I hadn't been out long. Less than a month. The chrome on my bike and the plastic on my name tag were both new and untarnished. Lindquist, my trainer and I, went into a grocery store. It was Monday—P-day, or preparation day—the closest thing we ever got to a day off. It was our day to do laundry, clean the apartment, buy groceries. If we were lucky we squeezed in some recreation, but mostly it was a day to do the bare minimum required to continue living and doing our work, the Lord's work. It was easy to forget that sometimes—easy to get caught up in the details and forget that we were there to save souls.
Lindquist's bike, it couldn't have been more different from mine. Patched together from this and that, tattered, used, lots of miles on it. (It was the Millennium Falcon of bikes without being fast, famous, or in any way cool.) Mine, a brand new Liahona—a bike made for missionaries like me, named after something from the Book of Mormon. Forgive a missionary for quoting from scripture:
“And now, my son, I have somewhat to say concerning the thing which our fathers call a ball, or director—or our fathers called it a , which is, being interpreted, a compass; and the Lord prepared it. And behold, there cannot any man work after the manner of so curious a workmanship. And behold, it was prepared to show unto our fathers the course which they should travel in the wilderness. And it did work for them according to their faith in God; therefore, if they had faith to believe that God could cause that those spindles should point the way they should go, behold, it was done; therefore they had this miracle, and also many other miracles wrought by the power of God, day by day. Nevertheless, because those miracles were worked by small means it did show unto them marvelous works. They were slothful, and forgot to exercise their faith and diligence and then those marvelous works ceased, and they did not progress in their journey; Therefore, they tarried in the wilderness, or did not travel a direct course, and were afflicted with hunger and thirst, because of their transgressions.”
I must have pulled something out of my pack. I must have tied my shoe. I don't know what it was, but I must have done something that convinced my brain that I had locked the bikes. But I hadn't.
It was a hot July day. Lindquist and I had agreed to splurge on a big bucket of ice cream to share.
My bike was gone.
Lindquists bike, of course, had gone nowhere. Mine was gone. So I broke out the phone card, called our Zone Leader—a missionary like us, but who also helped us stay on task and got us things we needed. As such, he had the profligate of resting his bike and using a church-owned car. He said he would come and pick us up.
We waited forever, afflicted with hunger and thirst. Any time now. Any time. I had time to pray. Standing there in my white shirt, tie, and slacks, a bag of groceries at my feet, including a bucket of ice cream melting in the Sacramento valley's hundred degree weather, I asked God to bring me my bike back, knowing full well he probably wouldn't. I asked God to help me forgive whoever took my bike for doing this. I followed up that request asking that the ZL would show up soon. How long had it been? A half hour already? He didn't live that far. We called, no answer. We tried a few more times, same result.
Then he answered: “Hey Elder Gunn. You, uh—you want your bike back?”
“We got it back for you. We were just about to leave the pad when we saw this kid riding down the street on a bike with “Liahona” written on the side. We stopped him. We'll come get you as soon as we can, okay?”
I was too glad to get the good news to ask for any more details. In due time he picked us up. The bucket of ice cream was big enough that it probably wouldn't be a total loss. The ZL took us to a sidewalk out in front of their place. My bike was laying on the ground by a police car. The kid who took it was nowhere to be found. I got out.
The cop said “Is this your bike?”
“Well, it's yours again. The bad guy's in jail. You can go home now,” as though this kind of thing happened every day. The kid who took it, I was told, was a Hispanic kid who claimed the bike belonged to his friend. The ZL and his companion kept him company until the cops could arrive. I wondered if he would try it again. I wondered if he would respond to the message we were there to share in the first place.
Everyone was happy for me, surprised. I'm sure it got told around the mission, as all kinds of stories do among entertainment-starved Mormon missionaries. I certainly got some mileage out of it. But I wondered about that kid—child, really. I wondered what his name was. God knew. I wondered why he had stolen the bike, what he had planned to do with it, and what he would steal next. God knew.
It was then that I realized two things: first, that God wanted me there. Second, that he wasn't going to stop anyone from making their own choices. It was sad, but like so many other things at that time, I knew it was true in a way that felt truly permanent.
There was little more we could do for that kid other than pray for him, I told myself. What else was there to do? We had this miracle, and many other miracles, wrought by the power of God day by day. But I often wonder if the next missionary pointed at this kid would learn his name, would offer him something more.