“If you wait for them to stop, you’ll be there all day.” Those are the words of wise counsel that were shouted at me by my friend Randy recently, as he darted across a busy Avenida in Sao Paolo, Brazil; and I might add, in the face of rapidly on-coming traffic. I on the other hand, remained panic stricken at the curb, pondering with bemused awe the vitality and daring of this man who is “technically” a senior citizen.
I was in Brazil with Randy and two other friends, Curtis and Daniel. Each had served there as Latter-day Saint missionaries fifteen, thirty and fifty years ago respectively. We were there to deliver a version of the “As I Am” retreat to a group of thirty-one Brazilians, assisted by a dozen local staff men. (“As I Am” is a men’s retreat, designed to teach emotional literacy, self-awareness, self-acceptance, fraternity, and what we refer to as Christ-like Masculinity. For those of you unfamiliar with “As I Am,” you can click on the link to learn more.)
Today however, I am inspired to write about what I observed as my three friends returned to their mission field. All three are at different stages of life, and yet each went back to a time and place that is very distant from their current day to day existence. They returned, not as tourists reminiscing about the past, but rather as servants, offering healing in the present to a people they had learned to love so long ago. As they fulfilled their present-day mission, I caught a glimpse of who they were as idealistic, nineteen-year old young men and was able to become personally acquainted with the missionaries they were, so long ago.
In Daniel, a music therapist by profession, I saw a sober, driven side that I didn’t know existed. At the same time, I observed him listening to and laughing with the men at the retreat. He showed a tireless, steady energy which, as he explained to me, was one of his defining characteristics as a missionary. It was inspiring to be in the presence of this dedication which was now combined with the powerful and intuitive healer he has become.
This is the second time that I have undertaken this Brazilian adventure with Curtis, who works as an attorney by day. Having seen him in action before, I was not as much surprised as reminded of the love, energy, and enthusiasm that he has for the people, their culture, their language, and their cuisine, particularly rice and beans; which, for this returned French missionary is hard to understand, let alone digest. At lunch one day, one of his former missionary friends told me that this was exactly who he was thirty years earlier and why he has maintained so many close connections. It is because of Curtis and his passion for all things Brazilian, that we brought “As I Am” to Brazil in January of 2018 (only the second time it had been presented) and why we return.
And finally, in Randy, the “senior companion” and fearless jaywalker, I saw an almost naive, open vitality (in my experience a trademark of all young missionaries) with everyone he met. Over the fifty years since Randy left Brazil, he has been, and continues to be, a craftsman, entrepreneur, healer, father, and husband. Truth be told there aren’t enough words to describe all that Randy is and does and I saw this on full display in Brazil.
I met each of these men long after they had completed their missionary service to the Lord and the Brazilian people, so I was not aware of the role that their missions had played in their lives. Returning with them to this place of their youth and seeing them in action, it is obvious how their missions influenced who they are today.
From what I observed in Brazil and what I know of them, each has and continues to integrate their time of faithful service into the mature, faithful, successful men they have become. Watching my friends in action has reminded me of three important practices that I believe can keep me and all of us alive, like the nineteen-year old’s we once were.
Connect to our youth. it is critical to stay connected to and honor the idealistic, naïve, energetic, enthusiastic young man or woman who still lives within us. Whether fifteen, thirty, or fifty years after our daily interaction with this younger self, that missionary is still there and needs to be called out on a regular basis to energize and inspire us.
Serve from our heart. It is so easy to return from our missions, or other idealistic and service centered times of our lives, and fall into routine or - worse yet - cynicism. Unlike full-time missionaries and other youthful idealists, those of us called to “daily life” must balance our service and ideals with other demands, while avoiding the tendency to become overwhelmed and discouraged. My friends modeled the importance of returning to those halcyon days of single minded and idealistic service, even if only briefly, as a way of recharging our hearts.
Love. The love that my three Brazilian companions expressed to the men at the retreat, and to others showed me the fullness of who they are. In the time we spent together serving, they were defined by their love rather than by any of the other “worldly” measures of their success. Remembering to make love the priority keeps the rest of life in its proper perspective and makes it so much sweeter.
How grateful I am for my three friends, and for the short time I had to spend with them as they returned to their youth. It reminded me of my own experience as a young LDS missionary in France and inspires me to stay young, serving and loving for as long as I can, even if I do choose to look both ways before crossing the street.
We'd like to thank Alan Downing for contributing this article to Discover Identity.