alone would help him overcome his weakness. Unfortunately, he succumbed to severe addiction relapse shortly after his initial attempts to break the cycle. This particular relapse was worse than his previous relapses as it had exacerbated an infection which he had recently contracted. His fever had risen to more than 40 degrees Celsius and could not be quelled. Anthony was rushed to the hospital to which my companion and I hastened to upon hearing the news. We found him lying in bed, barely conscious, surrounded by his family. The doctor’s reports were worrying as his condition was unstable and the medication that they had provided him earlier was doing little to help. In such moments, we knew that we had to rely all the more on God, and to plead for His divine assistance. We placed our hands on his head and gave him a blessing of healing. After the blessing, we left the room silently. We did not hear from the family until a few days later. A miracle, that left the doctors confounded, had happened. Anthony had experienced a rapid recovery without the use of stronger drugs which the doctors had intended to prescribe.
Not long after, we met again with Anthony once his condition had improved and stabilised. Understanding that his had been a life-threatening situation, we asked him about his thoughts on surviving his close brush with death. Most coincidentally, Anthony and his wife had just been discussing the topic prior to our visit. Our questions gave him the opportunity to further reflect on his experience. He concluded that there must have been a reason for his miraculous survival given how heavily the odds had been stacked against him, and that he did not doubt that God surely had a hand in it. Anthony’s admission of God’s hand in his life marked a significant turnaround in his commitment to change his ways. Over the next few weeks, Anthony resolved to stay free of drugs and all harmful substances. He was successful and has never returned to his old ways.
Experiences like those with Anthony has helped me to grow my capacity to have love for others, regardless of the attitudes or appearance which they possess, and no matter how unlikeable they may seem initially. When I first embarked on my missionary service, I was primarily motivated by a desire to discover myself and to find true compassion in this world. I had foreseen that my mission would be a sacred time of introspection, where I would be able to critically evaluate the principles that I had grown to live by and believe in. I had also hoped that by sharing the core tenets of my beliefs and in helping others to find a place for God in their lives, that I too, would learn how to better prioritise God in my life.
However, It struck me at one point during my mission that these personal goals which I had set for myself at the outset could not be achieved conscientiously. Ironically, I came to realise that in order for me to achieve my goals, I would first have to forget about my personal desires. Understanding this concept changed my attitude towards missionary work. The more I fully immersed myself in helping individuals and families like Anthony, the more I was blessed to feel a greater sense of hope and love for them. The feelings which I was able to feel were ones I had never felt before. I started to understand the selfless nature of compassion. Strangely too, as I forgot myself as I served others, I understood myself even more. I understood how much I was able to adapt to challenges when interacting with others. I discovered that I was more optimistic than I believed I was. As my missionary service progressed, I forgot my personal goals more and more. It was only at the end, with retrospective insight from my journal, that I realised I had actualised Ghandi’s quote, “when you lose yourself in the service of your fellowmen, you will find yourself.”.
The path less-travelled is often an adventure without any guaranteed returns in the long run. Serving as a missionary, however, was one of those rewarding less-travelled adventures that has forever altered my life for the better. It was worth the two years.