Exactly one year ago I left a piece of my heart in Ukraine when I boarded a small plane in Dnepropetrovsk and flew home to America at the close of my LDS mission. In the short 365 days that have passed since then, a lot has happened to the people I grew to love in the only area I served in as a missionary: the Crimean Peninsula. With this “anniversary” of coming home, and in light of all the things happening in Ukraine, I want everyone to understand what a strong, resilient, loving people live there. And I want everyone to know how the Gospel of Jesus Christ can (and does) change the hearts and lives of the Ukrainian people.
I wrote this email facing an uncertain future in my life as a returned missionary. But perhaps it can take on new meaning for Ukraine’s uncertain future now.
Well, I can’t believe it’s come to this. I can’t believe that this is the last time I’ll report about my mission via email. I can’t believe that the time has flown by so quickly. Next Monday I’ll take a train up to Dnepropetrovsk, and then after an interview with President van Bruggen they’ll ship me off on a plane for America. I can’t believe that it’s ending so quickly. Serving a mission is something I’ve dreamed of doing since I was in Primary. And now, not only has this dream been fulfilled, but it’s finished. It’s done. I’m not really sure how that happened. And what’s more, I’m not really sure how I feel about it all.
I’ve been thinking recently about some well-known words of poetry which seem fitting for the period of transition I’m facing right now. As I’ve pondered the changes that are coming up Robert Browning’s classic phrase came to my mind: “The best,” he wrote, “is yet to be.”
And at first my reaction was to rebel against the sentiment. Oh, yeah right, I thought. Browning had never been a missionary when he wrote that. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about–at least, not as far as missions are concerned. He had never seen the miracles that I’ve witnessed here. He never met these faith-filled people. He never heard their testimonies. He never felt their love. I’ve felt joy on my mission far greater than anything I could ever have imagined. How could there possibly be anything better–more joyful, more wonderful, more fulfilling–in the future?
It’s pretty hard to imagine. It, frankly, seems impossible to replace–or even match–the joy that comes from seeing people accept and live the Gospel. What could possibly be better than hearing someone say that they know that the Book of Mormon is true–like Ombili (one of the African students we’re teaching) said on our lesson on Saturday? What could be better than seeing God’s Hand work a mighty change in people’s hearts as they prepare for and accept baptism? Could anything possibly replace the joy of service to the humble, faithful members of the Church, or the friendship we’ve built with the children here? Is there any joy more profound than testifying to the broken-hearted that Jesus Christ is the Savior and Redeemer of the world?
It’s going to be very hard to leave this wonderful mission. Like Joseph Smith I feel to say that “This is the most beautiful place, and the best people under the heavens.” And the Lord has been so generous with the love He’s poured out on me and on others. I’m grateful for that.
But the more I think about it, the more I come to realize the truth contained in Browning’s statement. The best is somehow still out there; somehow it’s still yet to be.
Yes, to this point in my life I had never quite experienced the depth of joy I’ve enjoyed on my mission. It’s true that there will be hardships ahead in my life which may cause me to wonder why I don not feel the Spirit as strongly as I did during my time as a missionary. But our Father in Heaven created a plan of salvation which requires that we keep moving on with our lives. Heavenly Father wants us to learn, grow, progress. He wants us to learn from the past, to live in the present, and to walk toward the future with faith. He sent His Son to earth to die so that we could all have the gift of repentance and change. The Atonement was meant to encourage us to move forward. And so, who am I to insist that the things of the future are less than the joys of the present and past?
This is not the end of my mission. The scriptures promise that if we labor to bring souls to Christ our joy will be great with them in the life to come. I believe this promise. I know that it’s true. There are people here whom I’ve grown to love, and I’ll love them the rest of my life. Leaving Simferopol will be painful, no doubt. But I trust that I’ll be with these people again.
And what’s more, a piece of this mission will come home with me. I’ve changed a great deal here. I’ve learned and I’ve grown. The Lord has done things with me which I never dreamed were possible. And I believe that He intended that change to be permanent. I believe that God’s commission for men to “open [their] mouths” is not just intended for His full-time servants. I believe that the command to love His children, to feed His sheep, is not meant to last for a mere 18 months, nor is it meant for a specific place in the world. The commission to serve is a part of our baptismal covenant–and that’s a commission I’ve had most my life. Only now am I starting to see what it means.
I love the Lord. I love Jesus Christ. I know that He is our Savior, and I know that through Him we can repent and be changed. With the joy and the love that I’ve felt on this mission, I’ve also grown to understand the pains of sin and repentance as I’ve tried to grow closer to Christ. I know that His Atonement is real, and I know that His Hands are still stretched out to us–wretched, unworthy, and ashamed as we are–and He’s begging and pleading for us to grab hold. He’s led me through trials in the past 18 months; I trust that He’ll lead me in the years now to come.
I know that the Gospel in its fullness has been restored. I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and that Thomas S. Monson is a prophet today. I know that the Book of Mormon is true. How could I deny the powerful Spirit I’ve felt as I’ve read it? How could I deny the confirmations that came as I stammered in broken Russian to tell strangers of its truth? It’s God’s word. I know it. And God be thanked for restoring His truth and His power to the earth!
I know that in the most real sense God is our actual Father. I’ve seen Him love His children. I’ve seen Him wipe away their tears. I’ve seen alcoholics turn to Him for solace and be healed. I’ve seen drug addicts feel of His love for the first time in their lives. I’ve seen atheists bruised with the torments of history find a spark of relief in the testimonies of two young foreign girls far from home. He’s the father of our Spirits, and He wants us to return. I know that it’s true. It’s the message He calls to the world.
I’m not really sure what the future will bring. My mission has been the only dream I’ve had which I could somehow control. I knew the exact time it would take place, and I knew its duration. I could prepare for it. But now it’s over, and it’s time to face the more vague, less controllable dreams of my heart. But because of this mission, I know of God’s power and can trust in His guidance in the upcoming years. What seems like an end is perhaps a beginning–no matter how hard it will be to let go and move on. At least I can say that I had this great privilege for a time. And it changed me, thank goodness. It changed me forever.
As I’ve pondered these things and this upcoming change, the words of a song I love seemed to echo the thoughts and feelings of my heart. I leave them as a final testimony of my days as a full-time missionary for the Lord’s restored Church on the earth:
What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Savior liveth!
And though the darkness gather ’round,
Songs in the night He giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging.
Since Christ is Lord of Heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?
May God bless each of you, and may He ever bless His beloved children in the Ukraine Dnepropetrovsk Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Sister Greer Louise Bates
Ukraine Dnepropetrovsk Mission
September 2011-March 2013