Not all Missionary Stories Have Happy Endings

So I thought I might throw in some missionary thoughts also. Unfortunately I really don’t have any spectacular mass conversion stories to pass along. Baptisms in my mission were modest in number. One of the experiences I remember often is teaching a family in southern Georgia. The father of this family was named Roosevelt Givens.

I went to Georgia in the mid eighties. This was just a few years after the priesthood was extended to all worthy males regardless of race. And I decided for a few reasons that I would exercise a type of ‘affirmative action’ in my proselytizing efforts. I guessed that missionaries in the past may have avoided the black neighborhoods in part to avoid explaining the whole priesthood thing. So I hoped that by spending extra time in these neighborhoods we would be more productive missionaries. I hoped that we would find that perfect family that would enthusiastically join the church, and that large numbers of friends and relatives would follow. I had great hope that the family of Roosevelt Givens would be just such a family.

Mr. Givens was smart, well read, a responsible husband and father, and quite interested in religion. He gladly let us in to teach him. His wife worked at the hospital where we did volunteer work, and we hoped our examples would be positive. They had a couple of young kids.

He read quite a bit of what we asked him to read. He asked great questions. He understood the basics of what we were teaching. I prayed and fasted for him and his family. Many missionaries think that the people they teach are destined to be the next Stake President or Relief Society president. I had such hopes for Mr. Givens. He would be the one. The ball would start rolling with him, and gain momentum, and soon we would be baptizing half the town.

I clearly remember the discussion we had when he told us that he would like for us to not come by any more. He felt that he had learned enough about our church, and that there was no need to continue. He was very respectful and appreciative. He told us all this at the beginning of the fifth discussion.

This announcement filled my soul with a most profound sadness. Into my memory flooded the images of investigators past that chose not to get baptized. I began to cry. I could not teach. My companion had to carry the entire discussion. I was near the end of my mission, and the sad nostalgia of all the people I had contacted and taught without ultimate success was to much for me to bear.

My tears had some effect on Mr. Givens, and he asked me why I was crying so much over this. Through my tears I bore a little testimony. He assured me that he wouldn’t forget what we had taught him, and that perhaps someday in the future he would look into the church again. I wondered if he really would. Many others do not.

I have thought about Mr. Givens from time to time. I have so much as looked up his phone number but decided not to call. I taught him the best I knew how. He was a good man. I suspect when all is said and done that things will be well with him. I hope so. It was, and still is, hard for me to take. When I help teach a sincere, intelligent person and they do not get baptized and join the church I take it personally. Surely there was something I could have said or done that would have made the difference. I still feel a little bit sad when I think about Mr. Givens and others like him. I wish I knew the perfect thing to say or do that would help them take the next few steps. So to everyone I taught but did not baptize, I hope you can understand that I loved you and served as well as I knew how. I hope that someone else might come along that can help you the rest of the way.

Sorry for the sad post.

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21 Responses to “Not all Missionary Stories Have Happy Endings”


  1. 1 Matt W. February 13, 2007 at 9:20 am

    Eric, I find it interesting that you shared this. I wonder what the message is that you are trying to convey, or if you are merely expressing your heart. If the latter, as I hope is the case, then I think I can safely say that I feel your pain, we all have had that experience of “the one that got away”. Personally, I would rather let them go with a good experience, hoping for a future time when they are ready, than have them come into the church on a sort of “catch and release” program. I have known a lot of awesome people who took a long time to join the church and were better for it. I don’t believe it is something that should be entered into “willy-nilly” . (That said, I met this missionaries in the last week of August and was baptised on Oct 11, which seemed pretty fast to me.)

    That said, there is hope, my mission president and his wife rejected their first set of missionaries, due to smoking issues, but then, years later, the church found them again, in an entirely different state, and when missionaries knocked on their door this time, their hearts were ready. (Though my mission president tells a story of taking one of the Elder’s out back, threatening him with a gun to see what he would do, and then being impressed that the Elder didn’t waver in his testimony.)

  2. 2 Eric Nielson February 13, 2007 at 10:31 am

    Thanks Matt.

    I had no special purpose for this post that I am aware of. It is just a nagging memory from my mission. I had hundreds of people say no (probably thousands) I am not sure why the memories of all of them dumped in on me at that time, or why I often reflect on this man.

  3. 3 Michelle February 13, 2007 at 12:53 pm

    There is a family from my second area who is one of those lingering memories for me. They were a close family, religious, really enjoyed the discussions. Their religion was too deeply seated for them, and they stopped the lesssons. Imagine my surprise to get an email a year or so ago from one of their daughters who was probably only about 9 or 10 when we were visiting. That seed planted nearly 15 years previously had made a difference when she found the Church as a young adult. She joined and served a mission. You never know….

  4. 4 Cameron February 13, 2007 at 12:57 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I would be willing to bet that most missionaries had several experiences like this. I remember a man in particular who we taught for several months who was making amazing progress, quoted the Book of Mormon, came to church and was well liked by members. We even had a miraculous experience in setting his baptism date. But, he ended up backing out at the last moment in front of our mission president and us before his baptismal interview where he read a prepared statement saying that no matter how much he liked our faith, he could not give up his catholic roots.

    I was so devastated that I couldn’t move. I thought I’d never be able to teach again, and I guess I felt much like you did. But, as the years have past, the good times of the mission really have outweighed (the many more) bad times. Though I on occasion am struck with the memories of the ones who “got away,” and feel an ache in my soul.

    I think that we musn’t forget those times, and for others, we shouldn’t gloss over those heart-rending experiences.

  5. 5 Eric Nielson February 13, 2007 at 1:32 pm

    Michelle:

    You never give up hope do you. ALWAYS looking on the bright side. Good for you.

    Cameron:

    I hope some good might come to someone. There were moments on my mission that were heart breaking for me. People I had such high hopes for. Missions can stretch us in a lot of ways.

  6. 6 Jordan February 13, 2007 at 1:47 pm

    Sounds like you got just a little taste of the angst the Savior went through for all of us on Gethsemane, and probably every day as he watches us make sometimes less-than-ideal choices.

    I truly believe that missions help transform us into more Christlike individuals for the very reason that it helps us feel Godly sorrow for others. And it stretches our souls.

    Of course, the ultimate sou-stretcher for me has been the ups and downs of having children- four of them now- and watching them make mistakes and learn things from their bumps and bruises, wanting to just jump in and take away their pain but knowing that sometimes all I can do is render comfort, a listening ear, and a guiding example.

  7. 7 a spectator February 13, 2007 at 3:51 pm

    I definitely had investigators like this, but the ones I worry about more are those fragile new members that just didn’t transition into the Church. Perhaps I am fortunate in not having served in a mission in which there were many conversions–the one credited to me was very solid (and, of course, had nothing to do with me) but I sure did work with some shaky and inactive new members–they caused me the most anguish, still keenly felt.

  8. 8 Eric Nielson February 13, 2007 at 4:15 pm

    Jordon and Spectator:

    Thank you so much for leaving your comments. Perhaps we are ment to go through some of this sorrow to feel more empathy and become more christlike. I relate very well to the examples you both used. Thanks again.

  9. 9 Bookslinger February 14, 2007 at 9:00 am

    Eric, perhaps the reason that Mr. Givens is “impressing” on your mind is that you should contact him. Writing a letter would be less invasive than calling.

    There is someone who is being impressed on my mind. She was a clerk at a gas station I met while on a trip last July. I remember her name from her name-tag, and was able to look up the address of the gas station from other clues I wrote in my journal, since I knew the city and the exit # from the interestate. It was the missed opportunity after Moment #656.

    Like other commenters, I anguish more over those who got baptized and drifted away than over those who didn’t join the church.

    As a convert who grew up outside of the church, people who didn’t accept the teachings didn’t affect me the same way as missionaries who grew up on the church. It’s like missionaries who grew up in the church don’t understand what it’s like to be a non-member.

    . I went through several stages and back-and-forths in and out of various churches, and didn’t join the LDS church until seven years after a friend (who was a member at the time) told me about it. Like most all people, I prefer instant results, but I realize things can take years, and that a rejection today can change, and that seeds can take many years to sprout.

  10. 10 Eric Nielson February 14, 2007 at 10:32 am

    Thanks Bookslinger. A letter is a good idea. I am also glad to hear that things usually work out in the long run.

  11. 11 Nicole February 14, 2007 at 3:27 pm

    I often wonder about my past missionaries. I went thru 4 years of off and on discussions. I am sure I frusterated a ton of them that could not see any progress in me or else felt I was backsliding. Nowadays I can’t remember all the names of the missionaries that came and visited, but I still wonder if they realized they made such an impact. I doubt most of them believed I would ever join the Church. But eventually, I did.

    When I was finally baptized, my first missionary ever came out to perform the baptism.

  12. 12 Eric Nielson February 14, 2007 at 4:00 pm

    You are quite a success story Nicole! Thanks for letting us know.

  13. 13 Mark N. February 14, 2007 at 7:26 pm

    I recall a young French couple I helped teach not long after I arrived in the second city of my mission. I was still a junior companion, and not all that confident of my French language skills. I think we were teaching them the second or third discussion, and at a proper point during the discussion, I bore my testimony to them and got a little bit emotional and teary as I did so.

    I sensed that the husband became uncomfortable as a result, and we were soon asked not to return any more. I guess it became evident that we were expecting them to make a change in their lives, and they weren’t quite ready to do so. From time to time I think of them, even though I don’t recall their names, and wonder what has happened to them.

  14. 14 Bookslinger February 14, 2007 at 9:12 pm

    Hey, for you member-missionaries that don’t like to carry full-sized pass-along cards, here’s an example of a customized business-card sized pass-along card.

    If the coupon code is still good (if M1314 doesn’t work, maybe try M1324), you can make these up for $10 per box of 1,000, and get free shipping, at http://staples.marktheworld.com/

  15. 15 Janet February 14, 2007 at 9:50 pm

    Oh Eric, I can definately relate. I’ve been a “member missionary” my entire life. I’m so extroverted, and people do ask what makes you happy, and then you share, and they get all interested and thank you for what you’ve shared. But except for one family on my mission, none of the people I’ve shared my beliefs with have joined the church. And sometimes remembering them still makes me weep. The spiritual conversations had inherent worth and I don’t think such things lack worth unless someone gets dunked, but it can still really hurt when you believe they could be even happier. These days I’m trying to remind myself that I don’t see the end from the beginning, that God’s plans for people probably differ from mine most of the time.

    Just don’t think you’re alone. Your tears say something good about you–you didn’t just write the guy off as a forgotten number once he said “no.” And that’s not nothing.

  16. 16 Eric Nielson February 15, 2007 at 7:37 am

    Mark N. I hope we can have a happy reunion with some of the people we came across and find out that once in a while something worked.

    Janet:

    Thanks for the kind words Janet. Hopefully there is something good about us all. I still hope for the happyness of those I come across, and try not to get wrapped up in the numbers.

  17. 17 Bradley Ross February 15, 2007 at 8:38 am

    Do you suppose there are people of other faiths thinking about any of us? Wondering if their testimony shared or contact with us will eventually lead us into another faith? I’m thinking of some of the ministers I met on my mission that promised they’d pray for me to find the truth. Or of the kid in high school who was a JW who I had a couple of religious conversations with.

    I don’t mean to imply that Eric’s longing is bad! I was just intrigued to consider it happening in the opposite direction as well.

  18. 18 Eric Nielson February 15, 2007 at 10:35 am

    I imagine it does Bradley. I would suspect that individuals who convert to the church probably face this from their families.

    On the other hand, I can not really think of a time when someone of another faith has shared with me a powerful, meaningful, specific, positive testimony of their own faith. Expecially one that would contradict mine faith. Mostly their ‘testimony’ was an underinformed, negative warning of my faith.

    But yest, I imagine there are those out there who are sincerely worried about us Mormons.

  19. 19 Janet February 15, 2007 at 6:20 pm

    Bradley–definately!!!!! I had a long-term substitute teacher in the 7th grade express his deep concern that I was going to hell, tell me (kindly, not snarkily) that he prayed for me every day, and devote too much of my class free-time to making me explain Mormonism (I was 13, for crimeny’s sake). Then another teacher in high school did essentially the same, along with a couple of my evangelist friends. They clearly cared and worried deeply about the state of my soul.

    I found their concern touching, actually. Those experiences have helped make it easier for me to share the gospel because their love for me transcended the potential insult (although I admit I would never tell anyone I thought they were in danger of hell-fire).

  20. 20 Naiah Earhart February 19, 2007 at 9:55 am

    I once heard someone say that “everyone takes 1,000 steps in coming to the gospel; you might be only step number 8.” It’s true. It’s hard pouring your heart and soul into someone only to find out you’re step 997. Thay’re getting there, and you’ve brought them that much closer, but not quite there yet. The lord has His wisdom in this. :)

  21. 21 Bookslinger February 21, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    Naiah, you’re so right on people taking 1,000 steps in coming to the gospel, and your encounter with them is only one of their 1000 steps. So let us be someone’s, anyone’s, “step” as often as possible. If we help 1,000 people take one step each, I think the Lord will allow us to take joy in the harvest. Those who sow the seeds and those who water and nurture are just as important and necessary as those who harvest. Sow a little here, nurture a little there, wherever and whenever there is need or opportunity; and the garden will grow.


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