Wednesday, May 27, 2009


It was the spring of 1979 when I received a phone call telling me to pack my bags and head for Zwijndrecht. Zwijndrecht is a suburb of Antwerpen and the best thing about Zwijndrecht is that our apartment was above a laundry mat. This laundry mat wasn't anything like what you would be familiar with but rather it was a full service place. All we had to do was drop off our dirty laundry and then we would come back later and pick it up all clean and folded. I loved it. To get to Zwijndrecht from Antwerpen we would ride our bikes through a tunnel that went under the river. Have you ever seen an escalator for bikes? These were the longest escalators that I have ever seen. It looked like your were desending into a very deep dark hole and as you went down the stairs you would hold your bike beside you.

As you leave the tunnel you enter Linkeroever which translates as "Left Bank", meaning the left bank of the river. Zwijndrecht was just a few miles beyond Linkeroever. Linkeroever was our area and it was very strange.The entire area was only few miles across but it was filled with huge apartment buildings some of them virtually skyscrapers. There was probably more than 100,000 people living in an area the size of Penasquitos. For those of you who have never been to Penasquitos, the area was much smaller than Cardston.

I made many new friends in Linkeroever but my most memorable was Marleen. One day we were tracting which in Linkeroever meant that we would stand at the door and ring doorbells. It is very difficult to do a proper door approach to a microphone so if anyone ever just buzzed the door rather than talk we would just go on in and knock on the doors. One day as we were ringing bells we spoke to this woman and as soon as she realized who we were she said, "oh, come on up, my daughter will want to talk to you." As you may imagine, that was not our typical response. We went on up to the apartment and the lady told us that her daughter was a big Donny Osmond fan and she was sure she would want to talk to us. The daughter was Marleen Van Laere and she was interested. At the time she was only sixteen years old. She started taking the discussions and while at first she may have been more interested in a couple of Americans she soon became more interested in learning about the gospel of Jesus Christ.

During my mission I had many opportunities to "Bible Bash". Most people who are really into religion believe that to win "converts" they have to prove that the bible is the word of God. We on the other hand believe that the only way a person can be truly devoted to the gospel is if the Spirit of God witnesses to them that it is true. Nothing else will give a person the strength he needs to remain faithful through the good and the bad times. Even though every missionary knows this, it is still easy to get drawn into debating the gospel. Early on in my mission I did have an experience where I debated the gospel with a Jehovah's Witness and I trounced them soundly. Leaving from that appointment I felt worse than I had ever felt before. Sure, I believe that I caused the poor guy to have doubts about his own religion but I also knew that I hadn't convinced him that mine was true. Where did that leave him? He may have been worse off after I left him than he was before. I felt terrible and I have never since been involved in debating religion. I will teach if someone is truly curious but I will never debate.

During the time we were teaching Marleen we met a couple who invited us back for an appointment. When we returned we were quite surprised to find that they had also invited a Jehovah's Witness couple and a couple of Protestant missionaries from Holland. I had never met anyone like the Protestants. I'm not sure what religion they were but they were all about "Saved by Grace". My entire experience had always been teaching Catholics who I understood very well but I had never had to answer a question about "saved by grace". I was completely unprepared for it and even though I had no intention of debating I did want to present our beliefs accurately. We do of course believe that we are saved by the Grace of God and that through the atonement of Jesus Christ our sins can be forgiven. We do not have the power to return to God without his Grace and we also believe that the atonement will have no affect on us if we don't accept Jesus as our Lord. That is where we differ from the "saved by gracers". They claim that all you have to do is believe that Jesus is the Messiah and you're saved. We believe that you can say whatever you want but if you don't do everything in your power to become like Jesus and follow his commandments, then his atonement will not apply to you. How can a person mock everything that is holy and live a life of murder, lies and carnal acts and expect to be saved just because he claims Jesus as his savior while another person is kind and helpful to everyone around him but because he never came to know his Lord he is damned? I don't believe it but because I had never been faced with the question before I wasn't exactly able to come up with the scriptures on the spur of the moment to support my claim. That night I went home and learned everything I could about the atonement and the Grace of God.

Shortly after this experience we were sitting on our bikes in Linkeroever when we both felt prompted to go and visit the VanLaere's. When we got there Marleens mother about burst into tears when she saw us. She said "boy am I glad to see you". She was always friendly to us but this was very odd. We went on in and we were quite surprised to see a pair of the "saved by gracers" literally attacking Marleens mother. Marleens mother always claimed to be an atheist but she was the nicest woman you ever met. She would give you the shirt off her back (figuratively of course) if you needed it. These protestants were telling her that she was going to go to hell because she didn't believe in God. This was the one and only time I made an exception to my rule not to debate. That was because I was doing it for a different purpose. I was not at all interested in convincing them of the truth, I only wanted to protect and defend Mrs Van Laere. I was now fully prepared to challenge their arguments and I sent them packing with their tail between their legs. If Mrs VanLaere liked us before, she really liked us after that.

We taught several people in Zwijndrecht and Linkeroever and I loved the area. We had a nice apartment and it was a friendly community. It was summer and that made everything more pleasant as well.

Alas the time came for me to go home. I was very conflicted, I wanted to go home of course because I missed everyone a lot but at the same time I knew that I may never get back to Belgium again. I'm a bit envious of my boys who could get back to their mission areas cheaply and easily. I had been gone for two years and that made the memories of my family and friends fairly dim but I had many friends in Belgium and I was going to really miss them.

By the time I left, Marleen had acquired a very deep conviction of the truth of the gospel and she wanted to be baptized but her father was very concerned that she wanted to get baptized for all the wrong reasons. I was a bit resentful at the time but now that I have daughters of my own I can't blame him one bit. Putting myself in his shoes, here are these two young American boys from a very strange religion spending a lot of time with my daughter. I would be very suspicious of their intentions. This was also not too long after Jimmy Jones and his cult all drank the koolaid so that made things even more difficult for a father who loves his only child with all his heart. If he'd talked to us more perhaps he would have felt different but he was a quite man and I was too young to realize his concerns or I would have gone out of my way more to get to know him. I gave Marleen a big hug and wished her the best and off I went over the big pond back home. One of the most wonderful era's of my life had come to an end.

You are 15 percent more likely to become happy if directly connected a happy person; 10 percent if it's the friend of a friend who is happy and 6 percent if it's the friend of a friend of a friend.


Lynn said...

Love your mission stories Fred! This post however, REALLY touched me. Thanks for sharing.

Lisa L said...

I'm glad you are writing your mission memories down. I love Marleen. I'll never forget when we went and her Mom let us up and you saw the picture of her at the Temple :)

The Margin Wight said...

I enjoyed reading your experiences which were very similar to my own. I was in Zwijndrecht almost exactly one year after you, apparently, but only for a month. We were transferred over to Deurne and only now and then crossed over to work that area.