Sister Carter, only 17 years until she goes on her mission, sits on her brother's lap at the airport as he tries to tear himself away from his girlfriend.

(Sheesh, I left on my mission more than 15 years ago. Things were much different then, so I wrote to my missionary sister about it.)

Dear Sister Carter,

The folks in the Church Office Building are inspired, this I know, because I had to leave for Toronto at 12:30 a.m. And of course, I had gotten up at 6:30 a.m. as every good missionary does, so I had been awake a good 17 hours by the time we were slinging our luggage into the back of the van destined for the Salt Lake International. Even though we complained about the late departure time, secretly, I was kind of pleased. Stealing out of the MTC under the cover of night gave me the feeling of heading out on a covert mission. I could almost hear the James Bond music accompanying me.

This was back before terrorists, before shoe bombs, before containers larger than 6 ounces, so the whole family–four-year-old you included–met me at the boarding gate. I remember my girlfriend there in a lovely white dress, giving me a handshake and making me feel pleasantly queasy inside. I also remember the twins hiding under the seats and singing a song to me, doubtless about teenage mutant ninja turtles. I was very caught up in the whole missionary-departing-for-two-years story–giving people hugs, delivering mini sermons to wayward siblings, trying not to bawl–so caught up, that the flight crew practically had to drag me to the gate.

I had only one flying experience before then–to and from Disneyland, both trips during the day–so I was amazed by the sight of the spiderwebs of cities and the Morse codes of highways trickling into the night. I also had the privilege of righteously ignoring the in-flight movie (Rudy) and listening to the mucus gurgle chunkily up and down Elder C’s sinuses as he tried to sleep off a head cold. I’ve never been able to sleep on a plane, and this time was no exception. I was practically buzzing with nervous energy.

The stewardess stopped at my seat and asked me if I wanted something to drink. I asked for Sprite, and as she opened the can and dumped some ice in a cup, I was suddenly struck by the realization that this lady could in all probability be the precise creature I had been training to hunt down and covert for the past three weeks–the elusive non-Mormon! Every nanosecond of my training screamed at me to pop the question–the golden question–the one that could mean the difference between a purgatorial life serving drinks to airline travelers and a celestial life in the gospel: paying tithing; observing the Word of Wisdom; married to a righteous, priesthood bearing husband; mother of ten children; holder of five church callings; driver of an Econoline van … But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to open my mouth except to quaff the drink before me. The Stewardess had offered me some refreshing Sprite, but I had not offered here the water of life.

This was the beginning of the guilt that followed me my entire mission. I was a terrible GQer. It was completely against my nature to stop people on the street and start talking with them. I knew that the Book of Ether would remind me that my weaknesses could become my strengths, but this was one strength I never received. Even when I did manage to stop someone, I never got much of a result. So either I felt guilty about not talking to people, or I felt guilty about being so ineffective when I did. I was absolutely astounded to hear a few weeks ago that the missionaries in Oakland, California have an official no-cold-contacting policy. They work strictly through referrals and other non-stopping-people-on-the-street-or-knocking-on-their-door methods. I’ve wondered since then how my mission might have been different without that particular burden of guilt.

But I have to admit: there’s a romantic side to the whole idea of GQing. It’s like going on hundreds of blind speed dates every week, each time rolling against huge odds that you’ll find that special person who is ready; and if you do happen to find that person, knowing that the only reason you found them was because you went against your nature and talked to them even though you were frightened. Maybe missionary work wouldn’t be as exciting without that constant roll of the dice.