Gerry Avant: Elder J. Richard Clarke’s experience with ‘disruption and delay’ of missionary service

Changes have been made in the missionary work of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because of COVID-19. Some missionaries near the end of their missions were released to return to their homes, others were sent home to be reassigned later, some went into isolation in their fields of labor and continued their work electronically, while many pioneered — and continue to pioneer — a new way of starting their missions: receiving training remotely while still living at home.

One understatement pertaining to missionary work is that it is often rife with challenges. I remember one case in which a big challenge was just arriving at mission headquarters. The journey to that field of labor took months.

I interviewed Elder J. Richard Clarke after he was sustained in April 1985 to the First Quorum of the Seventy. He had served over eight years as a counselor in the Presiding Bishopric. In just a few months, he would be serving as president of the South Africa Cape Town Mission, with his wife, Sister Barbara Reed Clarke, serving as his companion. For Elder Clarke, it was a return to a beloved field of labor.

Before serving in South Africa as a young man, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy right after he graduated from high school in 1945. He finished boot camp the day fighting with Japan officially ended and was assigned to Yap Island in the South Pacific.

A photo from the 1970s shows Elder J. Richard Clarke, an emeritus General Authority Seventy, who served as a general Church leader for more than 20 years.
A photo from the 1970s shows Elder J. Richard Clarke, an emeritus General Authority Seventy, who served as a general Church leader for more than 20 years. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

After his military service, he returned to his home state of Idaho and enrolled in what was then Ricks College and is now BYU-Idaho in Rexburg. He was there when he received his mission call to serve in South Africa.

His account of his travels to his field of labor has tones of “disruption and delay” with which many missionaries today might identify.

He explained that passage on a ship was difficult to book so soon after World War II. He and several other missionaries were assigned temporarily to the Texas-Louisiana Mission and later were booked on a 12-passenger cargo ship sailing from New Orleans in May 1947.

The ship had boiler trouble and then nearly sank after it hit rocks off the coast of Brazil. It was in dry dock six weeks. A voyage that should have taken 21 to 28 days lasted nearly four months.

“The harbor at Cape Town was such a beautiful sight,” he said, recalling his joy at finally having arrived in South Africa.

During our conversation, Elder Clarke said, “I think missionaries ought to develop those skills that will make them confident. Whether you’re trying to win on the basketball court, succeed in business or being a good missionary, the same principles apply.”

He told me how he worked on developing foundational skills he could draw upon as a young missionary.

“I was terrified to give a talk in Church,” he said. “I knew I had to conquer that feeling. Our quarters were next to the meetinghouse. I would go over to the empty building and stand at the pulpit and work and work, just trying to express my ideas, talking out loud, hearing my own voice. I would try to get through my talk without having to read it all. I would practice and practice. I’m still not an accomplished speaker, but I have overcome those fears and concerns.”

Elder Clarke spoke about the role of how learning to work in his youth helped him build foundational principles.

“I’ve always believed in working,” said Elder Clarke, who hired out as a farm laborer during high school and college days. As a youngster, his first job was running a shoeshine stand in a barbershop in Rexburg. He also stacked shelves in a grocery store and worked in a lumber mill.

Whether facing turmoil in the process of actually arriving in the field of labor, overcoming feelings of inadequacy once there or dealing with disruptions such as those brought about by COVID-19, missionaries today can build on foundational principles they have established, or are still developing.

After he returned from serving as president of the South Africa Cape Town Mission, Elder Clarke served in the Presidency of the Seventy from Oct. 1, 1988, to Aug. 15, 1993. He was named emeritus General Authority on Oct. 4, 1997.