I was just reflecting on one of my experiences in Switzerland as a young missionary, and thought I’d share it. It was the last month of my mission in the wonderful St. Gallen area. My companion, Elder Angerhofer, and I were having a great week. Though it’s rarely wise to do so, we ended up scheduling a couple appointments on the afternoon of our preparation day to be able get some more teaching opportunities in with promising investigators. But we were soon disappointed. One investigator had left the Book of Mormon in a bag on her door with a note that she didn’t want to talk anymore. Naturally, we refused to honor her wishes and kicked in the door — wait, wrong cult! No, we left, disappointed, and went to the next investigator, who also told us that she wasn’t interested.
I remember how we went outside and stood on a sidewalk, feeling a bit forlorn but hopeful that our little sacrifice of time this day might still be worthwhile. We looked over the city below us and prayerfully pondered what to do. Do we go home for a few more hours of a normal preparation day or keep working? We felt that we should work. After further reflection, we felt that we should head toward some tall buildings near a hospital. We went there and picked a street that seemed good, and then tried our luck tracting. We couldn’t get into those newer apartment buildings, but tried a couple of buzzers and spoke into the speaker to see if anyone wanted to let in a couple of strange American religious fanatics that they couldn’t see. For some reason, they weren’t interested. Go figure.
As we left the entryway of the first building and started back toward the street, we ran into a couple of men who looked like something out of the drug culture. In fact, one was completely stoned and the other seemed largely drunk. I was anxious to move on but my faithful companion struck up a conversation and asked if they had time to talk about religion. My body language may have conveyed the message of “Let’s get out of here!” but my outstanding junior companion pressed on, and soon we were inside and walking up the stairs to their apartment.
The completely stoned guy was shaking (mostly rocking his torso back and forth) and I was afraid I’d have to carry him up the stairs, but he made it. The department was a filthy little hovel with a tall pile of ashes in the middle of the floor, apparently from whatever they had been smoking over the past few weeks. Clothes, pots, pans, and other items were strewn around the place. The stoned guy lay down and just shook. The other guy said not to worry and told us to go ahead and talk. But first he had to turn on his boombox or radio to provide some helpful rock and roll as loud background music. It might have been the Rolling Stones. I was quite ready to leave when the phone rang. After a few words, the man said he had a couple of American preachers with him and then handed me the phone. Strange.
A Swiss woman, Sonja Schweizer, was on the other end. She was excited that we were from America. “American? Wonderful! Oh, I just love John Wayne!” I’ll never forget that – it was hilarious. She asked me if the two guys were on drugs again and told me that she had been working with them to get them clean. She said that God was behind it because she had reached them originally by dialing a wrong number, had recognized that someone had drugs had answered, and had begun pestering them to free them from drugs. Then she asked about us, what kind of missionaries we were. “Mormons? Oh no, anything but that! That’s horrible – you have all those wives!” My quick response: “Really, I don’t even have one wife. And we don’t do polygamy anymore. It’s been banned for a long time.” She was OK with that, and told us that we needed to bring the men over to her apartment and preach to them there. We agreed, gave the phone back to the somewhat drunk man, and soon we were walking with him to her apartment a few blocks away. The completely stoned guy stayed where he was.
It was a poor attitude on my part, but I felt a little embarrassed to be walking along the busy street with our somewhat drunk friend as he staggered occasionally. Such a petty concern.
We got to Sonja’s apartment, where we met that amazing Yugoslavian woman (Schweizer was her name from a failed marriage to a Swiss man) and her two kids. She was in a wheelchair, having suffered many afflictions in her life. She was probably 35, I think. Very dynamic and strong willed. She scolded our drunk friend as we sat on her couch and she talked about how awful it was that he and his friend were abusing drugs and alcohol. She pointed to him and said, “Preach to him!” We decided to talk about the Plan of Salvation, which was the second discussion then, as I recall. Within five minutes, he had passed out completely, but she was all ears. “Yes! Of course – that makes so much sense! Why didn’t my ministers ever tell me this? They are such worthless fools!” We got a lot of that as she reveled in the beautiful power of Gospel basics and marveled at how well it fit the Bible and how far modern Christianity had come from what struck her as obvious truth. She said she somehow had already believed that there must have been a premortal existence and so forth. When we finished, she said, “Gentlemen, you’ve got yourself a convert!”
I am disappointed to report that with her difficult situation in life and other factors, she never did manage to be baptized. Tragically, facing the pain of great physical afflictions, she became a victim to a professionally assisted suicide in 2000, just three weeks before I was planning to visit her on a trip to Europe. How pained I am by that, but I trust I will rejoice to meet her again one day – and pray that the Savior’s Atonement will remove her grief and make her fully His.
But during those few weeks I had remaining in Switzerland, Sonja became a powerful missionary for our cause, in spite of her difficulty in accepting baptism. She introduced her nurse to us, a person we could never have reached otherwise because of her remote location and difficult schedule. We were able to teach this busy nurse in Sonja’s home and had wonderful spiritual experiences (and the non-spiritual experience of making American root beer for them: “Ugh. It tastes like medicine.”). She developed a profound personal testimony of the Gospel, and was baptized shortly after I returned to the states. Sister Sigrist would later go on a mission to Hamburg and marry in the temple. She continues to be a faithful and active member in Switzerland (with a different last name now).
She also introduced her social worker to us, a wonderful man who is one of my favorite people in the world, a real hero who now works diligently in Switzerland to help poor refugees, and who has also worked to help refugees in Sudan. My wife, my two oldest sons and I had the privilege of spending some time with him and his family in Switzerland during our trip in 2000, and I continue to cherish our friendship. He’s not a member of the Church, but he’s very much like a diligent bishop in the work of ministering to others. An amazing and loving man.
Cherished experiences, precious relationships, and instructive encounters with pains and tragedies of life, all stemmed from that one frustrating moment, standing on a sidewalk in Switzerland holding a bag with a rejected Book of Mormon, prayerfully wondering what to do next. How grateful I am to the Lord for such experiences.