“Telling the new missionaries their influence “will extend far beyond what you see and will ever know,” Elder Uchtdorf shared a story of a friend receiving an unexpected email, not recognizing the sender’s name and nearly deleting it. Opening the email, he saw a photograph of himself as a missionary serving in a faraway country 46 years earlier. The email text — written in Spanish — asked: “I would like to know if this is you in this photograph?” The photo was from when he and his companion had taught a young family — mother, father and two daughters — who joined the Church. It was a time when a great political divide resulted in a military coup, the overthrow of the old regime and the arrest and imprisonment of dissenters.
Mindful of the Savior’s teachings in Matthew 25, the two missionaries got the warden’s approval to visit the prisoners. But rather than meeting a few men in a small room, the two missionaries faced a large, bare, concrete-and-brick room with 200-plus prisoners standing silently, staring and waiting. “My friend was not expecting this at all, and he nearly panicked wondering what he could say,” Elder Uchtdorf said. “He spoke a few words of encouragement and hope. He testified of Jesus Christ. He told them that God loved them and that if they drew near to God, God would draw near to them.” The warden reluctantly agreed to the missionaries’ request to shake the hands of the prisoners.
“It began to grow upon this young elder that he had made a mistake — he could feel the hate and hostility coming from some of the men,” said Elder Uchtdorf, explaining that some in the country believed the rumor that missionaries from the United States were CIA agents and partly responsible for the political upheaval. As they went down the line of prisoners shaking hands, some pleaded for help, while others said nothing and simply stared. “My friend chalked the whole experience up as a poor decision on his part,” Elder Uchtdorf said, “and he felt extremely blessed that God had protected him and his companion.”
Forty-six years later, his friend learned the rest of the story. One of the inmates was particularly touched by the Spirit that day, deciding that if he ever left that prison alive, he would find the Church these two young men represented. He did, developing his own testimony, becoming an active member and then serving a mission himself. After returning, he attended a ward in his hometown and met a young woman who also was a convert to the Church; they fell in love and married.
Years later, as the couple talked about how each had learned about the Church, the wife pulled out a photograph of the missionary who had taught her family. Her husband could not believe it — the image on the photograph was the same missionary who had come to the prison and spoke to the inmates. The couple became a pillar of the Church, with the husband later serving as branch and district president, bishop and stake president. Four of their sons served missions. Of course, Elder Uchtdorf’s friend never knew what had happened after he left the area.
“He told me that this had nothing to do with him or anything he said. It was an example of our Heavenly Father using [his] imperfect efforts to bring about His own purposes.” Wrote the man who had been imprisoned: “You don’t know how many years I have wanted to find you, so that I could tell you how beautiful my life has been since I was baptized. … I am sure that you never thought your mission would bring such great happiness to a family so far from your country. … Can you see the beauty of this work? … I am eternally grateful.”