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Elder Uchtdorf tells missionaries of a prison success story unknown for 46 years

Successful missionaries focus on what they can control — their thoughts, feelings and actions

PROVO, Utah — A missionary’s success “is doing well those things over which you have control,” taught Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf to missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints training worldwide.

“Take solace in knowing that God will work through you — even when you do not see evidence of Him doing it,” said the member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in a Tuesday, Sept. 6, devotional at the Provo Missionary Training Center. “And He will bless the work worldwide in ways you cannot know.”

He related the experience of a friend who learned how a missionary visit to a foreign prison nearly a half-century earlier resulted in unexpected influences that will ripple through eternity.

He and his wife, Sister Harriet Uchtdorf, spoke not only to the 1,200 new missionaries at the Provo MTC but to hundreds more, as the devotional was broadcast to the Church’s nine other MTCs and to those missionaries in at-home training. And after the hourlong devotional, the Uchtdorfs walked the aisles, greeting, gesturing, waving and acknowledging the attending missionaries and MTC leaders.

Sister Harriet R. Uchtdorf smiles as she gestures to missionaries after the devotional at the Provo Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. | Adam Fondren, for the Deseret News

How to be successful

A missionary’s success isn’t measured by baptisms, Elder Uchtdorf said. “The number of people you baptize is something over which you may have limited control. Therefore, if you place that as the indicator of whether you are successful, it could lead to frustration, disappointment or false pride.”

Rather, successful missionaries concentrate on doing well the things over which they have control — one’s own thoughts, feelings and actions.

“Be successful with these three things, and the Lord will magnify your efforts as missionaries.”

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles speaks during a devotional at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. | Adam Fondren, for the Deseret News

Be grateful for small things

Elder Uchtdorf spoke of grandsons having served in areas where baptisms were few. Despite difficult work, they maintained enthusiasm and excitement.

One repeatedly expressed gratitude for the “almost” — a missed appointment where “we ‘almost’ taught him that day,” conversations with a family where “they ‘almost’ came to church today,” and a street contact where “we ‘almost’ got an appointment.”

Of his grandson’s great faith in God and trust in Him and His angels to work their miracles, Elder Uchtdorf said: “While he continually searched for those who would accept the gospel message and be baptized, he understood that his success was not dependent upon that number alone. His success depended on the things he can control: his thoughts, feelings and actions.”

A missionary listens to Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles during a devotional at the Provo Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. | Adam Fondren, for the Deseret News

Of learning, rising and repenting

Elder Uchtdorf underscored Jesus having “increased in wisdom and statue, and in favour with God and man” (Luke 2:52) and God giving “line upon line, precept upon precept” (2 Nephi 28:30).

“None of us are perfect,” he added, “but if we are humble and hearken unto the precepts of God, we receive more and, little by little, we become more like Him.”

He offered Luke’s account as a template for a missionary’s growth:

  • How will you grow closer to God?
  • How will you serve others better?
  • How will you improve yourself mentally and physically?
Sign language translator Camris Meservy translates Sister Harriet R. Uchtdorf’s devotional message at the Provo Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. | Adam Fondren, for the Deseret News

He reiterated a teaching from a previous general conference address: “Remember that discipleship is not about doing things perfectly; it’s about doing things intentionally.”

He invited his listeners to accept the reality that they will stumble at times. “You, too, will fall. But you will rise again. And the sacrifice you are making as missionaries will be more sacred to your Heavenly Father than your increase.

“Don’t give up on yourself. Your Father in Heaven certainly won’t.”

He reminded the missionaries about the importance of repentance — not just for “big things” but also for “little things.” For him, repentance is to activate the Atonement of Jesus Christ and have transgressions not only forgiven but “remembered no more” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:42).

The ability to repent can be aided by people one admires and trusts, he added. “Be humble. Learn from others who seem to have mastered what you haven’t as yet,” said Elder Uchtdorf, adding: “Most of all, approach your Father in Heaven and ask for His assistance. He will lead you, line upon line, until you have overcome your difficulties.”

Missionaries flash heart symbols back at Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf and Sister Harriet R. Uchtdorf after their devotional messages at the Provo Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. | Adam Fondren, for the Deseret News

Ripples through eternity

Telling the new missionaries their influence “will extend far beyond what you see and will ever know,” Elder Uchtdorf shared a story of a friend receiving an unexpected email, not recognizing the sender’s name and nearly deleting it.

Opening the email, he saw a photograph of himself as a missionary serving in a faraway country 46 years earlier. The email text — written in Spanish — asked: “I would like to know if this is you in this photograph?”

The photo was from when he and his companion had taught a young family — mother, father and two daughters — who joined the Church.

It was a time when a great political divide resulted in a military coup, the overthrow of the old regime and the arrest and imprisonment of dissenters.

Mindful of the Savior’s teachings in Matthew 25, the two missionaries got the warden’s approval to visit the prisoners. But rather than meeting a few men in a small room, the two missionaries faced a large, bare, concrete-and-brick room with 200-plus prisoners standing silently, staring and waiting.

“My friend was not expecting this at all, and he nearly panicked wondering what he could say,” Elder Uchtdorf said. “He spoke a few words of encouragement and hope. He testified of Jesus Christ. He told them that God loved them and that if they drew near to God, God would draw near to them.”

A missionary takes notes during the devotional featuring Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at the Provo Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. | Adam Fondren, for the Deseret News

The warden reluctantly agreed to the missionaries’ request to shake the hands of the prisoners.

“It began to grow upon this young elder that he had made a mistake — he could feel the hate and hostility coming from some of the men,” said Elder Uchtdorf, explaining that some in the country believed the rumor that missionaries from the United States were CIA agents and partly responsible for the political upheaval.

As they went down the line of prisoners shaking hands, some pleaded for help, while others said nothing and simply stared.

“My friend chalked the whole experience up as a poor decision on his part,” Elder Uchtdorf said, “and he felt extremely blessed that God had protected him and his companion.”

Forty-six years later, his friend learned the rest of the story.

One of the inmates was particularly touched by the Spirit that day, deciding that if he ever left that prison alive, he would find the Church these two young men represented.

He did, developing his own testimony, becoming an active member and then serving a mission himself. After returning, he attended a ward in his hometown and met a young woman who also was a convert to the Church; they fell in love and married.

Years later, as the couple talked about how each had learned about the Church, the wife pulled out a photograph of the missionary who had taught her family. Her husband could not believe it — the image on the photograph was the same missionary who had come to the prison and spoke to the inmates.

The couple became a pillar of the Church, with the husband later serving as branch and district president, bishop and stake president. Four of their sons served missions.

Of course, Elder Uchtdorf’s friend never knew what had happened after he left the area.

“He told me that this had nothing to do with him or anything he said. It was an example of our Heavenly Father using [his] imperfect efforts to bring about His own purposes.”

Wrote the man who had been imprisoned: “You don’t know how many years I have wanted to find you, so that I could tell you how beautiful my life has been since I was baptized. … I am sure that you never thought your mission would bring such great happiness to a family so far from your country. … Can you see the beauty of this work? … I am eternally grateful.”

A missionary hugs Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles after his devotional address at the Provo Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. | Adam Fondren, for the Deseret News

An apostolic blessing

Elder Uchtdorf left an apostolic blessing on the missionaries — that as they draw close to God, He will draw closer to them and magnify their efforts.

“I bless you with faith, gratitude, grace, humility and boldness. I pray that you will joyfully go about your days inviting others to come unto Christ. I bless you with wisdom and peace, knowing that your sacrifice is acknowledged and accepted and that, as you go about doing well those things over which you have control, the good Lord will be with you and direct your paths.”

‘You are my heroes’

Preceding her husband’s instruction, Sister Uchtdorf spoke of the love Latter-day Saints have for missionaries, mentioning her conversion in Frankfurt, Germany; the admiration from youth they met at For the Strength of Youth conferences this summer in the United States and Canada; and similar appreciation from youth and children during a visit to Poland and Germany to visit refugees and Church members aiding them.

Sister Harriet Uchtdorf speaks at the Provo Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. | Adam Fondren, for the Deseret News

“The members of the Church, young and old, love you missionaries across the world,” she said. “You are the heroes of the rising generation within the Church. And you are my heroes.”

She invited the missionaries to be examples, mentors, friends and a light to the younger generation.

“This can be a beautiful part of your lives, to help other young people to love the Lord and His work. Help them to prepare to also serve a mission one day,” Sister Uchtdorf said.

“Through this effort, you are helping to create a brighter future for these children and youth. You are strengthening the Church, and you are making the world a better place. You are creators of a better future.”

Sister Harriet Uchtdorf speaks during a devotional at the Provo Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. | Adam Fondren, for the Deseret News
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