I remember serving in Germany over three decades ago, and a day with a letter (ANY letter!) was brighter. It rarely mattered to me what the letter said – just having it in the mailbox when I got home meant something to me. I was fortunate that the folks who did write to me (mostly my mom and dad and siblings – oh, and the young woman who would become my wife) wrote great letters – news about what was happening in their lives, favorite scriptures, words of encouragement. But I did know a few missionaries who got awful letters, so it’s worth talking about what to write.
The New Era thought it was important to talk about, too. You can read a 2007 article on the subject here.
Here are things I liked reading about as a missionary:
1. Real life – what’s going on in the lives of the people I care about. My parents lived in Lagos, Nigeria during my mission, so my mom always had a great story of discover or adventure. My wife-to-be (I don’t really know what to call her; we had no commitment to one another when I left, so she wasn’t really even my girlfriend, though I think we both hoped from the beginning that things would work out, and fortunately (for me, anyway) they did) wrote about her schooling or work, and about the friends we had in common, and about her family. She ended up spending six months during my mission on study abroad in Austria, so she often had interesting adventures to report, too.Here are some other observations:
2. Inspiration and encouragement – one of my sisters liked to send me quotations from famous German composers about the divine inspiration they felt contributed to their work. It was cool to read those quotations while serving in their homeland. My brother, who had also served a mission, occasionally sent me ideas for scripture study or district meetings. I like to share my own mission experiences in my letters to missionaries.
3. Questions about me – I liked that letter-writers were interested in what I was doing. I never got so many letters that I could not answer them. The only letter I sent every week was to my parents. My girlfriend and I wrote about every two weeks, which allowed us to respond to one another’s letters rather than having to force a letter each week. And all the other letters were infrequent enough that I could respond to questions. I will often ask missionaries questions in my letters, but I also tell them I don’t really expect an answer. Lots of missionaries now have weekly letters posted to blogs or Facebook so their friends can keep up with what’s going on.
4. Testimony – it was helpful to me to have letter writers share their faith and testimonies, either based on their study of the scriptures or their own experience.
1. Short letters are ok, too. Letters need not be long epistles. In fact, most missionaries don’t have time to dwell on long letters, and family emails that are long will rob a missionary from writing time. A thoughtful card might be as helpful to a missionary as a long doctrinal discourse.
2. Some subject matter is better avoided. A long standing joke with my wife is my reaction (which has expanded in the repeated telling of the story) when she told me in a letter that she had gone out with a friend of mine – an RM from my dorm. She never ever mentioned dating anyone again after that. I remember visiting another companionship’s apartment when one of the elders got a letter from a young woman who recounted in great detail (I know because he insisted on reading it to us) a pool party she’d attended with their mutual friends. As he read the letter out loud, the Spirit fled from the room and he was completely unfocused for quite some time.
3. Dear John letters stink, but like removal of a band-aid, they are better done quickly. An elder in one apartment we shared suspected for weeks that his girlfriend was dropping him. Her weekly letters stopped abruptly. For several weeks he complained about her silence. Finally he got word that she had, in fact, decided to end their relationship. How much more of a blessing it would have been to get that letter earlier on.
4. Packages are always a welcome surprise! But the New Era article reminds readers to check potential customs costs. In some countries packages are not practical. (A mission president who served in South America said they told families who were sending new shoes to missionaries to send each shoe in a separate package to reduce the risk of theft.) One of my sisters sent a spectacular package my first Christmas, filled with my favorite goodies. It was a lot of work for her to put the package together, and shipping it wasn’t cheap for her, either. Unfortunately, the day before it arrived, they had repainted the lobby of our walk-up apartment and taken down the mailboxes. When they put up new mailboxes, it took us a day to get our name on the box. In that city, if your name wasn’t on the box, they marked your mail as undeliverable and returned it. She got that large Christmas package back around Valentine’s Day. (Of course that wasn’t her fault, but it illustrates one of many possible complications with package shipments.)
Here’s my advice: write to your favorite missionary! Even a postcard or a note of encouragement will be welcome. One of my daughters wrote to her missionary friends every few months – often enough to stay in touch, but not so often to have it be an onerous task.
Feel free to share your thoughts about what, how and how often to write.