My experience in the Utah Salt Lake City South Mission was not only a time to teach but also a time to learn—to learn for myself the truth of this work and the blessing I have to be a part of it.
The crates of Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Winter Games souvenirs that fill our house right now tend to be a dead giveaway as to where I served my mission. When many people learned that I served my mission in Salt Lake City, they give me an interesting reaction like, “Oh, my gosh! You served in Salt Lake City?” Or, in the language of my mission, “Oh, my heck! You served in Salt Lake City? For reals?”
Yeah, for reals.
The Utah Salt Lake City South Mission was a wonderful mission to serve in. It is one of four proselyting missions in Utah, including two in the Salt Lake Valley; the Utah Ogden Mission, the Utah Salt Lake City Mission, and the Utah Provo Mission are the others.* For those of you who are from or are familiar with Salt Lake, my mission went from about 4500 South in the middle of the valley to Point of the Mountain on the southern end of the valley and from the Oquirrh Mountains on the west to the Wasatch Mountains on the east. It also covered Summit County to the east of Salt Lake.
The valley portion of our mission covered an area only about 13 miles by 13 miles (21 kilometers by 21 kilometers). In that area we had approximately 200 missionaries, 98 stakes, and 300,000 members of the Church. There were about 1,600 convert baptisms in the mission in 2002.
Serving a mission in Utah is different from serving a mission just about anywhere else, except for maybe Idaho. We were assigned to serve in one or two stakes at a time, so though I had only 7 areas, I served in 10 stakes and about 70 wards. We actually did tracting every once in a while, but while missionaries in other missions can often tract up to 70 hours in a week, I did only about 40 hours—during my entire mission! But with 1,600 baptisms a year we stayed busy. We taught lots of discussions to both nonmembers and less-active members. When we weren’t teaching discussions, we were working with leaders and members in our stakes and wards to increase missionary work.
Having taught and worked with so many people, there are so many stories I could share. But two in particular always come to mind.
About a year into my mission, my companion and I began teaching the discussions to a less-active family in our area, the Burks. A discussion at their home was always a spiritual experience, and we had great gospel conversations. In the course of our discussions, the time came to invite them to come back to church. (They were already members of the Church, so there was no need to invite them to be baptized.) I asked, “Will you come to church with us this Sunday?” Well, it was the end of the year, and with the new year their ward would switch from the 9.00am time schedule to 11.00am, and that would make it easier to get ready (even though they lived next door to their meetinghouse) and…. I said, “No, no, no. You don’t seem to understand. See, when missionaries ask a question, it’s not a yes/no question. It’s a yes question: we ask the question, and you answer ‘yes.’ So let’s try this one more time: Will you come to church with us this Sunday?” “Yes, Elder Joyce.” Actually, I probably got on my knees and begged, but the point is that they came that Sunday. I don’t think they’ve missed a Sunday since. In fact, this past November  they were sealed as an eternal family in the Salt Lake Temple.
That’s the purpose of the missionary work of this Church. It’s not just simply to tell people what we believe or even to see them be baptized, important as those are. It’s to help them make the covenants that will unite them as a family eternally and bring them a fulness of joy together and with their Father in Heaven forever. It’s not just to help others gain a testimony, which is to know the gospel and the teachings of the Savior, but to help them be converted, which is to live those teachings and by living them become more like Jesus Christ.
In my last area at the end of my mission, I had an incredible experience teaching the discussions to a nonmember woman, Denice, who had recently moved with her husband from Denver to her sister-in-law’s house. Throughout my mission, I felt a connection with different people; perhaps we were about the same age or we had had similar experiences in life or we thought about similar things in a similar way. This woman and I had a connection, but I think Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve explained what our connection was:
“Recall the new star that announced the birth at Bethlehem? It was in its precise orbit long before it so shone. We are likewise placed in human orbits to illuminate. Divine correlation functions not only in the cosmos but on this planet, too. After all, the Book of Mormon plates were not buried in Belgium, only to have Joseph Smith born centuries later in distant Bombay.” (Ensign, November 2002, page 17)
The Lord is personally involved in each of our lives. I knew that before my mission, but I witnessed that again and again throughout my mission. And in terms of my life and my investigators, I’m talking about more than my call to the Utah Salt Lake City South Mission from January 2001 to January 2003; I’m talking about that specific woman’s address at a specific date and time. Each of us is put at a particular place at a particular time for specific reasons and specific people. But it won’t just happen because it’s supposed to or because of “destiny.” We must live worthy of it. As we live worthy of the companionship of the Holy Ghost, we will have experiences that will increase our testimony and bring us closer to Heavenly Father.
One of the greatest opportunities that we had as missionaries in Salt Lake was to attend a session of the last general conference of our missions. I attended the Sunday morning session of the October 2002 general conference. President Hinckley was the concluding speaker at the session. In his talk he testified of the Prophet Joseph Smith:
“We declare without equivocation that God the Father and His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, appeared in person to the boy Joseph Smith.
“…Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision….
“That They came, both of Them, that Joseph saw Them in Their resplendent glory, that They spoke to him and that he heard and recorded Their words—of these remarkable things we testify.” (Ensign, November 2002, page 80)
He closed by saying: “This must be our great and singular message to the world. We do not offer it with boasting. We testify in humility but with gravity and absolute sincerity. We invite all, the whole earth, to listen to this account and take measure of its truth. God bless us as those who believe in His divine manifestations and help us to extend knowledge of these great and marvelous occurrences to all who will listen. To these we say in a spirit of love, bring with you all that you have of good and truth which you have received from whatever source, and come and let us see if we may add to it. This invitation I extend to men and women everywhere with my solemn testimony that this work is true, for I know the truth of it by the power of the Holy Ghost.” (page 81)
After I heard the prophet of God on the earth today humbly and quietly but with great dignity bear his testimony which he has received by “the power of the Holy Ghost” in the presence of 21,000 of the Saints, we went past anti-Church protesters who were lined up with their bullhorns and signs along North Temple Street between the Conference Center and Temple Square. Never before had I seen the contrast between them and us as I did that day. I saw them surrounded by the structures where the mind and will of the Lord are revealed to the earth through his prophets today and where families are made eternal, and the Holy Ghost bore witness to me once again, as He had done many times before, that this work is true.
Now at the end of my mission I know better than I ever have before that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints really is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:30). I know that God Himself restored His Church through the Prophet Joseph Smith. I know that the Book of Mormon is true. I know that the Lord, who is so involved in our lives, leads and guides us through His living prophet, President Gordon B. Hinckley. And I know that Jesus Christ is my personal Savior and Exemplar; that He lived, sacrificed, bled, and died for me. In the words of the Prophet Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon: “And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which [I] give of him: That he lives!” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:22)
*In July 2012 the Utah Salt Lake City and Utah Salt Lake City South missions were split to create the Utah Salt Lake City Central and Utah Salt Lake City West missions.
This article will appear in Issue 9 | January 2013.