As Latter-day Saints, we've all experienced it.
Missionaries are over for dinner. The meal is finished. Dishes are being cleared. And one of them says, “Who do you know that we can meet or teach?”
On those occasions, I often wish they would just help clear the dishes or just give their short spiritual message and vanish. The better ones, however, don’t mind the uncomfortable silence. They’ll wait it out until you clear your throat and clumsily fumble through lame reasons, like how you don’t know anyone or how you’ve exhausted your list.
If you haven’t done that, you just haven’t had Mormon missionaries over enough. Believe me, no one is immune.
While we've lived in the same house for 20 years, there have been scores of missionaries in and out of our home during that time. With a few exceptions, we've had the same neighbors over those two decades.
I have a finite number of neighbors, yet an infinite number of missionaries who don't seem aware, nor do they seem to care, that the previous umpteen sets ask about our neighbors with every transfer. Frankly, we have been above-average member-missionaries throughout our married lives.
Sometimes I’m even annoyed that they keep asking when I keep telling them I don’t have anyone. We’ve gone through stretches of months without inviting missionaries for dinner just to avoid being asked. Interestingly, when I sense a new pair in my ward isn't that intent on asking, boom, I invite ‘em over. Sadly, I confess there have been times that I preferrred the ones with the sense of propriety not to put me on the spot.
But we’ve also had miraculous experiences with extraordinary missionaries who have the gift of balancing our trepidation and coaxing from us the referrals they seek. In future columns, I'll tell some of our missionary experiences of trying to share the gospel with our neighbors — some of them awkward, some downright uncomfortable, a few hilarious and one miraculous (and still a work in progress).
Still, we want to be better than we’ve been.
One reason it matters so much to me is because of all the many wonderful things I’ve experienced in my life — immigration to America, full-ride college scholarship, Brigham Young University degree, successful NFL and television careers — only my marriage and children have been more impactful than sharing the gospel or helping someone return from inactivity in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. With varying degrees of success, missionary work has been a constant for me, partly because I've been a public figure my entire adult life. Certainly it’s not easy, which is directly related to the euphoria and jubilation we feel when our efforts lead to true conversion.
Three weeks ago, we invited the missionaries serving in our LDS ward over for dinner, Sister Brittany Daniels of Idaho and Sister Jidileah Baluyot from the Philippines. We were all so taken with Sister Baluyot’s sense of humor, lovable naiveté and moxie, a word I rarely use to describe a missionary. We asked if they’d return for another dinner the following week. My wife grew up in Hawaii with lots of Filipinos, so she asked if Sister Baluyot knew how to make some of my wife's favorite Filipino dishes, like chicken and pork adobo. Turns out she did. So we designated the following Wednesday evening as “Filipino Night” in our home.
Our challenge was simple: Have someone at Filipino Night for the sisters to teach. One week.
My wife and I made it a matter of prayer, asking the Lord to bless that our paths would cross with someone he's prepared and we could invite to our home.
Two days later, we were having lunch with some friends at the local Cracker Barrel when a handsome, Hispanic-looking couple was seated at the table next to us. Immediately, I could tell they recognized me. The wife was clutching her cellphone camera and looking for an opportunity to ask for a photo.
Just before our bill arrived, they approached us and sheepishly asked if I’d be willing to have my picture taken with them. We did, and they introduced themselves as Ron and Angie Stewart. When I asked where they were from, the reply was, “We live in Willingboro, N.J. (a nearby town), now. We grew up in California but we’re originally from the Philippines.”
“You gotta be kidding me,” I said. “You’re not gonna believe this. We’re Mormons and two days ago, a new Mormon missionary from Manila came to dinner. She’s returning next Wednesday with her companion to make chicken and pork adobo for our first-ever Filipino Night. Do you guys make any Filipino dishes?”
Before Angie answered, Ron replied, “My wife is a great cook. Any Filipino dish you like.”
That’s how quickly and easily an appointment was made.
The Stewarts came with pans of pork and chicken adobo and another pan of "biko," a dish of sweet brown rice. I’m not sure who was more excited to meet a fellow Filipino in the area, the Stewarts or Sister Baluyot.
As they visited during dinner, turns out Angie, who is also from Manila, knew of Sister Baluyot’s uncle, a famous Filipino politician, and was very familiar with Sister Baluyot’s neighborhood. Ron and I also made personal connections. His cousin, Junior Pueliu, is Samoan/Filipino and is related to or knows a bunch of the legends of Polynesian football.
As dinner concluded, I simply announced, “it’s customary when the missionaries visit that they present us with a spiritual message.”
We moved to the living room where Sisters Daniels and Baluyot opened by singing “Families Can Be Together Forever,” accompanied by our son LJ on the piano. Their voices blended so well and in such harmony that it surprised us, especially the Stewarts, who wiped at tears trickling down their beautiful brown cheeks. Following an opening prayer and the missionaries' short message on eternal families, I asked the Stewarts if they believed in coincidences. One did, and the other wasn’t sure.
“Ron and Angie,” I said, “it just happens that I don’t. Exactly a week ago, these two missionaries came for dinner. We set a date for Filipino Night for this very evening. You had no way of knowing this, but we prayed fervently every morning and night that God would place someone in our path who would accept our invitation to be here tonight. Two days after setting this date, you were seated next to us at Cracker Barrel. You approached us. Turns out you’re both Filipino. To me, that's not coincidence. Could God have been more clear in answering our prayers? We invited you and here we are.”
I continued: “I know you felt something strange yet familiar as you heard Sister Daniels and Sister Baluyot sing. I believe you also felt it during their short message. I testify of the truths they taught. What you felt was the spirit of God. It is sweet and memorable. Remember how it feels because it’s still present. With that said, would you be interested in hearing more of what they taught, learning how you can become an eternal family and how you may have and cultivate this feeling in your home and in your lives?”
“Of course,” was their reply.
Our second lesson happened two days ago on Tuesday night, dinner included, of course. This time, the Stewarts' two young single adult sons came along. What amazing young men. Apples don't fall far from the tree.
I'll tell you about it next week and introduce you to Ronaldo and Ronell Stewart.
But here's a hint: It was glorious.
Vai Sikahema anchors the morning news for NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is a two-time NFL All-Pro and two-time Emmy winner and is enshrined in the BYU Sports and Philadelphia Broadcast halls of fame. He received the 2012 Deseret News President's Award.