On my mission, there was an enormous shopping center under construction near one of the chapels where we used to have district / zone meetings. Every day, we passed by and took notice of the fact that there were always only two workers — two guys way up at the top with a wheelbarrow of cement, adding one brick at a time. The parallels to missionary work really pushed the envelope of the obvious, so it quickly became the standard metaphor of choice at our meetings. We used to bear our testimonies (occasionally irreverently) about how building the Kingdom of God was like building the Plaza Shopping Center: two guys, every day, one brick at a time — with no discernible progress from one day (week, month, or even year) to the next.

Last weekend I had the opportunity to visit my mission and take another look at the Plaza.

I had been back once before, three years after finishing, and remember being struck with the odd sensation that I was really out of the loop. Finding yourself in a place you had come to consider home, where you were so involved in every tiny detail of your own little paradigm, and seeing how well it has gotten on without you is both gratifying and uncanny. That one had been a pretty short visit, though, only about thirty-six hours, and there hadn’t been a lot of time to see many people. This time I had made plans to stay for three days.

My old mission headquarters are located in a city almost three hundred miles from the nearest airport; so, unless you have an inordinate amount of time at your disposal to take the bus, there’s nothing for it but to rent a car and brave the back roads yourself. (Incidentally, it’s funny the things that can be considered “options” on cars in some places — a heater, locking mechanisms on the inside of the doors, a back window defroster, cup-holders, etc. — and I learned first-hand the importance of having gasoline in the cold-start reservoir in a flex-fuel car.) Seven hours and several wrong turns later (Google Maps is only so dependable outside the US), I arrived.

I had decided to make the trip to get out of the big city, get my mind off work, and try to escape the sense of loneliness that had been eating at me for the previous seven weeks (since my wife and daughter were still in the US). Yet as I contemplated the darkness, pouring rain, freezing temperature, and the fact that I didn’t have the contact information for a single person, I started to wonder if I had done the right thing — especially in terms of solving my loneliness.

Still, I left my baggage at the hotel, turned the (thank all that is holy) heater in my room on full blast and left for downtown. On a whim I decided to drop by the main chapel on the off chance that there was an activity going on or something — that way I could at least ask someone what time church started in the morning. I honestly didn’t think there would be anyone there and thought it even less likely that anyone would have any idea who I was. (I certainly don’t remember Elders in my home ward, especially ten years after the fact.) Yet, as it turned out, the lights were on; so I parked the car across the street, took a deep breath at the main gate, and went inside.

Incredibly, the first person I saw recognized me before I even said a word. Next thing I knew I was getting back in the car with another member to go and visit others. On the way we passed the Plaza Mall, which, to my considerable astonishment, was complete. I asked the member that was accompanying me how long it had taken to finish. “Fifteen years,” came the reply.

Anyway, things snowballed from there and I was so busy over the next couple of days that I was out each night until 2 a.m., wishing I could stay another day. I soon learned that the growth of the church had kept up with its belabored metaphor: the city’s second stake is on track to be organized later this year.

I really felt like the Lord was mindful of me on that trip, not only because of the many old friends I was able to see, not just because I felt remembered, loved, and appreciated, but also because seeing the completed Plaza was a reminder to me that we do make a difference, especially when working with others toward a common goal.

It is so easy (especially on the internet) to let cynicism and fatigue about church service or participation — or whatever your particular brand of mote — get the better of you. To me, this trip was a welcome breath of faith, hope, and joy.

Have any of you had similar experiences returning to missions or places you used to live? How about visits that have been drastically different? Share your thoughts below.