Yesterday I got to visit with one of those 18 missionaries. We took him some Chinese food and sat and talked for awhile. He doesn't get a lot of visitors and doesn't get out much these days, because two years ago he had multi-visceral failure. He had his small intestine removed, and his liver has zero functionality (he's been on a waiting list to get a new one for almost two years), so he's very susceptible to illness.
He mentioned his mission, and I commented that I doubted he got much chance to use his language skills as an accountant at a university in Utah.
He spent the next hour excitedly telling us stories about all the opportunities he's had to work with the Persian people, whom he obviously loves. He told us about international students coming to the university, and about the group of 30-40 Persians he associates with here in the valley. He told us about doing translation work for the church's General Conference broadcasts. He told us there are some missionaries in Toronto who speak Farsi, and Persians studying the gospel in California, and how he's been working with both groups. He talked about the Persian doctor he met when he went to Pittsburgh for his surgery. Even as sick as he's been, he's been working hard translating church materials into Farsi, waiting for the day when missionary work will again be allowed in Iran.
I was reminded of all the ways that learning a language as a missionary can affect someone's life. I think of my mom tutoring the Chinese middle and high school students who moved to southern Virginia speaking no English. I think about working at the fruit stand a couple years ago with four people who spoke Spanish and one who spoke Portuguese and enough Spanish to get by (I learned Spanish words for many of the vegetables as well). Or about the fact that for the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City they did not have to bring in any translators because there were so many returned missionaries wanting to help--instead, for the first time, they were turning translators away.
Because my mom served a mission in Taiwan, I grew up speaking some Chinese. I met my husband in a Chinese class in college. He was there because he did so well with Spanish on his mission that he felt he should learn more languages.
Not every missionary gets to learn a foreign language, but I'm grateful that the chance is offered to so many. And I'm grateful for examples like Brother Kerr, who has continued to use his Farsi in any way possible for 35 years, showing gratitude for the chance he was given. Only 18 missionaries got to go to Iran. Seeing the light in his eyes and hearing the strength in his voice despite the frailness of his body, I glimpsed a piece of why Brother Kerr got to be one of them.