If you were to ask someone on the street what a Mormon missionary looks like, you might hear things like, ‘young guys in suits’ or ‘those guys on bikes.’
If, however, you saw two recently returned missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka, Mormons) here in Chesterfield, you might notice very quickly that these descriptors do not fit.
Lydia and Marshall Vaughan, ages 68 and 75, respectively, are a married couple from Chesterfield, VA who spent eighteen months serving as "senior" Mormon missionaries on Borneo Island, in the coastal city of Bintulu, in the state of Sarawak, Malaysia. And while Elder Vaughan did wear a white shirt and tie while serving, neither rode bicycles (much to their relief).
The Vaughans had known ever since they were newlyweds that they would serve as senior missionaries for the Church someday when they retired. Marshall had served as a full-time missionary when he was a youth and Lydia had been interested in doing the same, but met and married Marshall before she had reached 21, the age formerly required for female missionaries in the Church.
When the time finally came that they were both financially and physically ready to go, the Vaughans jumped at the opportunity. They submitted their paperwork, arranged for their home to be cared for in their absence, bid their five grown children farewell, and, according to Lydia, got "a lot of shots." In May of 2012, less than three months after Lydia retired, when most senior couples are settling into the comfort of retirement, the Vaughans found themselves traveling over 9,500 miles- farther from home than either had ever been before- and facing a world unknown.
Leadership for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cites a need for the "maturity and experience" that senior couple missionaries offer. Of the 85,000 missionaries currently serving full-time missions in the church, 8% of those are senior missionaries over the age of 40.
For this senior couple, who had never traveled farther than Canada or Mexico, the culture shock upon their arrival in Bintulu was very real. They had to get used to taking off their shoes whenever they entered a home, eating rice for every meal, and sitting primarily on the floor.
"Sitting on the floor was probably the biggest issue for us," Lydia explains, as both she and her husband suffer from arthritis in their knees. They envied the elderly Malaysian people who looked as if they simply "melted" down to the floor, as they had been doing their whole lives. Some had furniture, such as chairs and couches, but would push it aside to sit on the floor. However, the people were not without compassion for the Vaughans' comfort: “If Elder Vaughan would make plenty of noise as he went down they might go find him a plastic chair," Lydia says with a smile.
The less-than-comfortable seating arrangements were not the only struggle the Vaughans faced. “The biggest challenge of that mission for us was communication," says Marshall. While the Vaughans had some training in the Indonesian language before going to Malaysia, upon their arrival they realized that the majority of the population in Bintulu spoke either Ebon or Malay, and the church materials they had received to use in their gospel instruction were written in Indonesian. During the first several months the Vaughans relied heavily on the other full-time missionaries serving in the area to translate. While Marshall never did achieve fluency, after about five months Lydia learned enough that she could communicate fairly well in the language and they were able to bridge the communication gaps with those they taught and served.
Serving a mission in a foreign country was not the first time Lydia had stepped outside of her comfort zone. As a teacher, she taught during the last year of segregation in Chesapeake City schools. She was then a part of the newly integrated faculty, the first step toward desegregation for school system. Lydia says it was "a really great experience" and that it "changed [her] whole perspective on life." Following that experience Lydia worked in correctional education for 14 years and later got her masters degree and then taught in special education.
Marshall, too, felt that he had been preparing for this mission his whole life. His previous experiences serving as a bishop, a member of the High Council for the Church, and as a seminary teacher, gave him valuable skills that helped him as he trained and taught with his wife.
The Vaughans' goal for their mission was simple: Lydia says they aimed only "to help somebody in some way." The mission president in charge of the area aided them in expanding that goal by giving them the specific assignments to teach new converts to the church and to help with church organization and leadership in Bintulu.
Lydia and Marshall agree that their contributions were focused in three main areas: serving the youth of the church in Malaysia, teaching adult literacy classes, and spreading Christianity.
Lydia shares that while the Latter-day Saint youth in Bintulu were bright and capable, their free time was often spent playing games on cell phones or watching TV. The Vaughans encouraged them to plan and participate in group activities, such as line dancing, dodge ball, ping pong, and a youth choir.
The Vaughans also spent a great deal of time with people who lived in longhouses in the jungle. Despite the fact that education in Malaysia is free, because of the villages' remote location, many families lived too far from a school to receive an education, and Lydia quickly discovered that few adults in the area knew how to read. When she asked them if they would like to learn, they emphatically said, "Yes!" The senior couple spent several hours each Saturday teaching reading classes at the longhouses, and said that the experience truly brought them closer to the Malay people.
"We just learned to love them so much, and they loved us."
One of the greatest joys the Vaughans had was sharing their faith with the people of Bintulu. While the state of Sarowak has a Christian majority, Malaysia as a whole is primarily Muslim. Lydia and Marshall were thrilled with the opportunity to take part in first-time Christmas celebrations with recent converts, and say that the highlight of their mission was taking recent converts to the Latter-day Saint temple, where they sealed their faith in Jesus Christ in sacred worship ceremonies.
When asked what he felt he took away from his mission, Marshall says, "For me it was appreciation of freedoms we enjoy, [especially] freedom of religion." He also says that he gained, "the appreciation of what we have as Americans. We don't know what poverty is."
Lydia agrees, "The biggest thing for me was, you know, you are aware that there are billions of people in the world, but actually getting to be a part of another culture and realizing that Heavenly Father really does love each and every one of those [people] and that he really does know each and every one- that is a big thing."
Despite the many hardships the Malaysians face, the Vaughans describe them as being a very happy people, and optimistic. While the Vaughans say that their advancing age will most likely prevent them from returning to Malaysia, they do keep in touch by mail and internet with the many people they met while serving there.
Lydia shares her advice for other seniors who may be considering serving a mission: "If you're going to a foreign country, don't expect things to be the same way there that they are at home, and be willing to embrace the culture. But it definitely will be something you will remember all of your life and you will be able to benefit your family and other people with."
Marshall agrees that it's something one will never forget: "It would be one of the great experiences of your life."