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Stories: Paying back a kindness (long)

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Paying back a kindness (long) 31 Oct 2006
When our district left the MTC after a full 9 weeks of intensive language training in 1982, we were so cocky. We practiced our Japanese on the plane ride over to Tokyo and tried to impress everyone around us. We were ready to take on the world. It didn't take long for us to be properly humbled…

When we landed in Tokyo and got off the plane, the first thing that struck me was that I was looking at the tops of most people’s heads. Being 5’ 7”, I wasn’t used to that. (That no longer happens when I go back to Japan now, by the way – they somehow all got taller!).

Anyway, we found the next airline that was to take us up to Sapporo and presented them our tickets. After some shuffling and much broken English, we learned that the flight listed on our tickets didn’t exist. The ticket agent politely handed the useless tickets back to us and started serving the next customer.

Great. Our mission call said Sapporo, and here we were stuck in Tokyo (!). Well, we knew we needed to call the mission home. Someone had the number, so the next task was to get some coins for a phone. I volunteered because some very smart member of my ward had actually given me some Japanese money at my farewell, instead of dollars.

As I approached a cashier at one of the shops, I was replaying all the Lesson Plan Japanese I had just memorized over the past 2 months, trying to think of how I could turn that into “I need change for the phone”. Nothing came to mind.

I fumbled around and made myself completely non-understandable for a few minutes. Finally, I was hit with an epiphany: I held my hand up to my ear and said “mushi mushi”. I was rewarded with a handful of ju-yen coins.

I returned with my treasure to the group and we proceeded to dial the number of the mission home. Only we didn’t get the mission home. Instead, we got an upset house wife located somewhere in Tokyo who had the misfortune of owning the same phone number as the Sapporo mission home – only without the proper area code (which we didn’t have). She hung up on us after an interesting conversation of which we understood nothing.

Up to that point, things had been kind of fun. But now we started to get worried. We were actually stranded in the airport with no-one to meet us and had no way of contacting the mission home (that we knew of). What were we going to do next? We had pretty much exhausted our own abilities. We honestly didn’t know what to do. So naturally, that’s when the Lord stepped in to help.

A very nice lady suddenly came up to the group, speaking Japanese and bowing to us. We all turned to Young Choro, because he had passed off all the Lessons at the MTC and surely by now had been blessed with the gift of tongues. He understood exactly zero of what she was saying. Seeing our puzzled looks, the lady then patted herself on the chest and said “memba”. Of the thousands of people in the Narita airport that day, there were probably only a few who were members of the church. But the Lord directed one of those few to us in our time of need.

The member figured out that we were missing the area code for Hokkaido on the number we had for the mission home, got it, and dialed the number for us. In no time, we were speaking in English to a honbu staff member, who fixed everything and got us on the right flight. A happy ending to the story. Only there’s more…

Last summer, I was on vacation with my family in Kelowna, a small town in British Columbia, Canada. I needed to interrupt my vacation for a one-day meeting in San Francisco. I flew there in the morning, had my meeting, and then flew back later that same day.

As I was waiting in the Seattle airport for my connection, I notice a missionary sitting nearby. I struck up a conversation and learned he was on my flight, returning home to Vernon (near Kelowna), and that his original flight from Denver had been cancelled and he was being re-routed through Seattle. He was excited to see his family, who would be waiting at the airport. We had a nice visit, and then boarded the plane.

When we landed in Kelowna and cleared customs, I was ahead of the Elder so he asked me to let his family know he would be out soon. As I entered the airport concourse, here’s what I saw: nothing. It was late, we were the last flight in, and there were only a few people milling about. I saw no family waiting. I even asked a few people if they were waiting for a missionary, and after giving me an odd look, said “no”.

The Elder still hadn’t come out by the time I had my bags, and I was standing on the curb as the last taxi pulled up to take me back to my vacation. It had been a long day and I was ready to go home. As the cab driver reached to take my bag, I thought of the stranded Elder and instantly recalled my experience in Japan. The Lord was giving me a chance to pay him back.

I said “no thanks” to the cab driver and went back inside just in time to see the Elder emerge with anticipation on his face, which turned to confusion, and then to sadness. No big home-coming, no posters, no family. I kept thinking someone would jump out and surprise him, but it didn’t happen. I went up to him, patted him on the back and asked if he wanted to use my cell phone.

He called home (about an hour drive away) and got the answering machine. The message went something like this: “Uhmm, mom, dad, this is your son who’s been away for 2 years, remember me? Ya, because I think you forgot to pick me up at the airport…”.

Now we were both stranded at the airport, because someone else had taken my cab. I watched airport security kindly tell an elderly homeless man that he couldn’t sleep on the benches. “Great. I guess that option’s out.” I already had family sleeping on the floor in our hotel room, including my teenage daughter. It didn’t seem like an option to take the Elder home with me. Then I had an idea.

I knew a total of one person in Kelowna, who happened to be in the Stake Presidency. I had his number on my phone from the day before. It was after midnight by now. I called the number, got him out of bed, and explained the situation. He came right over, explaining he had a couch that the Elder could sleep on that night and they’d figure it out in the morning.

We had just left the airport when my cellphone rang. It was the Elder’s father, returning the call. It turns out the Elder had neglected to let his family know that the original flight from Denver had been cancelled. They had waited for that flight and when it didn’t show, had started calling the airline. The airline had no record of what had happened to their son (since he had switched airlines). They waited around the airport wondering what to do, and finally decided to leave a short time before our flight had arrived. They drove the full hour home only to get the message when they arrived, and were now heading back.

The member of the Stake Presidency spoke with the father and agreed to meet him halfway at the Stake Center. Thirty minutes later, I witnessed the emotional reunion of a missionary with his family in the parking lot of the church at 1:00 am. And since it was with a member of the Stake Presidency, he interviewed the Elder on the spot and released him that night.

I rode back in silence, thanking the Lord for giving me the chance to repay the kindness that was shown to me those many years before in the Tokyo airport. I know none of it was a coincidence. The Lord looks after his missionaries.

(Sorry for such a long story).

Randy Marsden Send Email
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