Mission Reunion

April 5, 2004 | 11 comments
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I enjoy conference because I always feel the Spirit during some talk or another, and usually during several. This time, in the Saturday morning session, Elder Todd Christopherson struck a note that I heard several more times in other sessions when he spoke of grace and of our lives as a gift to give the Savior in response to his grace. And I was touched by President Hinckley’s very personal talk, as well as by what seemed a farewell from Elder Maxwell. But for me the most important part of conference this time was something outside of conference: my missionary reunion.

I returned from my mission in the Fall of 1969, and we began having reunions shortly after that. We had one or two of the kind most people think of, including a program in the chapel, but early on many of our reunions were fund-raisers for Korean members who wanted to go to the temple in Hawaii but couldn’t afford to do so. We cooked Korean food for hundreds and raised enough money to send quite a few people. As the Korean economy improved, that need disappeared, but we continued to meet and to eat. Our reunions became dinners for us, time for us to eat Korean food and visit each Fall. I look forward to our reunions and unless I’m out of the country, I go every time, taking turns preparing the chap chae (a noodle and vegetable dish). A number of years back one of us, Rick Farnsworth, organized a second reunion at April conference, but it too has been an informal affair.

This year someone decided to have a more traditional reunion in April, for all of the missionaries to Korea up through the mid-70s. Given its formality, I wasn’t keen on going, but my second mission president, Robert Slover, and his wife, Rosemarie, called needing a ride, so Janice and I went. About 300 people came, visiting Koreans, Koreans who live in the States, and returned missionaries, including a couple of 70s in area presidencies, a good handful of returned mission presidents, and one couple on their way to preside over the Korea Taejon mission. In spite of the fact that it wasn’t “my kind” of reunion, I enjoyed it very much.

A large part of the appeal of this reunion was, I’m sure, nostalgia, but nostalgia ought not to be under-rated as an important emotion. I saw people I’d not seen since I was in high school. (I lived in Korea for three years prior to my mission, went to BYU for 18 months, and then returned on a 30-month mission, so I lived there for most of seven years.) We reminded each other of stories of our missions. We exaggerated what dedicated and spiritual missionaries we had been, as well as the pranks we played and the difficulties we had. Shirley Palmer, widow of Spencer Palmer, the second mission president, had put together a very nice, hard-cover, 500-page book with some Korean and mission history as well as pictures and stories from as many former missionaries as she could contact.

But I think there was also something more than nostalgia, though I have a hard time putting my finger on what more there was. Part of it was remembering a time when we were doing important, godly work. Part of it was being reminded of how difficult it was. Serious illness was common. (I had hepatitis and typhoid fever at the same time, and dysentery was the normal condition.) Though we had someone to cook our food for us, living conditions were usually primitive. Suffering seems either to push people apart or to bring them together, and it brought most of us together. Of course a large part of the reunion’s appeal was remembering the friendships with Saints and other missionaries and seeing some of those people again. And a large part of it was knowing that our mission experience had a great deal to do with who were now are.

At one point in the presentation, the speaker mentioned his hope that North Korea would be open for missionary work in the near future and said something like “If it is, some of you will probably go back to Korea as missionaries again.” At that moment, I found myself longing to go back to Korea—and surprised at my longing.

For lots of reasons, I hated proselyting. We spent a lot of time looking for stable families and baptized mostly high school students. I was often lonely as a missionary. I had a couple of companions whom I still admire. I had one that I thought was insane; living with him was very difficult. But most of my companions were people I could live with, though we were not close. Like me, they were trying to figure out how to do the work and then go home. In sum, I wasn’t sure what I was doing, I wasn’t very good at doing it, and it seemed that it would never end. When I’m honest with myself, I recognize that though I served “honorably and faithfully,” I wasn’t a particularly good missionary. I also know about the horrible poverty and starvation in North Korea and, so, I know that being a missionary in North Korea would be no picnic. There are lots of reasons for me to resist the idea of going on a second mission and, especially, of going to North Korea.

But when I left from Kimpo Airport, in Seoul, returning home, I felt a sense of deep loss. In 2001, when I returned to Korea again for the first time to give some lectures, I felt like I was returning home, and when I left after a week, I repeated the experience of loss. There is something in my soul that is tied to Korea and the Church in Korea, and the speaker’s speculation reminded me of that tie. Because of my work I’ve learned to love Italy, Germany, France, Belgium, and, the Netherlands, but Korea remains my ko-hyang, my “home town.” So, as much as, at one level, I don’t want to go back to Korea on another mission, I wouldn’t hesitate a moment if I were asked to do so.

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11 Responses to Mission Reunion

  1. Nate Oman on April 5, 2004 at 2:18 pm

    Jim: I need to move to Utah, so I can get you to cook me Korean food!

    Your post reminds me of my time in Korea — trivia note: there are 3 bloggers on this site who served missions in Korea. I recall some of the same feelings of loss when my plane took off from Kim-po. It was this odd mixture of great saddnes and relief. Saddness at leaving a place that felt like home — America felt tremendously foreign when I landed at LAX — and relief that I had survived!

    It is odd that kim-chee (fermented cabbage) and kim (dried sea weed) are still my “comfort foods.” When I am stressed, unhappy, or overwhelmed I head for the Korean market. (One of the first places that I found once I moved to Little Rock.) My wife — with the exception of one glorious week of pregnancy when she inexplicably craved kimchee — doesn’t share my enthusiasm for Korean food, but I have been feeding my son Kimchee since before he had teeth and to the chagrin of his mother, he loves it!

  2. Ethesis on April 5, 2004 at 2:31 pm

    My mom and dad just got back about a year ago from a mission to Korea (LeRoy and Daphne Marsh).

    They loved it.

    Interesting how those things go.

    I need to make one of my mission reunions again. I’m amazed you can be comforted by kimchee though.

  3. Karen on April 5, 2004 at 3:28 pm

    Nate,

    Give me a ring when you move up here to D.C. I discovered a fabulous Korean grocery store over the weekend. (The one in Merrifield…maybe you already know about it.) Fabulously cheap food. I’m a fan now.

  4. Aaron Brown on April 5, 2004 at 3:35 pm

    I did not serve my mission in Korea, but can still say that Kim-Chee is one of my FAVORITE foods. (My parents lived there in the early 70′s and I have an adopted Korean sister). I currently live in the Koreatown area of Los Angeles, and I have just discovered a restaurant that serves a HUGE serving of Pork-Kimchee Bokeum for only $7.99! I am in heaven.

    I have almost no experience attending mission reunions, but I did get a chance to visit and tour my mission a few years after I’d returned home (Argentina, 1991-93). Returning to your mission as a non-missionary is a fascinating experience. You get welcomed by old friends and loved ones who never thought they’d see you again; you visit people who you remember vividly, but who don’t remember you at all; you get the satisfaction of seeing your baptisms still attending church; you experience the sadness of seeing baptisms who were once very strong that have since become inactive of left the Church entirely. A real roller-coaster ride, if there ever was one.

    Aaron B

  5. Jim F. on April 5, 2004 at 3:44 pm

    Kimchee is great food–and easy to make if you’re patient. Making it takes little time, but you have to wait for it to ferment. Sauerkraut and kimchee are essentially the same food, though kimchi is much more interesting because it isn’t only cabbage.

    Nate, you need to continue to work on Heather. Janice didn’t like kimchi 34 years ago. Now she loves it, as do all of our children. We are working on the grandkids.

    A little kimchi, some kim, and some rice–what better way to comfort yourself with food?!

  6. Jim F. on April 5, 2004 at 3:50 pm

    By the way, anyone on the Provo area really should try Korean food at “Sam Hawk” (Three Cranes). Great food, good wait staff, cheap prices (and often slow service because they have only one waiter and one cook).

    If you go on a weekend evening or a holiday, you have to have a reservation because it is so crowded. If you want to avoid the slow service, make a reservation and order when you do.

    When Janice and I lived in Paris, the second thing I did was find a Korean restaurant nearby. (The first thing I did was locate the market and the chocolate shop. The third thing was find the library at l’Ecole normale superieure.) If you can’t make it, you still have to have it.

  7. cooper on April 5, 2004 at 4:19 pm

    “A little kimchi, some kim, and some rice–what better way to comfort yourself with food?!”

    Oh I don’t want to argue Jim, but my MOL’s strip dumplings with chicken are right up at the top for comfort food!

    Then they’re always sticky sweet rice and nutmeg!

  8. Aaron Brown on April 5, 2004 at 5:11 pm

    Cooper — What does “MOL” mean? “My Old Lady’s”?

    Aaron B

  9. Melissa on April 5, 2004 at 5:40 pm

    I’ll second the recommendation of Sam Hawk in Provo. It seems like I’ve been there at odd times like 3:00 in the afternoon or rather late for dinner like 9:00–we were usually the only people in there so there wasn’t much of a wait.

  10. cooper on April 5, 2004 at 6:52 pm

    Aaron B – Mother -in-Law ;-)

  11. cooper on April 6, 2004 at 11:41 am

    Aaron B – Wow it took me a whole day to figure out my error – (am i tired?) MOL should be MIL!