On Thanksgiving day, Kayden Carlos stepped off a plane in Salt Lake City after completing a two-year assignment for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Maryland Baltimore Mission.
For some, his tearful and cheerful family reunion at the bottom of the airport escalators seemed like the classic final scene of an honorable Mormon mission. But for Carlos, the traditional removal of his cherished black name tag isn’t the end of the real mission that matters most.
It’s just the beginning.
Carlos, of Brigham City, first determined to serve a mission as an energetic boy in Primary.
“I was going, no matter what,” Carlos said during a phone interview this week. The decision to serve was made as his parents reconciled from a near-divorce and while his father struggled with chronic illness.
“My family wasn’t very active in the church and my mother was a meth addict, but a meeting with the missionaries and their invitation for her to start reading the scriptures again changed her life,” he said. As Carlos’ father was dying, his mother got clean, got back to church and the family was mended.
But while Carlos’ mother, Julie, was celebrating sobriety, her 12-year-old son was dancing with alcohol for the first time.
“I was at a party during the summer before starting sixth grade when some of the kids started drinking. One of the moms was even there. That was my first taste,” he said.
Months later at a concert, Carlos smoked marijuana with older friends. The evening led to his first citation.
During the seventh grade, on a day that should have featured a planned skiing trip with his brother, Carlos experimented with cocaine. The very same afternoon, he tried methamphetamines.
Soon Carlos was using cocaine and dabbling with ecstasy, mushrooms and more. By the time he reached high school, he was dealing. The charismatic young man amassed an impressive clientele and was earning more money than many of his teachers. He’d also scored a rap sheet featuring at least 50 charges for everything from curfew violations to assault.
Even after a profound spiritual experience, one too personal for print, Carlos soon slid back into both using and dealing. The next several seasons were a rollercoaster of brief recoveries followed by steep crashes.
During what became his longest-to-date period of sobriety, Carlos slipped again by simply putting himself in the wrong place.
“I’d had a bad day, that’s it. And I was hanging out with some friends and there it was, right in front of me," he said. "They didn’t even have to tempt me. Just like that, I was gone again.”
More than just gone, Carlos hit rock bottom. He couldn’t go 24 hours without a fix.
As he began his senior year, Carlos was using less but dealing more than ever. Then on a typical morning like so many during those years, his life hit a crossroads.
"I was sitting at home — I’ll never forget it — I was playing a video game and a customer of mine was shooting up next to me," he said.
In gritty, graphic detail, Carlos described the circumstances that led to the man’s head falling on his lap.
“He overdosed right there," Carlos recalled. "I started screaming for help. I couldn’t feel a pulse. I just knew he was dead. I remember calling out to God for help, to save him, and he did.”
The friend gasped for air, quickly recovered and Carlos’ life finally began to change — for good.
During an interview that day with law enforcement, Carlos was given a final chance to come clean in every way. Even now he doesn’t fully understand why he received such a gift, but he knew if he didn’t seize the moment, he’d soon be dead.
It was during this time of self-reflection that an uncle, Jeff Jones, posed this simple question, “Kayden, what do you really want?”
Carlos answered that despite his struggles, he still longed to serve a mission, but felt he wasn’t ready or worthy to even consider it. With love in his eyes and honesty in his voice, Jones testified that God still believed in him.
“He told me he really felt Heavenly Father had work for me to do,” Carlos said. “And I wanted to do it.”
That conversation, linked with the image of a user near death, sparked a two-year journey of forgiveness and getting the know the Lord again.
“It was the most painful thing I’d ever done," Carlos said. "It was intense repentance.”
Two years later, on Nov. 19, 2014, after countless meetings with priesthood leaders and after learning to lean fully of the Savior, Carlos opened that iconic white envelope and read a call that once seemed impossible.
According to companions, LDS Church members and his two mission presidents — Mark Richards and Randal Christiansen — Carlos’ service in the Maryland Baltimore Mission was a tremendous success. Having personally worked with him on many occasions, I add my own witness that he was among the finest missionaries I’ve ever known.
When I asked Carlos to identify the greatest lessons of his 10-year journey from a middle school party to an unlikely returned missionary, Carlos pointed immediately to heaven.
“I’ve come to realize that Heavenly Father is aware of his children and he knows our circumstances," he said. "I’ve also learned that Christ truly atoned for our sins, all of them, and that his Atonement is individualized to each of us. He knew all along how to help me overcome my obstacles.”
With emotion peeking into our conversation, Carlos shared his faith that Christ has helped him to change his nature.
“I’ve been refined and molded. And service has allowed me to know the Savior deeper than before.”
Carlos now hopes to share his journey in appropriate ways with other young people.
“I want them to know that as they lose themselves in service, and come to know Christ, as they put everything on the altar, they will gain so much more," he said. "It’s a pattern that as we give more, we gain more, and we become more like Heavenly Father.”
Carlos added that even if a young person cannot serve an 18- or 24-month proselyting mission, there are other highly meaningful ways to lose oneself in service.
For parents of teens experiencing the same struggles, Carlos knows how painfully tough it can be. Still, he offers this beautiful counsel.
“Trust that the Lord is aware of them. And love your kids. Love them for who they are, but never enable them to fail," he said. "Be sure they always know they are a child of God and no matter what, they can overcome it and find joy.”
After a long breath and a moment to gather up his thoughts like tiny treasures, Carlos added this postscript: “They are loved. That's the most important message."
But for Kayden Carlos, it’s much more than a message. It’s a mission.