When White Shirts Turn Grey

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Elder Smart

It was only a week before Elder Smart would be returning home.  So he was somewhat startled as he and his companion picked up their mail to find the two familiar envelopes in their mailbox. His companion was being transferred to Selma, Alabama, and he was to receive a new missionary fresh from the MTC on the morning bus.   Why would the mission president send him a new elder now, with only a week before his release? 

As he was helping his companion finish packing up his stuff the phone rang. It was his mission president. "This will be your greatest challenge, Elder Smart; you have only one week to teach this elder the worth of souls."   "No problem, President," he heard himself saying, as he wrote down the arrival time of the bus.  Elder Smart could hear the mission president laughing into the phone as he hung up the receiver.

This was all a little strange and different from what he had expected his last week to be, but…. His thoughts trailed off as he heard the loud speaker announce the bus from Tallahassee.  He expected to see the bus empty out and a small insecure elder with his arms stuffed with books and bags stumble wide-eyed and nervous off the bus.  But as the doors swung open, he was the one surprised as a tall, handsome, well-built elder with an expensive suit and a tailor-made shirt stepped down to the pavement and swung a leather backpack over his shoulder.  

The elder quickly gripped his outstretched hand, shook it firmly and introduced himself as Elder Sterling A. Ryan.  Then, without pausing, he looked Elder Smart over from head to toe, while announcing his hope that Elder Smart would indeed dress better in the future and not represent the church in such a shabby and unkempt manner.   With that said, he was off to collect his other luggage from the baggage counter.

The week passed quickly with little effect on Elder Ryan.   Elder Ryan had arrived "prepared to teach," as he stated it.   His discussions were memorized, the basic scriptures were memorized, and he could quote out of the handbook almost verbatim…which he did whenever he thought Elder Smart messed up.  However, while Elder Smart loved the South, the people, and the other elders, Elder Ryan held great disdain for all of it.  

He had hoped to serve in Cambridge or Boston.  He felt his education and knowledge of the gospel were being wasted serving in the remote "backwoods" which was how he referred to the mission.  Each time, during the week, that they had tracted out someone who wanted to hear about the gospel and the person had asked how they liked the South, Elder Ryan had been quick to explain his feelings.  Needless to say, most of the conversations had ended rather quickly.

So it was that Elder Smart found himself, on the last day of his mission, down on his knees pleading with his Father in Heaven to help him find a way to help this elder. The two elders had agreed the night before they would leave early, do their laundry, tract, then pack. 

Elder Smart was more frustrated than usual because Elder Ryan had taken on a cold aloofness that morning and sat reading the stock reports.  He snapped the paper shut and jumped up to grab the dryer as it came to a stop.  He pulled out an armful of shirts and began deftly folding, when he grabbed up one of Elder Smart's. 

His stare was cold and filled with disgust.  "Have you no pride, Elder?  How could you have possibly gotten shirts this dirty, this stained?  Why wash them?  Why not just burn them!"

Elder Smart took the shirt and slowly smoothed it out on the folding table in front of him.  What could he say?  "I guess I should have gotten rid of some of these," began Elder Smart, "but there are just too many memories in them. 

My shirts look like this for very good reasons."  Elder Smart pointed to a light pink spot above the pocket.   "If you are ever in Montgomery, Elder Ryan, I want you to go to a little hamburger stand on the corner of Thatcher and Bullard.  Go on a Tuesday at noon, and stand in the second line. 

In front of you should be a very tall, very thin man ordering 24 hot dogs.  Watch out for him.  The first time I met him he was trying to take all 24 of those hotdogs back to an outdoor table.  As he turned around he bumped into me almost knocking me down.  A big blob of ketchup landed right above this pocket.  He was sorry and offered to pay for the shirt but didn't have enough money with him, so he gave us his address and told us what time he would be back at home that evening with his family. 

I saw it as an opportunity to do some missionary work, so that evening we stopped by.  After talking for a few minutes, we got a chance to teach him the gospel; and it is because of this spot that you can call him Brother Baker and not Mr. Baker.

This rip in my shirttail is from Sister Tillman's dog.  We may have baptized her but have yet to convert the dog."   Elder Smart pointed out several other spots and provided explanations; but after an impatient sigh from Elder Ryan, they both fell to silently folding their laundry before riding their bikes back to the apartment.

All afternoon Elder Smart kept silently praying for the spirit to touch Elder Ryan.  They had zigzagged back and forth through several streets when they passed a long straight street in one of the poorest sections of their area.  This is it!  Elder Smart felt the familiar promptings and turned down the street.  Hopping off the bikes, he began getting his stuff ready as Elder Ryan locked up the bikes.

As he climbed the creaking stairs, Elder Ryan murmured that it was his turn for the door approach and starting tomorrow, he was looking for better sections of town to tract in.  They both felt the old porch moan under their weight and flecks of paint came off on their knuckles as they knocked on the door. 

It was almost a full minute before the door opened to a small bent figure.  "Hello Sir," Elder Ryan began uncomfortably, "we're with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints."  "Oh please, please come in," and he backed from the doorway ushering them into a scantly-furnished room that had more cobwebs than furniture.   As they sat down on the only two chairs, the bent old man took three worn plastic glasses down from a shelf, filled them with milk from a small fridge, dumped in some chocolate from another shelf, stirred it up and brought it over to the elders. 

Elder Smart could tell there was something wrong, but it wasn't until he had seated himself on the sagging cot that he realized the man was blind.  Elder Ryan quickly cleared his throat and the old man realizing his mistake turned to face the elders.

"My name is Brother Clements," he began, "but just call me Clem.  I have lived here two years and have been waiting all that time for elders to come by.  I know you don't have time to fool with an old man like me, so I'll get straight to the point.  I need to ask you boys a favor."  And with that he starting moving his fingers along the ripped mattress until he came to a large hole in one corner.  He stuck in his hand and pulled out a small grimy handkerchief.  "Give me your hand," and with that the man reached outward catching Elder Ryan.

  Elder Ryan held out his hand and Clem slowly placed the grimy bundle in it.  "Now it isn't much, only $3 dollars, but I need you to take it to the Bishop.  It's my tithing.  I'm too blind and bent to do it on my own and I don't know my way.  But the Lord has blest me…"  "You're blessed?" blurted out Elder Ryan. 

"Sure I'm blessed," the man said. "I've a roof over my head, a place to sleep, and enough food, and I can get to the store at the end of the lane and back by myself.  And in here," the man tapped at his heart, "I have the true gospel of Christ.  What more could a man like me ask for."  With that Clem sat back on the cot looking proud and happy.

Elder Ryan sat looking into his glass then leaned forward and pressed the bundle back into Clem's hand.  "How about you giving this to the Bishop personally.   I will see to it that you get a ride to Church this Sunday and every Sunday after that as long as I'm in this area."  "You'd do that for me?" exclaimed Clem, and with that he jumped up giving Elder Ryan a great bear hug--at the same time sloshing chocolate milk down the back of his tailored shirt.  Elder Ryan didn't say a word, just silently hugged Brother Clements back.

Elder Smart noticed the sun starting to set and the two elders said their good-byes.  As they walked back to their bikes and started unlocking them, Elder Smart looked at Elder Ryan's back and exclaimed, "Wow, have you got a stain!  Do you want me to burn that shirt for you?" 

Elder Ryan turned around to face his companion, and with slightly moist eyes said:  "You know, Elder Smart, right now this shirt, with this stain, is worth more than anything else I own."  With that the two hopped on their bikes and headed for their apartment.

As a missionary, may you come home with your shoes worn out, the cuffs of your pants frayed at the edges, your suit shiny in the knees from praying, and your shirts gray and stained with memories. Memories that will always remind you of the worth of the souls you have shared the gospel of Jesus Christ with.