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.
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.
This month I shared with librarians around the country my adventures in Family History. Where is your family from? How can your personal or family story impact others? People of all ages find inspiration from the biographies of great men and women who faced difficulties. What many people don’t realize is that within their own families are stories of great courage and resilience. I grew up hearing the dry names of people I didn’t know—dates and places—that kind of bored me. But I also heard their stories. THAT always got my attention. My ancestors include pilgrims, Mormon pioneers, and possibly American Indians. I’m preparing the second book in a series on ancestors who immigrated to America as children. My roots are South African, Swedish, Scottish, Irish, and English. I read that a young man in prison said (after learning about his heritage), ‘Had I known who I am—who I came from—I would never had ended up here.’ Knowing where/who you come from can change you.
To start go from the known to the unknown. Find your oldest living relative and interview him/her!
- Prepare questions prior
- Audio/video record it!
- Take notes too (for unplanned questions—and technology backup)
- Start with geography
- Have fun being a detective!
Research ONE person at a time (but know a few family names, in case you stumble across Uncle Bob. Names are often repeated across generations). Know town, township/city, county, state, region, and country of origin (where possible. Sometimes towns disappear, counties split or merge, and countries’ borders shift—be sure any map you look at is from the correct era). Sometimes, just by Googling a name and place, you find gems.
Before governments kept records, they were mostly collected in:
- Church records (birth, death, marriage, ordination, bar mitzvah, adoption, service, cemetery/headstones)
- Family Bible, photo albums, scrapbooks
- Family letters & heirlooms
- Diaries/journals/biographies (DAR, DUP. Don’t overlook those of siblings, cousins, etc.)
- Announcements, phone books, bills, organization directories
The best records are official (and can substantiate or disprove rumors)
- City/county/national records: Census, military, Social Security Index, taxes
- Certificates: education, awards, achievement
- Wills, deeds, lawsuits/probate/court cases/jails
- Immigration records, passenger lists
- Business records/lists, hiring/promotions
- Adoption/orphanage or hospital records
- News articles, obituaries, event ads, museums
- Bank/Insurance records, ledgers
- Funeral/cemetery records (headstones too)
Historical & genealogical societies can be more helpful than city/county/state clerks. Find them online (also family tree-building sites):
- FamilySearch.org (free)
- Findagrave.com, BillionGraves.com
- Cyndis list
Queries: It is NOT unusual for a stranger to happily search records—even headstones in local cemeteries for you (offer to cover copy/travel costs). Families often have official sites or Facebook pages, you can query those page owners too. Have friends or family in an ancestral place (you’re not in)? Ask if they’ll look up data/certificates/headstones for you. When all else fails, consider hiring a professional genealogist (or get free help at any LDS Family History Center. Ask for a tour. Become a volunteer indexer).
What do you do with the data?
- Put copies of everything in your binder (pedigree chart, family group sheets, individual timelines, and a source/research log)
- Share it on Ancestry.com and/or a specific family site (create one if you want)
- Have a reunion to meet, swap stories, share data, and get emails for ongoing collaboration
- Set up a family site/FB page
- Publish it as an ebook and even physical book (for posterity—and even the world)
Dead men (and women) tell no tales. Document your own history. On a sheet of paper, write the year of your birth and then (a few spaces down) write the year ten years after that (add ten and ten … until the present). Fill in major events, and you’ll soon have a quick outline of your life. Here are some data ideas (also good for interviewing relatives):
- Birth date/place, Christening/baptism
- Siblings, education, special/funny experiences
- Marriage, career, military, hobbies, travel
- Affiliations, talents, accomplishments, volunteer work, church service
- Places lived (where died/buried)
If you’d like more info on publishing your story. There is a free audio here: KarlBeckstrand.com/Presentations