Service missionaries find joy as they serve

Credit: Jason Swensen
Credit: IRI
Credit: Jason Swensen
Credit: Courtesy BYU-MOA


It’s a warm, late August weekday evening and talk inside a meetinghouse just a mile or two from Utah’s Oquirrh Mountains focuses on summer vacations.

“We traveled to Southern California and our family took a picture by the big HOLLYWOOD sign,” reported Mexican-born Jesus Santiago to a small class of fellow immigrants practicing their English skills.

The instructor, Sister Susan Coles, asks Brother Santiago a few questions about the trip — Did you enjoy the California weather? Did you visit any amusement parks? — before moving on to the next student.

For Brother Santiago and most of the others in class, conversing about anything in English was once impossible. That made their ongoing transition into their new country and culture even more daunting. But the weekly English classes, taught by Sister Coles and her husband, Elder Dan Coles, have been a social lifeline.

Elder and Sister Coles are service missionaries serving in Salt Lake City’s Inner City Mission. More than 800 men and women are assigned to the mission, which provides face-to-face support and training to thousands needing a helping hand.

“The service missionaries have been a blessing in many ways,” said Brother Santiago. “They are helping us learn English and helping us feel comfortable in our new country. They are just nice people.”

Service missionaries such as Elder and Sister Coles are typically assigned to a ward or branch and work closely with local bishops, branch presidents, Relief Society presidents and youth leaders. In baseball parlance, they’re asked to “hit any pitch.”

Many of the units are filled with immigrants or refugees looking to adjust to a new country and culture. Others include sizable numbers of families or individuals who could benefit from the love, support and wise counsel of, say, a senior couple eager to help them improve their lives.

“So much of our focus is helping the people we serve learn and live principles of self-reliance,” said Elder Greg Dahl, who serves as a mission assistant director with his wife, Sister Lorraine Dahl.

A few years ago, Elder Dahl was released from his calling as a stake president in Sandy, Utah. He and Sister Dahl had witnessed several couples from their stake accept callings in the Inner City Mission — then return with joyful reports. The couples often spoke of how their lives are enriched even as they assisted others.

“So we decided to talk to our bishop. We wanted to serve,” he said.

Like the Coles, they were assigned to a Spanish-language unit in the Salt Lake Valley. Elder Dahl had learned the language as a young missionary in Argentina. His wife did not know Spanish. But they made themselves available to the branch president and got to work.

Elder Dahl said their most rewarding moments have been working with individuals, one-on-one. Sister Dahl, for example, teaches piano lessons. Several young members in their assigned unit have learned to play and now utilize their new talent in Sabbath-day meetings. They are blessing the lives of others.

It isn't an easy assignment. The service missionaries donate several hours a week, usually many miles from their home.

“Some days I take the bus to work,” said Elder Dahl, who works in Salt Lake City as an auditor for the Church. “After work, my wife picks me up in her car and we head to our assignment.”

They typically return to their home in Layton long after dark.

Lake Ridge 16th Ward Bishop Libardo Pacheco said the service missionaries assigned to his Spanish-speaking ward in the Magna Utah East Stake play an invaluable role.

“They make a big difference in the ward because of the life experience they bring to their calling,” he said.

Besides teaching English classes, the missionaries often help families learn to set up a budget, find reliable employment, arrange for medical and legal services, provide transportation and help parents and youngsters better understand the local school system.

“But our greatest joys often occur when we see people grow in the gospel,” said Elder Dahl. “It’s great to see families go to the temple together even as they are becoming more self-reliant.”

The Dahls recently fulfilled their initial calling. They wanted to do more, so they spoke to their bishop from their Highland, Utah, ward and re-upped for two more years.

“This calling allows us to serve someone every day of our lives,” said Sister Dahl.

Members living along Utah’s Wasatch Front who are interested in serving in the Inner City Mission can find out more by visiting @JNSwensen

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