I didn’t recognize him at first. He looked like an ordinary man but something in my heart leapt when he came towards me. With a smile and his hands outstretched, I realized he was not ordinary at all. He was an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, a chosen witness of our Saviour.
We only found out last week that Elder Gary E. Stevenson was visiting our beautiful Island.
None of us knew that he was going to be at the airport at that time.
There were nine of us there to farewell my 18-year-old nephew Ethan, who was visiting from Canada. My four daughters, four nephews and one niece were wearing island t-shirts, cut-off jean shorts and no shoes. Yes, they were barefoot.
We spotted a small group of Church leaders wearing their best white shirts and ties and their spouses dressed in bright dresses with fresh flower leis. It wasn’t hard to guess that this must all be in preparation for Elder Stevenson’s arrival. We tried to stay back far enough that nobody noticed us but we were still hoping to catch a glimpse of the Apostle.
I lined up the kids a dozen times telling them if they stood just right or looked nice enough maybe Elder Stevenson would notice them. But after an hour of waiting it was seeming less and less likely that we would even get to see him.
Suddenly we were approached by a man dressed in a suit. He asked us if we would like to meet Elder Stevenson.
I looked down at my blue knockoff Adidas sport shorts that were splitting apart at the seams. My hair was messy and my old t-shirt was dirty. The kids were barefoot. I wanted to leave.
I quietly explained how kind it was for him to offer but we weren’t dressed appropriately to welcome a representative of Jesus Christ.
But he insisted so together we stood with the growing circle of welcomers. The feeling was electric and the Spirit was present as we waited for his arrival.
Ethan leaned over and whispered, “Aunty, when do we have to leave for our flight?” His flight. I had forgotten about that.
“Boarding closes at 4:05,” I told him as I looked down at my phone. It was 4:03. My heart fell. It was too late and we needed to leave.
“Ethan, you’re going to have to go without meeting him,” I told him urgently.
“Are you kidding me? No way, I’d rather miss my flight than miss meeting the Apostle!”
Why was I not surprised? I turned to argue with him, but just at that moment the doors opened and a hushed silence fell over the crowd. There he was. Elder Stevenson. He was showered in leis and kisses as he walked through the door. With a warm smile and enthusiastic energy, Elder Stevenson went around the whole group shaking each person’s hand, asking them their names, who they were and what they did.
Elder Stevenson grabbed Ethan’s hand in a firm handshake.
“Ethan,” he said.
“I hear you’re going on a mission, is that right?”
Ethan’s surprise at being called by name registered on his face immediately as he turned to answer Elder Stevenson. Turns out one of the reporters that had been taking pictures and met Ethan beforehand had told Elder Stevenson that there was a young man just flying home to open his mission call with his family. The contagious smile that gets Ethan out of all kinds of trouble spread across his face as he responded enthusiastically “yes I am!”. Elder Stevenson asked all kinds of questions as he spoke with the kids as though there was nothing else he would rather be doing. A feeling of love and peace entered my heart and I couldn’t stop the tears.
After Elder Stevenson and his wife moved on, I grabbed the kids and flew down the sidewalk and through the lobby. We gave our last kisses and hugs as Ethan and his sister Talia rushed through the security gate.
As we were walking away, I heard a pounding on the security glass beside me. Through the darkly tinted glass, there was Ethan calling my name. “They won’t let me on the plane without shoes,” he said.
I ran back down the sidewalk and through the tiny airport as quickly as I could. I took off my own worn out shoes and threw them as hard as I could through the security door. Ethan caught them with a silly grin, slipped them on his feet and disappeared around the corner.
After a 30-hour trip home, and surrounded by his family and friends, Ethan opened his mission call, and was assigned to labor in the California Rancho Cucamonga Mission.
An encounter with an Apostle in the island of Vanuatu. What a beautiful beginning to two years of service.