When President Nichols arrived, the mission was in a shambles. The outgoing president had pretty much given up on “presiding” and had left everything to his assistants, who had simply promoted their friends and done just enough work to keep the mission running at a very basic level.
Bolivia offered a lot of challenges for a new mission president. Not only was he responsible to watch over 200 or so missionaries, but he was also in charge of 13 organized districts with their branches. President Barrientos had pretty much stopped caring about the districts and branches, except to use some of them to punish missionaries, so many of them were not functioning at all.
In his youth President Nichols had been a Spanish-speaking missionary in New Mexico and Texas. We could tell he was well-connected in church circles, as he would talk about experiences he’d had with different church leaders.
What we noticed right from the beginning was that he genuinely cared about us. When some people tell you they love you, you know they mean it; and he meant it. When I first met him, I was sick and discouraged and living in nightmarish conditions. Just knowing that he listened to me without judging and encouraged me meant a lot.
When I got to the mission office, I was not very happy about the transfer. Previously, the mission president had chosen for his office staff people who were sick or otherwise needed to be looked after. I thought that, since the two times I had met President Nichols I had been sick, he must have been concerned enough to move me close in to keep an eye on me. Looking back, I realize that I wasn’t any sicker than anyone else, and he had probably seen a lot of people in my circumstances as he traveled around the country.
OUr days in the office started with a morning devotional and meeting. We would take turns giving a “spiritual thought,” meaning that we would read some scripture or quote that we liked and then discuss it briefly. We always looked forward to President Nichols’ turn to give the devotional. He knew so much about church history that we just ate up the faith-promoting stories he told us.
One day he told us about an early apostle named Heber Kimball, who was married to a beautiful woman named Vilate. They were very much in love, and very much committed to the Mormon religion. One day the Prophet Joseph Smith had approached Heber and told him that it was God’s will that Heber give Vilate to the Prophet as Joseph’s plural wife. Devastated, Heber went home to Vilate, where they agonized over their decision. After much prayer and discussion, they walked to Joseph’s home, where Heber place Vilate’s hand in Joseph’s and told the Prophet she was his to take. At that, President Nichols said, the Prophet burst into tears and told Heber that he had just been testing his loyalty. We all marveled at Heber’s faith and commitment, and President Nichols got a little choked up himself as he encouraged us to develop that kind of faith. Years later, I learned the rest of that story. Joseph hadn’t wanted Vilate at all; rather, he had come back and asked Heber and Vilate for their 14-year-old daughter, Helen. Having been suitably tested, they had freely given their young daughter to the Prophet. But of course, that would have ruined the effect of the lesson.
President Nichols quickly decided that there was too much work for one man to do, so he delegated a lot of responsibility to his two counselors, two older Americans who were serving as missionaries with their wives. He divided the districts between the two counselors and sent them out to work with the local members to rebuild the church. He would focus on us missionaries. He traveled relentlessly and did what he could to improve conditions for us. As I said, he arranged to have a doctor assigned to us, and he started a program of regularly “de-worming” the entire mission, meaning that all missionaries would take worm-killing medication every few months. But there was only so much he could do. Our finances were generally tight, and very few places in Bolivia offered decent living conditions for missionaries.
In April, the Nichols traveled to Salt Lake City for a training seminar. Through the church’s travel agency in Utah, I had arranged for them to fly through La Paz, with a four-hour layover in Los Angeles; my parents had agreed to meet them and take them to dinner. I was excited that my parents would get to hear firsthand how I was doing, and they would meet this great man, whom I had grown to love. But the plane tickets never arrived from Salt Lake, so at the last minute I got them on the longer flight through Miami. I was pretty disappointed.
They came back with big news. The missionary lessons (called “discussions”) would no longer be memorized, as we had done before. Instead we would have an outline given to us, and then we were to teach those basic concepts and scriptures the way we wanted to teach them. We could use notes, but we were not to give the memorized discussions anymore.
The other big change was that Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the “restoration” of God’s true church were restored to their proper place in the very first discussion. Banishing these topics to the third discussion had been a major failure, so they were moving them back to the forefront.
President Nichols returned home, excited. The new program was bound to move the missionary work forward in a big way. We had hours of training in seeking and obtaining the Holy Spirit, which would help convert those we taught. We watched training videos from Salt Lake in which apostles exhorted us to work diligently to find the lost sheep and bring them into the Savior’s fold.
As a practical matter, the new approach didn’t really change how we did our missionary work. Most of us had long since given up on the memorized discussions and had just taught in ways that were comfortable for us. We were happy, though, that we could teach the important things first now.
President Nichols told us of meetings he’d had with high church leaders while in Salt Lake, and at one point he told us he had seen blueprints for the planned millenial community that would be built at Independence, Missouri, in anticipation of Jesus’ Second Coming. General Conference had been a spiritual treat, with apostle Bruce McConkie arising from his hospital bed to declare his certain knowledge of the Savior’s divinity.
I loved working around President Nichols; he inspired me to be a better person and a more committed missionary. One night, Sister Nichols called us to their home because President Nichols was very ill, so we drove there to give him a priesthood blessing. Seeing him there so weak and ill I thought how much I loved him and how I couldn’t bear to see him suffering so much. We gathered in a circle around him and blessed him (I wrote, “How unworthy I felt to place my hand on his head.”), united in our faith, and later at home we knelt together and prayed for him. He was the kind of man I wanted to be.