While, in some respects, senior missionaries’ duties differ from those of the proselyting elders and sisters, couples and single senior sisters are, in all other regards, fulltime missionaries. That is, they are called to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ as part of their specific ward or office assignments.
The phrase “fulltime” is significant. That principle was underscored during the mission of a senior couple serving in the Canada Vancouver Mission.
“We spent all of our 23-month assignment in the city of Surrey, BC,” notes Elder Ripplinger. “That had some advantages, including getting to know our ward members well and helping with the needs of local leaders.” But one of their most notable experiences occurred during our “off duty” time.
As Surrey is a border town, 30 minutes to the United States, the Ripplingers, as Americans, found it convenient to do most of their shopping “south of the border” in the small community of Blaine, Washington. Preparation days would frequently find the couple buying groceries and gasoline in the town, as well as picking up mail from the Blaine Washington Post Office. It was there in the quiet, almost-empty hallway of the small-town post office that Elder and Sister Ripplinger began one of their most rewarding mission experiences -- while they were busy on their “day off.”
On that quiet Thursday morning as he withdrew a handful of mail and locked his box, Elder Ripplinger turned to join his companion who had been waiting in the car. Then he noticed one other person in the hallway--a shorter, middle-aged woman who seemed somewhat preoccupied.
“I’m well!” replied Elder Ripplinger. “How are you?” With the door of conversation now open between the two strangers, a life’s floodgates began to leak.
“Oh, not so good,” the woman responded. As Elder Ripplinger listened attentively, his new acquaintance, Cheryl Zeringue, seemed to welcome a listening ear. “My daughter just tried to kill herself yesterday,” she explained. “And, with that, and everything else, I just don’t know if I can handle it all.”
Cheryl continued to describe her story of grief and trouble as Sister Ripplinger came into the post office to see what was the cause of the delay. With his wife’s experience working with suicidal and other special needs students, Elder Ripplinger stepped back and listened while Cheryl recounted her concerns with her daughter and the difficulties of caring for a disabled son.
Then Elder Ripplinger was moved to interject, “We’re missionaries with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Cheryl acknowledged that she had seen the couple’s name badges. “We are so sorry to hear of the hard things in your life. I wonder if we can visit you and offer some teachings that will help you and your family.”, he said.
“I’d like that,” Cheryl responded. “I really would.”
An appointment was made, then the threesome walked to their cars with another wave goodbye as they parted.
It was during the next “day off” that the Ripplingers returned to Blaine and drove to the address that their new friend had provided. Cheryl gave a quick greeting at the door and invited the senior missionaries to be seated at the kitchen table. Then the scope of Cheryl's burden began to be more evident. Several feet away lay Kurt, Cheryl’s son. He was in a prone wheelchair, unable to sit upright. In fact, the Ripplingers would soon learn that Kurt was unable to move himself and had never been able to speak. He required constant attention from a caregiver to be fed, rolled over and cleaned.
After listening intently, Elder Ripplinger opened his scriptures to Mosiah 17. “Sister Zeringue, I feel so sorry for the hard things that have come into your life, but we know that your Heavenly Father is aware of you and He knows the burdens that you carry. May I read to you the challenge that happened to an early prophet of the Lord, even thought he was a righteous man?”
As the new friends took turns reading the story of Abinidi’s prophesies and execution, Elder Ripplinger leaned forward. “Cheryl, I know that you have more to deal with in your life right now than you can bear, but so have the prophets and other righteous followers of Christ. We promise that if you will learn more of Christ’s restored Church, you will be given the strength necessary to carry your burdens.”
Sister Ripplinger then emphasized that their meeting in the post office was not a chance encounter. “I know,” Cheryl responded. “I’ve seen the missionaries come by my home before and brushed them off, but now I know I need to listen.”
With a return appointment secured, the missionaries and Cheryl bowed in prayer and then parted.
For the next two weeks, the Ripplingers had a small dilemma -- it was easy to find the teaching missionaries in their assigned area in Canada, “but,” they wondered, “how do we find missionaries in Blaine, Washington?” A call to Church headquarters identified the bishop in Cheryl’s area and he provided contact information for the elders serving in Blaine.
The next meeting was another made more of providence than serendipity. “I’ve talked to her before!” said one of the Blaine missionaries as the Ripplingers escorted the elders to Cheryl’s door. Cheryl welcomed the elders and listened intently to their message, often interjecting with “Yes, I believe that’s true.”
While the Blaine elders continued to teach the important truths of the restored gospel to Cheryl and Rosettia, the Ripplingers returned to their duties in the Vancouver Canada Mission. Through phone calls and email messages, they monitored their friend’s progress toward baptism. At the end of April, their mission assignment concluded and they returned to their Utah home, grateful in the knowledge that Cheryl and Rosettia were attending Church meetings and progressing toward baptism.
Over the miles, the fond friendship continued to flourish with more phone calls and email messages. Then came a phone call that Brother Ripplinger hadn’t expected. “Brother Ripplinger, this is Cheryl. I’m going to be baptized, and I’d like you to baptize me.”
“We have been overwhelmed with the friendship extended to us and the blessing of being part of these sacred ordinances,” says Linda Ripplinger. “I now know the meaning of the scriptures, “how great shall be your joy with ‘her’ in the kingdom of my Father!”
“Sister Ripplinger and I have been blessed to participate in several baptisms in our mission area in Surrey, BC,” notes Brother Ripplinger. “We expected to have those opportunities, I suppose. But what we have learned from Cheryl is the importance of making everyone a friend, taking the time to listen and accepting people wherever they may be.”