It’s 10:45 p.m. on a Friday night, and on most other college campuses, it might seem like a raucous weekend party is about to begin. However, the throngs of loud, excited students flocking through the screen door of the Chestnut House are not here to party. These Southern Virginia University students are arriving to celebrate the opening of John-John Leake’s mission call.
Slowly, a herd of 40 people clamor into the living room. An old floral print couch creaks against the worn polished floors as the weight of seven male students shifts from side to side. Several shivering girls enter the room and anxious laughter contributes to the holler, until, suddenly, a hush settles over the crowd; Leake has the envelope in hand and he is going to reveal its contents.
After countless Church lessons devoted to preparing young men and women to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the letter that tells this future missionary where he will serve has arrived. However, receiving a mission call at Southern Virginia University is more than opening an envelope; it’s a celebrated milestone never to be forgotten.
Shoulders hunched and fists clenched in excitement, one blonde girl in the front bites her lip as the small packet of papers comes out of Leake’s envelope. There’s a thick booklet with a picture of two people dressed in white on the front and a letter from President Thomas S. Monson. The envelope, one side torn haphazardly, falls into the seat of a pinstriped armchair, and Leake begins to read.
“Dear Elder Leake,” he reads, “You are hereby called to serve as a missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You are assigned to labor in the Washington Spokane Mission.”
A giant peal of shouts, hurrahs, gasps and exclamations reverberate throughout the house. Everyone steps forward to personally congratulate Leake. There are high fives, hugs and chest bumps, some tears, lots of smiles and overall a jubilant spirit as Leake, beaming, makes his way around the room to the forty ecstatic students shouting his name with pride.
“I Knew I Wanted to Go”
All young men of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are highly encouraged to serve a mission when they reach the age of 19, and young women also are granted the same opportunity after they turn 21. When called, these young men and women serve for 24 and 18 months, respectively, teaching the gospel to those investigating the Church worldwide.
Southern Virginia University receives its fair share of mission calls. Almost 9 in 10 male students in fall 2011 said they have served or plan to serve a mission.
Sam Brieden, a freshman called to the Russia Samara Mission, said being at Southern Virginia has strengthened his lifelong resolve to serve a full-time mission.
“The first time I heard about all of these people going on missions was when I knew I wanted to go,” said Brieden. “Hearing all the prophets talking about how good missions are, and how they help you spiritually and help you on your journey through life—they all helped me to decide to go.”
Deciding to spend time in a new place, without seeing their families is a big decision for these young men and women.
“First, I had to find out what I actually believed in by reading the scriptures and coming to the understanding that the gospel is true…and I did,” Leake said.
Brieden acknowledged that deciding to serve a mission may be harder for some young men, especially when there is so much to keep them at home or at a school like Southern Virginia University.
“You know, it would be cool if I could just hand them a bunch of articles to show them how worth it serving a mission will be,” Brieden said, “But in reality, you just have to tell them to take a leap of faith and let them know that it will definitely be worth their time for all of the blessings they will receive from it.”
You’ve Got Mail!
On average, the students at Southern Virginia University receive their mission call two weeks after submitting their paperwork, and according to Katie Beus, a senior called to the Italy Milan Mission, those two weeks can feel like an eternity.
“Right before I got [my mission call], I was just sure that it wasn’t going to come, or that I was going to get sent somewhere that I wasn’t comfortable going,” Beus said. “I called my mom and she helped me find peace. She told me that it would all work out.”
Beus prayed for weeks, even while filling out her paperwork, hoping that she would be called to the right place. More specifically, though, she prayed to be sent to Italy. But not for the reasons one may think. Beus’ ancestors who first joined the Church, Michael and Marianne Beus, are from the Piedmont valley in Italy—which is part of the area where she will be serving.
“I have felt chills every single time I read [my mission call],” said Beus. “As I opened it [the first time], my eyes went straight to ‘Milan, Italy.’ I slammed my hands on the table because I was so excited. I finally had to yell it, so my parents could hear… I was thrilled!”
Beus’ call was mentioned in an address by Karen Walker, visiting assistant professor of family and child development at Southern Virginia, in a stake conference address on Walker and Beus’ mutual ancestors in Italy. Lorenzo Snow, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at the time, organized the Church in Italy in 1850—in the area where Michael and Marianne Beus lived. Walker said that members of the Beus family were among the first converts to the Church in Italy and were among 12 families who immigrated to Utah from the Piedmont valley.
“The area of the original Italian converts is now part of the Italy Milan Mission,” said Walker. “Katie will now have the privilege of returning to the birthplace of the Beus family and sharing the gospel with remnant generations.”
Sharing the News
It’s not an unusual occurrence to see someone inconspicuously walk down the hall from the Mail Center to Jonzzey’s Cafe on a Friday afternoon. Sometimes the future missionaries, like Brieden, coyly hold the envelope under their arm, trying to walk unnoticed by a familiar friend; or on the flip-side, like Leake, they will walk in with the call clutched firmly in each hand and proceed to raise it above their head victoriously like a battle standard.
Leake then took his call to the Dining Hall after showing it to his friends in Jonzzey’s where he almost lost it, or so he thought.
Leake walked in, tailed by his friends Emma Martino and Tori Isham, and started flashing the pristine white envelope wherever he could turn. A couple eyes caught it flashing in the light coming through the windows, including those of Madison Sowell, provost of Southern Virginia and former mission president of the Italy Milan Mission. Sowell turned to Leake, and before Leake knew it, Sowell was helping him show off the envelope by announcing to everyone in the Dining Hall that Leake had received his mission call. The other students at their various tables cheered with great satisfaction between bites, and Leake did get his call back, eventually.
Because most students don’t live close enough to home to return for the weekend and open the envelope with their families and friends, the Southern Virginia family bands together to make it a momentous occasion.
“When I opened it the first time, I was video chatting with my mom, my sisters, my best friend’s mom and with my dad and my brother,” said Leake. “There were three [computer] screens up, all from different places…then the second time, there were 40 people! I didn’t think that many people were going to come, but it was crazy!”
Once the call is opened, another tradition ensues. Just before each Friday forum or devotional address, there is time set aside specifically for new missionaries to announce their calls. Each is asked to stand and tell the audience where they have been called to serve. The forum doesn’t truly begin until the enthusiastic applause and supportive cries have ended for each honored missionary.
God Be With You Till We Meet Again
As a school where 92-percent of students are Latter-day-Saints, the Knights are well-represented in the missions and missionary training centers in many countries of the world—and even at the Church’s semi-annual General Conference.
“I couldn’t be more excited,” said Beus. “I think every girl that’s willing and has the prompting to go should go on a mission, because the feeling I have right now cannot be replaced by anything.”
However, though several of these Latter-day Saints will be taking a break from school, family and careers, this hiatus is no vacation. Life still happens in all areas of the world, but they are determined to serve faithfully.
“I’m sure there are things that will challenge me that I don’t know about,” said Brieden. “I know that the Lord will help me, though.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is saying good-bye, for however brief a time, to beloved peers and friends.
“I’m excited to go, but I’ll be sad to leave a lot of people behind,” said Leake. “This Latter-day Saint environment is inspiring.”