Over the past 22 years, I’ve had the privilege of teaching English to immigrants on a volunteer basis in both California and Utah. I’ve also been able to donate hundreds of my multicultural/bilingual picture books to refugee and other charitable organizations for language learning. While I’ve been the teacher, it’s been an education for me. Students from Vietnam, Iraq, Iran, China, Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, El Salvador, and Syria have enriched my world. These people are so grateful for the privilege of living in the greatest country on earth. (If you don’t yet know that the United States is the greatest country, find a way to live abroad–not simply visit tourist capitals.) While their language abilities vary, they want very much to master English and contribute positively to the community. Some of their stories are too intense for human consumption (and yet these humans have lived them). Sacrifice and struggle seems to be the price to come here. These people are generous with the little they have and are always grateful for help with perhaps the most difficult language in the West. If you can make time to help newcomers, I promise you, it is the cure for self-focus and “the world is going to heck” thinking. Find service opportunities in your area by typing your zip code in the following site: JustServe.org. You will be happier than you are today.
Almost ten years ago, I was getting ready for my wedding (which I, ultimately, didn’t attend). A publisher approached me about writing a non-fiction story about an immigrant child. I told them I had such a story in my family history. Former LDS Relief Society General President Bonnie Parkin had, in a General Conference talk, told the story of my Great-great Aunt Anna, who immigrated from Sweden as a child—without her parents. I had more details in my Great Grandmother Ida’s journal.
I contacted Sister Parkin and asked if we could collaborate. While she had other priorities on her plate, she sent me copies of Anna Matilda Anderson’s journal (Anna is her husband’s grandmother) and told me I could use it as I pleased.
It was fun to compare my great grandmother’s perspective to her sister’s. Each had her own miraculous experience in her youth, which bolstered their new-found faith. Each had frightening experiences traveling without parents—separating mid-journey to live in different states.
BYU illustration graduate Shari Griffiths was asked to illustrate the story once it was complete. While Shari and I each got painful educations in the publishing process, she did an outstanding job on the art.
The result was Anna’s Prayer, the true story of 10-year-old Anna, who arrived alone in Salt Lake City—not knowing anyone and unable to speak English. Alone in the train station in the middle of the night she prayed for someone who could speak Swedish to come to her aid. The answer to her prayer went beyond what she could have hoped.
The book was well received and sold out in some local Costco stores. After a few years, publishing rights to Anna’s Prayer reverted to me and illustration rights to Shari (who now has several active children—and no desire to illustrate). This year, I purchased rights to the artwork and, finally, have re-released Anna’s Prayer in more affordable, paperback and ebook versions. I’m now working on my great grandmother’s story—as a prequel to Anna’s. I’m so excited to tell this—also true—story to the world! Here are some links to Anna’s Prayer: http://gozobooks.com/annas-prayer.php http://tinyurl.com/zgnb5ka
People often ask me how I—a South African, Scottish Swede—came to speak Spanish. I also get quizzed about being so thin. Both are the result of my LDS mission to Viña del Mar, Chile. Actually, my mom was an enthusiastic student of Spanish, so she spoke broken Spanish to us while we were growing up in San Jose, California (she used to call me Carlos).
If they are physically and mentally healthy, and if they meet the standards of worthiness, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have the privilege of serving a volunteer mission when they reach eighteen to twenty something years (also at retirement age). I was healthy, but I’d made some choices that were less than worthy. I remember at 18 going to a room alone and declaring—not to God, but to the devil—that I would qualify to serve a mission no matter what! While my determination was admirable, God knew I could not do it alone. It would be years before I realized that it was Christ’s grace that qualified me.
After submitting an application, having ecclesiastical interviews, medical exams, and my wisdom teeth pulled, it was a thrill to bid my friends and family farewell, get some training, and fly to Santiago, Chile. I LOVED the country, the people, and the language. I got sick almost monthly, and learned what real service was (from the people I had come to serve).
We missionaries saw thousands of people embrace the gospel of Christ and receive the blessings of following God’s plan of happiness. I learned that God’s love is tenacious. I witnessed miracles (especially when I could first understand the fast-speaking people). I gained an appreciation for U.S. freedoms while living under a dictator. I distributed food, helped build a house, and got in-person training from a prophet and apostles. I gained life-long friends with some of the most generous people on earth (we mission associates—gringo and Chileno—still gather whenever we can and marvel at the extraordinary things we were able to be a part of). Mostly, I had a profound and personal assurance that I was doing the most important work on the planet. It’s hard to describe that joy.
What I didn’t realize is that a double course of antibiotics (after having my wisdom teeth pulled) had sent me defenseless into an environment of microbes my body had never known.
At first I only had occasional discomfort once I was home. As the years passed, stomach stress became constant and often painful. Despite visits to Stanford Medical Center and countless other doctors, no one has yet identified or remedied the problem. I soon lost confidence in my ability to control my body. This began to impact my social life. While I’ve dated more women than I can remember or number, each date was first stressful, and eventually became a major effort. Soon, I would return from short dates completely wiped out.
Today my diet is severely restricted—as is my energy. My social life is paltry. I struggle to maintain even a runner’s body weight, and my gut remains inflamed. Please believe that this is not typical for a missionary who gets sick. Most I’ve met have found remedies. (Don’t fear travel, it’s perhaps the best education you’ll ever get—especially if you get away from the big cities.)
Still, I’ve been able to do nearly everything on my bucket list. My Spanish has proven helpful in my work and in countless other spheres. The following isn’t to brag (more to enumerate my blessings) —there’s a point I want to make at the end. In addition to gaining a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a film certificate, I have:
- Been a commencement speaker for college graduation
- Taught at a university
- Sung in rock bands
- Signed Legislation in D.C. (staffers do it all the time if the rep. is away)
- Visited 4 continents, 12 countries, and 35 states
- Created and headed two businesses
- Volunteered at Stanford University Hospital
- Helped found a Silicon Valley high-tech organization and handled their PR
- Published 17 books (many award-winners and Amazon bestsellers)
- Kayaked in whitewater
- Lectured to large and small groups
- Worked for IBM, Intel, and Marriott
- Piloted a plane (not take-off or landing)
- Hired hundreds of people
- Been to an Olympic hockey medals game (my favorite sport to watch)
- Performed for thousands (even alongside the Mormon Tabernacle Choir)
- Water skied, snow skied
- Been a Spanish interpreter
- Acted in radio, TV, film
- Been published in magazines & The U.S. Congressional Record
- Had my scripts selected in competition (one produced on radio)
- Repelled on and jumped from high cliffs
- Been an ecclesiastical leader / served on a high council
My point is this: Even with my illness and the impact it has had on my life (I have yet to have a family of my own), if I had to choose between the experiences from my mission or those in the list above, without hesitation I would keep my treasured missionary service. Some might wonder whether I would do it again—knowing beforehand how it would change my life. I wouldn’t give up those changes for anything. If they called me to serve again today, I’d be the skinniest, weakest, happiest missionary on earth. My passport is still current.