Where Following Him Can Lead


Ellen Bunker
Devotional Talk Given at
Brigham Young University–Hawaii

May 10, 2007
Ellen Bunker
Visiting Professor
Department of English Language Teaching & Learning

In my missionary scriptures, I have a quote from Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone which I found while serving in Thailand. He said, "Walking in His footsteps will take us to certain places where we wouldn't suppose life would ever take us" (Ensign, Feb. 1981).

I wrote Elder Featherstone's quote in my scriptures because at the time I read it, I was working in a refugee camp in Thailand. How could I have ever imagined while growing up in the small town of Chino Valley, Arizona, that I would someday find myself working in a refugee camp in Southeast Asia?

I received my first mission call to Indonesia, but the week before entering the MTC, my call was changed to the Philippines because of visa problems. I served in the Philippines a year before being transferred to Thailand to work in the refugee camp.

At that time, refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were fleeing the war in their countries. The Church volunteered to assist the United Nations; sister missionaries were called from several missions in Asia to work in the refugee camp. We were assigned to teach cultural orientation and English.

Working in a refugee camp, along with other missionary experiences, proved to be life changing for me. First, these experiences became the basis of a life-long professional career that has brought me many blessings and opportunities, both teaching English and working in international development.

Second, the experiences in the camp became significant spiritual experiences. I will share a couple of them with you.

Near the time I read the article by Elder Featherstone, I was reading in Isaiah and was profoundly struck by this sacred description of the mission of Jesus Christ.

In Isaiah Chapter 61 we read:

1 The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
2 To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn;
3 To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.

This is the same scripture the Savior read at the synagogue in Nazareth at the beginning of His ministry (see Luke 4: 16-21). Notice how much of the Savior's mission applies to people in refugee camps—to "bind up the brokenhearted," to "proclaim liberty to the captives, and the "opening of the prison to them that are bound." The refugees were certainly captives, even in the refugee camps, and many had suffered greatly through war and turmoil. They had many reasons to be broken hearted.

As I pondered the significance of these verses about Christ, it was as though I could see the Savior walking the dusty roads of that refugee camp in Phanat Nikom, comforting the weary, homeless, suffering people. I know He knew of them even if they did not yet know Him as the author of that comfort.

Shortly before Christmas in 1981, Elder Marion D. Hanks, who was presiding over the Asia Area at that time, came to visit us in the camp. He had told us that we would have one of the best Christmases of our lives as we served the refugees. He read to us what he called the TRUE Christmas story….I have written in my scriptures, "The Christmas story." You know this scripture—when Christ comes in his glory, He will put His sheep on His right hand and say to them:

35 For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me (Matthew 25:35-40).

When Christmas Day arrived, the sister missionaries assigned to the camp put on a Christmas program for five different groups of refugees—Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Hmong, and Yao.

In the Vietnamese section, as we portrayed the manger scene and were singing "Away in a Manager," a young mother near the front, walked up and presented her young baby in place of the rolled up towel we were using for the new born Jesus. For the entire song, the small and beautiful Asian baby looked up at the sister representing Mary and a sweet and quiet spirit came over the large group. The Spirit of Christ came that Christmas day to the Phanat Nikom refugee camp. How blessed we were as missionaries to have followed Him to that place at that time—to have a blessed Christmas Day.

Elder Featherstone writes in his article that we cannot follow in the footsteps of the Savior without learning to love people. I would say that one of the great and lasting blessings from my mission experiences was learning to love people of any background or country and feeling their love in return. That experience has led me to many other tremendous experiences with people from around the world, including those I enjoy here at BYUH.

Where will you go as you follow the Savior? How do you find the adventures the Lord has prepared for you? How do you get to those places where you never supposed life would take you? Today, I share some suggestions.

First, we must learn to do what the Savior has done. Christ said, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, this is my gospel; and ye know the things that ye must do in my church; for the works which ye have seen me do that shall ye also do; for that which ye have seen me do even that shall ye do" (3 Nephi 27: 21).

In a conference talk on becoming a disciple of Christ, President James E. Faust listed five things we can do to emulate Jesus. Using his list, let's look at "where following Him can lead:"

President Faust said, "Jesus went about doing good." We can all do something good every day—for a family member, a friend, or even a stranger—if we will look for those opportunities.

I promised myself after my mission, that I would take advantage of any opportunity that came to give further service internationally. One day three years later, Sister Mary Ellen Edmunds called and asked, "Want to go to Africa?"

"Yes!" I said, without asking where or why.

So, another opportunity arose that blessed my life. I worked for the Thrasher Research Fund on a village health project in Nigeria. It was our blessing to live next door to the branch president and his family. In our work, his wife, Cecilia, became our best helper and friend as she assisted us in our project work.

Here is a picture of her with her youngest son back in 1985 at the time I was working there. What a noble woman she was. She and her family worked hard and yet had time to serve others every single day. She certainly made our work more effective.

I know that Cecilia has continued her life of service, as the small branch we attended has become a stake and she has served as a stake Relief Society president.

Two days ago I received from Sister Edmunds a more current picture of Cecilia and her husband, Samuel, one that made us both cry.

Here are Samuel and Cecilia on the day they received their endowments in the Aba, Nigeria Temple. I have carried love for them in my heart ever since I lived next door to these good, good neighbors. How wonderful that through the temple building of President Hinckley, they, and many others like them, may enter the House of the Lord and be sealed as a family. How blessed I was to live there and know them.

President Faust said "Jesus was the Good Shepherd who watched over His sheep and had concern for those that were lost. We can seek out the lonely or those who are less active and befriend them."

One of my missionary companions was an adult convert of the Church. She had joined the Church in her forties, and although she always had a testimony of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, she did not develop a habit of attending church. But over a ten year period she had faithful home and visiting teachers who came to visit. One day, while working in her garden, she found an old, weather-beaten paper in the weeds. She picked it up to see what it was and discovered a note from her visiting teachers from several months before. As she looked at the note, remembering that these faithful sisters had come to her home every month for three years, she said, "If they love me that much, I am going back to church." Come back she did. She went on a mission at age 68 where she blessed me as her companion, as well as all those that she taught. What brought about that change? Faithful visiting teachers, consistently giving service and visiting someone less active.

From President Faust, point three:
"Jesus had compassion on many, including a poor leper. We too can have compassion. We are reminded in the Book of Mormon that we are 'to mourn with those that mourn.'"

When I lived in Virginia, I served in the Young Women. We had an exceptional group of youth. One of them, Lucy, had moved with her family to the United States from Kenya.

Lucy had, on this one occasion, gathered up the youth in the ward and enough parents and leaders to provide rides to attend the monthly tri-stake dance. At the dance, as I was watching the youth, a high councilor from the host stake stopped by to visit. As we were visiting, he pointed to a young man, sitting on the side of the dance floor with his head in his hands. That priesthood leader was the home teacher of the young man and he shared his story with me. After he left, I was determined to help the young man, so I moved toward the youth from my ward to bring the young man to their attention. Before I could get there, out from the group emerged Lucy, and walking halfway across the cultural hall, she came up to the young man, tapped him on the shoulder, and asked him to dance. He seemed startled for a bit, but got to his feet and went to dance. I watched that young man all night and never again was he sitting by himself on the sidelines.

But let me tell you the rest of the story. His home teacher told me that he had been in a serious accident and had been in a coma for several months. He had only recently recovered, but was still struggling, in the words of the home teacher, to "come out of his cave" socially. The home teacher knew that his parents had forced him to come to the dance to try to help him in his recovery. And what did lovely Lucy do? She looked, saw someone isolated and not participating, and reached out across the distance to include him. Could I have imagined I would be in such a place to see this precious gift?

I wrote an email message to Lucy to ask her permission to use this story and to get her picture. She replied to me this morning and said she didn't know about this story. Of course she didn't know the story about the young man; she just asked from her heart because she has a compassionate heart. Lucy graduated last week from Southern Virginia University.

"Jesus bore witness of His divine mission and of His Father's great work. For our part, we can all "stand as witnesses of God at all times."

We can bear witness with our words and with our actions. We recently had a wedding in our family—I pause to say that you should know that our families are one of the most important places following Him will lead us. This wedding has a story.

My niece, Mari—some of you may know her since she lived here with me during Fall semester—was married in March.

John, her new husband, joined the Church just over a year ago. When he came to work in Arizona, he lived with some co-workers who happened to all be returned missionaries. When President Hinckley asked the members of the Church to read the Book of Mormon, his roommates obeyed and because they were all reading the Book of Mormon, John decided to read it, too. Then he called up the missionaries and asked them to teach him.

In our family, we call him President Hinckley's convert, but he was also directly influenced by the example of his roommates and the spirit of the Book of Mormon.

John and Mari were sealed in the Mesa, Arizona Temple.

At their sealing were two missionaries, one of whom had taught John the gospel. John had asked him to serve as his witness at the wedding. With permission, he came to the temple to perform this service for the investigator he taught and baptized—on the very last day of his mission!

What a wonderful day it was! To what a beautiful place following Him had led our family—to the temple in company with family and friends and those two missionaries.

Finally, President Faust said that:
"Jesus invited "the little children to come unto [Him]." Our children need our attention and love as well as our care.

I have many stories I could tell about how my life has been blessed by children and I wish I had time to share several of them. I could, for example, show you from the refugee camp how much children love me. You can't see if very well, but the baby is howling. I think the baby really didn't like the diaper.

While I was in graduate school, I had a professor who claimed that there were no "local communities" left in our modern world, that we couldn't really "belong" anywhere any more. I wrote a paper in response, claiming that the Church was a local community. She disagreed and made me defend my point in class. But I won the day, for you see, two weeks after arriving in Pennsylvania to go to school, I was called as the Relief Society president for the ward. So within the first few months, I came to know many people well and to participate in their lives. I used several examples to support the fact that I "belonged" to this community even though I had only been there a short time. For example, within one week I had helped dress the body of a beloved ninety-year-old sister for her burial and held the new daughter of my counselor and her husband just two hours after she arrived on earth.

For you to see, here is a current picture of that beautiful baby, Lici Kanan, seated with her mother, Shannon. How could I not feel that I belonged when I had the privilege to share these most important moments of life with those in my church community? How can you not belong when o share your life and love with children?

So, as you can see, following in His footsteps has taken me to places I never supposed I would be—all wonderful experiences, but all of them created from opportunities to serve and build up the Kingdom of the Lord here upon the earth.

As we learn of the Savior, we can do as He did. But, as a second step, we must also make a firm commitment to follow Him. Elder Neal A. Maxwell tells a story about his experiences during World War II. He was being fired on by the enemy and after offering what he called a "frightened and selfish prayer," the shooting stopped. Elder Maxwell explained:

"The prayer was accompanied by my pledge of a lifetime of service—a pledge which, though imperfectly, I've tried to keep. With this blessing and pledge, I was nudged toward discipleship.... I had been blessed, and I knew that God knew that I knew." (Ensign, June 1996).

We know how faithfully Elder Maxwell worked to honor his pledge to the Lord all the days of his life and how much he blessed us with his service. I, for one, still miss his conference addresses.

President Hinckley also tells of such a defining moment. When he was first on his mission, he found the work discouraging. I'm sure you have heard the story. He wrote to his father saying he was wasting time and money. His father wrote back:

"Dear Gordon, I have your recent letter. I have only one suggestion: forget yourself and go to work." Earlier that morning my companion and I had read these words of the Lord: "Whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it" (Mark 8:35).

Those words of the Master, followed by my father's letter, went into my very being. I went into our bedroom and got on my knees and made a pledge to the Lord. I covenanted that I would try to forget myself and lose myself in His service.

That July day in 1933 was my day of decision. A new light came into my life and a new joy into my heart. (Friend, June 2006)

Have you had your "day of decision?" Have you had your "defining moment?"

I know the blessings I enjoyed on my mission came partly from a defining moment in the MTC. When I first arrived, I was told of the great work other welfare service missionaries were doing around the world. In my heart, I said I would be one of those missionaries they talked about. But the good Spirit of the MTC humbled me as the weeks went by and by the end of my stay, I promised the Lord that I would serve Him in any way, no matter how small, even if it was only to help one person take one step. Wouldn't you say that it is a credit to the Lord's sense of humor that our work in the refugee camp made it into the Church News?

Like Elder Maxwell, I feel I have fulfilled my pledge imperfectly, but I do recognize that every good gift and blessing in my life has come from following the teachings of the Savior.

At the same time, I realize, and you should know, that following the Savior does not always lead to exotic locales and high level leadership positions. Most often, it lead toe quiet, consistent service given as home and visiting teachers, mothers and fathers, and good friends and neighbors.

Let me end with one such recent story in my life, a small precious moment that can be replicated by all of us over and over as we try to follow Jesus Christ.

While I was on the mainland for the wedding, I spent time with members of my family.

Following that visit, in fact just a couple of weeks ago, I got a letter in the mail from Kirra, the daughter of my niece. In the envelope was a picture of her at her baptism and a letter she had written. She said:

Dear Aunty Ellen,

How are you? I'm fine. I wrote to you because I wanted to talk to you. So, what's it like in Hawaii? My dad said that there are really big waves. Have you ever ridden those waves? How long have you lived in Hawaii? What type of people are in your English class?

I'm hoping this reaches you soon, because I want you to know I like you. Also, I wanted to tell you, my teacher caught me read 1-5 of the Harry Potter books and asked me if I wanted to make a Harry Potter poster. I said yes. I think it might be ready by next week, so I'll send you a picture of it soon!

Write back soon! I love you and hope you're doing fabulous inn Hawaii!

Yours Truly,

P.S. What's your Email address?

Now, isn't life good when you get a letter like that in the mail? As I said earlier, many of the most precious blessings that come from following the Savior may be part of life without families. But time spent with children is precious.

Additionally, as we follow the Savior, we should not expect that all will be easy.

Elder Wirthlin said in 2002:

"May I extend a word of caution? There are those who feel that if we follow the Savior, our lives will be free from worry, pain, and fear. This is not so! The Savior Himself was described as a man of sorrows. Those early disciples who followed the Christ experienced great persecution and trials. The Prophet Joseph Smith was no exception. Nor were the other early Saints of this last dispensation. And it is no different today" (Joseph B. Wirthlin, Ensign, May, 2002).

Now, I promise as you learn to do the works of the Savior and come to your "day of decision," that even greater adventures await you than those I have shared with you today. Elder Neal Maxwell has said,

"All of the easy things in the kingdom of God have already been achieved; from here on out it is high adventure!"

As you students look forward, reach for that high adventure that comes from following the Savior Jesus Christ. Know that, as President Ezra Taft Benson has said,

"God can make a lot more out of our lives than we can" (Ensign, March 1989).

Of that I testify, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.