The plane was only half full, so there was plenty of room to stretch out. Elder Franklin took his own row, and I took my own row behind him.
It took a bit for my tears to stop. I had just said goodbye to my entire family, and I wouldn’t be seeing them for nearly two years. It was January 1998, and I had just finished my brief training at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. Now I was being sent out into the missionary field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
My family had gathered at the airport to bid me farewell. They stayed with me at the gate until I had to leave. Elder Franklin’s family couldn’t be there, as they were far away in California. Mom and Sheri, Kathy with her husband and six children, all in matching shirts, Susan, Kara with her kids, even Kareen and Dad had flown in from Las Vegas to surprise me. There had been lots of hugs and photos, letters handed to me, fun conversation and memories shared. And when the flight was boarding, lots of final hugs, handshakes, and kisses on cheeks. They were proud of me. I was sacrificing two full years to do missionary service. It felt wonderful to be doing the right thing, the thing that was expected.
I’d waved a final goodbye, walked around the corner to get on the plane, and burst into sobs. I was leaving everything behind. Everything I’d ever known. It was heartbreaking. But thousands of missionaries had done this before me, and I could do it now.
After the flight was safely in the air, the flight attendant walked by. She had long blonde hair, was tall and thin in her early forties. She looked haggard, like she hadn’t slept in a few days. She smiled at me.
“Hey, hon, you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m all right. Just said goodbye to my family.”
“Aw, I miss my family too. I got a couple kids back in Phoenix. Feels like ages since I’ve seen them.”
I smiled up at her. “How old are they?”
“Ten and nine. Two different dads, both of them gone. They live with my parents so I can work.”
We chatted for a few minutes. I told her I was from Idaho, that I was going to Pennsylvania for a few years to do missionary work. I was 19 but looked more like I was 14, and the flight attendant was astounded by the news that I would be gone two years. She soon had to tend to some of her flight duties, giving out drinks and snacks, but the plane was quiet, so she returned and sat down in the chair across the aisle from me.
“Two whole years, huh? I’m Lydia, by the way.”
“Yeah,,” I smiled. “It’s what God asks of his servants.”
“So what will you be doing that whole time?”
“Well, I’ll be assigned to an area. I’ll have a companion, a guy just like me. And we will go out door to door and teach people.”
“Do they pay you for this?”
“No. We do it because we believe the messages God has for people can save lives. He makes it so families can be together forever.”
Lydia couldn’t help but laugh. She read my tag. “Elder Anderson, is it? Sorry to laugh, I’ve just never met anyone like you. I’ve seen you guys on your bikes, but I thought you were college students or something. What you are doing, giving up two whole years, that takes some serious dedication. It’s admirable. Weird, but admirable.”
Not missing a beat, I responded with the lessons I had been learning over the past few weeks. We had had time in the MTC to teach a series of discussions to each other, or to people pretending to be an ‘investigator’, or someone investigating the gospel. This was my first real chance to teach the lessons.
“Most people believe in a Supreme Being,” I began, reciting the words I had memorized through practice. I talked about the love of God, not realizing how baffled Lydia looked for the first few minutes as I spoke. She sat, respectful, laughing awkwardly a few times. I asked about her beliefs in God, and she mentioned growing up Baptist. I kept talking, but she interrupted me.
“Look, this looks like this could take a while. But I have to get back to work. I don’t have a bunch of time to learn about your church. You’re sweet, though. I hope my boy grows up to be like you a bit.”
She stood, not waiting for me to continue, and walked back to do more of her job. While she did so, I reached into my carry-on and pulled out a copy of the Book of Mormon, then I grabbed a pen and wrote in the front cover.
“Lydia, it was nice talking to you this morning. This book changed my life. If you read it and pray about it, you will know that it is true, and if it is true, then you know that the church is true. If you’d like to learn more, please call the number on the card I’ve placed here, and missionaries can come and teach you wherever you are. Remember, your Heavenly Father loves you. From, Elder Anderson.”
As the flight landed, I handed Lydia the book, and she accepted, with a confused look on her face. She thanked me and walked to the back of the plane without another word.
Elder Franklin was astounded. “Dude! Did you just teach a first discussion? On the plane, like before our missions even started? That was amazing! I’m going to tell everyone about this!”
We walked off the plane and I felt pure joy. I had brought truth to someone, a hard-working single mother of two, and if she just read the book, she could change her life. I wanted to share this truth with every person I passed, every person God placed in my path. I would be an instrument in his hands, and I had two years to prove to him how hard I wold work.
Later that day, I would meet my trainer, my first companion in the field, Elder Winward, and he saw how enthusiastic I was. He called it “greenie fire”, because I was green and excited. “Just wait,” he said. “That part fades fast.”