The first baptism I participated in as a missionary was a beautiful experience. My companion and I had taught a family of four who were converted and asked for the ordinance. They were an undiluted blessing to the little branch where we were labouring. Within a few months they all had calls to serve-in the Branch Presidency, the Relief Society, and the Sunday School.
Not long after they were baptized, they phoned us: “Elders, we have someone for you to teach.” He was a business associate of the father, and he had agreed to meet the missionaries. How quickly they were learning!
I went to their home and was introduced to him. What a disappointment he was! He came to the meeting from the bar, his breath reeking of alcohol. He chain-smoked his way through our moments of introduction and through the lesson. His bed and belongings were in a small apartment above a bar. But he was a forty-year-old bachelor and his apartment was boring. He “lived” in the bar. Innuendo and expression during these introductory moments convinced me that he was anything but celibate. I looked at him and listened to him and said to myself “He’ll never be a Mormon.”
But that new family was there in the room with us, bright-eyed and excited. I had told them that they should be missionaries and they were trying. I wished they were more perceptive, but I supposed that they would be more effective in their introductions with time. However, they were there, and rather than disappoint them, and for that reason alone, I gave the discussion. I gave it word for word, just as I had memorized it at the Language Training Mission. I gave it carefully, correctly, precisely . . . indifferently. In the end, I knew, it would make no difference anyway. I did not arrange for a second visit.
A few days later, while I was home for dinner, the phone rang. It was that family again, calling to set up the second discussion. I was astounded. I had met men like this before. They rarely came back for seconds. Once they began to understand that we were preaching repentance and we meant it, and that nothing less than a total change of lifestyle would satisfy the meaning of our message, they found reasons to avoid subsequent lessons. I asked if the new members were certain that their friend would come and that he wanted to come. Yes, they were sure. I groaned inside and made the appointment.
The second discussion was like the first; as were the third and the fourth and the fifth. During those weeks I kept going back to please that family, and I was sure that their friend kept coming for the same reason. I observed no change in him as the weeks passed. He still smoked continuously. In fact, I never saw him strike a match. He lit each new cigarette from the coal of the preceding one. He smelled as much of alcohol during lesson five, after we talked about the Word of Wisdom, as he had the very first time we met. It was abundantly clear to me that nothing was going to come of all of this.
One event startled me. During the third discussion, the mother of the family in whose home we met said to him, “Well, Nelson, how do you feel about joining another church?” He looked at her with some surprise.
“Oh, this isn’t another church. This is the true church,” he replied. Well, of course it is, but I was surprised that through the fog of smoke and alcohol he would have noticed.
After the final discussion, because there was nothing else to do, I gave him the baptismal challenge. I did not sugarcoat it. I gave it to him hard and straight, like bleach and hot water, because I wanted him to know exactly what membership in the church would do to his lifestyle so that he could back out while there was still time. He said “Yes” to every challenge and made every commitment. He stubbed out his cigarette (it was the first time I had ever seen him when he was not smoking), gave me the rest of his pack, and promised to live all of the commandments. A few days later I baptized him, feeling even as I did so that it was a mistake
The next time I ran into Nelson he was smoking. He was embarrassed and apologetic, but I brushed his apologies aside. He was what I had expected.
Shortly thereafter I was transferred. I did not see him again for a year. When a new stake was organized in our area, amidst the largest gathering of saints ever until that time in South America, I was there. The new stake leaders were sustained, followed by the officers and leaders of a new district that had been created near the stake. It was then that I heard his name-the name of the President of the District Quorum of Elders. I felt as though I had been hit in the stomach by a cement truck. My mouth did not seem to be able to close. My companion saw my reaction. “Did you baptize him?” he asked. I could not respond.
After the meeting Nelson found me. He radiated a love of God and the gospel as he threw his arms around me, the tears coursing down his cheeks. “Elder,” he said, “how can I ever thank you for what you did for me?” I wonder if he noticed how long it took for me to gather the courage to raise my head, meet his eyes, and smile.
Unless we receive revelation, we will never be able to discern by appearances alone those who will become good Christians from those who will not. The Lord gave us the key when he said, “Mine elect hear my voice and harden not their hearts.” (D&C 29:7.) It is our responsibility to fight misery with our mouths, and to do it at every opportunity.
(This article was adapted from the author’s book, Misery and Joy, p.48 ff)