Scope and Uniqueness of Missionary Work

At church recently, I made an interesting observation. 

In Sacrament meeting, a recently returned missionary from Monrovia, Liberia in Africa, was one of the speakers giving a phenomenal talk. Then in Priesthood meeting, there were two young men who were brothers in the class. Their father works for a US-based company and are an American family currently living in the Philippines. One of the brothers just returned from his mission in Mexico and the other had just received his missionary call to serve in Madagascar off the southeast coast of southern Africa. 

After the priesthood meeting, I was chatting with a visitor in the class from Australia who is in the Philippines on business and mentioned that he had served his mission in the South Africa Cape Town mission. I told him that as a young man I had served my mission is South Africa. At that time, when I was in South Africa, there was only one mission on the African continent which was the South African mission based in Johannesburg. There are now four missions in South Africa and forty missions throughout Africa.  

Earlier this week, we were assigned to mentor the Call’s, a senior couple from South Carolina, that had just arrived to begin their Member Leader Support (MLS) missionary service in the Quezon City Mission. With their arrival, there are now 29 senior couples and two senior sister missionaries serving in the Metro Manila area and nearly three times that number in the rest of the Philippines serving in MLS, humanitarian, medical, dental, mental health, family history, legal, admin support, and of course Marcia and I serving in gathering Filipino church history. 

Standing in front of the marker that summaries the history of the Buendia Chapel which was the first chapel in the Philippines that was dedicated in 1966. We are with the Call’s and members of the Makati 4th Ward.

Buendia Chapel in Makati in the Mid 1970s.

The picture above was taken in 1975. If the above picture had been taken in 1966, the tall building behind the chapel wasn’t there because Makati, which is now one of the financial center cities in the Philippines, was just a cow pasture and the chapel was the only large building the area.

This is a picture of Makati in 2024. The chapel is in the middle of all of these buildings.

Personal Reflection on Missionaries

After retuning home from church, I reflected on the nearly hundred thousand currently serving missionaries, both young men and woman and senior couples serving around the world and the miracle of the missionary program – and in my opinion, it is truly a miracle. In our own family, four of our children and three grandchildren have served missions. I have seen the benefits this type of service has on the person not to mention others they have touched in their missionary service. I’m just glad to be where we are now and to be a small part of the Lord’s work in this part of the world….although with record high temperature – schools have been closed more than a week – and humidity Marcia is thankful to have air conditioning – some missionaries don’t have this convenience.

One of the unique parts of our work in compiling the stories and the history of the Lord’s work in the Philippines, is that occasionally we get to record oral history interviews with current and former missionaries that served decades earlier. Recently, we had the opportunity to interview Elder Lyle Brownell. He served in the Philippines in the 1970’s and had returned to the Philippines to attend the Urdaneta Temple open house that was dedicated on April 28, 2024 by Elder Dallin Oaks of the First Presidency.  I am really impressed that Elder Oaks who is now in his ninety second year made the brutal trip from the U.S. to the Philippines. He was assigned this temple dedication because he served as the Area President to the Philippines Area 2002-2004. There are ten more temples that have been announced that will eventually be opened in the Philippines.

Missionary Returns to the Philippines Nearly Fifty Years Later

Elder Brownell served in the Philippines from 1975-1977. He currently lives in Washington state. After graduating from college, he returned to live in the Seattle area. He was one of six children and most of them live in the area so deciding where to live wasn’t a difficult decision. With a degree in engineering after several years in this field, he went into partnership with a friend starting a HVAC business. 

A few years ago, he sold his interest in his HVAC business to his partner and retired. Coming back to the Philippines was always one of his dreams and with the third temple opening in an area where he served more than 25% of his mission, he decided to return for the Urdaneta Temple open house and to see if he could locate some of the people he had taught and baptized.

When I learned that he was returning to the Philippines, I arranged for him to come to our office in Quezon City, and talk about his experiences in opening new areas for missionary work as a young missionary. In our oral history interview, he shared some interesting insights and experiences of one of the small cities he opened for missionary work.

For context and to be able to appreciate some of his stories and experiences, you must picture a young man of nineteen years of age in a foreign country sent to an area of the Philippines that had never seen missionaries before. There were no church buildings, few members – the members that did live in the area had moved to the area to work on the Clark U.S. military base or work for companies that provided services to the military. The base was ten or fifteen miles away from Urdaneta where he was assigned as a missionary in the mid-1970s. 

As a young missionary, he was responsible to find a home or building to rent for church services as well as to where they would live. Also, keep in mind, that living conditions in the rural areas of the Philippines at this time was third world type of conditions for young missionaries. 

The First Meetinghouse in Urdaneta that Elder Brownell searched out and rented. The missionaries lived on the top floor and the church meetings were on the main floor.

As they began their missionary work, they had a fair amount of success because the Philippines is a Christian nation and believe in God and Christ. Elder Brownell at the age of nineteen just turning twenty was asked by the mission president to be the Urdaneta group leader. A group is a small band of members organized to meet together before the organization of a branch of the Church. For all practical purpose, Elder Brownell became the equivalent to a Catholic Priest or protestant minister for the Church in the area. 

One of the first families they introduced the Church to had just had their first child. They were poor and lived with their parents. Their parents weren’t too happy with their decision on joining this new and unfamiliar church run by these young green-behind-the-ears American missionaries. Nevertheless, the couple had a spiritual experience and acted on that feeling and joined the Church. A few months later, their child got sick. These new members called Elder Brownell and his companion and asked them to give a blessing to their sick child. 

This was one of the first times Elder Brownell had used his priesthood to give a blessing for the healing of the sick. The child did not improve and a few days later died. Devastated the young couple called Elder Brownell and his companion to help with the funeral services. In the Philippines, funerals are a big deal. It is customary to provide a wake complete with food and the hiring of professional wailer to weep and cry during the wake. None of this was financially possible for this young couple. 

However, since this couple asked the missionaries to help the family plan the funeral, Elder Brownell, never hesitated and was there for the family. Before he went to visit the family to make arrangements for the funeral, he called the mission president to get some advice on how to proceed. The mission president was based in Manila a four-hour drive from Urdaneta. After listening to Elder Brownell’s situation, the mission president told Elder Brownell and his companion to do what they felt inspired to do within a few parameters of church procedure. As Elder Brownell was sharing this story, I thought about how the mission president with empathy for the situation taught these young missionaries a valuable lesson…rely on the Lord and the Holy Ghost and if you do this with sincere intent, you will be given guidance as needed. And if not, valuable lessons will be learned. I thought was instructive that the mission president didn’t try to solve the problem but taught these missionaries how to solve problems in the future. 

Back to this story. The young couple’s family was pressuring the young couple to have a wake complete with food and funeral inviting friends and family something this young couple didn’t have the means to afford. They were about to go into debt to have a wake and funeral that the family wanted. When Elder Brownell met with the young couple, he took charge. Keep in mind that this is twenty-year-old young man with no relevant experience in these types of matters. He offered the meetinghouse at no cost (most churches charged to use their building), offered to organize the entire funeral service, arranged for the few Relief Society sisters in their small congregation to provide some food – not a banquet but a simple meal, all at no expense to this couple. 

Also, Elder Brownell arranged for a small wood casket painted white for the baby. After the funeral services at a Church’s rented meetinghouse, a short graveside service was held and after the dedication of the gravesite, the family left the small white casket to be buried and returned to their home. After everyone had left, Elder Brownell saw that the grave that had been dug by the cemetery workers was too small for the casket. Without a lot of fuss or leaving it for the cemetery workers to figure this out, he and his companion found the shovels and enlarged the grave themselves so the casket would fit and could be buried. All of this was done and unknown to the family. 

As I listened to this experience, now an older and a wiser man, Elder Brownell shared how this experience was one of many dominos that shaped his life during and after his mission. He went on to share how quickly the Church grew in the Urdaneta area. Nearly every weekend, this missionary companionship had to rent Jeepney’s or a bus to transport people from Urdaneta to the ocean beach where people they had been teaching were baptized in the ocean. 

He served in this area for six months and from a handful of saints that formed the first group of members grew into a fast-growing branch in Urdaneta. During his time in Urdaneta he organized church services, called people to leadership roles, taught seminary, Sunday school, priesthood classes, collected tithing and fast offerings, and started the relief society and primary programs and did all this well before his twenty first birthday.

As he continued to teach families, many of the people they were teaching began to accept the gospel and request baptism. The only place that was available for people to be baptized was off of a beach at the South China Sea, a drive of fifteen miles from the chapel. Every weekend, the missionaries rented buses and Jeepney’s to get people to the beach.

Rented buses that were used to transport people to the beach for baptisms

Friends and family watch from rocks on the beach as their friends are baptized

Below a father, mother, and son’s short walk back to the beach after being baptized in the South China Sea with missionaries with two witnesses.

Elder Brownell discusses the importance of the ordinance of baptism

From the time Elder Burnell served in the Urdaneta area, today there are three stakes in the Urdaneta area, the mission has been divided multiple times, and now the third temple in the Philippines is opening.

I can only imagine how satisfying and meaningful it must have been when he returned with his wife to the area where he served nearly fifty years ago and to see the fruits of his labors.

Things I continue to learn about the Philippines…..

Dogs are still on the menu in parts of the Philippines.

Although animal rights groups successfully lobbied the Philippines government to end eating of dog meats in 1998 and subsequently to enforce this anti-dog meat legislation, some in the Filipino culture still consider dog meat a part of traditional food Philippines’ cuisine. This attitude is more common in rural provinces than in metro areas and is slowly disappearing as the older generation passes on.

Thought of the day:

Always live your life as if someone is watching you.

Scriptural thought:

Matthew 7:8: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.