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A sister missionary shares lessons in becoming a leader

By Sharon Belnap Seminario

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, March 16 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

Editor's note: This excerpt is from "Do Not Attempt in Heels: Mission Stories and Advice from Sisters Who’ve Been There” (Cedar Fort, $14.99), compiled by Elise Babbel Hahl and Jennifer Rockwood Knight. This excerpt is titled "Becoming a Leading Lady."

The wooden floor creaked and crackled as each of us knelt down clumsily in our dresses and skirts for our first bedtime hymn and prayer in Nauvoo, Ill.

Well, I knelt down clumsily. The tall, blond sister with sky blue eyes next to me was the picture of grace, surely immune to such inadequacies. Across from me, a Shirley-Temple-look-alike sat cozily in the circle, smiling from ear to ear. She played three instruments and clogged, so I was sure anything this mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints threw at her would be cotton candy.

I looked around at these strangers, people who would spend every day with me leading tours throughout Old Nauvoo and bearing testimony through song, acting and dance. The auburn-haired sister with classic film beauty suggested a hymn. I could instantly sense her musical confidence and strong sense of self. I guessed that she was the sister with one music degree under her belt and another degree about to begin at a far-away, prestigious college. I was sure she was qualified to give singing lessons to somebody like me. Another sister gave the starting note. I would come to find out that she had perfect pitch and heard music constantly in the sounds of life: the microwave beep (B flat!), the whirring of a car motor (A natural!), the buzzing of a bee (C sharp!). At least I had a ballpark idea of where those notes were on a piano.

We eight brand-new sisters were finishing our first day as performing missionaries in Nauvoo by gathering in our new quarters, the David Yearsley home (where the Young Men’s organization has its origins). Once we began to sing the hymn, I could tell I was out of my league. Way out. An operatic vibrato floated above the air, coming somewhere from this mix of sisters. I would have paid good money to listen to a voice like that in a concert! An alto voice, probably peeled straight from Broadway, rose forcefully against the melody. I knew some of those sisters had played every role known to womankind in professional musical theater, from "West Side Story’s" Maria to Maria von Trapp. My one lead role as a crazy nun in our high school musical wasn’t exactly ingénue level, and I preferred to sing in a choir setting where I could blend in.

In retrospect, my recording of our hymn that first night sounds a little to me like eight soloists outdoing each other. We were singing in harmony, but we didn’t sing “in harmony.” Not yet. We just weren’t one. And on top of that, I felt like the weakest link. I loved to sing, but I was very, very blessed to be among such talented and accomplished musicians.

The next morning our Visitor’s Center director (and future Mormon mission president), Elder Sager, asked me to serve as the “house manager.” My knees went numb and wobbly. I felt surprised and honored by the opportunity, but more than a little unsure. Having already labeled myself as one of the more meager talents in the group, I was not expecting a leadership role of any kind. I was younger than many of the sisters, I didn’t have any experience living on my own or with roommates, and only a week before had depended on my mother for clean socks. But for whatever reason I was asked. I was going to be expected to see to the order of the home and the cohesion of the sisters therein, address disputes with tact, and more or less problem-solve to achieve as many positive results as possible.

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