Beware the Death of the Missionary Letter

My dad served a mission to Uruguay back in the early 1950s. He wasn’t given to talk much about it, or his time in the Navy in WWII. I just figured he was a private man, but as I get older I realize that I probably never showed much interest. He has since passed on, seventeen years now.

Let me tell you, if he were around for a day he would feel like he was being interrogated because there is so much that I wish I knew about his life that he never shared – or that I was never curious enough to ask – when I had the chance.

A few years ago my aunt died, and as her family was sorting through her endless boxes of stuff, the came across an envelope full of letters. My cousins forwarded the envelope to us.

Imagine my surprise when I opened it and found a stack of aged airmail letters that my dad had written to my aunt during his mission. (She was somewhat of a surrogate mom for him, having lost his at an early age.) He was a faithful letter writer.

What a treasure it turned out to be. I learned so much about his life, testimony and service that I had never known before. For example, this little nugget from one of his letters:

“Elder (Richard G.) Scott is a wonderful companion. Whenever I would get a little down in the dumps about the way things were going he would be there to help me out and cheer me up…. we are very close and I know that it is a love and friendship that will last not just for a lifetime but forever.”

You get the idea.

When I served my mission, I faithfully wrote home, and those letters are a far better reflection of my mission experience than my actual missionary journal. (I had a tendency to “get in my own head” when journaling, and was far more diligent about journaling when I was homesick or frustrated. Letters were more balanced.)

My mom kept all of my letters and gave them back to me when I got back home. I still have them, and should probably scan them and my dad’s letters to be preserved digitally.

I’m sure you can already see where I’m heading with this…

Recently, the church missionary department made a huge change and is now allowing missionaries to call, video-chat and text home. The shouts from the moms of the Church ascended to heaven. It is a wonderful thing for so many in so many ways – families can share in the missionary experience, and the missionaries have an accessible touchstone when they need it.

Here’s why the blog post: I was talking with a friend who told me they had their first call with their missionary son, and that it was wonderful – but the email that followed was woefully short on detail. He said that “I don’t have much to write about because I told you everything on the phone.”

(Whenever I reference letters, please take it to include emails as well – I thought it obvious, but some people don’t quite seem to grasp it…)

That’s a problem. Now I know it won’t apply to every missionary, but I know that some missionaries aren’t too thrilled about writing letters (emails) or keeping a journal anyway – even less so now. Sadly, those things are part of the legacy that a missionary leaves behind for his/her posterity.

As I have been visiting with missionary parents, I have made a couple suggestions to help preserve our missionaries’ cherished experiences for, well, forever.

For the missionaries:

  1. Don’t rely on new technology for all your communication home. You still need to keep it “Old School” part of the time.
  2. Journal, and perhaps even journal more consistently and carefully than before. It will be far more accurate than what your family (maybe) remembers from a phone call or a text thread.
  3. Write home anyway, and try to add, or re-tell stories, experiences and testimony so they can be saved – even if you told them to someone verbally.
  4. If you are going to write AND call, write first, then call.

For the parents:

  1. Use technology to preserve that legacy. Record the phone calls. Use apps to record video chats. Export and save text files.
  2. Create an archive. Between the photos, the emails, the voice and video, you have a veritable multi-media presentation just waiting to be assembled.
  3. Make sure the archive is backed up. Once it is lost, it might be lost for good.
  4. Remind your missionary that you still expect a nice, long email with lots of good stuff in it.

It would be tragic if our missionaries’ experiences were not kept for posterity, simply because communication can be so easy and frequent now.

I am so grateful that my aunt was enough of a hoarder that she hung onto my dad’s missionary letters for 60 years. She helped preserve his legacy for me and my/his posterity. Now those letters are here for me to know him better, and feel his goodness and testimony. I miss him, and his letters bridge the temporary gap between us.

(Yes, just a few days ago I said I wasn’t going to write this month. I was wrong. When the urge hits…)

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  1. I love the letters I have from my mission and the ones that others wrote me. I recall the amazing support they were during tough times. I embrace the change and hope there is still history kept.

  2. I’m so glad to know I’m not the only one to feel that there will be a huge loss of personal history from this new policy. David McCullough said something to the effect that if you want to be remembered write letters and keep a journal. I’m really grateful for all the letters I’ve received and written, the most important reason being that they can be reread over and over, savored and pondered. As soon as I hang up from a call from our children I forget what was said (I’m that senile!). I hope the rising generation will supplement what is taught in school and practice letter writing at home to preserve the art, otherwise we won’t have much personal history to leave to future generations.

  3. I have my great grandmothers mission journals. She, my grandmother and my mother were very good at keeping everything that might someday be related to family history. I inherited all of those boxes of stuff. They have been gone 27, 18 and 6 years. I am still going through stuff, sorting what is interesting, memorable and idk. Hopefully I have the right things in the right boxes.
    That being said, I can find very few letters from my mission. I do have all of them that I received.
    The morning after my two missionaries returned home, I gave them a notebook with every email that both we and they had written as well as every letter that we received. I truly hope that this new policy does not see these important documents lost for others.

  4. When my husband and I moved from Utah to Arizona, both our parents sent all our belongings from their basements with us. Included in this was 2 3-inch binders of my husband’s printed emails home and the emails sent from both of his parents. Fast forward 3 years and we received the worst phone call of our lives: my father in law had had a massive heart attack and died more or less instantly. No goodbyes, no warning. Since then, about 20 months ago, my husband has often opened those binders to read the words of support, advice and comfort his father sent to him. It has been a true blessing.
    I completely agree with the continuation of letters to and from Missionaries.

  5. Amen Brad. My missionary son, who has about 5 months left, reacted with some surprise but also with, “wow, that’s weird!”. He’s not a talkative type plus he’s well aware that his weekly letter gets forwarded to 30 people between family, ward and stake members and others who are interested. He feels it a responsibility to share the experiences of his mission, so much so that he actually writes two letters each week- one for the list and another just for his parents with personal details or things not for public consumption. As his parents, we’ve been overjoyed with his attitude and the responsibility he’s shown.

    Shortly after the “big change” announcement, I was contacted buy some of the 30 recipients who expressed some concern that they hoped this wouldn’t mean the end of his weekly letters, which I passed along to him. The subject line of his next letter was: “Have No Fear, Your Email Is Still Here”.

    My mission letters, which my father kept, his letters to me, which I kept, and my mission journal have been a treasure throughout my life. I agree, preserving the lessons learned on a mission is a very wise thing to do.

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