Thursday, March 25, 2010

from a talk

I am reminded of a wonderful day when God sent a personal message to me. One Sunday years ago, in that dim world somewhere between winter and spring, I hit one of the lowest ebbs of my life. Trials had piled upon me like waves of the sea, not allowing me to catch breath before the next one came, toppling me to the sand and filling my mouth with seawater so that I felt I was drowning.

I couldn’t see a front on my life that hadn’t been assaulted with what seemed like insurmountable difficulty. Even close friends had started to say that surely enough must be enough. Then, just when I felt I had all I could ever handle, something more happened, the worst yet, and whatever bit of life and hope I had mustered seemed to be ebbing away. The future looked grim; I was frightened, my sense of hope dried up like a moth on the window frame.

In that state I walked into Sunday School and sat on a vacant chair next to our friend Don Van Slooten, one of the world’s true gentlemen. Nothing outward gave away my state of mind. I had no sagging shoulders or drooping face. To the casual observer, I was just another person in the class, but inside I was sinking, sinking.

The bell rang, the class members began to leave, and unbidden Don turned and began telling me a story. He did not know why the memory came to him, why he started telling me this event from long ago. Yet, as soon as he started talking, I knew.

God sometimes answers your pleas for help in invisible ways, like a silent hand upon your shoulder, a waft of light across your heart, a moment of sudden clarity. It is subtle. Sometimes, however, his interventions are direct and tangible and so evident you can remember it years later. The blessing for me that day was as direct and obvious as if God had sent an angel. In fact, I knew he had.

This is the story Don told me. In 1963, he had been a young mission president in the Netherlands and on one busy morning at 7:45, he received a frantic call from an elder who said that his companion, Elder Mel Springer, had quite suddenly, early in the morning while his companion showered, packed his bags and left their boarding house. The elder had no clue where Elder Springer had gone, only that he had been discouraged lately and wanted to go home. He had taken one bicycle and locked up the other, so his companion could not follow him.

Immediately, Don cancelled his interviews for the day, jumped in his car and drove from one train station to another, asking everyone if they had seen a young missionary who had purchased a ticket. Nobody had. Next, praying fervently, he tried the airport and then the police station, his worry growing. At the same time, his two assistants went to the train station in Utrecht. “Had somebody, anybody seen a young man in a white shirt with a missionary badge purchase a ticket?”

At last, somebody remembered. They had seen him. He had purchased a ticket to Paris. “Did the train have any stops along the way?” the assistants asked. “Oh yes. One in Rotterdam.”

The assistants drove break neck to Rotterdam and—though it was like finding a needle in a haystack--they found Elder Springer in the station there on a stop between trains. Back in the mission office talking to President Van Slooten, Elder Springer broke into tears. He was so discouraged. The Netherlands was a difficult place to preach the gospel. The people didn’t respond. Other problems were mounting in his heart.

Don considered Elder Springer one of the finest missionaries that he had. He had never shown any indication before of despair. What’s more, Don had a special affinity for him. He knew that his mother was a widow with three sons —and his father’s dying wish was that all of them would serve missions. His mother was supporting him on this mission by working in a factory.

It would be a terrible emotional burden for Elder Springer to go home with his mission unfinished, one that he might carry his whole life.

If there was any way to change Elder Springer’s mind, President Van Slooten wanted to do it. Don invited the young elder to ride with him to Arnheim where he needed to visit a family. It gave them a chance to talk for miles of highway, and as Don drove he had a prayer in his heart. For quite some time as the odometer marked off the miles, Don did not make any headway with the sad young man. “I just kept finding another road to turn on even if we had to crisscross the country several times so we could continue to talk, hoping that I could talk him into staying.” Finally, after pouring his heart out, Elder Springer agreed to stay.

Not long after, when he was out tracting, Elder Springer and his companion decided to knock on one more door at the end of long day. To his surprise he was greeted by an African woman whose hair was tied back in a bright bandana. It was Priscilla Sampson-Davis, who was living in Holland since her husband was working with Philips Electronics Company. Elder Springer noted that her colorful dress was a contrast to the usual garb of the people in the country, but he greeted her in Dutch and began giving her a “door approach”.

She interrupted in perfect English, saying that she was interested in their message, but she had little time since she was leaving for Ghana the next morning. They gave her a discussion on the Book of Mormon with flannel strips, and then she said she had a great desire to read the book. Since they didn’t have an English copy with them, they rushed back to their apartment and got one for her. Elder Springer said, “When I gave her the book, I slipped in my missionary card that had the Articles of Faith printed on the back.”

About a month later to his delight, Elder Springer received a letter from Priscilla in Ghana, asking for more copies of the Book of Mormon. He had not supposed that this copy would take any more root than all the others he had given away, but she had read it, loved it and wanted more! These were for the principal of the high school where she worked and two of her friends. He gladly sent the books and included a pamphlet on the Prophet Joseph Smith. Now the letters kept coming from other Ghanaians, all addressed to Elder Springer. Friends and their friends wanted more of this precious gospel information. Finally, Elder Springer was receiving so many requests for information that when Elder Mark E. Peterson visited the mission, he volunteered the International Mission of the Church to take over the job to save the young missionary the expense.

Remember, this was 1963 and missionaries would not be coming to Ghana until 1978. When they arrived, they found a people prepared, in fact, 10 congregations already spontaneously meeting on their own and ready for baptism. Those stirrings toward the gospel had begun almost mysteriously in the early sixties. They had in large part begun from one Elder Springer who mailed copies of the Book of Mormon to Ghana.

In the Sunday School room that morning listening to Don’s story, I started to cry and so did he. Our ward members emptied out; we could hear the lessons from Priesthood and Relief Society meetings begin and then end. Someone in leaving had flipped off the light, so the room was dim, but oh, such light began to burst upon my soul.

“I always felt,” Don said, “that Satan had tried to discourage Elder Springer so he would not be there to give that Book of Mormon to Priscilla Sampson-Davis. Look at all that came from it.”
--Maurine Proctor

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