What to do if your missionary comes home early…
You know, if you don’t have time to read my story…I hope you skip to the end, and read about the reason for this post. To better love our missionaries. To better honor their sacrifice, no matter how big or small. They deserve our support, our effort and our love. <3
It was April 27th, 2017 when Drew received his big white envelope. The house was all abuzz with excitement for where Drew would spend his next two years.
When Drew read the words “Washington DC South Mission”, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. Something that was very cool, was Craig and I met (and eventually got married) while working together at Shriners Hospital for Children. We got pregnant with Drew right away, to give Anthony the siblings he’d been begging for. The address to the hospital was “Fairfax Road @ Virginia Street” so the fact that Drew got called to Virginia was actually pretty perfect.
Later that night, I read who his mission Presidents were. President and Sister Huntsman, who also had 8 children!!!! I was like, they know how to love a lot of kids! This is perfect! Happy tears. <3
Shortly after that time, Drew went out and loved every second of his mission. It wasn’t easy by any means. A mission is full of challenges and struggles, but that’s kind of the point. Drew wasn’t afraid of hard work. He absolutely LOVED the people. And the people loved him. I would often get texts or messages about his good heart. It makes a momma proud. I watched six months pass, then nine, then a year…and so on.
Then on a normal Thursday afternoon the phone rang. It was a warm and friendly voice, that spoke the words, “Are Brother and Sister Armstrong home?”
“Yessssss.” (Me trying to place the voice)
“This is President Caplain, I’m Elder Armstrong’s new Mission President. I have your son here in my office with me.”
“Hello! How are you? Is everything ok?”
“Yes, everything is fine. Your son is fine missionary. He works very hard. He’s a great leader and he’s done a lot of fine work. You have a lot to be proud of…”
“Why, thank you. We think he’s pretty great, but it’s a very biased opinion.”
“Well, I am very biased too. The thing is Sister Armstrong, your son has been struggling with a really bad foot. I guess it started five months ago, but he was worried if he told us about it, he’d have to go home. He talked with Sister Caplain a couple of weeks ago and she told him he had to go see the doctor. He went, they took some xrays and found several degrees of separation in the bones and a large bunion. They tried a cortisone shot to manage the pain and inflammation, but it didn’t work. We’ve had our mission doc look at it, and mission medical look at it, and they all have said that he needs to have surgery.”
Craig being in the field he’s in said, “Well, can we get him some foot orthotics? Better shoes? Get him in a driving area or something?”
“Well, the thing is…as much as we want him here, he’s got to use this body of his for a long time after his mission is over, and we don’t want to do anything to jeopardize his health long term. So far, we have heard the recovery is about 4-6 months, and then we would love to have him back out here with us as soon as he’s healed.”
“Ok, so does this happen next transfer, or ?”
“Actually, we have another boy with a broken foot, and we would like Elder Armstrong to travel home with him. Can you receive your son tomorrow?”
Tomorrow???? At this point, I’m freaking out how fast this is happening. I couldn’t even process. Drew was coming home? I think President Caplan heard the worry in my voice, he was quick to put me at ease.
“Sister Armstrong, you’ve got an incredible missionary. We love him. He’s done an incredible job, and we would love to have him back as soon as he’s able.”
The phone call ended. A million thoughts racing through my mind. That’s when I go into planning mode, cause its not in me to sit still. I started making phone calls to see how quickly we could get him an appointment with a surgeon. Everyone local was booked out for weeks, so we started looking in the Maryland/Virginia area. Found a great surgeon and booked and appointment for the next day. President Caplain moved heaven and earth to get the approval for a presurgical consultation in record time. He even asked missionary travel to book their flights for the following Monday to accommodate us.
Drew called us to talk details. The first words out of his mouth were in concern for his brother Ethan. “Mom…this is Ethan’s season. The time leading up to his mission, the focus should remain on him. I got my time, he deserves his. I don’t want me coming home to overshadow or be a distraction.” Knowing Drew, I wasn’t at all surprised by his request. What an awesome brother! We coordinated all the necessary plans, and said goodbye. I honestly couldn’t believe he was really coming home.
I had a million worries on my mind. I am a mother of eight, so I’m used to busy. However, sending a missionary off is all consuming. Now, I felt a lot of angst about balancing the needs of getting one ready, to getting one home and on the mend, without feeling like I was letting anyone down in some way.The balance of all the emotions that come with both of these life transitions is crazy.
Next on the list, was telling the kids. The next day was Sunday, and after church we sat all the kids down and said, “Hey, there’s something we need to tell you. Drew has hurt his foot, and he’s going to have to come home to have surgery.”
Sophie was so excited she beamed and yelled, “Aaaaaaaaaaawwwwwww YESSSSSSS!” and then caught herself and made this super fake frowny face like, “I mean, oh…so sad.” 🙁
We all busted out laughing. Children are so refreshingly honest. Ethan was THRILLED to get to see his brother before he left for New Zealand. They would have spent almost four years apart, so for Ethan it was like Christmas morning.
Then, I thought about Drew getting off that plane. I really wanted to make sure he had all the fan fair that a missionary coming home would normally get. Regardless of the healing that laid before him, he should celebrate this great sacrifice and work. He should feel so proud of the sacred time spent and the beautiful gifts he found in the people he served. We spent the rest of the next day making posters, rallying close friends. That Monday, we all headed to the airport…so thrilled to get to see one our favorite DC South Missionary!
As an added bonus, we got to pick up his mission companion too and spend some time with him until his flight to Boise. It was a beautiful day, beautiful hug, and beautiful memory. Everything was perfect.
A couple of days before we were flying out to Maryland for Drew’s surgery, I got a gut instinct to call my friend whose husband is an incredible podiatrist, just to have one more opinion. He reviewed Drew’s xrays and called me. He told me that Drew that the simple bunnionectomy we had scheduled would not be adequate. That Drew actually had a congenital birth defect, called “metatarsus adductus” and had we have caught it while he was a baby, he should have had his feet in casts. (but most parents don’t catch it, cause babies have chubby feet) He said the surgery would require cutting four bones and placing pins and screws. That he would be non-weight bearing for 10-12 weeks in a boot, then physical therapy, then a more healing. That the recovery time is typically a year.
We were floored. Whaaaaat? We had already booked our flights to the DC Area. What do we do now? Do we cancel everything? Do we put off his surgery now, cause Ethan doesn’t have much time left at home?
Then, Drew’s cherished friend, Glenn (and recent convert) called. He was ready to go through the temple for the first time. He wanted Drew to be his escort. That sealed the deal, we were going to DC. Glenn means so much to Drew. They became dear friends while serving in DC. Drew getting to be there meant everything! So Craig, Drew, Ethan and I all hopped on the plane and headed to DC. Families in DC had already heard Drew was flying back out for surgery, they had all planned open houses for everyone to come see Drew while he was in town!! We met with different members every single night. Some nights, it was dozens and dozens of families. (I wish I had gotten more pictures, so sorry if you don’t find yourself in here, but you’re in our hearts forever!) It was amazing!!! It was so beautiful to see him interact with all of these people who he had fallen in love with, and became a part of their DC Family. The best part was when we’d walk away after, and Ethan would say, “I can’t wait to have this too. People who I have these kind of memories with, and that I love so much. It’s so cool!”
To All DC Families,
Thank you, Thank you for letting my son in your home and heart. As a mother, you are so worried about them feeling all alone in the world. You each stepped up to make him feel loved, included, important and special. I couldn’t have asked for better people to help shape into the man God wants him to be. Thank you for refining my precious silver. You will always mean the world to him, and to us. It was a treasure to get to be with you, and chat about the gospel, life, love and to laugh until our bellies hurt. Even if you aren’t pictured – I will never forget talking with the bishop in Reston, or all of the families we got to go to church and have lunch with. You gave us the gift of a lifetime!! We love you ALL SO MUCH!!
At this point, Drew coming home just felt like a gift. Many people don’t know this, but Drew was actually a twin. His twin died in utero. Drew and Ethan have always had a close relationship. Just as intimate as my youngest set of twins. I’ve always kind of felt like Drew’s twin took the next ride down, and that was Ethan. So for Ethan to be able to not only see his brother before he left, but to get to see what his brother did, the people he loved, and spend time where he served, it was amazing!!! To have that inspire Ethan’s service to a deeper degree…it all just felt, right.
We toured every area Drew had served in, took pictures next to all of his apartments and the church buildings where he spent most of his time.
Then, while driving up to the church in Drew’s last area…, it was full of cars. A zone conference was ending and Drew got to see all of his missionary companions and friends, and low and behold…it was President and Sister Caplain! They greeted him warmly, and showered us all of us with hugs.
President Caplain took off his shoe and said, “Elder Armstrong, since you left, now I’m getting a bunion too! Look, my bones sticking out, and I’m not even walking fifteen hours a day, and I drive most of the time!” We all laughed. They are so wonderful. (We love you guys so much. Your kindness, love and warmth will not be forgotten…I will never forget the story about your eye, Sister Caplain.)
We took some time to take in the beauty of Washington DC. We have always dreamed of taking our kids here. We will go back again. So much to do, so little time. Here’s some highlights!
The last day of our trip, we spent with Glenn. We got up crazy early and headed up to Philadelphia. (the DC Temple is closed) It was a beautiful day. Craig as Ethan’s escort, and Drew as Glenn’s. Such incredible symbolism. Glenn became part of our family that day. Truly, what a gift. <3
Then we headed to the DC Visitors Center to take some fun pics…and love on some fun people!!!
I truly was so grateful to my son’s Washington DC family that showed up to make my son feel so loved, and that they were grateful for his service and sacrifice. That meant the world to me and to him. I love the Huntsman Family, and for the service and love they gave to my son while under their stead. I will always treasure the second parents (and siblings – Mae and gang…you know I love you sweeties!) they were to him. This momma heart will always be grateful. You’re an incredible gift to all of us!
Now, to the heart of the matter…
This seems like such a beautiful story full of support and love for a missionary who came home early doesn’t it?
Well, my beautiful experience isn’t why I am writing this post. I realize how blessed we are to have had this type of reception.
Sadly, so many missionaries have written me, who have had much different experiences. Some very damaging. It has caused many to disappear in their own faith communities, because sometimes we fall short on being grateful for their sacrifices, no matter how great or small.
Being a convert, this behavior is so confusing to me. As I referenced this in another missionary post last year, the shame that surrounds an early returned missionary has no place in the church. These attitudes stand in such a stark contrast to the gospel principles. Being a person who’s worshipped in many faiths, I can attest that when you are a Catholic, Methodist, Pentecostal, (etc) kid and you decide to go serve a three-week mission somewhere.…your whole congregation is proud of you. In preparation, they throw huge fundraisers. Everyone shows up, everyone donates. It’s hyped up and talked about it for months before cause “Hey, these kids are doing something so cool.” When they all come home, those kids are celebrated. Parents brag and beam with pride that their kid went and helped someone. Heck the whole congregation high fives ya forever. All for a three to five-week commitment. Which is amazing!
Yet if our kids come home early from an 18/24 month mission, too often they find a much different welcome. It’s time we ask ourselves “Why?”.
We as a culture, have got to stop being so hard on these kids. We’ve got to stop turning our noses up to their offerings. Whether three weeks or two years, they deserve to have their contributions acknowledged in a way that keeps them in the church, not pushes them out the door, feeling unworthy.
Whenever I think of missionary service, I can’t help but think of the widow’s mite.
There sits all of these rich and capable men, who had so much support and opportunity – and yes they gave generously. Yet, here comes this quiet, meek woman, who’s contributes all that she has. She is ashamed it’s not more. Her heart longed for it to be more, but it was what she had to give, and Jesus was pleased. He taught of her sacrifice to all those who would scoff, and held her in high honor and esteem.
I know that Jesus would do the same for every missionary. Do we know better than Jesus? Can we not look at the contributions, big or small and be grateful and well pleased?
We don’t know that back ground of each missionary. We don’t know their circumstances. We don’t know what they had to give up to get there. We don’t know all they had to overcome or endure. We don’t’ know what the million and one things that had to do to even be worthy to go. We don’t know if they even had the support of their families. So to scoff at their offering….its about the least Christian thing we can do.
Some of us think we need to know all of the “why’s” when a missionary has an early return. Fact is, we don’t. It’s none of our business, and it’s unkind to ask. It makes them feel like you need a satisfactory answer, and if they don’t give one, they’re a disappointment. . The last thing the missionary needs to worry about, is making their return “ok” in the eyes of the family, or their church community.
Missionaries come home for so many different reasons.
Sadly, often times moral mistakes are assumed. That they didn’t “confess” everything before they left or made a mistake while out there. This is actually the rarest reason for a missionary to return early, but it needs to be addressed. Let’s look at the reason why a youth would lie in the first place. Do we honestly think that we have created a culture where the truth is acceptable? The pressure we put on these kids, (and ourselves) to “look the part” is crippling. We scare these kids into silence. They fear social suicide if they are the one that comes clean, but their friends (who are often making the exact same mistakes) stay quiet. They lie because they don’t want to disappoint their parents, their leaders, their friends, or themselves. They don’t want to be seen as the one that wasn’t good enough. Can you blame them? What if we just created a culture that taught that they’d be loved and accepted regardless? That we would be proud regardless?
If they did make a mistake, left on a mission, and then found the courage to say something, THEN HALLELUAH!!! Dance a jig. The kid stood up in the face of all the expectations and the potential shame attached to owning your mistakes – yet he cast all of that aside because the in the face of everything, the truth became most important.
If you wanted a mission to change your kid, it did. He/she came back honest, and brave. A great change occurred in his heart. His heart longed to make amends. He too, is giving his widows mite. Sometimes that comes in the form of simply… the truth. If that isn’t an answer to a beckon to higher ground, then I don’t know what is. To be received home as “less than,” is such a smack in the face to their courage.
How can we claim higher moral authority when we create a culture where lying, is more celebrated and acceptable than the truth? Where looking good “on paper” is the only way we can survive. Having the courage to admit the need for change or repentance is the most beautiful thing in the world. It’s honorable, and should be treated with the respect it deserves.
As for host of other reasons that a missionary comes home early…
The kid that came home early because he couldn’t survive the rigor of missionary life (which is extremely difficult by the way), is the kid that still tried.
The kid that battled depression still showed up in the face of knowing that she might fail.
Isn’t the ultimate act of bravery, to put yourself in situations that you know you may not be successful, but you still show up? That is the process by which every person in history created anything meaningful or great. That is the key to innovation and progression. To not celebrate that kind of courage, is to teach your kids that anything less than perfect execution is failure and that = unlovable.
I would scream so loud for a kid willing to do that. I’d be so proud of him/her. And they would deserve that honor. They’d get balloons, and all the fanfare.
So What do you do when your missionary comes home early?
You LOVE THEM. You cheer just as loud. Shower them with warm hugs. Posters, balloons, loving and accepting hearts. A party. Support. Kindness. Empathy. Compassion. Respect for their privacy. Most importantly, a sacred and honored place in the church. You stop calling them “Early Returned Missionaries” as if that title qualifies their sacrifice.
To my sweet, amazing Missionaries (who just happened to come home early) I leave you with this:
You are not a failure. You are not less than. Stand TALL. God is pleased. Do not let the judgements of others weigh on your heart. Do not let anyone push you out of the church. That is not the gospel. Jesus celebrated the widows mite, and he celebrates your sweet offering too.
Missions are meant to change lives, and that always starts with the person who signed up to go.
What if God called you to serve… yourself? To convert yourself? What if your mission was just to save YOU? Are you not worthy of your own efforts? What if he called you to learn to love who YOU are? Self-love opens the door for all the other great loves in our lives. Part of self-love is giving ourselves room to grow, change and become better. Learning to acknowledge our weakness is the ultimate sign of strength. This life isn’t about outgrowing our need for God or for grace. It’s about accepting it. Learning your value to the world and in God’s plan…that is the most beautiful and dedicated service we can ask for.
I love you. I stand with you. You did enough. You are enough.
The Missionary Mom <3