When Elder Thomas Wilson was 21, he met for the first time some Latter-day Saints, who presented him with a book he had never heard of before.
"This Book of Mormon sounded interesting, so I read it," recalled the Lafayette, Ala., native. "Even before I got to Moroni's promise, I knew it was true. I didn't doubt in the least."This immediate and childlike faith led the outgoing, enthusiastic young man to more than just baptism soon after - it also guided him in his decision to serve a mission four years later in the Utah Salt Lake City Mission. And his faith sustained him when he learned, two months into the mission, that he had cancer. In October 1988, doctors identified a malignant tumor in Elder Wilson's left arm, and amputated the arm that month.
In June of this year another tumor was diagnosed, this time in his right leg. Elder Wilson returned to the hospital, where doctors removed a section of the bone, grafted in a piece of the hip bone, and inserted a metal plate. He left the hospital walking with one crutch.
In the face of such adversity, discouragement and a desire to return home might be expected. Instead, Elder Wilson's faith and naturally cheery disposition have remained as solid as ever, and he declared from the outset, "I was called on a mission. I'm going to stay."
His mission president, Donald R. McArthur, describes the 27-year-old as "a tremendous role model; a great advocate for the missionary cause."
In August, Elder Wilson met President Thomas S. Monson, second counselor in the First Presidency. "He had sent me a letter saying he and the Brethren were praying for me," related Elder Wilson in amazement. "I thought, `Well, if I die, it won't be for lack of prayer!' I was kind of nervous about meeting him, but he was so great; truly a man of God. I felt a real peace."
With President Monson's visit, Elder Wilson gained some additional confidence and optimism, and was anxious to get back to what he came to Salt Lake to do - preaching the gospel full time.
"I really don't see why the difficulties should make any difference," he said. "Teaching the gospel is more important than worrying about my health, regardless of whether I live or die.
"Actually, losing one arm doesn't bother me too much; there's still a lot of things I can do. When I see others' misfortunes, like burn victims, I think `Boy, I'm lucky.' I really can't complain."
Elder Wilson, who was a district leader for nearly four months before his leg operation, attributes his attitude in great part to his mission.
"It's made me more responsible," he reflected, "and I've learned a lot of patience and humility. I wouldn't change this for anything - I've had so many great experiences."
One of his favorite was teaching a 9-year-old boy whose father had not gone to Church in 20 years. When the man saw the change in his boy, and his desire to be baptized, he came back to full activity and baptized his son.
"It was one of the most spiritual baptisms I've ever been to," said Elder Wilson softly. "There wasn't a dry eye in the place."
Another fond memory is the confirmation of a young woman he and his companion had taught. While he was in the hospital, she was baptized, and afterward she and her family came to the hospital so Elder Wilson could confirm her there.
And in late September, Elder Wilson performed his first baptism in the mission field, another young woman he and his companion had been teaching.
But the baptism that stands out the most was his father's.
Although Elder Wilson, his mother, sister, and a brother were all baptized in 1984, his father had resisted. But when the family came to Utah at the time of the amputation, his father was impressed by the care and concern of then-mission president V. Dallas Merrell and his wife, missionaries and members. When he further saw his son's desire to stay and work, his heart was softened, and he asked for baptism.
"The Lord has really blessed me by blessing my family," said Elder Wilson gratefully. "Not only my dad was baptized during this time, but my dad's mom, and my mom's stepfather!"
Not only has his family been blessed, but also his branch at home, said Elder Wilson. The branch, the Lanett Branch of the Columbus Georgia Stake, has "exploded" with 15 baptisms in recent months, he related. "The Lord has promised He'll help people back home if you serve a faithful mission," he said confidently.
If any word can accurately describe Elder Wilson's mission, faithful would be it.
"Faith plays a big part in everything," he acknowledged. "When you know something's true, nothing else comes close in importance. When you know the difference between physical and spiritual death, and know that there's another life, you don't worry about your trials so much. Instead, you think of them as opportunities to grow.
"We all have to be tested in some kind of way, and have to rely on Heavenly Father's help. My tests aren't necessarily greater than the other missionaries' tests; maybe some of them are dealing with things that are more difficult to them than dealing with this is to me.
"Everything should be placed in perspective with the gospel," he concluded. "If you give the remainder of your life to your mission, that's the best thing anyone could do."